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The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

July 8, 2012 1 comment

The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen translated by Paul Norlén 
(Stockholm Text, 2012) Hammarby Police #1 is set in Stockholm. There are five books in the series with a sixth on the way but, so far, only this first title has been released in translation.

I wonder why it is that some children seem naturally vicious while others are typecast as victims. The pattern of bullying has been with us over the generations. Perhaps it’s hard-wired into us by our genes as part of the process of natural selection, the very idea of which seems to get the Christians so worked up. Instead of being racially programmed to turn the other cheek, we’re natural predators and not afraid to establish a pecking order from the youngest years. This is all very well for those who come out as the top survivors, but physically and psychologically destructive for those on the receiving end of dominant behaviour. Indeed, the theme of The Gingerbread House draws on early childhood experiences that left one boy so damaged, he grew into the most self-effacing man it’s possible to be. He occupies the lowest rung on the office ladder, delivering mail to departments around the building. For the most part, he’s invisible and unappreciated. When people do notice him, it’s to make fun of him — some never lose their cruel streaks when confronted by a natural victim. One day as he’s returning home from work, he sees Hans, one of those who tormented him as a child. Having spent most of his forty years never allowing himself an original thought, he’s tempted to follow.

Interwoven into the narrative is a first-person account of the murderer’s feelings. The first man to die is Hans. He’s lured to the home of the woman teacher responsible for the class they all shared as six-year olds. The killer explains how much anger is buried inside. This confession is positively energising and prompts speculation on what happened to the other children who made those early years so special. Hans had become a successful estate agent, selling properties and earning enough to keep his wife and children in comfortable surrounding. The second victim has had less success, becoming a cheap prostitute working from a small apartment in a rundown area. With her, the killer is able to work slowly, reminding her how she and the others had ruined the childhood years with their persistent bullying. Such are the ways of the serial killer. Once they get a taste for death, they are hard to stop. Yet the sad fact is that a broken childhood can never be repaired. The only thing left is revenge.

Carin Gerhardsen — top of the Swedish bestseller list

On the side of justice, we find Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg who’s in charge of the Violent Crimes Unit in Hammarby. He’s married with five children — the couple adopted twins from a victim of crime who died shortly after giving birth. There’s a nice moment of family life as they cook a meal and eat with the children followed by Conny and Asa considering an interesting question of ethics. How ethical is it to be indifferent to the fate of others? By implication this sets Conny thinking and, in due course, it will become relevant. The teacher in the relevant school was aware of the bullying but did nothing to stop it. Also in the team is Chief Inspector Jens Sanden, Police Assistant Einar Ericksson and Police Assistant Jamal Hamad whose family came to Sweden from Lebanon when he was young. He’s now completely integrated but not without some problems including the divorce of his Swedish wife. The final member of the team is Police Assistant Petra Westman who’s not well-informed on the culture and history of Lebanon. This lack of knowledge gets her into a discussion with Peder Fryhk, an apparent expert on the politics of war who picks her up in a bar after she’s had a drink or two. When she wakes in his bed, she’s not sure whether she’s been raped.

This sets us off on a police procedural to solve the murder of Hans. It’s a detailed investigation that eventually turns up three photographs showing the owner of the house as a teacher with groups of school children. Right up to the end, Conny Sjöberg is struggling to connect the other murders. They take place in different parts of Sweden and, to the eyes of the world, the only thing linking them is the age of the victims. Even when he talks with the school teacher, she can only remember the name of one child in the photographs and has no interest in any of the others. She also seems completely unaffected by the discovery of the dead body in her home. It’s only later when the police get a complete list of the children in the class that they realise there have been four murders.

This is a completely unsentimental story about the cruelty people inflict on each other. It does not flinch in examining the detail of the crimes they commit nor the strengths and weaknesses of those who carry the burden of law enforcement. The fact they have become police officers does not mean they are any better than those they chase. It merely signifies that they have jobs to do and most do the best they can. The tone is slightly dry and factual but Conny and Asa Sjöberg’s family life is rich. It makes a pleasant change to have someone at peace with the world in charge of a major police unit. It’s also refreshing to find a man who recognises his own fallibility. All he can hope for is time to put things right when mistakes are made. Petra Westman also features and manages to deal with her problems with relatively calm efficiency. This confirms a general sense of credibility about all the major characters. Even though we’re following a moderately deranged serial killer and watching the investigation as it struggles to make significant progress, the violence of each murder is not sensationalised. Rather it’s all taken as being routine. Taken overall, The Gingerbread House is a highly impressive first book in a series. I look forward to translations of Carin Gerhardsen’s remaining titles.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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