On the floor of a church in northern Sweden, the body of a man lies mutilated and defiled–and in the night sky, the aurora borealis dances as the snow begins to fall...
So begins Åsa Larsson’s spellbinding thriller, winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award and an international literary sensation.
Rebecka Martinsson is heading home to Kiruna, the town she’d left in disgrace years before. A Stockholm attorney, Rebecka has a good reason to return: her friend Sanna, whose brother has been horrifically murdered in the revivalist church his charisma helped create. Beautiful and fragile, Sanna needs someone like Rebecka to remove the shadow of guilt that is engulfing her, to forestall an ambitious prosecutor and a dogged policewoman. But to help her friend, and to find the real killer of a man she once adored and is now not sure she ever knew, Rebecka must relive the darkness she left behind in Kiruna, delve into a sordid conspiracy of deceit, and confront a killer whose motives are dark, wrenching, and impossible to guess....
The story begins with the murder of Viktor Stråndgard in a Kiruna church called The Church of the Source of All Our Strength. Known as The Paradise Boy, he was an up-and-coming church leader with what was developing into a large cult-like following. His death makes the headlines, even as far away as Stockholm. That’s where tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson lives and works, and when she sees the news of Stråndgard’s murder on the TV news, she is stunned. Being from Kiruna herself, she knew Stråndgard. Then just after she hears the news, she gets a call from the victim’s sister Sanna, who is a former friend. It turns out that Sanna discovered the body, and she wants Martinsson to come to Kiruna to help her through this difficult situation. Martinsson has her own reasons for not wanting to go back to Kiruna, but she reluctantly agrees.
When Martinsson arrives in Kiruna, she meets police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who are investigating the murder. Naturally they’re interested in anything that Sanna Stråndgard might have to tell them and at first, all goes as well as can be expected. But then, the evidence begins to suggest that Sanna might be guilty of the murder. In fact, she’s arrested for the crime. She claims that she’s not guilty and begs Martinsson to defend her. She and Martinsson have a complicated friendship, but Martinsson doesn’t want to see an innocent person ‘railroaded’ through the system. What’s more, there are Sanna’s two children to consider. So Martinsson agrees and begins to do her own investigation.
The police aren’t deliberately ‘railroading’ Sanna Stråndgard; they have found credible evidence against her. But as Martinsson looks into the case, she finds that more than one person could have had a motive for murder.
Larsson uses flashbacks and changes in point of view to ‘flesh out’ the characters and add to their depth. Readers who prefer a linear story with only one point of view will be disappointed. So will readers who prefer only one tense (Larsson uses both past and present tense). But that said, it’s always clear (well, it is to me) whose point of view is being shared and when the event being discussed takes place. Readers who like innovative approaches to storytelling will be pleased.
This is also in many ways a police procedural, so readers follow along as the police conduct interviews, look for evidence, and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We get a sense of the unusual hours they keep and the hard, sometimes exhausting work that’s needed to solve a crime. And we get a sense of the camaraderie that police partners develop in the relationship between Mella and Stålnacke.
Another important element in this novel is the setting. Kiruna is a small town in the far north of Sweden – Norrland. It’s an out-of-the-way place with its own beauty. There is also a sense of how small a community Kiruna is. Everyone knows everyone, and that plays its role in the plot.
The mystery itself is credible and the solution is, too. It’s a very sad, sad story, but as we learn what really happened, it does make sense. There are some ‘action’ places in the story, in particular towards the end. But the pace of this novel isn’t really ‘thriller-like’ at all.
The Savage Altar (Sun Storm) is a believable, character-driven police procedural that takes place in a unique setting. The story is told in an innovative way and the characters unfold as the story goes on.
About Åsa Larsson:
Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime-writer. Although born in Uppsala, she was raised in Kiruna in the far north. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Larsson was a tax lawyer, a profession she shares with the heroine of her novels, Rebecka Martinsson.