When I reviewed Karin Alvtegen's novel, Shadow a couple of years ago I fessed up to the fact my knowledge of the crime fiction is based almost solely on TV and film adaptations. What I was unaware of at the time was the fact that Alvtegen's novel Missing had in fact been adapted for the small screen (by Scottish Television of all people) but I had no recollection of having seen it. A shame because her novel is eminently adaptable; it has a small cast and could be as easily filmed in the back streets of Glasgow as it could be in Stockholm where the book is set. In fact you could even get away without any special effects, dead bodies or anything.
What I liked about Shadow is that it was a detective novel without a detective, either a world-weary professional or an annoyingly enthusiastic amateur sleuth. That’s not the case with Missing but to be fair Missing is less of a detective novel than it is a psychological thriller. There are crimes, several murders in fact, but they’re all in the background. What little we learn of them is via the ever-helpful media, through TV and newspaper reports. Instead Missing dwells on the main suspect, a homeless woman, Sibylla Wilhelmina Beatrice Forsenström; in fact she’s not simply the prime suspect, she’s actually formally charged with the crime in her absence.
This is the first newspaper report she reads:
There has been a breakthrough in the investigation of the 'ritual slaughter' of Jorgen Grundberg (51) in his room at the Grand Hotel last night. A woman suspect, Sibylla Forsenström (32) is wanted by the police and has been formally charged in her absence. As The Express learned yesterday, this is the woman with whom the 51-year-old was seen on Thursday evening. The receptionist on duty that night has now told the police that Mr Grundberg himself booked a room for the woman, who gave what turned out to be a false name. The wanted woman managed to get through the police cordon early on Friday morning, leaving behind several articles including a wig that she allegedly wore the previous evening. The police also found a briefcase which, some sources suggest, may contain the murder weapon. The police are not prepared to reveal any details about the weapon. Fingerprints on the briefcase identified the woman as Sibylla Forsenström. The same prints were found on the key to the victim's room and in her hotel room, where a glass with the victim's prints was also found.
The police are baffled as to her whereabouts. In 1985 she escaped from a mental hospital in southern Sweden where she was an in-patient treated for psychological problems. Since then she has not been in contact with any state or local authority agency. No one seems to know anything about her life during the intervening fourteen years. Police records of her fingerprints were kept after an incident involving a car theft and illegal driving in 1984. Sibylla Forsenström grew up in a well-to-do family, based in a small industrial town in east Småland.
As she has been without a fixed address since 1985, the public are asked to let the police have any relevant information. However, the police also warn that she is likely to be confused and violent. Forensic psychologists, currently examining a diary found in her briefcase, claim that several notes are of a disturbed, incoherent character. The photograph, as the police are anxious to point out, is over sixteen years old. The waiter who served the woman and her alleged victim on Thursday evening described her as polite and well groomed. He is assisting a police artist with the creation of a more up-to-date image. Information about the wanted woman should be given to the police, either at the nearest police station or by phoning 08-401 0040.
Okay, she was there, looking to con someone out of a free meal and a room for the night (hopefully) without having to cough up more than a bit of charming conversation which, much to Jorgen Grundberg’s disappointment, she manages. This is a scam she’s perpetrated on numerous occasions at the Grand Hotel as well as others and so far it’s never backfired. This time it does.
In the morning she’s woken by a knock on the door. Someone wants to ask her some questions. She imagines it might be the management, that Grundberg had somehow cottoned on to what she was all about or it might even be the police. She does what she always does when faced with discovery: she runs.
She put her ear to the door and heard steps walking away. There was a laminated chart showing emergency exits right in front of her nose and she studied the options while she fumbled with the safety-pin in the waistband. Checking the number of her room, she found that it was just two doors away from the emergency stairs. She rushed to get her jacket and handbag, and then listened again at the chink in the door. Cautiously, she opened the door a fraction and peeped into the corridor. It was empty.
She stepped briskly into the corridor, shutting the door behind her quietly. Seconds later, she was running down the back stairs. They had to lead to a door opening into the street.
Then she remembered. The briefcase! She had left it behind. It pulled her up short, but it took only a moment of hesitation to realise her briefcase was lost. And so was the wig in the bathroom. Shit, almost 740 kronor down the toilet and such a brilliant investment too which should have given her many nights of undisturbed sleep. Even the complimentary soaps and the little shampoo bottles had been forgotten.
At the bottom of the stairs she stopped in front of a metal door with a lit green Emergency Exit sign. Pushing on the locking bar, she opened the door enough to put her head outside. A police car was parked just twenty-odd yards away, but it was empty and this gave her enough courage to step out into the street. She looked around, realising that she was at the back of the Grand Hotel.
Needless to say she’s had nothing to do with the murder. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay, she was up to no good but she was no murderess. So what’s she’s going to do? And could things get any worse for her? Actually, yes. The real murderer has also been paying attention to what’s going on in the media:
God! I too wish to thank You for Your protection. You have not left me alone in my task but sent that woman to shelter me. You are allowing her to atone for her sins by giving her a sacred purpose. For this I thank You, Lord God. Amen.
Yes, I know, a religiously-motivated serial killer (yawn), but Alvtegen's twist on it is interesting so maybe I’ll take that yawn back. Anyway the next murder includes a note from the murderer masquerading as Sibylla. She phones the police and says that she’s innocent but realises that’s not going to do much good. But what can she do? Hide for the rest of her life? She’s already been off the radar for years but this is quite different. It must only be a matter of time before she makes a mistake and is arrested.
Okay, let’s back up a bit. How does someone with a name like Sibylla Wilhelmina Beatrice Forsenström end up living as an unperson? As Sibylla tries to escape her present we the readers get to learn about her past:
Almost all the parents of her fellow pupils were working in her father's [metal foundry]. Mr Forsenström was a leading member of the Local Council and his pronouncements weighed heavily. Most of the jobs and much else in Hultaryd depended on his say-so…
Managing the successful family firm kept him very busy. He had no time to concern himself with bringing up children and he wasn't interested anyway. The excellent carpets in the Forsenström mansion showed no trace of a path beaten by him to Sibylla's room. He left for work in the morning and came back in the evening. He ate at the same dining table, but was often engrossed in thought or checking through accounts and other documents. Sibylla never had a clue about what went on behind his correct façade. She just finished her food properly, leaving the table as soon as she was given permission.
Her mother is no better. Possibly worse. Her father only ignores her. Her mother determines to mould her:
Sibylla's mother had always made a point of emphasising how special her daughter was, which of course gave Sibylla's schoolmates every justification for ostracising her. It mattered very much to Beatrice Forsenström that Sibylla should know her position in the social hierarchy, but it mattered even more that everyone else should know it too. Nothing had any real worth to her, unless others valued it too and preferably found it very desirable. Beatrice derived her greatest pleasure from arousing admiration and envy.
Over the following chapters we get to see just how far they push their daughter and what happens to finally cause her to snap; turn her back on them and why, in her hour of need, she feels she can’t turn to them for help.
While all that is being revealed more murders are happening and it looks as if it’s only a matter of time before she’s going to be caught until, while hiding in the attic of Sofia High School, she gets her big break in the form of a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, ‘Tab’, Patrik to his mum and dad. And here we have our annoyingly enthusiastic amateur sleuth. It’s Patrik that stops the rot by suggesting that the two of them solve the mystery themselves which they spend the second half of the book trying to do.
This is where the book faltered a bit for me. The bottom line is that someone is needed here to help her. She has been out of the loop for many years and things like the power of Internet are unknown to her – she would never have imagined going into an Internet café and looking stuff up. So a nerd is exactly what she needs but a nerd whose mum is a cop and who happens to know a guy-who-can is stretching it just a bit. I know we have computers now and it is a wonderful thing but I do sometimes get a bit irritated by the ease at which characters in films and on TV rattle a few keys and find exactly what they’re looking for. And that is basically what happens here. If the boy a) didn’t have a cop for a parent and wasn’t able to access police records using her (or, as it turns out, a colleague’s) computer and b) didn’t know a techie who could, for a few thousand kronor, locate the key piece of information, the book would stall, dead in the water. If you can forgive these improbabilities then there is a lot to enjoy here. If I’m being extra picky then I think the newspaper reports are a bit too detailed and helpful plotwise and not quite journalistic enough in style but that’s a minor quibble. Of course what she learns I’m not going to tell you but any TV cop worth his salt would have made the connection she does; still who is to say they didn’t because we never get to hear how their investigation is progressing. The media leads her (and us) to believe that they’re not looking for motive, but maybe they are and we just don’t know about it.
Really though, for me anyway, the crime aspect of this book is secondary to the real story of how Sibylla ends up where she does. If you removed the whole crime and just told her tale up until that night it would still make a decent read. What the crime does is provide an unexpected opportunity to move her life forward because once she sees what the guy-who-can can do Sibylla suddenly has options she never imagined she ever would have. We never find out what happens to her. We never see if, after all she’s been though, she finds a modicum of happiness, but that’s fine. Not every question should be answered.
On her website she writes where the idea for Missing came from:
The idea … I got one early morning in October on a platform in a tube station. A woman in my own age, barefooted, with a plastic bag in her hand came jostling her way through the crowd of stressed early morning commuters, begging for money. I saw her urge through the crowd, amongst lowered eyes and disturbed headshakes. Still, she carried her presence with dignity. I couldn't let go of my thoughts of that woman. I started to wonder about how a human being can grow into such extreme loneliness, that there was no one around to catch her when she started to loose her grip. And I became fulfilled by a deep respect for this woman, and for all these characters that just don't give up, instead choosing to keep on fighting their battle.
I read this book in two sittings. I read three-quarters of it the first day in fact. It is a quick read. The chapters are short so it’s easy to think, I’ll maybe just squeeze in another one and then another one and another. Perfect for a rainy afternoon, a long-haul flight or lounging on the beach.
Karin Alvtegen-Lundberg was born on June 8th, 1965 in Huskvarna, Sweden. In addition to writing novels – Missing 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. Translation rights have been sold to 30 countries and each novel has sold several hundred thousands of copies.
Alvtegen has received a number of literary awards, including The Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel, the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, the Danish Academy of Crime Writer's Palle Rosenkrantz Award for Best Foreign Crime Novel of the Year. She has also been nominated for two of the most prestigious crime novel's awards in the world: The CWA International Dagger, for Shadow, and The Edgar Allan Poe Award, for Missing.