I always have a stack of books that I am about to read, but being a somewhat spontaneous reader, I frequently set aside books that I’ve been planning to read for months in favor of a new title that caught my attention out of nowhere. Since this is such a frequent occurrence for me, I thought it might be interesting/useful (at least for me) to keep a more active record of the books I pick up and read on a whim.
My first installment in the Spontaneous Reads ‘feature’ is Sun and Shadow, an Erik Winter novel by Åke Edwardson. And I’ll be honest, although this was an unplanned choice, it’s not totally out of the blue: I’ll be reviewing a new Winter installment by Edwardson very soon and wanted to do some background reading beforehand. I really enjoyed the book, but it was a bit of a perplexing reading experience for me because there were a lot of aspects that normally, wouldn’t be my cup of tea. My (rather long) attempt to clarify my mixed reactions to the book is below.
Although Edwardson has been on my list of Scandinavian-crime-authors-to-read for some time, I had previously put off reading any of his novels because they had been described as rather stringent procedurals, and as a rule, I am not a huge fan of this genre. I understand that meticulous investigations–with their red herrings and dead-end leads and countless interviews with doddering old women who may have seen something relevant to a crime but really just want to serve the dashing inspector biscuits and coffee and have a little company–are some readers’ cups of tea. For myself, however, I’m not so invested in the process. I generally like the varied dynamics of a police force that you get in a procedural, but that enjoyment doesn’t really outweigh the sense of stagnation that sometimes comes over me in the midst of one of these novels.
I’ll admit it: I like plot. And while this is an element that may be somewhat out of vogue in contemporary ‘literary’ fiction, it is (generally) still highly valued in crime novels. So while I appreciate the pleasure that one might take out of reading the intricate (but often dull or frustrating) quotidian burdens of a police investigation, I usually prefer that the crime novels I read eschew that sort of realism in favor of some broader character development, more back story, and/or steadily escalating tension.
All this preamble is to say that I have just finished, and very much enjoyed, Sun and Shadow, the first of Edwardson’s Erik Winter novels to be translated into English (although it wasn’t the first in the series). What is somewhat perplexing to me–and apologies, because this probably won’t end up being the best of sells for this book–is that Edwardson utilizes a number of tricks which I would normally really dislike in a novel. But somehow, even when all of these strategies–and dare I say, cheats–are combined (and I’ll get to this more momentarily), the end product is still a really enjoyable, well-paced, strongly characterized novel which I gobbled up in a few short days.
To start with the good:
Winter is a great character. He’s reasonably quirky–loves jazz and gourmet cooking (there’s several whole pages where he describes, in recipe-level detail, the meal he makes on New Year’s) –and we’re told early on that he’s Sweden’s youngest chief detective inspector. As the book opens (days before the new millennium), however, he is about to turn 40 and is starting to feel a bit introspective about his life. This is emphasized by the ample family subplot that Edwardson builds around Winter: when the book opens, his father is dying and his longtime girlfriend–who is six months pregnant with his first child–is moving in with him.
Edwardson really takes his time with this domestic development. In fact, although the reader knows right from the start of the book that there has been a double murder, the police don’t discover it until just over 100 pages into the book. The fact that such an elongated reveal works in a crime novel really speaks to how engaging Winter and the other detectives and characters are. You want to spend time with them and become immersed in their lives, rather than just jumping into the investigation.
Anther especially good element is the pacing. I’ve rarely gotten to the very end of a procedural and actually felt a great deal of anticipation to see the case resolved. That feeling that the police are so close! to cracking the case doesn’t usually catch with me. But here, Edwardson develops suspense and build tension based on the fact that the reader has spent 200 pages or so suspecting that they know who the murderer is. (I didn’t guess the right person, but I was pretty close.) So while the police investigation continues to narrow its suspects and get closer and closer to determining who the killer is, their tangential investigations and incorrect suppositions are all the more nail-biting for the reader.
Now for the elements that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow, really did.
1. Edwardson has a tendency to avoid grim/disturbing/or otherwise particularly visual detail. In some cases, this is almost Hitchcockian–we’re chilled by what we can’t see, what we don’t really know. In others, it’s a little disorienting and maybe suggests a tad bit of squeamishness/avoidance on Edwardson’s part. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say this: the police discover the first murders around page 100. We know something terrible happened to the victims, and they (the corpses) are described, a little. But Edwardson holds the real punch–the actual ‘what’ of the murders–for about 60 more pages. And when you find out what was done, it is an unexpected jolt. And given the circumstances, I was glad to not have had the scene f the crime described in all of its sordid detail–that would have been a little much. But it still feels a little off–like you’re looking at only half of a photograph.
This withholding of details and descriptions happens in a few other notable instances, some to lesser effect. It also extends to the way in which Edwardson deals with more difficult psychological aspects that crop up at the end of the novel. Namely, a major character is kidnapped–for almost a week. The whole chronology suddenly compresses, Winter figures out where she is, and the whole book is wrapped up neat ‘n tidy within about five pages.
We’re told that the woman “wasn’t hurt physically,” which, great, but because the book ends so quickly, Edwardson also dodges the difficulty of writing the psychological fall-out that the kidnapping victim would most definitely experience after such an abduction. We’re simply told that “…one of these days it would all come back to her, but not now…Perhaps never.” Which just seems way too easy. It’s possible–given that the Winter series seems to carry over plot lines and character history from book to book–that this character’s recovery will be dealt with in a later novel. But that doesn’t mean that you can just ignore the entire experience in this installment. If that was your plan, why bother staging the event in the first place? It seems a little tacked on.
2. The novel really depends on a serious red herring/bait-and-switch. About a quarter of the way into the book, I had made a guess of who the murderer was. About half way through the book, Edwardson begins really telegraphing this character as the killer. A few other characters also seem like they might have some potential as the killer, but there’s really one who Edwardson focuses on. And while this may seem too obvious, it also plays into the general sense of tension. You start to think that you’re supposed to have guessed who the killer is, and stop minding that it seems obvious.
The problem is that when the character you suspect turns out to be innocent, there’s not a whole lot done to explain the actual killer’s motivations or background or particular psychosis. There’s a lot of groundwork done early on to explain the killer’s possible frame of mind and why he might choose to commit the murders in the way that he does. This makes sense when you think it’s character A who is the killer, but when character B is revealed, it really doesn’t. Neither does the manner in which he selected his victims, or the messages that he left the cops at the crime scene, or the supposed clues that were to be found in the music that was playing at the scene of the first crime.
3. Edwardson allows an all-too-convenient endangerment of a major character and collision of plots and subplots. The character who is the almost-last victim is far too obvious, and far too relevant to Winter’s life. It’s too convenient. Somehow, though, Edwardson even makes this work. He develops the character as a possible person of interest to the murderer and does offer something of an explanation of why she was targeted. Now, she has nothing in common with the other victims and her kidnapping really just serves to ramp the novel’s climax up to a more dramatic level, but I pretty much bought it at the end. Because again, I was really invested in seeing this case resolved.
In closing, I suppose I would say that Edwardson’s ample gifts of characterization, steady pacing, and satisfyingly determined plot are what make Sun and Shadow a satisfying read. I suppose it’s something like reading an Agatha Christie novel. You know that she’s not playing by the ‘rules’–you know you don’t have all the clues that the detective does, and you know that things are going to resolve themselves rather easily, and you know that all of the clues and plot points might not add up. But the execution (no pun intended) is so fluid and meticulous that you don’t really mind so much in the end.