Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson
Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson (Stockholm Text, 2012, translated by Enar Henning Koch). Without any preamble, I need to tell you a simple truth. Although the plot goes a little off track as we get closer to the end, this is a very good police procedural or murder mystery with a tendency towards a thriller. But I have a beef with the publisher. This was first published as Drömmen Förde dig Vilse or The Dream Led You Astray, published in 2010. As with the ten previous books in the series, this features Inspector Maria Wern who helps keep the peace in Visby, yet this is the first in the Maria Wern series to be translated into English. Eight of the books have been filmed as a very popular TV series in Sweden starring Eva Röse. Anna Jansson herself is something of a phenomenon. Not only does she also write children’s books, but she continues to work part-time in the medical profession. I therefore find it incomprehensible that Stockholm Text should start the introduction of her work to the English world by translating the eleventh book. When so much of the interest and enjoyment so obviously comes from knowing who everyone is and how they have come to this point in their relationships, why have we been denied the chance to slowly accumulate this backstory by reading from the beginning? It seems perverse.
So what do we actually have? In the opening passages, Maria Wern is walking home at night when she see three men beating a boy. When she intervenes, she’s not only beaten herself, but also injected with what may be tainted blood. Sadly, the boy dies in hospital and she has to live with the possibility she will develop HIV. After such a dramatic opening, things calm down and we meet some fascinating characters, the most interesting being a wonderfully obsessed hypochondriac. He’s made himself into something of an expert on all the diseases it might be possible to catch in Sweden or from “foreigners” visiting Sweden, and routinely meets with local doctors to exchange pointers on the delicate art of diagnosis, testing and treatment. He’s a regular with Dr Anders who was treating the boy who died and is also interested in the case of Linn Bogren, a nurse with worries on her mind.
As the book develops, both Linn Bogren and the hypochondriac are murdered. Not surprisingly, when three patients with the same doctor die, this makes the doctor the focus of attention. By coincidence, he’s in the early stages of courting Erika Lund who works with Maria Wern. As a kind of introduction to his psychological make-up, the doctor has given Erika a book which features different versions of a myth about the coast of Gotland. In essence, a mermaid or siren lures any swimmers to their doom with the undertow near Hogklint. It seems his first wife, Isabel, died there on their wedding night.
You will understand this a very good set-up with the hypochondriac the major scene-stealer until his untimely death. What makes it all particularly pleasing is the quality of the translation. There’s a depth to the use of English that vividly captures the characters and, with some authorial humour on display, makes them come alive. In part, this explains my frustration with Stockholm Text. I would like to know more about all the series characters, but currently have no way of accessing the back catalogue in English. I would have diligently worked my way through this series, but now merely have the off-chance of picking up odd titles, potentially at random, as and when new translations appear. This is not playing fair with the readership.
As we move closer to the ending, the plot grows somewhat less credible. In the real world, those who work for the police contrive to be more professional, even if only in self-defence. So to allow things to reach this state is disappointing. That said, there’s still some excitement in the somewhat tragic ending and, on balance, it’s a good way of bringing some closure in the lives of those who inhabit this fictional version of Visby. This confirms Killer’s Island as impressively unsentimental. It does not flinch from showing the uncaring, if not cruel, side of human nature. Uppermost, we see the conflict between the duties and loyalties we have as part of our jobs and the human need for love and affection. We watch as those who have suffered and are afflicted by guilt, try to reach out to each other in hope of a better future, but fall short. In short, the people we see in these pages are the same people we meet in the real world and who so often mess up their own lives in the same way we see here. It’s an impressive piece of writing wrapped around a good mystery for the police to unravel and well worth reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.