The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson

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The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: This is a tense, dark, pyschological thriller with a strong heroine and a cast of credible and very unpleasant people. It draws you in with a cleverly slow build up of tension. An excellent debut.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670916146

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In Kiruna, in the far north of Sweden, it is the coldest winter on record. The Northern Lights are stronger this year than in any other year in living memory. When Viktor Strangard is found ritually murdered inside the town's fundamentalist church, The Strength Of All Our Strength, his hands cut off and his eyes gouged out, the media goes into overdrive. For this is the second time that Viktor has died. The first time, after a car accident, God had brought Viktor back. He had seen heaven. And the book he wrote about it, and the church to which he belonged, had made Kiruna into magnet for pilgrims... and cold, hard cash.

Rebecka Martinsson, a successful, driven, Stockholm tax lawyer, had thought that she had rid herself of Kiruna, its church and the poison in her past. But when Sanna, the murdered Viktor's sister, rings and begs for her help, Rebecka finds herself risking her job to return.

This is an impressive and very confident debut from Asa Larsson, mixing the pyschological and procedural crime novel to great effect. Its greatest strength is in characterisation - the central figure, Rebecka, is flawed yet sympathetic, but not too sympathetic. She is interesting too, never flat, never one-dimensional. The church pastors and their wives are all deeply unpleasant people, long since seduced by the desire for influence and wealth and all with their own private Faustian pacts. As Rebecka and the separate police investigation into Viktor's murder gradually peel away the happy clappy layers one by one, the church is forced to reveal the real ugliness at its core.

Although there is an amount of police presence and procedure - and I'd have liked to have seen more of the intelligent, subtle Inspector Anna Maria Mella - The Savage Altar spends more time on the psychology of the backstory and on past events than it does on the sleuthing. Ultimately, it's about how easy it is to repeat one's mistakes over and over, in a damaging and never-ending vicious circle. It's also about parochialism and how insular societies can, in a desperate desire to protect and preserve, warp badly out of shape. Larsson creates this mood well, using the sympathetic background of the Northern Lights and the blizzards to create a brittle, hard iciness in the hearts of her people.

I don't read much crime fiction. One gouged-out eye is much like any other gouged-out eye. I can't usually sustain interest in a gruesome murder for much longer than the hour a TV drama spends on it. But I like Scandinavian writers - their characters go to the toilet credibly and have sex that doesn't make me cringe - no British or American writer ever seems to manage that. Their people are people I recognise, not irritating social stereotypes. I recognised all the people in The Savage Altar and, thanks to some very clever tension building that started slowly and ratcheted up the pace so subtly that I was caught up before I realised, I really wanted to find out what it was that was hiding behind Kiruna's various facades.

Excellent stuff.

My thanks to Viking for sending the book.

Fans of tense and pyschological crime writing who are enjoying Scandinavian writers might like to try Karin Alvtegen's Missing.

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Asa Larsson's Rebecka Martinson Investigations in chronological order


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Magda said:

I am persudaded. Though I have a shelfull of Mankell to read, but this sounds better.