Book review: Echoes from the Dead
As a partner-in-crime in ‘The Great Transworld Crime Caper!’, the first book I was sent to review was Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin. This was my first choice selection as I’ve been a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction since Hoeg’s Smilla. The book has the obligatory attempt to link the author to Stieg Larsson. No one should be fooled by this; Theorin is a much better writer than Larsson and this book is much better than the Millenium series.
First, a little on ‘translation’. I like reading translations. For me, the best translations will be good English and will convey the story as the author intended but will have just a hint of strangeness, something that also conveys a sense of the land and culture of the author. The perfect examples are the Russian translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, such as Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita. Marlaine Delargy has taken the approach of providing a perfect English translation of Theorin’s Swedish, leaving it to him to provide the local feel. And this, Theorin provides in abundance.
The bulk of the story is set on the island of Öland, just off the mainland of Sweden and linked to it at Kalmar. And this place provides the story’s intellectual heart. The Öland of the novel is not wholly the real life one; place names have been altered, presumably to protect the innocent! But the landscape is real. In a series of appendices, Theorin describes it and his enduring passion for the island. The most significant aspect of the landscape is the ‘alvar‘ base, known also as a limestone pavement, whereby a thin layer of vegetation barely manages to survive on the limestone strata. This aspect also forms the symbolic base of the novel. Each character in the novel seems to be living their own thin existence, a veneer of life over some rocky base of horror from the past.
In the case of Julia and her father, this horror was the disappearance of Julia’s young son, some twenty years earlier. Most people feel that he wandered from his grandparents’ house and into the sea but Julia cannot accept that. She still talks to him and believes that he is waiting on the island for her to come and find him. This obsession and refusal to get on with life has led to her separation from the boy’s father and alienation from her father. But her father calls her back to the island. Someone has sent him a small shoe, one that the boy was wearing when he disappeared.
Julia and her father’s hunt for the truth about what happened exposes more and more secrets. Others are drawn into the search. As it continues, Julia begins to accept that her son is dead but she still wants to know how and why and where his body lies. The most serious complication to the search is the story of a misfit psychopath from a local wealthy family who escaped to South America after killing a policeman just after the second world war. Locals believed that he had returned and was responsible for all manner of crimes that had occurred since. Julia’s father is convinced that he had something to do with the boy’s disappearance. As the searching builds to its climax, both Julia and her father learn more about themselves and their neighbours and all the disparate strands of the novel come together in a believable conclusion.
Echoes from the Dead is no simple crime story. The characters are deep and complex and the resolution of the mystery at the heart of the novel depends on each character exposing the bedrock of their own existence. Theorin has crafted an atmospheric and gripping tale and I look forward to reading his later works. This book is highly recommended.