By Mons Kallentoft

Simon & Schuster ($25.99)

ISBN-13: 978-1-4516-4247-6

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Scandinavian mysteries are all the rage nowadays. And for good reason. There's a wealth of fascinating modern suspense and horror writers, crafting dark, moody stories and characters that are cast against the background of the often bleak and stormy climate.

MIDWINTER BLOOD is one such novel. It's a first rate police procedural thriller set in rural Sweden during the depth of winter. A man is found brutally beaten to death, then hanged from an isolated forest tree, the nude body placed on display as a trophy or perhaps an example to others. Nobody knows why.

Police investigator Malin Fors is assigned the case. She's just like the weather surrounding her — driven, forceful, and intense. Malin's also intelligent and educated, and is able to call upon all the investigative tools of criminology to help her solve the case. Not that it helps much. Leads are scant, suspects few.

The victim is soon identified as Bengt Andersson, an obese, mentally challenged loner living on public assistance in a cramped apartment. His relatives disowned him years ago, he has no friends, few neighbors even knew his name. He's one of the countless who wander within Sweden's distantly providing yet soulless society. Bengt was lost from others around him, unconnected, unnoticed. Yet someone hated him sufficiently to viciously murder him.

Malin pursues the case with her usual intensity, virtually ignoring her teenage daughter, alienating both suspects and police colleagues with her brusque manner. Malin's only loyal ally is her investigator partner, Zeke Martinsson.

Is the murder ritual, committed by some weird, Nordic-satanic group? Or did Bengt's relatives have a grudge that has smoldered all this time, finally breaking out? As Malin and her team dig deeper, they uncover the cracks and flaws in the veneer of Scandinavian culture, smooth and affable on the surface, dank and rancid beneath. Was Bengt somehow a victim of the very society that pretended to care for him?

The author deftly blends the murder investigation itself with a deeper glimpse into modern Sweden, its success and its failings. The narrative and dialogue are finely nuanced, making a highly entertaining novel.

A minor point is that the novel may be a bit long. In a reasonable objective to provide each character with a solid and meaningful background, the author dwells too much on life histories for all the police, all the ancillary characters, and this detracts at times from the rhythm and thrust of the story line. The strength of the novel comes from the principal characters and it may have been better to focus on them.

Mystery fans, especially those of the trend for Scandinavian fiction, should not however be deterred by this small criticism. MIDWINTER BLOOD is highly recommended.

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