Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Hand That Trembles, by Kjell Eriksson

Thomas Dunne/Minotaur/St. Martin's Publishing, 2011
originally published as Den hand som skälver
310 pp
translated by Ebba Segerberg

The Hand That Trembles is really three stories woven into one.  The first strand is the story of Sven-Arne Persson, a county commissioner who in the midst of a deep depression, takes a break in the middle of a meeting, and that's the last anyone sees of him.  Some years later he is declared dead, but in reality, Sven-Arne has been in India, where he lives a very simple life tending plants in a botanical garden.  Once a year  he returns to the same restaurant in Bangalore, takes the same seat and ponders whether or not he'd made a good decision.  For the last twelve years it's been a ritual that proceeds without incident; this year, however, he is horrified when he sees someone he knew from his life in Sweden.  And that someone recognizes him.  The second storyline begins with the discovery of a severed foot wearing a sandal.  It has washed up on a beach, and as Ann Lindell works with the Osthammar police to try to figure out who the foot belongs to, she arrives in the small community of Bultudden, where the past has left its mark on the present.   Finally, back in Uppsala,  while recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor, Berglund goes to work revisiting a cold case -- the murder of Nils Dufva, who was beaten to death back in 1993.

The three plotlines are well thought out, well delivered and although the novel starts out slow, readers should not give up.  The groundwork that Eriksson lays in the first part of the novel is necessary to understanding how the past interacts with the present; it also puts the reader into the mindsets of several key characters, many of whom carry  secrets from the past.  Underneath the crimes and the police work there is an ongoing examination of loneliness and isolation, as well as a constant reminder that the past does have a direct effect on the present.  The subplots in The Hand That Tremble are well constructed, easy to follow and all tend to come together in a believable fashion, although it does take some time for the reader to put two and two together.  I think that most readers will be a bit frustrated with the length of time that it actually takes to get to a point where something actually happens. That was my own reaction at first, to be very honest. But I came away from this book thinking that taking this attitude does a disservice to the author.

 In some cases, it's not always about the action.  Eriksson's novels, for example, are much more character driven than those of most Scandinavian writers; he's very much into developing the people who populate the story -- getting their pasts involved with their individual or collective presents -- in a very realistic way. Although sometimes I don't always agree with the amount of  development he throws into his main character, Ann Lindell (seriously...why do I as a reader care if she shaves off all of her body hair?),  character is Eriksson's forte.  He's also very good at getting underneath the politics, the social problems and their impact not only the country as a whole, but on communities and individuals as well. In this sense, he's falls more into the writing camp of Sjöwall and Wahlöö.   But I think most readers are after the action: after the popular, more action-packed novels of Nesbø, Mankell, Stieg Larsson and others, the less hectic, more character-driven stories are often written off as not being as good, or worse -- as boring.  That's not the case here, but because of the fast-paced, more gritty content  of what many readers of the above-mentioned authors  have become accustomed to enjoying, some people will not appreciate this book as fully as it should be appreciated.  That is a definite shame. There is a real variation of writing styles among authors of Scandinavian crime fiction, and that is something to keep in mind while reading. 

Other than hoping that Lindell finds someone soon because her love life issues are getting old and grating on my nerves, I actually enjoyed this novel, and I'd definitely recommend it. 

crime fiction from Sweden


  1. I just read this and liked it, although I, too, found the first 80 or so pages to drag out, and was glad when the story perked up and things happened.

    I also liked all of the sections with Ann Lindell visiting potential suspects in Bultudden, talking to them, thinking, etc. I liked the eccentric woman artist who lives an isolated life there.

    I did not particularly like the main male characters in the other part of the story, although parts of their backstory is interesting.

    I was a bit taken aback by some of the parts with Ann Lindell.Some things just seem like the book is edging towards another genre with remarks such as what you pointed out. (This happened in the last book, too, as this blog mentioned.)

    One thing I notice is that when male authors are writing about women protagonists, they write things that women may not think about. When Lindell, for instance, is thinking about being lonely and perhaps yearning for a life partner, one sentence said that she wants to do a third pile of laundry, after doing her own and her child's. In the U.S. these days, it would seem a bit retro for a womaan to dream of doing a partner's laundry...never have I seen or read this.

    All in all, I liked the book but not to recommend to all friends. Some really want the action and not much introspection.

  2. Hate to post out of turn, but what a good, unusual, fascinating book is The Missing Head of Damanesco Mateiro. I just stayed up all night to read it.

    To read a light, somewhat witty book about a very serious, horrendous murder, and sprinkled with German philosophers yet was a unique experience. At times I was reminded of Camilleri, not surprising since Montalbano refers to Tabucchi, yet it had its own character, too.

    Thanks so much. I have a list of co-readers to loan it to, so it will get about 5-6 reads. I wonder if Tabucchi has written other mysteries.

  3. I liked this one so much more than Demon of Dakar. This was slow to get rolling, and has way too much stuff I could give a toss about re Ann Lindell, but it was a good story. I just hated what the author did at the end. That was not fair. Absolutely not fair.

    As for Tabucchi...I'm glad it's getting around and I'm so happy you liked it! I've been trying to think of something that even approaches it and can't, unless it's the Sciascia.

    I'm so ready to get back to crime novels...literary fiction is great and I love it, but it totally drains me sometimes.

  4. Yes. The ending was not right. After the whole book and story from WWII, it was not fair.

    The friend of mine to whom I'm loaning the Tabucchi book and who watches Italian TV shows with Montalbano keeps suggesting to read Sciasscia, the original Italian mystery writer.

  5. Do you know if Tabucchi has written other mysteries? It's very hard to go back to mediocre writing after that.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it