CELL 8 may well be one of the best thrillers you will ever read, whether you are a fan of Nordic noir or not. Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström have created a damaged, rumpled protagonist in the personage of Ewert Grens, a deputy superintendent with the Stockholm police. Grens is possessed of an almost perpetual scowl. Filled to the brim with impatience, prone to anger, on the wrong end of middle age and dumpy to boot, he is infused with a canny instinct and a dedication to his own moral compass. He is also a sympathetic character, fiercely loyal to one woman who is forever lost to him as the result of a head injury that he blames on himself. But Roslund and Hellström do not rely on Grens to drive CELL 8, which is a tale spanning decades and countries.
"CELL 8 may well be one of the best thrillers you will ever read, whether you are a fan of Nordic noir or not."
The book divides its locales between Stockholm, Sweden, and Marcusville, Ohio. “Marcusville” is in fact Lucasville, the situs of Ohio’s maximum security prison and death row. Take Route 23 south through Columbus for about 65 miles, and you’ll hit the crossroads of the town; turn left and you’ll eventually come upon the prison. CELL 8 is the story of a death row prisoner named John Meyer Frey, who, as a teenager, was sentenced to death for murdering his younger girlfriend. The victim’s father, an advisor to Ohio’s governor, has waited 10 years for the execution as the seemingly endless appeals process unwinds. But on the eve of Frey’s execution, he has a heart attack and dies.
Several years later, a singer on a ferry between Finland and Sweden attacks an obnoxious drunk and is arrested. The singer, John Schwarz, is married to a Swedish woman and has a son. It quickly develops that Schwarz is not who he says he is; in fact, he is the selfsame John David Frey who died in Ohio six years before. The discovery sets off a legal and diplomatic crisis, with Grens, the lead investigator on the assault charge, in the middle. The United States wants Frey back; Sweden, as part of its agreement with the European Union, is seemingly prohibited from returning him.
Are you with me so far? The “what” of CELL 8 is revealed fairly early on; it is the “how” that unwinds, slowly and methodically, throughout the book, as does the mystery at the heart of it. Frey maintains his innocence throughout, and there are many who believe him. So if Frey did not murder the young woman, who did? And why? The answers to those questions are revealed late in the game, although astute readers will be able to answer one of them from clues and inferences dropped here and there throughout. But they won’t get both of them. The ending, which consists of a series of explosive acts and revelations, will leave you slack-jawed and drained.
The mystery at the book’s core would be enough, but the character development within is superior as well. Grens, by any definition, is mad with grief, and it’s fascinating to see him take a few tentative steps back to the land of the living, coaxed by a surprising source. I was also personally impressed by Roslund and Hellström’s canny take on central and southern Ohio, which, for the most part, is spot-on. I am assuming that one or both gentlemen spent some time there, given that they are aware of certain elements unique to the area that one could not acquire simply by, say, visiting Google Earth. But as curved and serpentine as the road to Lucasville/Marcusville might be, it pales in comparison to the twists and turns one encounters during the course of reading CELL 8. And you don’t have to be an opponent of the death penalty to enjoy it, either. Believe me.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 26, 2012