The Darkest Room

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The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin, book reviewI often find these days, when it comes to crime fiction, that it’s advisable to read the books of a series in chronological order, otherwise you’re likely to run into a spoiler or two. Sometimes an episode works well as a stand alone but when the central character – usually a police officer or detective – has a well developed background, especially one outside the job, readers may prefer to stick to sequence. The Darkest Room is only loosely a second novel of a short series, but, in retrospect, I wish I’d read its predecessor Echoes of the Dead first; not because I needed to be brought up to speed with the story so far but because it might have established a connection that would make me care about the characters.

The Darkest Room is a deeply atmospheric tale and one that doesn’t fit so comfortably under the banner “crime fiction” in spite of attempts by booksellers to hook it up with some of the recent Scandinavian best sellers of that genre. It’s set for the main part on the Swedish island of Oland just as winter starts to set in. Katrine and Joakim, a young married couple from Stockholm and their two young children arrive on Oland, having bought the dilapidated old farmhouse at Eel Point.

Also recently arrived on Oland is police officer Tilda Davidsson. She hasn’t been on the island very long when she has to break some sad news; while he’s been back in the city, Joakim’s wife has been found dead, seemingly the result of an accident by the water’s edge. A few days later she mentions the death to Gerlof, the brother of her now dead grandfather, Ragnor (who I understand featured in Echoes of the Dead) who has been helping Tilda by filling in some gaps in the family history for her; the old man tells her something which makes Tilda think that the young woman’s death may not be as clear cut as first appeared. Back in Oland, Tilda divides her time between an unofficial investigation into Katrine’s death, and tracking down the burglars responsible for a series of raids on empty summerhouses belonging to rich city dwellers.

So far, so good, but The Darkest Room is not a straightforward piece of crime fiction. There are three elements that lend a strong supernatural tone to the story. Running through the story are excerpts from a history of Eel Point and the people who have lived there over the centuries; after a while it becomes clear that the writer is Katrine’s more or less estranged mother, Mirja. The story tells of tragic deaths and terrible storms – in short we learn that Eel Point is associated with great sorrow. This sense is heightened when Joakim’s young daughter, Livia, starts behaving strangely; is she just a normal child reacting to the death of her mother, or is there something more sinister going on?

The other element that adds some supernatural mystery is an aspect of the storyline relating to the burglaries; a pair of good for nothing brothers who spend there time plotting mischief and getting high enlist the help of a rather more professional thief in targeting the empty holiday homes on the island but use a Ouija board to seek advice on their next move. I found this idea really irritating and wasn’t sure whether I was being asked to laugh at the hapless threesome or perhaps expected to ponder whether there might, after all, be some darker forces at work.

Ignoring these (for me major) irritations, there is still much to recommend The Darkest Room. The imagery is quite splendid: the harsh weather is described with chilling brilliance, especially at the climax when. Personally I don’t much care for ghost stories but Theorin uses the idea of some unworldly influence in a clever way to make you question what appears to be quite ordinary and the presence of the stormy weather only serves to heighten the surreal atmosphere. Theorin does show real insight in the nature of grief and loss and the portrait of the bereaved Joakim is particularly memorable.

The Darkest Room won the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel in 2008 so there are clearly many who really rate Theorin; on this showing, however, I’m not one of them. The supernatural element just doesn’t do it for me and the rather faceless characters (with the exception of Joakim) didn’t give me much reason to care. An unsatisfying ending only served to fuel my irritation; it seemed rushed and didn’t tie up all of the loose ends. In spite of one or two flashes of excellence, The Darkest Room doesn’t live up to the hype.

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Darkest Room, The
by Johan Theorin

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Written by Mary Bor