Top positive review
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Thoughtful Scandinavian chiller. Scary on a human scale
on 4 July 2008
Scandinavian crime fiction has really taken off in recent years and it's wonderful that books like Savage Altar (previously published as Sun Storm) are being translated and brought to a world-wide audience. The genre as a whole specialises in claustrophobic, small-scale mysteries, often made all the more chilling because they involve relatively few people in isolated areas where either the sun don't shine or - possibly worse - the days never dim...
Savage Altar introduces Rebecka Martinsson, a young city lawyer who is dragged back to confront the ghosts of her emotional past in her rural home town when an ex-boyfriend (of sorts) is brutally murdered. Rebecka is a fragile achiever; clever but compelled to work far too hard to make up for her insecurity. She over-reacts to a friendly approach from her boss with spiky ferocity, and many of her relationships feature awkward conversations and painful silences, where old arguments and grudges confuse the protagonists.
We also meet an interesting detective, who happens to be eight months pregnant and desperately trying to go on maternity leave; Rebecka's spiritual grandfather (who is called Sivving - and there's a great joke attached to that name), the murdered man's sister (who is both not what she seems and exactly what she seems), a sinister evangelical church and its collection of overenthusiastic pastors, plus the usual pushy bureaucrat who wants the whole murder case wrapped up in no time flat.
Where Savage Altar stands head and shoulders above run of the mill thrillers is in the very human scale of the mystery and the past events which have interwoven to culminate in the death of one young man - and a very real threat to his sister (who looks like the prime suspect) and to Rebecka. Savage Altar is littered with beautifully observed interactions; often the most touching are between humans and animals where affection can be more easily expressed than with other real live people...
Savage Altar is easy to read, well plotted and beautifully described. I romped through it in a couple of days, eager to find out whodunnit (and why), but also eager to spend time with the protagonists in a starkly beautiful, dangerous landscape. If your tastes run to American-style serial-killer or police procedural thrillers then Savage Altar may not be to your taste, however; much of the menace is implied rather than related, blow by bloody blow.
I can also recommend the follow up, Blood Spilt, although you do need to read them in order to enjoy them fully. I will be looking out for more thrillers from Asa Larsson; these aren't perfect but they are more than good enough to drag me back for more.