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Monday 8 December 2014

‘A Darker Shade’

Edited and translated by John-Henri Holmberg
Published by Head of Zeus,
9 December 2013.
ISBN: 978-1-8185-817-2

These days, Scandinavian authors are to crime fiction what fish is to chips. They are ubiquitous, well put together and satisfying. Somehow, it just feels right that such dark material emanates from a region where, for at least one month per year, the residents experience permanent night. Surrounded by the interminable black sky, the mysterious noises and the power of the imagination, how could anyone fail to create something horrifying?

But Scandinavian crime fiction, despite gaining international acclaim only recently, is nothing new. The region has a long history of crime fiction, as John-Henri Holmberg painstakingly illustrates through this book. 

The anthology comprises seventeen short stories, never before published in English, which are all written by Scandinavian authors. Although it seems like Holmberg is on somewhat of a personal crusade to show the world the depth, breadth and importance of Scandinavia's contribution to crime fiction, his passion for the subject comes across as charming rather than bizarre - sort of like people who host Eurovision Song Contest parties. I certainly can't fault a man for loving his peers' work and wanting to show it off so that others may do so too. 

Holmberg is a personal friend of perhaps the most famous Scandinavian crime author of them all: Stieg Larsson. It is, then, no surprise that the collection includes an offering by Larsson, the man behind Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium Trilogy.

Yet this is no bog standard collection whodunnits. Each short story stands alone as a complete and valid narrative that inspires awe of the skill displayed to produce a story so gripping and resonant in so few words. Particularly fascinating is the way that each author approached the challenge. Did you know that the young Larsson had a  fascination with science fiction? As a result, his contribution is reminiscent of Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury and totally different to the Millennium Trilogy.  

Two other authors deserve a special mention as well, in my opinion:

Dag Ohrlund challenges our  preconceptions about presumptions of guilt through cultural association when a Muslim teenager is found dead and her father is suspected of an honour killing. Racism abounds among official circles and the concept of guilt becomes complicated.

Magnus Montelius echoes Shakespearean philosophy about a woman scorned when a husband is caught being unfaithful and murder ensues. In a clever twist, he shows that the female of the species really is more deadly than the male. 

In addition to the excellent story-telling, what really makes this anthology stand out is the fact that Holmberg includes a detailed description of the authors' backgrounds in individualised preambles before each short story. Providing this context helps to frame the work and underpins the editor's objective of highlighting the scope of Scandinavian crime fiction. 

This is a perfect introduction to Scandinavian crime fiction for anyone who has heard about it but felt intimidated by it, and also acts as a perfect complement for readers who are already fans of the genre and want to fill some gaps in their knowledge. 
Reviewer: Joanna Leigh

John-Henri Holmberg is the Edgar Award nominated co-author of The Tattooed Girl, about the Millennium novels and their author Stieg Larsson, who was a personal friend. He is a full-time writer, translator and editor, living with his family on the southern coast of Sweden


Joanna Leigh studied French and German at university. She works in the aerospace industry and is a chartered marketer in the UK. She describes herself as a voracious reader, enjoying genres as varied as crime thrillers, historical fiction and autobiographies. Joanna lives in London. She is the daughter of crime thriller writer Leigh Russell.

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