Johan Theorin's brilliant first novel, ECHOES FROM THE DEAD, was first published in Sweden, where it won the Best First Mystery Novel by the Swedish Academy of Crime in 2007. On finishing the book, I can only advise that if you read one crime-fiction novel published this year, make it this one.
Set on the Baltic island of Otland, the plot is driven by the story of Jens, a five-year-old boy who went missing 20 years ago while being looked after by his grandparents. His body was never found, although the reader knows that the boy went out onto the Alvar (the barren limestone plains of the interior of the island), became disoriented in the heavy fog, and met a man who says his name is Nils.
The boy's mother, Julia, has never come to terms with the loss, and is unable to function either professionally (she's a nurse in Gothenburg on the mainland, but is seemingly on permanent sick leave) or emotionally: she lives alone and is alienated from her family, as well as not having any friends. Julia refuses to accept that the boy is dead, and has been living in a kind of paralysis for 20 years.
As the book opens, Gerlof, Julia's estranged, seafaring father who now lives in an old people's home on the island, rings her. He has been sent a boy's sandal in the post, and wants to know from Julia if it is likely to have belonged to Jens. Stirred into action, Julia manages to obtain the car she co-owns with her bossy and materially successful sister Lena, and drives to Otland to visit her father to discover more. As Julia stays in the almost deserted village that was her childhood home, amid her memories and her sadness, her numbness gradually disappears. She meets half-remembered characters from her childhood, all old now, and becomes involved in Gerlof's own, slow investigation in the boy's death, given new impetus by the mysterious appearance of the shoe. Like Julia, Gerlof does not subscribe to the common belief that the boy drowned in the black currents of the sea, and in his deliberate way, has been pondering on the implications for years. Before long, however, one of his old friends, and his main lead in the affair of the shoe, dies by falling down the quarry where he works. Julia and Gerlof have their suspicions about the death; and between them, the broken woman and the ill old man struggle with their own self-imposed failings to become partners with the common, compulsive goal of uncovering the past tragedy.
The story is told in tandem with that of Nils Kant, son of a local landowner, whose tale begins when he was a boy around the time of the Second World War. We rapidly discover that Nils is a nasty boy and even worse adult, whose actions eventually mean he has to flee Otland for South America, abetted by his doting mother, in the 1960s. Julia's conviction that Nils, as well as committing other crimes on the island, was also responsible for Jens's death, is soon shattered by her discovery of Nils's grave in the local churchyard. Gerlof, however, tells her of rumours that the body that came back for burial was not that of Nils.
As the pages of this gripping book turn, the stories of Julia and Gerlof's investigation into the disappearance of Jens; together with the that of what really happened to Nils, build up into a superb climax. Julia's gradual emergence into life and self-determination, caused by the therapy of the remote island, away from contemporary pressures, and her rediscovery of her own past via her father's friends and acquaintances, are very moving. We wish for her to find some happiness in her life when she begins to take tentative steps towards romance with the local policeman Lennert, who turns out himself to have a personal tragedy closely connected with Nils. I loved the character of Gerlof: his refusal to conform to expectations in his dealings with old age, infirmity and independence; his reflections of the changes on the island since the ship and fishing industry was at its height; and his stubborn ways of pursuing his investigations on his own terms, only revealing his thoughts when he is good and ready.
It is hard to single out one aspect of this superb book for special praise. The plot, atmosphere and characterisation are all superb. The denouement is convincing, exciting, and is complete with a McGuffin as well as having a shockingly unexpected (to me) but sad twist – leading to a satisfactory, full solution to the mystery of the boy's disappearance. Johan Theorin is an extremely talented author, able to convey the full range and intensity of human emotion as well as to deliver a beautifully constructed, multi-level, interleaving plot. According to the publisher's notes that came with the book, he is planning a loose series of novels set on Otland, where his mother's family has lived for centuries. I can't wait.