Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more interesting contexts for a crime novel is the small island. The sense of isolation, the insularity and the physical setting can all contribute to a strong sense of atmosphere. That’s what we see in Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
The story’s focus is Malin Andersson, her husband Henrik Kjellander, and their two children Ellen and Axel. Malin is a professional blogger whose site, Malin’s Table, features natural recipes and home living ideas. Henrik is a professional photographer who’s hoping that their property will attract filmmakers and photographers who want an authentic Swedish island setting. As the story begins, they’re returning to their home on the island of Fårö after an absence. They’re looking forward to settling back into their home and getting back to life.
When they arrive, they find that several dishes and utensils are missing. They also find trash, sticky messes and worse. At first, they both blame the tenants who’ve been staying in their home. It had seemed like a good idea to rent the place out and earn extra money, since they were gone anyway. But now the plan has obviously backfired. Then, Malin finds a mutilated family photograph. That’s not the sort of damage that even a terrible tenant would cause; it’s too personal and deliberate. So the police are called in.
Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson have two angles to pursue. One is that one of the tenants has a personal grudge against the family. Another is that someone else – perhaps even a family member – got into the house after the last tenant left, but before Malin and Henrik and their children got home.
The police are still not sure exactly how seriously to take this threat. On the one hand, it could certainly be a case of malicious mischief – bad enough, but not an immediate danger to the family. But Malin in particular fears that it might be much more than a set of mean pranks gone too far. More than once she has the terrible feeling that she’s being watched, although there’s nothing concrete to support her. And there’s the fact that the family has begun to receive anonymous frightening letters.
The police are starting to pick up the pace of their investigation when Ellen disappears. Now the stakes are much higher, and everyone joins in a frantic search for the girl. In the end, we learn the truth about who has targeted the family and why. We also learn that this family history is much more complex than it seems on the surface. It turns out that the past has everything to do with the present danger.
Much of the action takes place on Fårö, with some on Gotland. Readers get a clear sense of what island life is like. For instance, there is one local grocery store, but any real shopping requires either a ferry trip to Gotland or even a trip to the mainland. There are some local schools, but a lot of children take the ferry to school. In other ways, too, island life can be isolating. Even in today’s world of online commerce, daily living on the island can be frustrating, especially if the power goes out. And yet, it’s naturally beautiful. And there’s an appeal to the slower pace and smaller community of the island.
Another important element in this novel is the sense of violation that comes from having one’s home invaded. If you’ve ever had your home broken into, you know how frightening that is. The fact that the person responsible is keeping up a campaign of fear makes it even eerier. And there is of course the terror that any loving parent would feel when a child goes missing.
Some of the story is told from Fredrik Broman’s point of view, so readers learn about his character. Broman is just returning to work after a two-year absence during which he was recovering from devastating injuries caused by an accident. On the one hand, he’s still dealing with issues from that accident. It’s changed his family dynamics, and it’s had an impact on how he’s perceived at work. On the other, Borman has a loving relationship with his wife Ninni, and strong bonds with his sons Joakim and Simon. The family has its ups and downs as many families do. But Borman is certainly functional and stable.
Since Broman is a police detective, there’s also a sense of the police procedural about this novel. Readers follow along as he and Oskarsson follow up leads, interview people, make sense of forensics evidence, and so on. There isn’t the sense of departmental politics that there sometimes is in police procedurals. That said though, there is concern about Borman’s readiness to take on what turns out to be a dark, ugly, complicated investigation.
The story is also told in part from Malin’s point of view and, sometimes, from Henrik’s. So readers also get a sense of their characters. One of the things that comes out in this novel is that even people who are in solid marriages can have secrets from each other. Their relationship may not be perfect (is anyone’s?), but they do love one another. We see, too, how the experience of being stalked wears on both of them and impacts their relationship. So, of course, does the awful strain of having their daughter go missing.
This is not a light, easy novel with a ‘storybook’ ending. Some aspects of it are very dark, and all is not well again in the end. In that sense, it’s very, very sad, and it’s a story where one could ask, ‘What if?’ in a few places. And yet, there is also the sense that life will go on. There isn’t the completely bleak hopelessness in this novel that there is in some dark noir stories.
The Intruder is the story of the impact on a family of being stalked and targeted. It also shows the effect of past history and of keeping secrets. The novel takes place against a distinctive backdrop, and shows the way a police team works when a family is threatened. But what’s your view? Have you read The Intruder? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 20 July/Tuesday 21 July – Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier
Monday 27 July/Tuesday 28 July – The Blackhouse – Peter May
Monday 3 August/Tuesday 4 August – Working Girls – Maureen Carter