Missing by Karin Alvtegen

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Missing by Karin Alvtegen

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A very readable, tense psychological thriller set in Stockholm and rural Sweden looks at the way in which homeless people are automatically suspect when crimes are committed. It's an excellent translation from the original Swedish and well-worth reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2004
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 1841954985

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In the Grand Hotel in the centre of Stockholm a man is found brutally murdered. The previous evening he'd been tricked into buying dinner and paying for a room for a homeless woman. Sibylla has been homeless for fifteen years; so far as the authorities are concerned she doesn't exist and because of a history of mental illness she's an easy target for the police, particularly when there are further murders. She begins by running, hiding anywhere she can - and then she fights back to clear her name.

Recently I've found a real gold mine in the Scandinavian crime writers. Henning Mankell was an obvious starting point with his Kurt Wallander novels and Karin Fossum's Inspector Konrad Sejer novels proved a good second. Karin Alvtegen was something of a shot in the dark with just three novels in translation, of which Missing is the earliest. Unlike the Mankell and Fossum novels, which are mainly police-procedurals, this is a tense, psychological thriller.

It's a superb study of homelessness. Forget the images of people sleeping in shop doorways and think instead of someone who carries all of their possessions in one bag, who struggles to stay clean and has an astounding repertoire of lies and evasions just to get through each day. She expects to be let down, mistreated and betrayed. Life revolves around getting enough food and somewhere to spend the night. Sibylla's life is surprisingly ordered and it brought home to me the fact that homelessness might be a choice for some, but society is nevertheless letting down an awful lot of people and losing because of it.

Sibylla began with all the advantages possible, or so it would seem. She was the daughter of the CEO of the largest local employer in a town in rural Sweden. Despite being a girl in a privileged position she had a major disadvantage and that was her mother, who was manipulative and quite probably suffering from personality disorder. Sibylla finally snaps and after spending some time in a mental institution becomes homeless. The character is well-drawn and it's very easy to be drawn in to what happens to her and, on occasions, to feel the naked fear of being hunted for a crime that you haven't committed, of knowing that you're unlikely to be believed. The feeling of persecution is palpable. Nothing strays into the world of fantasy and it was frighteningly easy to see what a ready target the homeless and the disenfranchised make when something goes wrong.

The book is dominated by Sibylla. The continuing narrative is intercut with scenes from her childhood and this is very skilfully done with the flashbacks illuminating the present circumstances, but everyone else, even Sibylla's parents and the victims, are simply bit-players. She's aided at one point by a young man and his puppyish behaviour, immature attitudes and teenage angst provide a good contrast. Other characters are simply drawn but with sufficient detail to make them three-dimensional.

The setting is Stockholm and rural Sweden. Alvtegen has Henning Mankell's ability to convey the harshness and changeability of the landscape and climate. Much of the action takes place in Stockholm and I would like to repeat a plea that I make regularly and that is for a map - even a very basic one. Street names in Stockholm are likely to be familiar to people living in Sweden as are the names of towns and villages. The reader who lacks that familiarity misses something of the story.

The plot is good with some neat twists and unexpected turnings. The ending was satisfying on more levels than one and not entirely as I expected.

Alvtegen writes very well. She doesn't waste words and her writing has the clear directness of Ruth Rendell at her best. She's ably supported by Anna Paterson's excellent translation, but a translator still needs a good text to produce a book to this standard. If you're a fan of psychological thrillers such as Ruth Rendell's Barbara Vine novels then I think you would enjoy this book. For more from Stockholm, you might enjoy Mayhem in the Archipelago by Nick Griffiths.

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Buy Missing by Karin Alvtegen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Missing by Karin Alvtegen at Amazon.com.


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Jill said:

Now there's one both mother AND I would like, and that's a rarity in the crime genre.

Magda said:

I'm just reading my first Wallander.

Kerry said:

I read Karen Fossum's Don't Look Back. I really really enjoyed it (how prosaic of me!) with one exception... pronouncing the names - which I do, in my head when I am reading - left me standing in a thick syrupy mental mud and spoiled the flow. Sometimes, however crass and xenophobic it sounds, I think it would be a better idea to tweak stuff editorially, for the various markets. Am I being a philostine?

Sue said:

I'm probably even more of a Philistine, Kerry - I've just realised that I don't even attempt to pronounce the names in my head! I simply recognise the shape of a particular word as relating to a particular person or place. I don't think I'd like to see names changed though - the different names give a sense of place for me.