Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Missing by Karin Alvtegen: A review

One of the nice things about joining the local Mystery Book Club has been that it has introduced me to some authors who were unknown to me and whose work I probably would never have picked up except for that impetus. Karin Alvtegen is another one of those. A Swedish writer of mysteries/thrillers, she does not seem to have found as wide an audience in this country as Stieg Larsson (Who has?) or Henning Mankell, but she's good and perhaps her time will come.

Alvtegen's protagonist, Sybilla, called to mind Larsson's Lisbeth Salander in some ways and so I looked at the publication dates. Alvtegen's book was originally published in 2000 in Sweden, while the first of Larsson's trilogy was published in 2005. He must have been familiar with Alvtegen' book and one wonders if he was at all influenced by it.

Sybilla and Lisbeth do share some parallels. Both are anti-social loners and both had horrific childhoods that have marked them for life. Both reject society but ultimately find that there are people who will be on their side if they'll only let them. In both stories, computer hacking plays a role in the ultimate solution to the crime(s).

We meet Sybilla as a homeless woman, living by her wits. One way she has discovered of getting a free meal is to con some lonely man into buying it for her and that is what she is in the process of doing when we first see her at the Grand Hotel. Not only does the man buy her a meal but he winds up paying for her room for the night. Unfortunately for Sybilla, once the two separate and go to their own rooms, someone else goes to his room and brutally kills him and then mutilates the body. Since Sybilla was last seen with the victim, she becomes a suspect and when the police come to her room the next morning to question her, in a panic, she runs, leaving behind her precious briefcase.

She had been living off the grid for ten years, but soon the police figure out her identity and the nation-wide hunt is on for her.

Then, in rapid succession, more people are killed in a similar brutal manner and, again, they are mutilated after death. Sybilla becomes known as a serial killer and all of Sweden is on the alert for her.

The writer works hard at making us understand just what it is like to be a homeless person, to live outside of society, without the protection of law or custom. Much of the book, in fact, is taken up with this exposition of Sybilla's situation. I read the book on my Kindle and I was at 60% complete when I began to wonder if anyone was ever going to investigate the serial murders, or if we were just going to go on living inside Sybilla's head and experiencing her day-to-day fight to survive and to remain anonymous. Finally, a new character is introduced, Patrik, a fifteen-year-old boy who becomes a catalyst for getting the investigation going.

I found the character of Sybilla appealing and unlike any other protagonist I've met in a mystery/thriller. She seemed original and authentic. That being said, the story began to drag for me in its latter third. It became somewhat predictable and, it seemed to me at least, it detracted from the arc of the story that had been building up until then. Also, I note that the translator is prize-winning and much honored in her craft, but, frankly, I found the translation a bit clunky and awkward at times and, for me, it detracted from the pleasure of reading. Perhaps this was the best that could be produced from the original text. How would I know since, unfortunately, I don't read Swedish?

Overall, I found the book interesting. I'm glad I met Karin Alvtegen and I will probably read more of her work now that I know she's there.

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