Marklund, Liza - 'Red Wolf' (translated by Neil Smith)
It seems to have been a long wait for the new Annika Bengtzon novel by Liza Marklund, but it has been well worth it. RED WOLF is the fifth in the series, chronologically, continuing more-or-less straight on from the end of THE BOMBER, with Annika returning to work after a long period of sick leave. She has not fully recovered, however, as she constantly hears angels singing to her, and is always bumping into furniture as she has lost her ability to judge perspective.
Annika is a committed, investigative journalist, and decides to write a series about terrorism, partly as a result of her recent experiences and partly because she wants to look back at the history of political protests in Sweden since the 1960s and 1970s, when many young people became radicalised by the ideas of Mao and the global-political events of the time, most notably the Vietnam War. (Possibly this part of the plot is a conscious nod to the Sjowall/Wahloo series about policeman Martin Beck, which was written at that time and formed a withering social commentary on those then-contemporary events. Certainly the author has more than a passing interest in wanting to understand the protest and terrorist groups within Sweden over this period, and whether one evolved into the other.)
The "peg" for Annikaís series is the anniversary of an attack on an air-force base in Lulea, northernmost Sweden, in which some F21 planes were blown up when unknown perpetrators broke into the base and ignited petrol tanks on the runways. A reporter for the local paper has uncovered what he tells Annika is some new information about the old story, so she flies up to the far north to meet him in person and share notes. When she gets there, however, he is permanently unable to talk to her, and the air-force, in the form of a press officer, is not revealing even a tiny hint of further details. Despite the literal and metaphorical sub-zero temperatures, Annika ploughs on, finding an archivist at the local paper who will communicate, and uncovering a young witness of recent horrific events which directly leads to evidence of a crime - at the same time playing the police so that she can find out what they know. It is in sections like this one that the author, with her journalism background, is at her strongest, as Annika scents a story and homes in on any way to tease it out. The reader is caught up in the excitement of uncovering old and new events, but also experiences the stormy, wintry atmosphere in Lulea at the "top of the world" where, in November, it is almost always dark, and where the fluid borders of Finland, Russia and Finnmark meet and hide dark tales of the past.
Back in Stockholm, Annika has many crises to contend with. The politics at the newspaper offices are a thorn in her side, as stories about TV "reality" stars make the front page in place of real journalism. She is unpopular with her boss, who is more interested in his own career in the corporate landscape of the global media industry than he is in old-fashioned scoops and exclusives. He could not be less interested in Annikaís gradual discovery of an old terrorist network that seems to have become revived in the insubstantial person of "Ragenwald", whose life story Annika is determined to uncover in order to explain some morbid occurrences. Annika also has to cope with her husband Thomas, who in a previous novel ran off with her in the throes of passion, but here their relationship is flagging, given the sheer logistical effort of managing two pre-school children and two careers. Annika is totally committed to her family and to her job, to the detriment of her own health or well-being, perhaps - those around her both at work and at home lack her drive and focus. Her friend Anna Snapphane, familiar to readers of the earlier novels, has an even more nightmare time of it than Annika, in her own rapidly imploding personal life, and in the ghastly world of TV. "Having it all" is a mocking phrase under the circumstances faced by Annika and Anne.
RED WOLF continues at a cracking pace, as Annika pursues her leads and intuition, with the help of Q, her informant in the national murder squad, irrespective of disapproval from her boss or her husband. She and Anne try to support each other, but in view of the domestic and professional challenges facing both women, finding the positive side is tough. Nevertheless, Annika gradually finds out connections between an old terrorist group, in thrall to the philosophy of Mao (how quaint this seems in retrospect!), and the current administration in Sweden. The climax to this aspect of the plot occurs back in Lulea, as Annika is forced to confront those responsible for old and new crimes, as well as her own insecurities arising from her ordeal in the previous novel.
As usual, one feels that the author is far less interested in the resolution of the crime plot, which is somewhat perfunctory, than with the subjects that so intrigue Annika: about terrorism and its evolution from the 1960s to the present; the ethics of journalism; and the place of reportage in the modern globalised, corporate era. These are where the authorís strengths lie, as well as depicting vividly the realistic domestic and emotional challenges facing Annika and Anne, many of which we can all recognise. While aware that there are aspects of RED WOLF that could be criticised for lack of follow-through, I found the novel a completely absorbing read and continue to regard this series as second to none in contemporary crime writing. Annika is both a serious-minded, determined protagonist, and a brave heroine for our strange, mixed-up times.
Maxine Clarke, England