Sometimes the title is all I need. Dark Pines had that ring about it, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since publication. The book cover drew me, it’s Not The Booker Prize shortlisting prompted me once more, but it took publication of the second in the series, Red Snow, to actually get down to it.
And when I did, I didn’t stop – not until I turned the last page of the second book.
I’m glad I waited. Because I like reading cold books in the cold months, curled up in my blanket with the snow outside. I timed this perfectly – the snowbomb (or whatever the mot of the moment is) of white stuff arriving just as I was beginning Red Snow.
The setting constitutes much of the atmosphere in these books. The (fictional) town of Gavrik in located in the vast elk forests of Värmland, and those forests are not benign – or, at least they don’t feel that way to Tuva Moodyson, a deaf journalist, whom we meet in Dark Pines just as she is about to be charged by a huge elk on the forest road. Tuva escapes only because the elk is startled by the sound of gunshot.
A shot which kills a man. HIs eyes gouged out and removed from the scene. The town is worried that this heralds the return of Medusa, the killer of three other hunters some twenty years previously. Has Medusa returned or is this a copy cat killing?
Tuva covers the murder for her local newspaper. She’s a talented reporter and delves a little more than she should. She is aware that she has to tell the truth, but meets resistance as unfavourable reports might lead to loss of trade for the locals. The case is in some respects a training of sorts. There are ways of telling the truth sensitively.
Tuva is a complex character. She deals with her deafness matter-of-factly (and her constant concern for her hearing aids a real education.) She accepts, but does not like, her posting in Gavrik which is of necessity – her mother lies dying in a nearby town and Tuva has moved ostensibly to support her. She’s also bisexual. A city girl in a small town, frightened of the forest. An outsider though not as lonesome as some.
The inhabitants of Gavrik, or more specifically the tiny hamlet of Moosen on the edge of the forest, are an interesting bunch: David, a creepy ghostwriter who was suspected of being Medusa way back when, chose not to move away, stays in his immaculate home, cooking the strangest of offal dishes; ever-friendly Frida, the perfect hostess on all occasions, Tammy, Tuva’s friend, owner of a mobile snack bar serving perfect Thai curries, and Thord, the police officer with a soft spot for Tuva. You may have noticed a slight obsession with food – I suppose that’s because it acquires even greater comforting significance in the frozen north.
Alice and Cornelia, Norwegian sisters carve customised wooden trolls with real human hair and fingernails. There’s someone who has taken to customising them further and scaring Tuva by leaving them at her front door. There’s a similar kind of stalking in Red Snow, this time with skälle – skulls carved from ice.
Dean’s sympathetic characterisation continues in Red Snow, which begins with the owner of the liquorice factory throwing himself off one of the factory chimneys, followed by the discovery of a body in an unused room. Tuva, who is now about to leave Gavrik and move back to the city – her reporting in Dark Pines proving to be a springboard to greater things – is also working as a researcher for the ghostwriter, now writing a history of the factory-owning family. It will be the first book published in his own name. Getting behind the public façade of the family proves challenging. What are they hiding behind the curtain that separates The Receiving Room from their private chambers? As the novel progresses, it transpires that things are not as they should be for the dead factory owner’s mother, wife and daughter. They are not the labour-exploiting industrialists you might expect. They are a family under siege, yet, as a family, they provide a contrast to the dysfunctionality of Tuva’s own.
Dean’s employs several Nordic Noir tropes. Not necessarily a bad thing. I wanted tension, driving around in dangerous snowy landscapes, hikes through foreboding forests, creepy taxidrivers, and all the rest. Admittedly I was less happy with the hipness of Tuva’s bisexuality and I felt he did overplay Tuva’s guilt towards her mother. But as Red Snow sees her coming to terms with the faults of the past, there’s justification for that. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with either ending. I saw the first one coming from a long way off, and felt that Tuva should also have done so. But at least it was plausible in a way that Red Snow was not. (A case of an author overdramatising with an eye on prospective film rights?) Nevertheless I wanted Scandi Noir, and I got Scandi Noir with snow in shovelfuls. Besides I’ll never look at a frozen stock cube in the same way again!