This second novel on our Not the Booker 2018 shortlist is about a serial killer in rural Scandinavia. If you’re like me, that knowledge may make you feel slightly cynical. I’ve no way of verifying this, but I have a hunch that, in the decade or so since Stieg Larsson popularised Nordic noir, more people have been murdered in novels about Sweden than in the whole history of that famously safe country.
With dozens of post-Larsson Nordic noir novels out (and even a couple post-Larsson-Larsson novels out), the cliches of the genre are becoming tedious. At first glance, Dark Pines doesn’t escape them. There’s blood, snow, long dark nights, deep empty forests, people with wholesome exteriors covering bloody secrets, and plenty of talk about warm weather gear and boots. It’s not even that surprising that Dean’s female protagonist, Tuva Moodyson, is attracted to other women.
But that’s where I lay aside scorn. Dean doesn’t dwell on Tuva’s bisexuality as much as other authors might. Instead, Dark Pines feels like a sincere attempt to get inside a complex and interesting character’s head. Far more space is dedicated to her deafness, the daily routines she has to go through to keep her hearing aids operational and the different ways she interacts with the world – or indeed, cuts herself off. It’s a convincing portrayal of someone who is determined to make the most of the cards she’s been dealt, rather than give in to any stigma around disability.
Tuva barely fits the expectations of those around her. She lives in Gavrik, a small (fictional) town in Värmland, but doesn’t like it much – the move was a necessity due to the town being near (but not too near) to her dying mother’s hospice. In Gavrik, she’s an outsider to all the gun-toting, elk-hunting, Nordic-walking locals. She’s frightened of the woods, and prefers the bright lights and unhealthy lifestyle urban environments can offer. She doesn’t make you feel as deliciously anxious as Inspector Rebus, but Moodyson packs away enough fast food, confectionary and McDonald’s coffee that it comes as a relief when locals provide her with rustic stews, gourmet espressos and hot Thai curries (this is 21st-century Sweden, after all).
But this relief is coupled with suspicion. Gruesome murders have been happening in the forest surrounding the town. As Tuva begins reporting on the cases for the local newspaper, just about all the locals seem like potential killers. There are Alice and Cornelia, two strange sisters who make a living carving “craft” trolls to which they attach real hair (in all places), eyes and fingernails. There’s David, a reclusive ghost writer who cooks calf heads in his strangely spotless home. There’s Viggo the taxi driver, whose son is terrified of a room in his house he only says contains “games”. There’s Bengt, an anti-hunting vegetarian hoarder who’s had to move into a caravan because his house is so full of rubbish. There’s Hannes the rich mill boss, who has a mafia-like hold over the town. And there are factors such as the depressing uniformity of the locals’ clothing to consider – when everyone buys the same boots from the only supermarket in town, footprints in the snow aren’t much use as evidence…
While we’re allowed to revel in the nastiness, we’re also frequently reminded of the precariousness of life on the edge of nowhere. Tuva has to tread a delicate line, between exposing the truths and treating her subjects with sensitivity. And Dean – a British writer who now lives “in a boggy clearing in the centre of vast elk forest” in Sweden – walks a similar tightrope. He comes across both as an aghast outsider and an admiring immigrant to his Swedish setting. The richness this perspective lends, to his cast of characters who have real weight in their strange world, is one of the novel’s great strengths.
Dark Pines is not always subtle. This is still a thriller that deals in shock, gore and outlandish behaviour. The more cartoonish elements must be indulged. But generally, Dark Pines clips along and is effectively immersive. I read it on holiday and it went down very nicely with the wine and sunshine. My patience only began to wear thin at the end, when a previously sane character was revealed to be all kinds of “crazy”, and some pretty silly stuff was happening in freezers. But by that point I was already won over. Any annoyance I felt was tempered by the realisation that I actually cared about the outcome – which has to be some measure of Dark Pines’ success.
Next week: Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn
Last week: Sealed by Naomi Booth