Kallentoft, Mons – ‘Midwinter Sacrifice’ (translated by Neil Smith)
Trade Paperback: 430 pages (Oct. 2011) Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton ISBN: 1444721518
MIDWINTER SACRIFICE, not least because of its sympathetic translation by Neil Smith, is an assured debut novel. It is not, however, worthy of all the accolades on the blurb (“best” Scandinavian crime novelist, “better than Stieg Larsson” and so on). Without this unnecessary hype, the plot is at heart a simple one about a police investigation of a crime – the body of a beaten-up man is found hanging from a tree on a cold, snowy morning in Linkoping, an isolated part of the country.
The book tells the story of how police detective Malin Fors and her colleagues doggedly investigate this atrocity, initially by trying to discover the identity of the victim, then finding out about his family relationships, which are extremely tangled. In the process, we learn much about Malin – she is the divorced mother of a teenage girl, so when she is not working obsessively she is worrying about her daughter given the cold upbringing she had from her own parents; wondering whether she and Janne did the right thing in divorcing; or considering a couple of candidates for her next relationship.
In the main, though, the book is a dissection of Swedish (or any) small-town life – the prejudices, lifestyles and activities of people who are stuck in a beautiful but limited environment where employment is scarce, locals cannot afford the luxury second homes in the area that Stockholmites own, and if you don’t like ice hockey you are a bit stuck for anything to do.
I enjoyed this novel and some of its digressions, but the mystery’s solution is obvious, and the book is far too long for its content (300 or even 250 pages would have made it a far better read than its actual 430). Part of the reason for the book’s length is because of a supernatural-like element in which the victim experiences his own death and afterwards observes the investigation, providing a commentary on how near or far the detectives are from discovering how he died. Although this is an interesting aspect, it is not new (I first encountered the device in THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold, in which it is used to emotionally devastating effect), and fades out as the plot develops. But it is in these sections that I particularly appreciated Neil Smith’s translation; one feels that he really gets “under the skin” of what the author is trying to convey.
There are other aspects of the book that cover relatively minor matters and I think that this detracts from the undoubted power of the main story, which expands to include the sad fate of a social worker and, via that, to a most unusual and unpleasant family. Had the author dug more into this main story, rather than digressing into various asides, I would have enjoyed the novel more. The case ends up being a double mystery, neither strand of which ends in a very satisfactory way.
Nevertheless, ignoring the over-the-top accolades given to it, the book is a very good depiction of the lives and concerns of a policewoman and her colleagues (in this novel only briefly sketched, but doubtless we’ll find out more in future). I think the author will develop his characters into what I can see might become a very good series, assuming future books are more focused than this one.