Swedish crime from Karin Alvtegen

Karin Alvtegen’s most recent crime novel is one of the best I’ve ever read. This highly praised and award-winning Swedish writer weaves a captivating story of  murder and deception with secrets that shock. Several times, I slapped the book down against my lap and gasped out loud, Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it! Yet it’s not just the shock value that makes the plot intriguing, it’s also the sophisticated nature of the lies that are designed to keep a family’s reputation in good standing. So not only does it feel like you’re on a thrill ride, but also held close in a smart, engaging and mysterious conversation.

Before I continue, I need to mention that Shadow is not yet published in the U.S. I purchased my copy from the London Review Bookshop. Having read so many overseas reviews/comments that lead me to believe the book would fall under the “unputdownable” category, I had to read it.

Shadow was first published in Sweden in 2007 and then in Great Britain in 2009, translated by McKinley Burnett. It opens with a mother abandoning her four-year-old boy at an amusement park. Next, we leap ahead 31 years to the death of 92-year-old Gerda Persson, who’s died from natural causes. There’s no apparent connection to Gerda and the boy, so there’s quick curiosity about what Alvtegen is up to.

A woman from social services enters Gerda’s apartment to close out her life and make funeral arrangements because neither the police nor the home help had been able to locate a relative. This government stranger unwittingly becomes a catalyst that opens dark secrets connected to the abandoned little boy and the esteemed Ragnerfeldt family Gerda served as a maid.

Alvtegen presents us with a fascinating cast of characters whose present and past lives unfold in alternating chapters, unveiling their misguided hopes and indiscretions. At the center is Nobel Laureate Axel Ragnerfeldt, a shy, elderly novelist now silenced by a paralyzing stroke. There’s his wife, Alice, an alcoholic who wishes she could have another chance at her life, and their son, Jan-Eric, who lectures about the Ragnerfeldt literary canon and repeats the sins of his father.  Also among the cast is Kristoffer Sandeblom, Gerda’s surprised sole beneficiary, a young man who’s never met the woman.

The deadly dynamite of Gerda’s death rolls slowly through the chapters, building tension in key moments that include Jan-Erik’s search for a photo of Gerda among his father’s papers and Kristoffer’s meeting with Axel’s tormentor, Torgny Wennberg. Wennberg notified the social worker he’d attend the funeral, and she referred Kristoffer to him, trying to help the foundling make sense of his connection to Gerda. Wennberg has the power to crush Axel’s lauded reputation.

That’s as far as I’ll go, so as not to give anything away for readers who want to do as I did and pay an exchange rate of 1.60 British pounds sterling, let alone a hefty shipping charge from Royal Mail. I’ve only done that one other time, in 2006, for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was published in the U.S. a few months later. I blame that on my collecting insanity — I wanted a true first edition of the book, not the American first.

Alvtegen’s crime novels Missing, Betrayal and Shame are published stateside. Missing won Sweden’s most prestigious crime novel award, the Glass Key, in 2000. Alvtegen is the great niece of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking books, a childhood favorite.