Pirat, 2011. ISBN: 9789164203533
Reviewed by Agnes Broome and Nichola Smalley in SBR 2011:2
Agnes Broome and Nichola Smalley:
Änglavakter is the third book in Kristina Ohlsson’s series of crime novels centred on a police team in Stockholm. In classic ‘literary crime fiction’ style, the novel focuses as much on their personal lives as on their professional challenges. The main character, Inspector Fredrika Bergman, faces difficult decisions when it turns out her partner is implicated in the case. But she’s not the only one of the team whose family members are drawn in, as a suburban mass grave offers up more and more bodies, and a web of intrigue is woven around the long-defunct film club, The Guardian Angels (Änglavakterna). The chapters are interspersed with reports from an internal inquiry into the handling of the police investigation at the heart of the narrative. These reports place the main plot in the past, like a really long flashback. This lends a sense of foreboding, bringing the conduct of central characters into question.
NS: Personally, I found this structure problematic: it was difficult to identify with any of the police characters, as they’re treated with suspicion right from the start. I also got the sense that the narrator had already told the reader a lot about the characters.
AB: Yes, in fact it felt like so much had already been said about the characters in previous books that Ohlsson was having trouble coming up with new material, forcing her to introduce fairly far-fetched and sensational elements which made the book read a bit like a soap opera.
NS: I suppose a lot of crime fiction is based on the gradual development of central characters over a series. But that causes problems when you try to read the book as a stand-alone novel.
AB: I felt that the strategy of focusing the whole case on an old writer who has refused to talk for several decades seemed quite fun at first but as the plot progressed I became less sure about Ohlsson’s intentions for the character; she never became as central as I expected.
NS: I also felt intrigued by her, and though I felt her character could have been developed more, I found the story of her silence pretty fascinating. I have to admit, though, that I guessed the reasons about three-quarters of the way through, so then it just felt like a rather agonising crawl to the finish.
AB: On that note, don’t you think the book slowed towards the end? I felt like all the intriguing pieces of the puzzle were presented halfway through and after that it tailed off, with Ohlsson expending energy on making it all fit together rather than making it exciting.
NS: Yes, I agree, though on the whole I thought the book was fun, if unsubtle. There were just too many different stories for one book.
AB: I’m not sure I enjoyed the book very much, I had the same reservations as you but for me they took the fun out of reading. I liked the first third, when Ohlsson introduced imaginative plot devices, twists and clues. After that I thought it went downhill. I guess part of the problem was that the characters never engaged me, so when the plot puzzle lost its intrigue, I largely lost interest.
NS: I agree. I felt a bit conned.
NS: Is that our last word? The first third was good, but in the end we felt a bit conned?
AB: Yes, but on the plus side, I felt that Ohlsson’s language, especially her dialogue writing, really lifted the book.
NS: You’re right, she seems a very acute observer of human interaction. However, I don’t think she’s much of a storyteller. She just tries to fit too much in.
AB: Couldn’t agree more.