The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

December 9, 2009

THE BLACK PATH by Asa Larsson

The body of a woman has been found in an ice-fishing hut in Sweden. No one knows who she is, so it's difficult to determine who might have tortured and stabbed her. Prosecutor Rebecca Martinsson is trying to piece her life and her sanity back together after nearly being murdered herself, but she jumps eagerly into another murder case. If this summary sounds a bit disjointed, consider it a reflection of the book.

The Black Path has atmosphere to spare, a hallmark of Swedish crime fic, and the characters are thoroughly developed. When I say thoroughly I mean to the point that the details of every character's life, past and present, drag the pace down to NASCAR (National Association of Snail Crawling and Roundaboutation) speed. Larsson doesn't appear to have that rare gift of limning characters in short, swift indelible strokes; instead they are all illustrated at Tolstoyesque length, from the moment of tragic birth through collegiate peccadilloes. The reader comes to know all of the characters and to understand their motivations, and yet when the book is closed, none of them linger in the mind.

The POV is constantly shifting from one character to another, and some authors do this so well they make it look easy. Larsson isn't bad at writing those transitions, but although the characters have widely differing upbringings and motives and flaws, they none of them seem to have individual voices. They all talk and walk the same, and in the end they all become one anonymous blur.

The motivations for murder, having to do with intricate corporate finances and overseas mining ventures and funding third-world revolutions, make for an interesting premise but the execution is delivered with too much exposition, making it all fairly colorless. An unlikely blood bath as the climax combined with what seemed a brief and pointless interjection of romance at novel's end, all left me unmoved. If that was the light at the end of a dark Swedish winter, I'd just as soon save on the electric bill.

From the first page, I was made to feel that I would have benefited by having read the prior books in order to understand some of the dynamics between recurring characters. The plot gets doled out just a bit in the opening pages and then en masse near the end, while in between is mostly the characters moaning on about how rough each has it or has had it, or what the problem is with the other characters. Tension sags and then falls away completely when the plot is exposed more through exposition than through dialogue or action. The revelation of incest comes across as ho-hum. Even in the action scene at the end, there is a regrettable lack of tension and a little too much built-in coincidence.

On the plus side, the author doesn't get overly graphic with the murder and torture, but at the same time the reader never develops an empathy with the murder victim or what she endured, nor with the two women - cop and prosecutor - who lead the investigation. And neither the cop nor prosecutor develops that empathy, being instead pretty much consumed by their own interior lives. A far cry, this, from the Harry Bosch mantra that "everybody counts or no one does."

The story takes place in a cold climate and leaves the reader feeling those icy temps but, paradoxically, with no hint of a chill.

I'm supposed to add a disclosure notice to pacify the Feds. Okay, here goes. I bought this book with my own money. I'm not making any money or getting anything in return for either promoting it or dissing it. Life sucks that way.


  1. Nice review, Naomi! Being a huge fan of Stieg Larsson's books, I was kinda interested in this but now...maybe not so much. Thanks for helping me decide what goes in the TBR pile.

  2. I've only read the first of the Stieg Larsson books, but there's no comparison. Stieg's is the choice.

  3. I was thinking as I read, this being Swedish crime fiction, if translation added to the disjointedness of the piece. Then, as you got the crux of it, not even a bad Google translation of it would have done or created the problems it seems to have. The Bosch mantra was an especially effective allusion, here. Plus, the crimes in the book seem well-worn lately in fiction (but, it could be just me). I really appreciate your review, Naomi. Thanks for this.

    p.s., your disclosure notice is just perfect :-).

  4. In fairness to the author, I want to say that I have just returned from book club (I didn't stay for dinner; I just felt too poorly. It's bad when I'm off my feed.) and while there were some readers who felt just as I did, there were just as many who enjoyed this book immensely, disagreed with every flaw I found, and have already begun reading the prior books by this author.

    I'm glad you like the disclosure notice. I hope the Feds think well of it, too. :-)

  5. Oh, yeah, it was proposed by fans of the book that the flatness I discerned in the characters' voices was probably due to the translation. Could be; I'll buy that explanation since I can't read the book in the original Swedish. But that doesn't account for the lack of empathy from the female leads.

  6. My favorite Swedish crime nove (aside from Sjowal and Wahloo) was Blackwater by Kersten Ekstrom (I think.)

  7. Sounds like fans of Larsson will continue to like her books, but new readers will be split.

    Patti, I haven't heard of Ekstrom - how would you describe that book?

    I think - but don't quote me - that the other Larsson (Stieg) is the only Swedish crime writer I've read. Indridason is Icelandic and Dahl is Norwegian; I enjoyed both of those writers' books. I have Sjowal and Wahloo as well as Mankell in the TBR somewhere. Somewhere.

  8. I don't fancy any of the swedish books, too be honest.