MIDWINTER BLOOD is Mons Kallentoft’s debut novel, the first in a series of police procedurals featuring Swedish police inspector-superintendent Malin Fors. Now consisting of five books in his native Sweden, the series has been enormously, almost phenomenally popular. Fors is the head of the investigative section of the crime unit of the Linkoping, Sweden police department. There is no mistaking Linkoping with Stockholm, its more popular and attractive sister.
"MIDWINTER BLOOD is one of those books that will keep you up throughout the night. It is not necessarily a work that can be digested in one sitting; it is arguably too grim and dark for that, though the prose is beautiful."
As we are informed early on in MIDWINTER BLOOD, Linkoping is a formerly industrial city that has been slowly and somewhat uneasily transformed into a university town. Surrounded by plains and forests, Linkoping is small and isolated, a place where time passes slowly if it is not standing still. Fors is a divorced mother with a teenage daughter on the cusp of adolescence, an ex-husband who is occasionally in the picture, and an alcohol abuse problem that is probably on the verge of causing her significant difficulties. She is also obsessed with her job, perhaps to an unhealthy extent.
Does this sound perfect to you? It is; Kallentoft has crafted a superb literary thriller --- kudos to Neil Smith for his skilled heavy lifting with the translation --- that is (almost) unrelentingly grim in its subject matter and surroundings. The narrative is almost entirely done in the third-person present, with some occasional interjection from the almost-disembodied voice of the murder victim. That individual, “Ball-Bengt” Andersson, is an unattractive loner who, on the coldest morning of the coldest winter in recent memory, is found improbably hanging from a tree. Note the use of the term “improbably”; the victim weighs 350 pounds. As it turns out, he is a loner with a history of mental problems and a rumor of some violence in his past. It is in due course determined that he was beaten and mutilated elsewhere before being transported to and strung up in the tree where he was discovered.
Accordingly, MIDWINTER BLOOD is more than a whodunit; it is a howdunit as well. No one and everyone is a suspect. Andersson was well-known, yet unknown, given that he had no friends or even acquaintances. He was simply notorious as someone who was to be avoided, for no particular reason other than for the fact of what he was. Yet, as Fors and her partner (the occasionally prickly Zacharias “Zeke” Martinsson) proceed with their investigation, they find deception, lies and secrets of every sort strewn in all directions.
The man who originally discovered Andersson’s body was returning from a visit with his mistress; a teenage boy who recognized a composite drawing of Andersson knows far more about him than he is willing to reveal; and so on. Meanwhile, the killer remains at large, and it eventually becomes clear to Fors and her unit that the murder was not a solitary act. Someone is putting paid to events that took place in the past, and they are unrelenting, indeed. So too, however, is Fors, who will not rest until the case is solved. She simply cannot.
MIDWINTER BLOOD is one of those books that will keep you up throughout the night. It is not necessarily a work that can be digested in one sitting; it is arguably too grim and dark for that, though the prose is beautiful. “Poetic” would not be an inappropriate word to describe it. What stays with the reader, however, are the situations and characters to be found within the story, from the haunting (in many senses of the word) voice of Andersson to the complex, driven and dangerously flawed Fors. Make room on your shelf --- and calendar --- for this one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 15, 2012