The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten
The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten (Soho Press, 2014) translated by Laura A Wideburg, was first published in 2005 as Eldsdansen. It’s the seventh in the series featuring Detective Inspector Irene Huss. She’s a forty-something wife and mother who just happens to be a judo expert — a skill that comes into play with surprising regularity during the series albeit less directly in this novel. She’s what we might term an Everywoman. Although she has fighting skills, they don’t depend on physical strength. She doesn’t do the job as a detective because she’s tough, sees the job as glamourous, enjoys the power the job gives her over others, or feels she has something to prove as a woman in a man’s world. She’s a mom who’s saving Sweden when she can fit it in round her schedule. Fortunately her husband, an excellent chef, has done a deal with a restaurant that usually allows him to work part-time. This gives him the chance to do the bulk of the work offering support for their two daughters when it’s asked for. Her boss is Superintendent Sven Andersson, a man who loves opera, strong beer and schnapps, and struggles with the tensions between the male and female staff, and the local politics of nationality. Keeping us up to date with the story in visual terms, Yellow Bird has produced six Irene Huss films.
This novel starts off at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2004 in which a particularly striking young woman walks into the Park Aveny Hotel Bar. An extended flashback then takes us to 1989/90 and, once we’ve absorbed the necessary information, we return to current time. The hook for the plot is Sophie Malmborg, a young girl who, fifteen years ago, may have been involved in a series of three fires which might have been arson. The third fire occurs at the house she and her immediate family occupied. Unfortunately, when it’s extinguished, the body of her stepfather is discovered. He had an alcohol problem and so could easily have started the fire himself. It should have been easy to clarify the sequence of events but Sophie, already prone to avoiding conversation, becomes effectively mute. Selective mutism in this situation seems to be a choice on her part. None of the police, including the then inexperienced Huss, can elicit any word or gesture from her as answers to their questions. As the years passed, the girl continued to surround herself in silence. This led to a diagnosis of schizoid personality disorder. Now she’s dead. She disappeared from the hotel, was not seen for three weeks and then her dead body was found in a burned shed on an industrial estate. Because it could be directly relevant to the motive for her death, the police force needs to establish exactly what she refused to discuss back in 1989.
This is not a simple police procedural in which a dedicated officer leads a team of investigators to a triumphant arrest at the end. Rather it’s a story about two families which briefly interact in a moment of crisis. On one side of the legal fence, we’re invited to observe the events in the Huss household. With two daughter both old enough to want their independence but lacking experience in the hardships of life, Irene struggles with the need to give them space. Even though they are probably both entering into unsuitable relationships, they will never learn unless they make mistakes and still have nonjudgmental parents to fall back on. What makes this more difficult than usual is that one of the relationships is with a person on the periphery of the Malmborg case. Indeed, Irene finds that daughter at a party in what may have been the house used to hold Sophie prisoner during the missing three weeks. As her workload increases with gangs in a turf war, Irene is under increasing pressure to solve the Malmborg case. Only then can she hope to find a better balance between work and home, something that’s necessary to reduce the stress levels on all concerned.
On the other side of the fence stand the complicated relationships in the Malmborg case. To understand how and why Sophie died, Irene has to piece together the history of the family. Her attempts to understand the dynamics of the case were frustrated fifteen years earlier. Looking back, she can see many ways in which she failed to ask the right questions of those involved. This time, the solution cannot lie in any words spoken by the key witness. Sophie is no longer available to ask. It must be excavated from Irene’s memory, and from inferences in all she sees and hears as the current investigation progresses. As the pages turn, the picture of Sophie grows ever more tragic. When her father died, she inherited his house, a cottage and a substantial sum of money. Her life has always been about the power of dance to express emotion. She’s become a choreographer, opening “her” house to a Brazilian dancer called Marcelo Alves, and her younger brother who also dances and studies photography. The house itself has changed very little since her father’s death. He was also reclusive. As a composer of national importance, his piano and suite of rooms remain as a kind of shrine. The current state of the house is a little like Miss Havisham’s approach to household management. Wealth and material possessions meant little to Sophie.
The answers in the deaths of Sophie Malmborg and her stepfather revolve around guilt and pain buried in the past. I did not use the word “tragedy” lightly. Helene Tursten shows us what terrible damage we can do to ourselves and to each other once the fuse is lit and the flame travels towards the accelerants. Only if the family is strong can people pull through such threats with minimal damage. Even though The Fire Dance may not be the most original plot, the way it’s written produces a remarkably powerful story. You should read it!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.