THE DARKEST ROOM: A NOVEL (Delta 2009) written by Johan Theorin and translated by Marlaine Delargy is the second crime fiction novel that is apart of a loosely connected quartet of books set on the island of Öland. The Swedish title is Nattfåk which translates to “night blizzard.”
Theorin’s first novel, ECHOES FROM THE DEAD (Delta 2008), Swedish title, Skumtimmen won the CWA John Creasey Dagger Award in 2009 and THE DARKEST ROOM was voted by critics as best Swedish Crime Novel of 2008 and won the Glass Key Award in 2009. The two novels are loosely connected.
I am a big fan of Nordic crime fiction thanks to Jo Nesbo’s lyrical prose & tight plotting in the Harry Hole series set in Norway. I’ve been looking for similar authors to try and have seen Johan Theorin’s name mentioned alongside that of Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum. The latter two are authors I plan to read sometime soon.
There is nothing spectacular about Scandinavian writers that I can see only that they appear to be better plotters as that is certainly the case with Nesbo’s books. While Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may have been a captivating read for me, it was certainly flawed in it’s structure. Lastly, the characters seem to make a lasting impression. Lisbeth Salander. Harry Hole. You remember them well when the story is over.
Johan Theorin’s THE DARKEST ROOM is a ghost story wrapped up in a rather complex murder mystery. Theorin seems to have a talent for writing atmospheric stories as he pens one beautifully here. The harsh Baltic weather with it’s crashing waves and unrelenting blizzard plays an integral part in the story. The mood of the novel and the narrative tended to be quietly intensive, foreboding and infused with supernatural elements.
This author is good at superstition. The characters are beset with hearing creaks from doors or listening to the undefinable knocking on walls or folks summoning up dead spirits. Strangers or strange events are sometimes cloaked in shadows. Ghost stories make for some good late night reading. Along with that you can add the angst of a family trying desperately to run away from the past, distancing themselves from the dark secrets that seems to attach themselves indelibly.
THE DARKEST ROOM is a creepy, somewhat complex story that at times is thematically intense with its topics of grief and loss. In the following review, I will reveal more than a few minor spoilers as I briefly recap some of the events of the story. So, if you’re not interested in any details at all then this will be your cue to leave.
Joakim and Katrine Westin have moved with their two children from Stockholm to the northern part of the island of Öland. They are the new owners of the old manor house at Eel Point. A short distance away are the two empty lighthouses and an old barn. The house has a history, told alongside the main story arc, of those who lived and died at Eel Point.
When the story starts, Joakim is still commuting to Stockholm. He’s a teacher there. Meanwhile, Katrine begins the house renovations. Life for this family of four out in the country seems idyllic until tragedy strikes. And from the tone of the story up to this point, you knew that something bad was gonna happen.
Joakim learns that there’s been an accidental drowning at the manor house. He’d been in Stockholm less than a day packing up the rest of his stuff from his former residence in the city. He had plans to stay overnight but he races back to Eel Point with his heart racing, fearing the worst.
Earlier in the day, something strange happened to make Joakim call home. While impossible, he thought he heard his wife’s voice while he was at their old house in the city. Again, it’s impossible since she saw him off that morning but he swears it was her voice that called his name. That niggling feeling gets to him and he calls home and learns that there’s been a drowning.
Policewoman, Tilda Davidsson is at Joakim’s home awaiting his arrival. Earlier, she broke procedure and told Joakim over the phone that his daughter, Livia had drowned and that his son Gabriel and his wife Katrine are at the neighbors. Joakim has to pull off to the side of the road to absorb the news of his daughter’s death. His only solace on the drive back is his driving need to console his wife.
Unfortunately, there’s been a mix-up with the identification. When Joakim arrives at Eel Point, he sees that his daughter Livia is alive. It was his wife, Katrine who drowned. Her body was found by the kid’s school teacher. This devastates Joakim and the mix-up with the names looks bad for Tilda, who’d just arrived on the island and is the only female police officer in the newly opened police department.
Joakim’s loss is devastating. He goes through the usual stages of grief of denial, etc. He decides not to tell the kids right away because he’s not up for it emotionally. The tone around this part of the novel was somewhat depressive. Joakim grapples with his grief but eventually he distracts himself with continuing the renovations that his wife had started.
Meanwhile, the narrative shifts to some home burglaries on the island. A gang of thugs are breaking into the summer cottages while the residents are away for the winter. Tilda Davidsson is investigating the break-ins and from the cues of her 80 year old great-uncle, Gerlof Davidsson, she’s looking a bit into the drowning incident as well. It’s hinted that maybe Katrine’s death wasn’t accidental after all.
Gerlof Davidsson, Tilda’s great-uncle, was a former Baltic cargo ship captain. He’s seen and heard it all. Tilda is having him record the family history. She wants to know more about her grandfather’s brother who was a fisherman. Gerlof is good at telling stories. It is he who suggests to Tilda that she should look into Katrine’s death. He eventually meets with Joakim who is looking to learn more about the history of Eel Point. The talk from the neighbors say that Eel Point is haunted by dead spirits.
The story then gets more mysterious when it’s revealed that there’s a hidden room inside the barn; it’s a short distance away from the manor house and last place that Joakim saw his wife. Besides being old, it’s supposed to be haunted. Inside, there’s a wall with a list of names of the dead. Mostly the names are of the people who lived and died at Eel Point.
Joakim seems to also feel the presence of his wife there and also the presence of his dead sister, Ethel. She’s a skeleton in the closet of the Westin family. Turns out she was a drug user who died under somewhat unusual circumstances. I’d hate to say what so I will stop there. There’s more to the plot that delves into the family’s background and secrets. Still a lot left to read.
So how did I like THE DARKEST ROOM? I enjoyed this story very much! Like I said, the setting was just as significant as the characters. The narrative is told in third person and follows the perpetrators as well as the protagonists. I had no clue how Katrine’s death was gonna get solved. However, there are two threads throughout the story that eventually tie together. The connection wasn’t transparent to me.
The supernatural elements were subtle relying mostly on the unknown. The premise was engaging and the pacing was unhurried and tended to get a little stagnant & repetitive. The characters were interesting and made the pages go by fast. I didn’t really warm up to Tilda Davidsson much but enjoyed the scenes with Gerlof. Her personal life was interesting though. She’d been having an affair with a married man.
The ending was completely dominated by the impending, dangerous blizzard that hits the island. The denouement devolved into several scenes of people fighting snow flurries, harsh winds, freezing cold temperatures while the story concludes in a typical showdown of good versus evil.
I think this story will have you believing in ghosts or spirits when all is said and done. Overall, THE DARKEST ROOM is highly recommended read. There’s no romance in it, sorry to say but then again I didn’t miss it. Violence is graphic but mild. There was a line at the end of the book that was quite haunting to me, considering all the events that takes place in the story, that says that in the end, that’s what we will all be one day. Memories and ghosts. B+.
Notes: This novel is currently available in paperback and digital format. THE DARKEST ROOM is the second book in a loosely connected series. The first book is ECHOES FROM THE DEAD. The cover comes the UK. The US cover looked boring in comparison. Translation was kind of touch & go in a few spots but otherwise, a good read. Updated x2: Edited for better clarification and word usage.