on 26 November 2003
Karin Alvtegen is the niece of Astrid Lindgren, but this is not a tale involving pigtails in any shape or form. Instead this gripping crime novel gives us an in-depth portrait of the life of Sibylla Forsenstrom, a homeless Swedish woman.
Sibylla's ambition is someday to have a sanctuary, a home of her own, and she is assiduously saving money to reach this goal. Her plans for the future are thrown into disarray when she is framed for a murder that she didn't commit. With the help of a schoolboy, Patrik, who becomes her friend when he discovers her sleeping in the attics of his school, Sibylla turns detective and solves the crimes. The author sensitively handles the traumas in Sibylla's background, and it is a relief to find a crime novel that doesn't automatically relegate a homeless person to the role of murder victim.
on 28 August 2006
Sibylla Forstenstroem is the daughter of a rich but insensitive merchant and his wife. After a depression and an unwanted pregnancy she flees as an 18 year old girl from her family and the institution where she is kept. She starts to live as a homeless person and is capable of taking rather good care of herself for 15 years. But then things go wrong: she is wrongly accused of murdering a businessman and while she hides from the police three other murders follow. In the end she is capable of unravelling the true cause of these murders with the help of 15 year old Patrik, who she meets when hiding in the attic of a secondary school.
This was a very entertaining introduction to the work of yet another excellent Swedish author of thrillers. Definitely worth a read.
Put aside two or three hours and read this book from beginning to end. It's a tense and involving read, and you won't want to be distracted.
Sybilla is an outcast, living off the radar of the authorities in Stockholm. She has various safe places and strategies for surviving each month until her meagre payment from her mother arrives at a PO box. One of her ploys is to put on a smart suit she keeps in her rucksack (bought from Oxfam), go to a luxury hotel bar, meet a businessman, flirt, pretend to lose her wallet, and trick the mark into paying for her room for the night. Unfortunately, on one of these outings, the man she tricks is found murdered the next morning. Sybilla escapes, but soon finds that she is the main suspect, becoming the victim of a police and media hunt.
Sybilla's survival over the next few days is interspersed with the story of how she came to drop out of society. She suffered a childhood of awful mental abuse, which made my blood boil to read about. With nobody to sympathise with her (to the contrary, everyone is against her and/or betrays her) she falls into a trap made of her own idealism and trusting nature, as a result of which she is abused even further by the authorities. The story of Sybilla's childhood leading up to her eighteenth birthday, is equally as harrowing as that of Lisbeth Salander, the main character of the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, and Sybilla's solution, of living "off the grid", is remarkably similar to Lisbeth's.
Matters come to a head when Sybilla discovers that her source of income has dried up. She's now desperate, and friends she's made since living rough cannot or will not help her now. The hunt for her intensifies. Eventually, she thinks of one hiding place where she is likely to be safe - and while there, she finds an unusual ally and a strategy for dealing with her dilemma.
MISSING is a tensely exciting book with an extremely sympathetic and capable main character. I think Karin Altvegen is one of the very best talents writing crime fiction today. Congratulations to her for writing such insightful, exciting and thought-provoking novels, and to her English translators for bringing them so effectively to a wider audience.
Review first published at the Euro Crime website.
on 1 December 2011
A couple of niggles about the kindle version of this book that I have just finished reading. Firstly when I started reading the book it didn't actually open on the first page. The novel is written in two different voices - one in the first person while the main part of the book is in third person. Going to the beginning of the book actually missed out the first section written in the first person. So if you are reading it on your kindle do check you haven't missed out the first section!
Also a minor niggle is that the whole of my kindle version is in italics - I would have expected the first person voice to have been in italics as this is a convention used in many crime novels. Just founf it a bit strange that it was all italics.
I did find the book quite gripping, I was interested in seeing it through and seeing where the journey would take Sibylla. It is a tale of alienation and it is, as one other reviewer noted an interesting twist that this homeless person isn't the murder victim, though for much of the book is victimised by the society that she does not fit into. Sibylla is regarded as dysfunctional by the society which has through her life rejected her and crushed her, yet she has inner resources which enable her to fight back.
I found that the further I got in the book the more contrived it became and the ending was just too quick and too glib to be at all satisfying. A pity as the beginning seemed to promise so much more.
on 29 May 2008
Over recent years, Scandinavian and Islandic crime writers have produced some of the most exciting and fresh contributions to the genre. And, at first glance, Karin Alvtegen's "Missing" seems to fit right in - an intriguing premise, played out against a starkly realistic setting. The book tells of a brutal serial killer's murder spree, as seen through the eyes of everybody's prime suspect: Sibylla, a young homeless woman with a history of mental health problems. The cards are truly stacked against Sibylla, as a chance meeting with the first victim and her own tragic past conspire to rob her of her one ruthlessly guarded treasure - her freedom. As the net draws ever closer, her deeply ingrained paranoia threatens to turn into suicidal desperation but fate sends her an ally with whose help she decides to fight back and track down the real killer. So far, so good.
Despite the sometimes rather clunky translation, there are some truly gripping scenes - when Sibylla meets one of her homeless friends, for example, whose psychotic antics attract the attention of two police officers. Or when she is attacked by a former partner who turns into a brutal bully and rapist whenever he's drunk. These moments convincingly show the dark side of Sibylla's precious freedom. Sadly, though, Alvtegen cannot sustain this gritty atmosphere throughout the novel. Sibylla, in an obvious attempt to make her more sympathetic, is a far too sanitized character: She used to spend her days in a drunken stupor, she stank, she scavenged food from bins, but by the time Alvtegen introduces us to her she is looking after herself and is saving to buy a little cottage. On the whole one never gets the feeling that Alvtegen is completely at ease with her material; she sets up an interesting and rather tough premise, only to spoil it by essentially opting out of it on a regular basis: Though homeless and jobless, Sibylla has the - rather large amount of - money needed in her search for the killer; she also finds a convenient ally who not only provides her with all the necessary clues so that she can instantly hit upon the motive for the murders, but also knows a computer hacker just when they need to break into a secure data base (not to mention that he also has close and useful relations with someone in the police force).
If you thought about buying "Missing" because the cover blurb sounded interesting, read George Dawes Green's thriller "The Caveman" (aka "The Caveman's Valentine") instead. It's the story of a homeless man with mental problems who has to track down a killer after a body is left in his hiding place, implicating him in the murder and it's much, much better.
on 1 October 2013
Sybilla Forsenstrom doesn't exist. For fifteen years she has been excluded from society and, as one of the homeless in Stockholm, she takes each day as it comes, keeping all her possessions in her rucksack - apart from a knife and salami which she stores in a smart briefcase. She is always well-dressed and displays impeccable manners. One night, in The Grand Hotel, she charms a susceptible businessman into paying for her dinner and room. His dead body is discovered the following morning and Sybilla becomes the prime suspect. When a second person is killed in similar circumstances, she becomes the most wanted person in Sweden.
A couple of my reading challenges that I set for myself is to read a Scandinavian book monthly and also an Award winning crime fiction book. I managed to kill two birds with the one stone here, reading Swedish author, Karin Altvegen's debut Glass Key Award winning novel Missing. I believe she won the award in 2001 and the English translation first appeared in 2003.
Well how did I get on?
I was fascinated by the author's portrayal of Sybilla's existence on the fringes of society. We see with flashbacks and frequent references to her past; her difficulties with her mother and as a result at school; her struggle to form friendships. This dysfunctional environment and a lack of support cast Sybilla as an outsider, even before her mental disintegration, subsequent hospitalisation and escape. She was an outsider when living within the structures of normal society and now believing she is still pursued, 14 years after the event she flies under the radar.
Until now; with the discovery of a dead businessman with whom she was seen dining with in a smart hotel. Sybilla Forsenstrom - her natural instinct being to evade the authorities - is soon headline news and the prime murder suspect. Life suddenly becomes a lot more difficulty for Sybilla and it's harder to retain her invisibility.
Further murders follow, along with more revelations from her past; until a chance encounter with a schoolboy, similar in some respects to herself when a teenager, marks a turning point in her life. Slowly learning to trust someone, she starts to fight back to get out from under the shadow of being framed for the murders.
Overall, I was interested and entertained, though I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second. I preferred the portrayal of Sybilla's life as a victim, in the margins than as a semi-sleuth trying to find the real murderer. A little stretching of the bounds of credibility, in my opinion, but not so much that I was annoyed and I was still engaged enough to care about the outcome.
Decent characters, a sympathetic protagonist and an interesting setting all contributed greatly to my enjoyment.
3 from 5
The author has written another 4 books in the intervening period, but with the library shelves already creaking under the strain of the unread tomes, I will take a rain check.
I picked up a copy of this second hand earlier this year on e-bay.
We have become so used to very successful psychological thrillers with a back story relating to the dark areas of society that sometimes we expect too much. I have such concerns after reading Karen Alvtegen's "Missing", published in Sweden in 2000 and in this English translation by Anna Paterson 3 years later.
The main character is Sybilla Forsenstrom, only daughter of a rich couple who is driven to a mental breakdown by her mother's controlling nature and her father's coldness. When we first meet her she has lived on the streets for many years. One strategy she adopts is to dress as a businesswoman, wearing a suit she keeps in her rucksack, meet single men in a hotel bar, pretend to lose her wallet and, very reluctantly, accept their offer of a meal, a room (somewhat unlikely?) and, if the man is suited to her taste, a night together. This time she is unlucky when her mark, the overweight businessman, Jorgen Grundberg, is found butchered the following morning. Sybilla goes on the run but soon becomes the main suspect and is the target of a police and media hunt.
We follow Sybilla over the next few days as she finds places to hide but feels the net closing in on her. She also realises that she can no longer access the monthly money transfers that her mother reluctantly makes so that Sybilla will not embarrass her by returning home. She seeks out the friends she's made since living rough but now they cannot or will not help her. The hunt for her intensifies as other bodies are found and the police and media seek Sybilla as a serial killer.
In parallel, we learn how she came to drop out of society. With no-one to trust and no friends, she eventually meets Mick, as far removed from her family socially as is possible, and becomes pregnant. Her parents, embarrassed by what society will think, have her placed in a mental institution and insist that her baby is adopted.
Whilst Sybilla is an initially naïve and sympathetic character, I was not wholly convinced by the introduction of a 15-year old schoolboy, Patrik, who becomes her main source of assistance, especially since his mother is a police detective. It is Patrik who suggests that he and Sybilla find the murderer. Another unconvincing storyline had her visit Grundberg's widow. This added little to the overall unfolding of events.
The story of an innocent suspect having to solve the mystery in order to identify the real murderer and present them to the police is a common trope as are short texts that show the killer to be a religiously-obsessed maniac. The Swedish locations were not really developed and neither was there a real effort to reflect the wider society's attitudes to homeless people. This might have been due to the translation but I am not in a position to make this judgement.
I also wonder whether it is possible in Sweden for newspapers to publish stories containing as much personal information about a suspect they are seeking as in this novel. Surely this is liable to compromise the chances of a fair trial? These newspaper articles were used to move the story along in a rather clumsy manner.
The stories of Sybilla's life and the search for the murderer gradually come together and, once again, it is Patrik's computer skills, not as extensive as Lisabeth Salander's, and his knowledge of a Salander-like hacker that identify the likely reason for the killings. However, there is one further twist before the novel is sewn up with Sybilla meeting Patrik's mother, and with her able to access some of the money coming in her father's will.
Generally, the homeless appear in novels in an unsympathetic light but here, through Sybilla and her friends they occupy a central position. To this extent I welcomed this book, which is a not an intense read. One for the holidays, perhaps.
on 3 October 2013
I have been a fan of Scandinavian crime stories for quite a while and this is the poorest I have read. If I didn't know better I'd have said that this author had never set foot in Sweden, simply by a change of place names this novel could have been set anywhere in the world. This wasn't helped by giving all the street names their English translations.
The story itself is fairly run of the mill and it was hardly a page turner. I'll be avoiding this author in future
on 4 February 2013
I'm a fairly recent convert to Scandinavian literature, thanks to Stieg Larsson,Sissel-Jo Gazan and Jo Nesbo, so I was pleased to find this book to be well up to those high standards. Sibylla is a girl from a wealthy family, who now lives off the grid in Stockholm. After she cons a lascivious businessman out of a slap-up meal and a room for the night, the man is brutally murdered (Sibylla is alone in the room he paid for her to use at the time). The police identify Sibylla from CCTV footage and blame her for the murder, and for more that follow.
Sibylla is now on the run for murders she didn't commit and the only way out seems to be to track down the real murderer, without the police facilities at her disposal, leading her to a dangerous, thrilling route. The book is intelligently written and reveals a different view of the sanitised Sweden we imagine. It looks as though the author's other books might be worth investigating. My wife loved this book as well, particularly the very satisfying ending. It's been recommended by email to friends just after I finished it. Other reviews criticise the plot's convenient twists, but that's fiction for you, isn't it?
'Missing' is the second Alvtegen novel I've read and is the more original of the two. Murders in this story are reported rather than discovered, as it concentrates on the story of the heroine as anti-heroine, an innocent scapegoat on the run. Sibylla is actually not entirely innocent, having chosen to live on her wits and petty crime despite a so-called 'privileged' background. The story follows her flight from the police, alternating with the backstory which reveals how she came to shun her origins. Occasionally, there are the italicised thoughts, aimed at God, of an unidentified character, though their significance soon becomes clear. These passages were my only cause for complaint; I thought they were cliched and largely superfluous.
Otherwise, I found this a gripping read. For the most part, it isn't really a crime novel, but a study of the viewpoint of outcasts and misfits of society. It's only in the second half, when Sibylla is persuaded to take a more active role in the outcome, that it becomes something like a detective novel. Recommended.