Crime fiction,  Nordic Noir

The Savage Altar by Åsa Larsson

After quite a disappointed reading experience with Camilla Läckberg’s Erika Flack’s series I somehow thought Åsa Larsson’s books were similar and decided not to try them for a while. Also, some comments I read online about Larsson were not very positive, which did not help. However, Larsson herself published a very interesting article on dead women in crime fiction. It was such a good piece that I knew I had to read her detective fiction series. So, in mid-September I bought the first in the Rebecka Martinsson series and it was the perfect back-to-school reading.

From Goodreads:

On the floor of a church in northern Sweden, the body of a man lies mutilated and defiled–and in the night sky, the aurora borealis dances as the snow begins to fall….So begins Åsa Larsson’s spellbinding thriller, winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award and an international literary sensation.

Rebecka Martinsson is heading home to Kiruna, the town she’d left in disgrace years before. A Stockholm attorney, Rebecka has a good reason to return: her friend Sanna, whose brother has been horrifically murdered in the revivalist church his charisma helped create. Beautiful and fragile, Sanna needs someone like Rebecka to remove the shadow of guilt that is engulfing her, to forestall an ambitious prosecutor and a dogged policewoman. But to help her friend, and to find the real killer of a man she once adored and is now not sure she ever knew, Rebecka must relive the darkness she left behind in Kiruna, delve into a sordid conspiracy of deceit, and confront a killer whose motives are dark, wrenching, and impossible to guess….

The Savage Altar (published in the US as Sunstorm) starts with Rebecka on her flat in Stockholm, unable to sleep and deciding to go to work instead. As you can imagine, she got me here. She is a young, independent woman who loves her job and wants to prove she is good at it, but she is still seen as a young woman rather than the incredibly good attorney that she is. So, Larsson makes a good point at highlighting sexism in the work place and how Rebecka deals – masterfully, in my opinion, with it. She is also a very complex character, sexuality and body included. Even though it has become normal to create complex and complete characters in crime fiction, not much attention is devoted to these characters’ bodies. Rebecka’s is a reflection of her stress, her social status can be appreciated in her clothes and, in the flashbacks, Larsson pays special attention to the teenage female body and her sexuality.

And the crime? Well, needless to say that like great Scandinavian crime, it was dark, complex and closely related to social issues. Without giving anything away, Viktor, a religious leader is found dead in his church. Rebecka knew him when she was younger, so that both the crime and Rebecka’s past are interwoven. As more clues are discovered about Viktor’s killing, more and more we learn about Rebecka. However, being Sun Storm the first in the series, her past is not quite clear and Larsson makes it so that you read the following book.

But, there is another female character that needs mentioning: Anna-Maria Mella. She is a pregnant policewoman in Kiruna who – everyone has decided – cannot do her job, so she is supposedly doing office work. However, her male colleagues are not half as good as she is, and she eventually solves the crime. However, the image of a pregnant police woman who is calm, who has everything in control while she sees, half laughing, how her colleagues cannot even grasp at what she is thinking reminded me of office Marge Gunderson from the 1996 movie Fargo, by the Cohen brothers. A crime fiction classic that I highly recommend.

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)
Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)

So, if you are late to the party like me and still do not know about Larsson’s crime fiction books, go ahead! Rebecka has become one of my favourite feminist crime fiction characters for now, slightly behind Dr. Kay Scarpetta. However, I do think that Rebecka is a much more complex character and her paying special attention to the female body is something that the Scarpetta series lack. I cannot wait to read Rebecka Martinsson #2 this month and discover more about her and her past.

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  • Cathy746books

    I too had issues with Camilla Läckberg’s crime fiction, particularly her depiction of Erica, so only ever read one of that series. I think I have something by Asa Larsson, I’ll have to check and give her a try!

  • Elena

    Cathy, I am so thankful for your comment! While reading the first in the Erika Flack series, I could not believe I was reading such a patronizing and patriarchal depiction of a woman and the female body. But, believe me, Larsson’s fiction has nothing to do with that, quite the opposite! Rebecka is a very inspiring character.

  • Keishon

    I enjoyed reading your review, Elena. I’m happy that you enjoyed Larsson’s first book. I think Asa Larsson is a terrific writer who rarely disappoints. Along with everything else you said about her characters, I like that she also deals realistically with the struggles of her characters and doesn’t ignore the psychological effects or impact crime has on their lives and relationships. You’ll see that later on. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the rest of the series. She’s so good that I often compare her latest work to her earlier work. BTW, I wasn’t successful with Camilla Läckberg’s work either. I’m not a fan of telling vs. showing type of storytelling style.

    • Elena

      Thank you, Keishon. You know the best thing about this review? All of you who are coming out as non-Läckberg fans. I thought I had issues with Erika that other people didn’t. And yes, I do hope to read all of Larsson’s works as soon as possible, because I don’t think she can go wrong (at least, taking into account Sun Storm).

  • Sarah

    I’m a big Asa Larsson fan. I think Lackberg writes different types of books. I stopped reading them for a while but she is apparently back on form with her latest.

    • Elena

      Sorry for the delay, Sarah, I’ve been attending and organizing a conference.

      I totally agree with you. I find Lackberg much more… mainstream when it comes to ideas and plot, while Larsson is clearly a feminist and quite progressive. Let me know if you read Lackberg’s latest 😉

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