Friday, July 9, 2010

The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin

Delta/Random House, 2009
Original Swedish title: Nattfåk, 2008
438 pp.
translated by Marlaine Delargy

Joakim and Katrine Westin, along with their two small children, have decided to leave Stockholm to buy and renovate an old manor house at Eel Point on the island of Öland.  Along with its two lighthouses, this area has a long history of shipwrecks and drownings, and it is said that the voices of the dead can still be heard. But for Joakim and Katrine, Eel Point offers a new beginning. For their children there are meadows and forests to play in, a definite change from urban life in Stockholm. But after only a couple of months, the idyllic setting becomes a place of dread after a terrible tragedy, which leaves Joakim shaken and inconsolable, unable to deal with his grief.  He begins to become more interested in Eel Point's haunted history, wondering indeed if the dead inhabit the area, and the house begins to act on his damaged soul. He meets Tilda Davidsson, a newly-recruited police officer who has moved to the area to escape from the gossip involved with her affair with a married policeman, and because she has family there.  Tilda's great-uncle is Gerlof Davidsson, who was a major character in Theorin's first novel, Echoes From the Dead, and she spends a lot of time with him, putting his memories of his life on Öland down on tape.

But there's more. As the Westin family is coping with its grief, the two Serelius brothers and their cohort in crime Henrik Jansson are busy breaking into vacation homes where the owners are away, stealing valuables and causing general mayhem. It's not long until their forays escalate and they start breaking into occupied houses and becoming violent, hopped up on meth before each job. Their activities have been reported to the police, but it isn't until Gerlof suggests to Tilda that she talk to a few of his old friends that anything really happens with the case.

These two plotlines, along with Gerlof's oral history of his family and of life on Öland, also combined with excerpts from a book written by Katrine's mother Mirja Rambe, all weave together into a perfectly-crafted thriller with a slight hint of gothic thrown into the mix.  The sense of place is unbelievably eerie and helps to keep the tension and suspense from ebbing at any point in the story. The characters are meticulously and well constructed, especially in the cases of Katrine and Joakim, whose lives Theorin discloses in only small bits and pieces at a time. The pacing of the novel is just a little slow to begin with, but when it picks up, there is no way anyone can possibly put this book down until it's over.

I have to admit to being put off at first by the hint of the supernatural that figures into the story, but as all came to be revealed, my worries were put to rest and Theorin didn't let me down. It is tough to label The Darkest Room as simply a mystery or a novel of crime fiction, because it's also an examination of loss, grief and human nature in its most vulnerable and exposed state. And as in his earlier Echoes of the Dead, Theorin has created a story in which the past has meaning for and acts on the present -- one of my favorite types of novels. I highly recommend this one and considering I read it in 90+ degree heat with a near equal level of humidity, it made me shiver throughout.  The Darkest Room is simply stellar.

fiction from Sweden


  1. Wow.This is very interesting.It sounds pretty engaging.Great review ;p

  2. Thanks! It's really one of those books that you can't put down once you pick it up -- and a really good mystery as well!


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