Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Johan Theorin. The Darkest Room (London: Random House, 2009)

The Darkest Room is the second book in Johan Theorin’s (1963-) Öland-quartet. It is the winter story, with an original Swedish title Nattfåk (“Night Blizzard”) published in 2008. After two decades of writing short stories and a career working as a journalist, Theorin broke into literary success with the autumn story of the quartet, Echoes of the Dead in 2007 (original title, Skumtimmen or “The Hour of Dusk”). After The Darkest Room, came the spring story The Quarry in 2009 (original title Blodläge, or “Site of Blood”) and finally the summer story The Voices from Beyond in 2013 (original title Rörgast or “Helmsman”). The Darkest Room has won The Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2008, the Glass Key for the Best Nordic Crime Novel in 2009 and a CWA International Dagger in 2009.  

The opening of The Darkest Room uses a classic thriller formula: the young family Westin have recently moved into an old, rundown manor house in an isolated location on the Baltic coast of Öland. There are two eerie lighthouses, with the red beam of the southern lighthouse sweeping through the dark night and the white light in the northern lighthouse only appearing when someone is about to die. The routine of family life, pre-school runs and house renovation, are contrasted with the disturbing attraction of a dark barn and the little girl Livia sleeping badly and hearing voices talking in the walls.

Narrative hooks and foreshadowing abound in the opening chapters. There is an opening except by Mirja: “I have heard the dead whispering in the walls.” (p7) and her warning letter to Katrine (p11); the manor house has been built from shipwrecked timber (Ibid.). Joakim dreams of Ethel who is dead (p15); Livia dreams of someone being in her room at night (p18). Katrine is reluctant to talk about her past, and Joakim chooses to “keep quiet” about her family (p21). There are ghost stories about the house (p24). There is a wrecked ship nearby (p28). So when the family takes a walk to the lighthouses, the narrative is primed for mystery and misfortune. But first, Theorin establishes two other narrative strands: one of Tilda Davidsson, a new police woman with a local family connection and another of a bunch of burglars targeting empty holiday cottages on the island. When the phone call about a drowning at the manor house finally comes, the reader is waiting for it (p59).

The narrative structure with three view points and added excerpts from Mirja’s writing works well and the different narrative strands are well balanced. The only slight imbalance is with the burglars, who are introduced on page 32 and only return a hundred pages later (p134), which is a long gap to leave a plot strand hanging. Importantly, all three strands begin to come converge, building up the narrative tension effectively until they crash into each other in a satisfyingly spectacular fashion.

The composition of the novel is not quite as successful. There is a little too much night-time listening to mysterious sounds in the old house (pp18, 103. 174-5, 177, 226, 256). There are a few too many visits to dark recesses of the large barn (pp72, 173, 211, 214, 287 320, 338-9, 371, 451) whose door is mysteriously found ajar time after time (pp233, 323, 326).

Joakim is once called “Johan” in the narrative (p19).The measurements used in the English translation are occasionally odd. Sweden uses the metric system; the English translation uses the imperial system. Swedish estate agents measure floor space in square metres, British and American ones measure it in square feet, but in The Darkest Room, the mansion is “280 square yards” in a sales brochure (p12). This is a strange anomaly. The translator has used yards in measuring distances indoors: a bottle bounces a “couple of yards” (p32) and floors stops after “four yards” (p261). Elsewhere, feet are used to measure structural dimensions (pp29, 30). Any translator has to choose whether to use measurements familiar to the audience or assume that the audience will be able to manage the more exotic, foreign system. . Ethel weighs “less than a hundred pounds” (p305), and it is reasonable to assume that this figure is more accessible to English-language readers than he equivalent forty-five kilos, although you may prefer “seven stone.” Sometimes, the choice of measurements is awkward. For example, Joakim drives his car “twelve miles above the speed limit.” (p81) This may make sense to an Anglo-American audience, but Joakim would not be calculating his speed in miles. Swedish speed limits are in kilometres per hour and so would be the speed dial in Joakim’s car.

Characters in the novel are rooted in Öland by a shared past. The island landscape is evoked well, only the eponymous (in the original title) winter blizzard is worked into the narrative a little too forcefully. It seems to be the single most common cause of death on the island (pp 7, 60-1, 109, 120, 201, 246, 290, 386). Its random violence is only equalled by that of the Severius brothers, career criminals who are a truly menacing pair. Their habit of communicating with Aleister Crowley via an Ouija board is both disturbing and funny (pp38-9, 134, 181, 280, 398) and thus a good move by Theorin. Crowley (1875-1947) was a British occultist and magician, poet and mountaineer, who developed his own religion Thelema and led an adventurous life.

The Darkest Room is about death and how people deal with it. When Katrine Westin is found dead, her husband Joakim is left with their two small children to continue their lives the best they can. The narrative is punctuated by extracts from a book written by Mirja, Katrine’s mother, which describes the deaths that have occurred in the mansion throughout its history.

Katrine’s death is treated as an accident (p151). Mirja’s descriptions of the deaths in the mansion suggest that they that were all the result of malevolence or, at least, negligence. This is a clue. When Gerlof Davidsson, a retired sea captain (also present in Echoes of the Dead) makes a suggestion, it forces Tilda to consider again how Katrine died.

Joakim Westin and Tilda Davidsson are the two lead characters. While Joakim pursues the supernatural logic of Katrine’s death and how it links up with the mansion’s past, Tilda conducts a police investigation. Plot lines whirl together like a blizzard building up in force until both investigations, the supernatural and the earthly, reach their climax in a very good, traditional show-down at the moment when “The blizzard had reached its peak.” (p405)

Tilda Davidsson is a sympathetic character: a woman with a disastrous (and from the plot’s point of view superfluous) love life and a desire to find her roots, by learning about her family history. Joakim is a much more interesting and ambivalent character. Theorin portrays the effects of grieving well. Joakim is garrulous, even hostile. We see him fall apart (pp 163-4, 166), until “Joakim felt like a ghost” (p368). Theorin cleverly uses Joakim’s perilous emotional state as a justification for supernatural experiences and irrational behaviour which are nevertheless necessary for the plot. Grief in The Darkest Room provides a clever solution for character motivation and it allows us to interpret Joakim’s experiences either as supernatural or as emotional turmoil.

In The Darkest Room Theorin balances his narrative between a ghost story and a crime story. This a conscious strategy very well executed. Theorin says about his books: “They are sort of a combination of dark crime stories and Scandinavian folklore and ghost stories. They are not horror or fantasy stories, really -- the supernatural mostly stays in the background, and I leave it up to the readers to decide…” (

Death is all over Öland: “The dead are our neighbours everywhere here on the island …” (p275). There are the dead in Mirja’s book of the manor house. Across the road there is Offremossen, the sacrificial bog where people we drowned in bygone days (pp270-1) and where they rise to seek warmth from the living (p291). There are graveyards and shipwrecks. Katrine’s death becomes one more link in a long chain of death stretching into the past (p214, p298).

Theorin succeeds in building up a sense of both continuity and impermanence with his treatment of death in the narrative. Death is a devastating individual tragedy for those who lose their loved ones, but it also binds humanity together as a common experience. The dead must not be forgotten (p212), this is also Tilda Davidsson’s project (pp51, 115). Death offers a basis for shared beliefs; traditions and rituals are built upon it. Remembering the dead grounds the living and nourishes their roots. The Darkest Room is an engaging read and a good mystery novel. By far the best thing about The Darkest Room is the way it deals with death.