In its first few chapters, SUN AND SHADOW provides an evocative description of life in downtown Gothenburg: not the Sweden of Christmas cards, but the seedier side of drunks and petty crime. Patrik and Maria, two bored teens who hang out on the streets, rebellious and vulnerable, represent the problems of their generation, intersecting the police-procedural plot as the book develops, as a kind of benchmark for the values of the society they live in.
The author has the ability convey with sympathy a range of characters and their problems: not only Patrik and Maria but the beat police, who have to deal with the casual violence of traffic accidents and after-effects of drug and alcohol abuse. World-weary detectives do their duty and live their tough lives against backgrounds of domestic stress: money troubles, relationship questions, commuter hell, bad weather and health worries.
Erik Winter is a young, successful detective inspector, about to marry his long-term pregnant girlfriend Angela, a doctor. While they are in the process of moving in together, Erik hears that his father, who has retired to Spain, has had a heart attack, so flies to the Costa del Sol to be with him and his mother. Erik's few days there, in the sun of the climate but the shadow of his father's life, take on an existential air, as he lives in and observes an alien, almost opposite world to his icy norm.
The haunting quality continues after Erik returns to Gothenburg. A couple living in one of the flats near Erik's is murdered, possibly to some hideous taped music which is playing in the apartment when the bodies are discovered. Erik and his colleagues struggle to find a motive for the gruesome crime; nothing was stolen and the couple seems to have had not only no enemies, but no close friends either.
Although this book was published in English translation in 2005, it was written in 1999. Part of the atmosphere and tension cleverly created by the author is provided by the advent of Christmas and the looming millennium: the city is gearing up for a huge party on New Year's Eve, and there is a degree of nervousness among the police about the crowds, whether computer systems will break down, and a general unease about the mystic significance of the date change. This lends the book a curiously but sweetly old-fashioned air: although the fears were real enough to many at the time, they now seem quaint only a few short years later.
In this MP3-less era, Erik sets off into the world of indie music to discover where the cassette tape came from, who recorded it and what the words mean. Unhinged biblical prophecies seem to be at the root of it, but are they relevant to the crime?
Characters and plots are interlocked: Angela discovers an unfortunate letter from Spain in Erik's briefcase while looking for some notes about her pregnancy. Patrik is the first to discover the bodies because he has a newspaper round in the apartment block: did he see the murderer leaving the scene? Has he heard this type of music before? Why is he injured? Maria’s mother is the police chaplain who tries to help Erik decipher the strange lyrics on the tape, and who may know more than anyone realises about the secret lives of some of the policemen who seek out her counsel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are deftly drawn and the writing is unforced and natural – the translator is the excellent Laurie Thompson, who also translates Henning Mankell's novels. I liked the policemen with their various foibles, and admired the way the author increases the suspense while the investigation reaches a climax.
The end, as is so often the case, is a bit of a let-down. Erik seems a bit too dense at realising what the murdered couple were up to, and fails to follow some obvious leads. The identity of the murderer makes logical sense, but could have been any of several characters. Not only that, but the motivation does not hang true – there is no sense of "ah, yes, that explains it", and the murderer suddenly turns out to have abilities that we weren't told about previously. Most of the subplots end in mid-air, which is a pity as many of the characters had come to grow on me. I'll definitely continue to read this series, though, because the characters are so involving, and I have the feeling the author will be building on his initial talent in future books.