Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin
Translated by Marlaine DelargyScan
Delta, ISBN 978-0385342216
Paperback, 400 pages, November 25, 2008
It is a foggy September day on the Swedish island of Oland and a young boy, left in the care of his grandparents for the day, see a chance for an adventure. While his grandfather Gerlof is down by the water mending fishing nets and his grandmother is taking a nap, little Jens climbs over the stone wall around their summer cottage and sets out across the alvar, a rocky limestone plain, covered with moss, sparse vegetation and stunted trees that makes up much of the island. The fog grows thicker and thicker, the boy as scared and lost..and then out of the fog comes a man who identifies himself to Jens as Nils Kant. When he does not return home, the police are called, islanders ban together to search the island but no sign of the boy is ever seen again.
Some twenty years later, the boy's mother, Julia, has never recovered from not knowing what happen to her son that day. A nurse, she has been out on a medical leave from her job, spending her days watching the shopping channel on TV and her nights drinking an ever increasing amount of wine. Then she gets a call from her father, who is retired and living in a nursing home on the island. He and a couple of his old pals have never stopped speculating about what happened to the boy and now he has received a terrible reminder in the mail. Someone has sent him, in an unmarked envelope, one of the sandals the boy was wearing the day he disappeared and he wants Julia to come to the island and help him try and finally find out what really happened to Jens.
They begin questioning people, opening up old wounds and old suspicions and find a connection to the son of a wealthy landowner who decades before Jens disappearance had fled the island. He had killed a policeman, was suspected in the deaths of several others, including his brother, and a number of other unsavory deeds beginning when he was just a child. As a young man, he fled to South America and returned to Oland in a coffin, buried in the churchyard years before the boy disappeared. His name was Nils Kant.
The story is told in two time frames, the present, with Julia and her father perusing a mystery that has tentacles that reach far back into the history of the island and also with flashbacks to the story of Nils, from the time he was a boy, a creepy, evil little boy, and through the terrible misadventures of his angry, violent life. They are connected, in ways that will surprise the reader and endanger the lives of the characters in the present day searching for the truth.
As a mystery, it is an excellent story. The setting on the island of Oland, a sunny beach resort filled with visitors in the summer, cold and deserted and rather bleak in a beautiful way the rest of the year, is perfect. It seems that the author has, in real life, spent a good deal of time there and it is telling. As the story of a woman trying to heal both herself and her relationship with her father, it is totally believable and ultimately hopeful. Well, not quite as much when the author throws us the last, totally surprising twist at the end.
Echoes From the Dead is an intense, dark, rather disturbing story, a classic Scandinavian mystery that was voted Best First Mystery Novel by the authors and critics of the Swedish Crime Writers' Academy when it was published. I know that I will soon be seeking out Mr. Theorin's second book The Darkest Room, that was voted the Best Swedish Crime Novel of 2008 and won the Glass Key award in 2009.
Highly recommended, especially for fans of Scandinavian mysteries.