Larsson, Asa - 'The Blood Spilt' (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Eighteen months after the events described in Asa Larsson's debut novel, THE SAVAGE ALTAR, Rebecka Martinsson is still psychologically unfit to return to work at her law firm. Nevertheless, her notoriety brings in new business, so she's allowed to sit in on cases without taking an active part. She's haunted by the traumatic case in which she became involved in the earlier book, and feels herself (with justification) an object of curiosity. She and her boss Mans have not progressed their relationship either, as is apparent at the firm's summer party.
The law firm specialises in representing religious organisations, advising them about their investments and strategy. The priests in a village near Kiruna, Rebecca's childhood home and scene of the events in the previous book, want legal advice about the local church's financial affairs in the wake of the recent death of one of their number. Thorsten Karlsson, a senior partner at the firm, gets the assignment, and, for a change of scene, Rebecka accompanies him to the village. When they arrive, however, they realise that Mildred, the dead priest, has been brutally murdered but the police have not found the perpetrator. One of the several problems the priests now want Thorsten to resolve is that Mildred's widower will not leave the marital home, which belongs to the church, nor will he give up Mildred's keys to her locker in the church office. Rebecka volunteers for this task, and as a result obtains the keys. She's shocked that the priests have not told the police about the locker's existence, as it might contain evidence, but also aware that her job would be on the line if she tells them. So she breaks into the office, takes letters and documents from the locker, and as a result of what they contain, hands them over in confidence to Anna Marie, the policewoman she met in the earlier case, and grew to like.
Rebecka herself is dazed and numb by yet again being involved in the aftermath of a violent death. On an impulse, she decides to stay on her own in a log cabin in the village for a while, hanging out at the local cafe owned by Micke and his girlfriend, the lively Mimmi. Rebecka enjoys becoming part of the rhythm of life in the village, in particular befriending Nalle, a mentally handicapped teenage boy who is the son of the retired local chief of police. Rebecka finds herself able to interact with Nalle, who lives in the present and has no questions or expectations of her, and with whom she can relax, as she has no fear he'll realise her connection with the Kiruna death case. The two go to her grandmother's house, meeting Sivving, the beautifully portrayed old man who has been a constant friend to Rebecka, enjoying a visit to his boiler room and playing with his dog's puppies.
As well as Rebecka's story, the book also follows the police investigation into Mildred's murder, by Anna-Marie, recently returned to work after her maternity leave, Sven-Erik and their colleagues. The detectives interview various suspects, and learn more about the dead woman's life. The reader discovers more about Mildred than the police do, however, as the dead woman is still a presence with the people she knew: she had set up a woman's group and had been attempting to break down some of the male bastions in the village as well as helping women abused by their partners, in the process exposing all kinds of wrongdoing, petty misdeeds and nasty behaviour. After a wolf was seen in the forest, Mildred's visionary project was to set up a conservation project on the extensive lands owned by the church. Her scheme was opposed by the powerful hunting group, among their number one of the priests, who were taking advantage of old church tradition to use the lands for their sport without paying rent.
Interspersed with the main plot is the fascinating account of the wolf, called Yellow Legs, over the past year or two, and how she came to be in the forest. We realise that Yellow Legs is like Rebecka - part of a group but on the outside of it, submissive and dominated by the 'alpha-female'. Eventually, Yellow Legs is rejected by the pack, at the same time as the villagers discover that Rebecka is the girl who was involved in the earlier sensational case, and (in some cases at least) ostracise her. The reader realises that the fate of Yellow Legs and Rebecka are intertwined.
THE BLOOD SPILT is an utterly absorbing portrait of the lives, attitudes and culture of the village and its inhabitants. Mildred comes to life in the pages; her story in the end is a tragic one, of passion and of opportunities lost not just for her but for those she knew and tried to help, whether or not they wanted to accept it. The observations and atmosphere are so well presented by this sensitive author and her translator. If there is a weakness in the book it is the final cliffhanger involving Rebecka, which is a slightly unsatisfying ending to this rich story.
Read another review of THE BLOOD SPILT.
Maxine Clarke, England