Now that snow has arrived in many parts of the country, I thought this little "rerun" might be appropriate for the season. Hope everyone is having an enjoyable holiday, and I'll be back with a new "Forgotten" Book next week.
Before the recent Scandinavian crime fiction invasion, before even Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, there was Kerstin Lillemor Ekman (born August 1933), whose debut crime novel, Thirty-Meter Murder (30 meter mord), was published in 1959. Her first few mystery novels grew out of her background as a documentary filmmaker, and she wrote seven crime fiction books in all before turning her hand to more general psychological and social themes (and one book that's a history of Sweden told from the POV of a troll). She did later return to the genre, with the detective novel Blackwater (Händelser vid vatten) in 1993, which won the Swedish Crime Academy's award for best crime novel.
Eckman's novel Under the Snow (De tre små mästarna) from 1961 is set in the harsh, distant landscape of the Arctic Circle's Lapland in the town of Rakisjokk during the extended darkness of winter. Or as one character notes, "You might say this is where the world comes to an end." A drunken evening ends in the death of a local artist and teacher named Matti Olsson, but when Constable Torsson sets out to investigate (a 25-mile trek on skis across a frozen lake), he is met with a conspiracy of silence, mismatched stories and only a single clue: a bloodstained mahjong tile. His efforts aren't helped by the fact that the locals are part of the ethnic Sami group who speak Finnish and don't think very highly of Swedes. Torsson has no choice to close the case. That is, until David Malm, an eccentric redheaded painter and friend of Matti's, arrives in town to investigate the truth on his own and runs into beautiful teacher Anna Ryd who is caught with a bag containing a bloody noose with a human hair clinging to it.
Eckman maintains the dark atmosphere of the unrelenting subzero cold and sunless days (followed by nights where the sun never sets) where nearly everyone has secrets, but still manages to inject bits of humor and her trademark irony: the super-fit younger colleague decked out in the 1960 version of chic Gore-Tex gear who turns an ankle in the first few yards during his first attempt on skis; a language professor who happily scribbles down the ferryman's epithets; a elkhound that barks nonstop. One unusual technique: Ekman wrote Under the Snow almost completely in the third person except for Chapter 12, where Matti's killer explains how the murder was committed. Of her writing influences, Eckman has said "I live in a small village and I have been living in two other small villages far up north in Sweden. Very close to the forest, the mountains, the waters. They have had a great impact on me, melting into my language."
Under the Snow remained unavailable in English from the time of its publication until the translation by Joan Tate in 1996, 35 years later. Entertainment Weekly called Eckman "Striking...a sort of Graham Greene meets Dean Koontz," and the Library Journal added that "Ekman's brilliant evocation of a place and culture above the Arctic Circle is as compelling and mysterious as the crime itself." Ekman was elected member of the Swedish Academy in 1978, but left in 1989 when the academy didn't take a strong stand after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. She also turned her hand back to the screen with a Swedish TV movie based on one of her books and appearances as herself in documentaries.