Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt
Killers’s Art by Mari Jungstedt (Stockholm Text, 2013) translation by Tiina Nunnally, shows the very real problems of publishing books out of sequence. This is the second book published in English for the American market after The Dead of Summer, yet they are respectively the fourth and fifth books in the series. For the record, this translation was published in the UK in 2010. So for those of you in the US, this is your first chance to read what happened to persuade Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas to promote Karin Jacobsson as his deputy, and about the tragedy that drove Johan and Emma apart despite the fact they have a child together. Frankly I find this publication schedule incomprehensible. When the story of the police and journalist teams develops from book to book, why must American readers be invited to read it backwards? Perhaps if these books were predominantly standalone police procedurals, it would not matter very much. But these books have a more even balance between the story arcs of the series characters and the individual mysteries. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no justification for starting at book five and then publishing book four, when it would have been just as easy to commission the translation of book one and publish them in order in all markets so we could watch the background story play out. Or is the publisher making some kind of value judgement that, somehow, the readers in the American market are not yet ready to read the earlier books. Perhaps we should draw a parallel with the recent appearance of The Bat by Jo Nesbø. This is the first book featuring Harry Hole, written in 1997 but only now released in English. I note the parallelism that the first Hole book published was also the fifth, but we then dropped back to the third and were able to read the rest in sequence (we’re still missing the second but it’s due this year). When a story is written to be read in a particular order, why must the publisher frustrate the author’s intention and deny the readers the opportunity to watch the characters’ development in sequence?
Ah, well, rant over. We should just be grateful we have another book by this talented author. So here we are back on the island of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island and a signifiant province. Local residents of Visby, the main town, are shocked when Egon Wallin is found hanging from one of the gates in the wall — this is the best preserved mediaeval town in Scandinavia with a two mile section of wall ringing part of the town centre. Wallin ran a successful art gallery and died on the evening of hosting an event to launch a new artist in Sweden. From the outset it’s clear this was a murder but establishing the motive is complicated as it almost immediately appears he had made arrangements to leave his wife and join a gallery in Stockholm run by a partnership. Given the physical strength required to commit the murder and hang the body from the gate, the wife and her lover are ruled out. They would just have been glad to see him go. Indeed, there are no clues as to who would have wanted him dead until a famous painting, “The Dying Dandy” by Nils Dardel, is stolen in Stockholm. Again this appears a motiveless crime. The painting is so well known, it could never be sold on the open market and it seems not to be a theft for hire because the thief leaves behind a statue stolen from Wallin’s gallery the day he was killed. Why someone would kill a gallery owner in Visby and then steal a painting is a complete mystery (which is, of course, why we read these books).
The answers to the mystery of the murder and then theft are very satisfying. Even the red herring that appears quite early on is neatly tied in to the overall whodunnit package (albeit that the coincidence is only just acceptable because the number of people in the art world with the contacts to achieve particular ends would be limited). So as a police procedural, it works beautifully with the understandable despondency of the investigation team captured in the central section of the book as their leads all come to nothing. If there is a fault with the book, it lies in the time given to Anders Knutas, the lead detective. Whereas we are allowed to see into the lives of Johan Berg and his partner Emma, we see very little of the relationship between Knutas and his wife Lina. With the policeman so obsessed when a big case comes in, it strains the relationship not only with his wife, but also the rest of the family. Since the intention is to suggest sexual tension between Knutas and Karin Jacobsson, it’s not fair on the reader to skimp on the detail of the marriage. In a perfect world, a happily married Knutas would not be tempted, so failing to show how the time passes with Lina at weekends is lazy writing. With this one caveat, Killers’s Art is a genuinely impressive book with a realistic investigation into a pleasingly complicated case. I should warn readers that there are homosexual themes so, if this disturbs you, this may be a book to pass over. Hopefully, in these enlightened times, everyone will put prejudices to one side and read it. It’s one of the best Scandinavian police procedurals of the year so far published in the American market.
For a review of the sequel to this book, see The Dead of Summer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.