Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 16 July 2009



Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away - Leviticus 26:39


Since my knowledge of the crime fiction is based almost solely on TV and film adaptations there were a number of things that were noticeably absent from the opening chapters of Karin Alvtegen's novel, Shadow. There is no detective, either world weary professional or annoyingly enthusiastic amateur sleuth. There are no police scurrying around wrapping everything in yellow tape. There is no corpse. In fact we learn of no actual crimes having been committed unless you count child abandonment in the first chapter (but that was way back in 1975) and adultery in chapter sixteen; that is still strictly a crime, isn't it?

If you want to be pedantic there is a dead body. A 92-year-old woman has died alone in her flat in Stockholm, apparently friendless, childless and family-less; there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death however.

And that's pretty much how things continue for a long time. In fact the only crime that takes place contemporaneously is a murder right at the very end of the book. And, at first, even that crime looks as if it might escape anyone's notice.

I was at least expecting one of the characters to be doggedly pursuing the truth for all he was worth but that really isn't the case either. The truth has to take care of itself. Which it does remarkably well. All it needs is a shove in the right direction which it gets purely due to the diligence of the social worker assigned to arrange for the old woman's funeral and to settle her estate. Throughout the book she pops up every now and then, usually over the phone, going about her business with consummate efficiency, blissfully unaware of the effect her seemingly innocuous actions will have.

So, what's with the cover? It looks like the kind we're used to seeing on that horrible new genre misery-lit. Well, to be fair there are a lot of miserable people in this book who get increasingly miserable as the tale unfurls. Even the social worker gets a bit miserable right at the end. But it's not that kind of book. The cover is meant to depict a young boy waiting on the steps of a park waiting for his mother. Eventually the park-keeper, Sven approaches the young boy to tell him he's about the close the park. (It’s a Swedish novel so I guess there has to be a Sven in there somewhere.)

'I need to pee.'

The man nodded, still smiling.

'The toilets are down there. You run along, and I'll watch your things, Do you see that door there?'

He hesitated a moment before doing as he was told.

Sven Johansson waited on the steps, concerned as he watched the little boy running off towards the toilets. He had noticed him earlier that afternoon, and now he was worried. When the boy disappeared into the toilet, he squatted down and had a look at his belongings. A tape player, a Bambi book, a clear plastic bag with crumbs in it, and a small juice bottle with a yellow plastic top and a few drops of juice left. He opened the book to see if the boy's name was written in it. A folded piece of paper fell to the ground. With a sense of foreboding he unfolded it and his worst fears were confirmed. The brief message was written in flowing script:

'Take care of this child. Forgive me.'

As I've already said that was thirty years earlier. Apart from the occasional flashback, the rest of the action takes place in the present day.

In the second chapter our catalyst social worker, the district commission's estate manager Marianne Folkesson, arrives at the flat of Gerda Persson – that would be our recently deceased 92-year-old woman – to begin the process of tracking down anyone from her past who might want to show their respects at her funeral. She's been doing the job for twenty years so she's quite philosophical about everything. And very professional. She's grateful to find an orderly flat, a little dusty, a bit musty but that's not untypical. She discovers an address book with most of the names neatly crossed out, no great surprise for a person of her age.

There are a couple of surprises though: in the freezer she finds a stack of books wrapped in clingfilm, all written by Axel Ragnerfeldt, the country's beloved Nobel laureate, and all with handwritten dedications along the lines of "To Gerda with affection and To Gerda with warmest thanks" but in the living room Marianne finds more books by him only this time "[s]he gasped when she saw that all the pages were crossed out with a thick red marker, In certain places the text seemed to have particularly incensed whoever held the pen. Those pages had been obliterated with such force they were unreadable and the paper was almost torn." All Ragnerfeldt's books have been similarly mistreated. A puzzle indeed. After coming across an old black and white photo of Gerda with Ragnerfeldt and his family Marianne decides that she'll start her investigations with this family.

Over the next few chapters we are then introduced to the Ragnerfeldts: Jan-Erik, his wife, Louise and their daughter Ellen, Alice, Jan-Erik's dipsomaniacal and hypochondriacal mother and her husband, Axel, now permanently bedridden and unable to communicate except by raising his little finger. It wouldn't make much of a novel if they were a nice, well-adjusted, close-knit family but be assured they're not. Oh no.

Even though this book is called Shadow inevitably there are several shadows and one of the most obvious is the one in which Jan-Erik has stood all his life. It was never going to be easy being the son of such a great literary figure. When we meet him, standing in front of an audience giving one of the pat lectures about his father that have become his livelihood, besides "[h]e enjoyed travelling. A euphemism for the fact he felt no great eagerness to stay at home."

josephschultzxa9 We join the lecture as he relates the true story of Joseph Shultz, "a young soldier in the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War," who, when ordered along with the rest of his squad to execute fourteen civilian men, suddenly "drops his weapon on the ground and slowly walks over [and] takes up position next to the line of the condemned." He's told the story dozens of times before and he knows how to tell it to maximum effect. As Jan-Erik retells this remarkable story of principle and courage he is also scanning the audience to see who he'll be spending the night with and, once he makes eye contact with her, he plays her in much the same way as he plays the rest of the audience before him. Everything was going by the numbers.

How was it possible for a human being to make the choice that Joseph Shultz made? What was it that separated him from the rest of the patrol?


This was the question to which my father devoted his whole body of work, trying to depict it. And notice that I do not say "answer", but merely depict. My father's sole driving force as an author consisted of an attempt to disseminate the essence of Joseph Schultz's action – what it was that made Joseph refuse to be blinded by despair inherent in the idea that our choices are without meaning…


My father and Joseph Schultz both knew that our actions are like our children. They live on, and they continue to have an effect independent of us and our will.

Now, you don't need me to tell you that all of that is foreshadowing – if I can extend the 'shadow' metaphor a bit further – and, once you've finished the book you'll realise that and wonder why you didn't see it. The same goes for the opening page where the child is remembering. So much is revealed but it will only make sense to you later. As it should.

You may wonder if Jan-Erik is so unhappy in his marriage why does he not divorce her? The answer is because of a stipulation in a change to his father's will made on Ellen's first birthday.

[I]n impreccable legal language his father had confirmed his supremacy. With words oozing with contempt he had bequeathed large sums to Louise and Ellen. As long as the marriage was intact nothing would change; Jan-Erik would remain the executor with the obligation to render accounts to the auditor. But in the event of a divorce, everything would be disclosed, and Louise would be the major beneficiary.

'It's for Ellen's sake,' his father had explained. 'She's our bequest to the future.'

And this is a picture of Jan-Erik's life until that fateful day when he got a phone call from Marianne Folkesson wondering if the family had any connection to one Gerda Persson. And the first domino is gently tipped over. From that moment everything starts to unravel of its own accord.

On her website Alvtegen explains one of the themes she set out to explore in this novel:

Astrid I have in my family one of the most admired and adored people ever in Sweden. My great aunt Astrid Lindgren. Astrid was a unique author, but also a unique person. She is and remains to me a great human role model. Those of us who had the privilege to know her, know that she is every bit as fantastic as rumour has it. The thought suddenly struck me, that what if it was precisely the other way around? What if a celebrated national icon, a Nobel laureate of literature whose novels were filled with thoughts on good and evil, was actually a real wretch? A man whose family was still forced to maintain the revered lifetime achievement and keep the aura of irreproachability intact?

Although this is an ensemble cast I feel for me that the central focus here is how Jan-Erik is affected by having the father he's had. He is now the effective head of the family and has achieved a degree of success based on the work he has done in his father's name. Everyone else in the book is affected by the efforts of these two men to keep up appearances.

I said there was no corpse at the start of this book but there are skeletons. So what we have here is more of a cold case than anything else. One of the skeletons is in one of the old woman's wardrobes and I would say at least three are in a cupboard in Axel Ragnerfeldt's study, a place that his son had never thought to look before. His only reason for rummaging around there was to provide the social worker with a better photograph of Gerda for the funeral otherwise it might have been many years before those particular skeletons were unearthed.

There is one other player in the drama that I have not mentioned. Well, that's not true. I have mentioned him but when we meet him he has become a very different person. It will come as no surprise to discover that the "foundling" – which is how he refers to himself – appears as a grown man, Kristoffer Sandeblom. As he was only four at the time he had been able to provide the police with very little information and his parents had never been traced. He might hardly have thought about them again apart from the fact that, once he turned eighteen, every month a small but variable sum of money began to be paid into his bank account, a constant reminder of the mystery surrounding his past. He has no idea who has been sending it or why nor does he have any idea why Gerda Persson names him as the sole beneficiary in her will. He has never heard of her and due to her age she could not have been his mother. But needless to say he realises that she or someone she has known must know about his past. And maybe the Ragnerfeldts, whom she worked for as a housekeeper, might know something too. Jan-Erik doesn't appear to but not all the dominoes have fallen yet and he still has an awful lot to learn about his family and himself; he is more like his father than he likely ever expected.

Oh, and I shouldn't forget the beautiful Helina because without her we would have no story to tell but I'll let you find out about her yourself.

This is a well written book and it certainly doesn't read like a translation. It begins slowly but I would suggest that's often a weakness of this type of material. By necessity there have to be a variety of suspects and we need to learn more than is essential so that what is essential can be hidden in plain sight. There are some things in this book I could never have anticipated but there is a lot that I could have worked out and quite early on if I'd just remembered something as simple as the name the young boy gives to the police as his mother's. But I didn't. Early on we hear someone in the audience ask Jan-Erik about one of his father's books entitled, Shadow. Is that a significant? I'm not saying. I've said enough.

It is formulaic but by the time you might start to realise that you'll be too caught up in the chain of events to care and it's only when you sit down to have a think about it afterwards you'll realise this. There are some clever dashes; the i's are dotted and the t's crossed but with panache and Alvtegen comes out with a few nice turns of phrase but this is not a literary novel. It's a story, carefully plotted and well told. She spends time on her characters, lets them develop over time. Apart from, perhaps, Kristoffer, but then he is a victim and it's important to remember that. One problem I did find with this book is that none of the major players are especially likeable. There was no one to root for. That's where a detective would have come in handy. It was just a matter of waiting on the "sins of the fathers" revealing themselves in their "sons" and hoping all the guilty parties get their comeuppances.


Karin_Alvtegen Karin Alvtegen-Lundberg was born on June 8th, 1965 in Huskvarna, Sweden. In addition to writing novels – Shadow is her fifth – she has also worked as a writer for television having written episodes of the Swedish soap operas Rederiet and Tre kronor. She also wrote the film script to the 2004 film Hotet and has worked in the art department on several other films. She is grand-niece of the children's novelist Astrid Lindgren, best remembered for writing the Pippi Longstocking books.

Shadow was the winner of the Danish Academy of Crime Writers’Award “The Palle Rosenkrantz Prize 2008” for Best Crime Novel in Denmark and was shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award 2007 for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year. It has also been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award 2009.


Dick said...

Well, that's hooked me in one go and I just don't do crime novels. You should be getting commission from the publishers, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

That's the thing, Dick, I don't do crime novels either and I suppose that's a bit close-minded of me which is why it's good that people send me books that I normally wouldn't touch with a bargepole. As for commission, I'm still chuffed to bits that people are willing to send me free stuff. I think that's just lovely.

Dave King said...

Like Dick, I've been hooked. I don't know if I will acquire the book, but I am sorely tempted to add to my already too-large pile of books awaiting my attention. I liked the angle of the truth having to take care of itself ad the gentle tipping of the dominoes - all very exciting to one in the slow lane, like myself.
Thanks for a cracking review.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm the same, Dave, and yet I keep accepting more books to review. It's hard not to. I love books. Even if I never read another one I just love being around them.

As far as the characters in the book the one that I liked best - liked as a character, not as a person - was the old father lying in his bed, knowing everything but unable to do anything with that knowledge. He's also a writer and the big question with him is: what would you do to keep writing?

georgel said...

What a great review! The first one ever that actually made me want to read the book, and to follow your work more closely as well. Bravo.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, George, I appreciate that. I see from your website that you have an interest in things Scandinavian. You might want to have a wee look at my review of Gentlemen which was hugely popular there and has only recently been translated into English.

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