Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s a saying that ‘old sins cast long shadows,’ and there’s some truth to that, which is part of why it serves as a plot point for lots of crime fiction. The connection between past evens and current ones is often the link between a murder (or murders) and the person responsible. Let’s take a closer look at that link today and turn the spotlight on Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House.
Early one evening, real estate agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife Pia that he’s going out to look at a house for a client and expects to be back soon. When he doesn’t return, Pia contacts the police, who begin to search for him the next morning. Their search ends when Ingrid Olsson, who’s been in the hospital for a few weeks for hip surgery, returns to her home and finds Vannerberg’s body in her kitchen.
DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team begin to investigate, and of course, they start with Ingrid Olsson. She claims not to know Vannerberg and in any case, she herself wasn’t in any condition to commit murder at the time he was killed. There are also Vannerberg’s family and friends, but the victim and his wife had a loving marriage. And he and his business partner Jorma Molin had a solid relationship and a successful business, with no sign of financial wrongdoing. What’s more, Vannerberg seems to have led a blameless adult life – no illegal activities or dangerous associations.
Then, there’s another murder. This time the victim is Ann-Kristin Widell, a prostitute who’s been brutally murdered in her seedy apartment. And then Lise-Lott Nilsson, a working-class homemaker, is found drowned in her foot bath. Nothing seems to tie these cases together until the police discover that all of the victims were forty-four years old. Sjöberg begins to suspect that the team is dealing with either a serial killer or possibly someone who has a personal vendetta against all of the victims. Once Sjöberg and his team find the vital link among the victims, they’re able to trace the murders back to past events. That, in the end, leads them to the killer.
In the meantime, one of Sjöberg’s team members, Petra Westman, is on an investigation of her own. One evening she’s out for a friendly drink with a colleague Jamal Hamad when she meets Peder Fryhk. After Hamad leaves, she and Fryhk have several drinks together and the next thing Petra remembers is waking up very groggy the next morning in a house not her own. When she takes stock of herself, she’s fairly certain she’s been ‘date raped.’ She knows she’ll need evidence though, so she collects what she can and uses some of her police contacts to help her link Fryhk to what happened to her if that’s possible, and to find out about whatever drug might have been slipped into one of her drinks.
This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as Sjöberg and his team interview witnesses, follow up on forensics and other evidence and use the information they get to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Petra Westman also uses police strategies to follow up on her case. There are team meetings, press briefings and so on as well. That said though, there are none of the ‘patch wars’ you sometimes see in police procedurals. And although there is a chain of command, there also isn’t much in the way of police politics. What’s more, readers who are tired of ‘maverick cops’ will be pleased to know that there aren’t any in this novel. Certainly the team members think for themselves, but no-one ‘plays hero.’
It’s also worth noting that Conny Sjöberg is not a stereotypical drunken or severely overstressed cop who can’t maintain a solid personal life. He is happily married to his wife Åsa and the loving father of five children. They have their difficult moments, as most couples do, but there isn’t the all-too-common scenario of a police officer who always puts his job ahead of his family.
Another important element in this novel is the impact of past events on people. In the first chapter, we learn of some life-changing incidents that play a powerful role in the novel. And as the novel goes on, we get a sense of how those incidents may have affected the people involved in them. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s also interesting to see what those people become later in life.
The novel also raises some interesting and important questions. Just how responsible are children for what they do? And what about the adults around them? Do we feel sympathy for a child with an unfortunate background, or do we hold that child responsible for what she or he does? These questions don’t have easy answers, and Gerhardsen doesn’t pretend that they do.
The novel is told from several perspectives. There’s Sjöberg’s, there’s Petra Westman’s, and there are perspectives from several people involved in the original events. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. Readers will also notice that one of the perspectives is that of the murderer (no, it’s not in italics). Readers who are tired of psychopathic serial killers who kill for shock effect or some other bizarre reason will be pleased to know that this killer isn’t exactly like that.
That said though, readers will want to know that there is real violence in this novel, and some of it is ‘on stage.’ Speaking strictly personally, I’ve read worse, as the saying goes. But the violence is not for the faint of heart, and readers who prefer their violence ‘off stage’ may want to peek through their fingers in a few places.
The novel takes place in the Hammerby section of Stockholm, and Gerhardsen places the reader there both in terms of geography and in terms of cultural life. That said, the incidents that take place could happen almost anywhere, and that makes them all the more unsettling.
The Gingerbread House is a detailed police procedural that features a close and sometimes disturbing look at the impact of past events on the here and now. It features a fairly cohesive team that balances deep dedication to work with a respect for the importance of personal time, and takes place in a distinctive Stockholm context. But what’s your view? Have you read The Gingerbread House? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 9 February/Tuesday 10 February – The Cornish Coast Murder – John Bude
Monday 16 February/Tuesday 17 February – China Trade – S.J. Rozan
Monday 23 February/Tuesday 25 February – A Nice Quiet Holiday – Aditya Sudarshan