THE SAVAGE ALTAR
PENGUIN/VIKING 307 pp
This is the fourth thriller by Asa Larsson which I’ve read, though actually the first in the series introducing Rebecka Martinsson, her heroine. It was first published in Sweden in 2003, in Britain 2007. In January I reviewed, and was tremendously impressed by , her latest, the fifth in the series, The Second Deadly Sin, the second of her novels to win the Best Swedish Crime Novel award.
The Savage Altar won the Best First Crime Novel award. It’s not hard to see why. For a debut novel it is superb, with finely drawn characters great atmosphere and pace, an excellent, dark plot and a unique setting . Kiruna, population 20,000, where Asa Larsson actually grew up, lies in Norbotten County, within the Arctic Circle close to where the borders of Sweden Norway and Finland come together. It is 600 miles north of Stockholm, with an estimated driving time of fourteen hours. Flight time is 1 hour 40 minutes.
Norbotten County itself is bigger than the island of Ireland but has only 250, 000 inhabitants (think the population of Galway in an area over sixteen times the size; for comparison, Sweden is six times larger than Ireland, with a population of 9,500,000). Finnish and Sami are as widely spoken as Swedish and the populace have retained their own customs and culture. The area is rich in natural resources, with Kiruna famous for its iron ore. The town was developed to take advantage of a vast iron ore deposit which makes up much of a mountain towering over Kiruna.
It’s worthwhile pointing out that Asa Larsson’s first two novels were published before Dragon Tattoo Larsson had appeared on the scene. Many of the themes running through the Millenium Trilogy are to be found here – the gloomy religious and biblical obsessions, the brutal ritualistic killings – linked to old testament tales- the savage rape, the hints ( or actuality) of incest. The only major dimension missing is Stieg Larsson’s portrayal of the evil wealthy capitalist family, which is very much in the Southern California tradition of Chandler and Ross MacDonald. There is, however, a theme of exploitative tax fraud, which in part provides if not motive, then certainly catalyst for the first murder.
The novel introduces also two very strong, very appealing and very human female characters, Rebecka and the policewoman Anna-Maria Mella. Whatever qualities Lisbeth Salander – she of the Dragon Tattoo – might have, appealing is not one of them . The Kiruna characters – the two already mentioned and a number of the others – recur in later books and develop, since, like Wallender, the series is set in real time. The only character that grates is the prosecutor von Post. He crops up also in the Second Deadly Sin, where his incompetence, ambition, lack of judgement and self-importance are again demonstrated. Overall, however, he is a caricature and is probably based on some fool the author has encountered.
The plot centres on the murder of a charismatic clergyman from one of the number of fundamentalist churches and factions that seem to abound in Sweden. It’s sobering and somewhat depressing to note that the type of religious fundamentalism and flat earthism we identify with the American south and, internationally, where others of that ilk are to be found, including some of the sects in Northern Ireland, are alive and well and flourishing in twenty-first century Northern Sweden (this book, after all, is set post Nine Eleven, not post – 1945). Our until very recently monocultural and overwhelmingly Catholic society, rarely encountered at first hand people who actually believe – or profess to believe – in the literal truth of the bible.
The dead clergyman, known cynically as “ The Paradise Kid,” has been murdered and mutilated. His sister turns for assistance to Rebecka, an old friend from school, now a tax lawyer in Stockholm. Rebecka returns to her childhood home in a claustrophobic rural society where religion still rules. People not only quote the bible, they believe it! Rebecca’s memories of there are of religious indoctrination, sexual exploitation, seduction and worse. Now, with her friend charged with murder, Rebecca is drawn into help, her only ally, of sorts, a heavily pregnant local policewoman.
A triumvirate of powerful clergymen, and their wives, acquaintances and adversaries of old, seem determined to hide the truth about the murder. Rebecka digs, and discovers why. She is now the quarry and the book builds to a nail biting ( rarely has the phrase suited better) and violent climax.
Asa Larsson has commented that the sixth book in the Rebecka series will be the last. As with Mankel’s Wallender, it will be a great pity if this is the case.