At the excellent suggestion of our editor, this column will be heading north to investigate some Scandinavian crime fiction. But before we get to Stig Larsson, we’re stopping off at another intriguing, less well-known novel, Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater.
The story kicks in the late 1960s with a young teacher named Annie arriving at a remote village in Northern Sweden, where she intends to join her boyfriend at a hippie commune. Her new life gets off to a very gruesome start.
Shortly after she and her daughter Mia get off the bus, they stumble upon two campers who have been stabbed to death:
Evensong came over the radio. A clergyman said you should deliver yourself unto the night. In the daytime we have problems to solve, he said. At night we deliver ourselves unto God. She thought about the two young people who had gone to bed in that tent and delivered themselves unto the bright night and its god.
The murder will haunt Annie and Mia for the rest of their lives.
And murder’s not all that’s happening on this fateful evening. The wife of a local doctor called Birger is in the process of leaving him, also to join the commune, and a local youth named Johan is cruelly lowered down a well by his tormenting half-brothers:
The light didn’t reach down here. It was up above. He could see it. But it had no effect down here. The well shaft was too deep. Someone had dug and dug, confidently hopeful at first because the divining rod had turned down just there, then in sheer rage.
Johan eventually escapes the hole and runs away from home, making him a prime suspect.
But no one in the town is much interested in solving the murder, and the case is forgotten until the main characters’ lives converge twenty years. Johan has become Mia’s lover, and Birger Annie’s.
They are forced to re-explore their mutual past, and that of the village Blackwater, when Annie herself is killed:
The ended up in the bedroom-cum-workroom because that was where Birger had found the whisky. Johan thought it a good sign that he didn’t seem to know where to find it, or possibly a bad sign that he kept it by his bed.
Reading signs rightly and wrongly is a running theme in Blackwater, and holds the key to the eventual denouemént.
This is not an easy novel. The plot covers a long stretch of time, and Ekman jumps between past and present and various perspectives with only minimal signposting.
But that narrative technique gives the book the creepy and often surreal edginess of a David Lynch movie. It’s as though we, in opening the novel, are entering a fog-enshrouded Scandinavian village whose inhabitants have all got secrets they want to keep hidden from us.
That makes Ekman a fascinating writer. This is a book to linger over, occasionally skipping back to re-read passages that you may have misunderstood, and ultimately to ponder and savour time after time like a good dram.