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Book Review: The Shadow Woman by Ake Edwardson

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What with Stieg Larsson topping the best seller lists, it should come as no surprise that Swedish thriller writers have become a hot commodity and, if you can find an internationally praised Swede with a thriller series with titles yet to be translated into English, you may well have found a gold mine or at least the potential for one. Ake Edwardson is a three time winner of the Swedish Crime Writers’ Award for best crime novel, and darned if he doesn’t have a series. The first of his Chief Inspector Erik Winter series to be translated was Sun and Shadow in 2005. This has been followed by three others through 2009, and the latest this year, The Shadow Woman, which, although it is the fifth novel in the series to be published in this country, is actually the second installment of the Winter saga.

Unfortunately, if The Shadow Woman is a representative example of Edwardson’s storytelling, he is not quite the compelling narrative voice that Larsson is. Some of the problem may well be in the translation. This is the first novel in the series to be translated by Per Carlsson, and at times the prose seems a little clunky, at least to this ear. Some of what passes for dialogue comes across as very stagey. Characters indulge in patches of purple prose: “traveling along the brink of human misery.” Unsolved murders “wander like ghosts through the passageways of the soul.”

Some of the problem may lie in the complicated circumstances of the case under investigation. The story revolves around the discovery of the body of an unidentified woman in a wooded area near a lake near Gothenburg during the annual Gothenburg Party. More than half of the book is concerned with the attempt to identify the victim. There is also some confusion generated by the failure to identify the timeline of some of the events described at the beginning of the story. While this does add a level of suspense, it does so by simply withholding information for no reason other than to confuse the issue.

Winter who is on vacation, comes back to lead the investigation, and he has a number of subordinates running around following different leads, some of whom are developed as characters, some are more or less merely names, and confusing names at that. His methods aren’t always orthodox, but he does try to look at everything that might be a possible clue. Often one had to wonder about the course he is taking. He likes to follow his hunches, and his hunches often prove correct.

While the investigation of the mystery woman’s murder is the central concern of the novel, there are other police matters going on. A black police woman is attacked while off duty and her jaw is broken. A political refugee hijacks a bus and threatens to kill himself and his son. A turf war breaks out among rival biker gangs. None of these things seem to have something to do with the woman’s death. They may add an element of realism, since of course any city police department will have more than one concern at a time, still they also add an element of confusion. Thriller readers are always looking for connections, and they are right to do so. Certainly, not all crimes are connected, but then again in thrillers more often than not they are. The problem is that even when the connections are made, they are not always as significant as one would expect.

Edwardson’s at his best in his depiction of the personal dynamics of the relationships between the various investigators. There is the officer who hides his real feelings beneath a false curmudgeonly façade. There is the older detective who can’t let go of an unsolved case. There are the prejudiced patrolmen who have to be reassigned. There is Winter himself who gets so wound up in his work that he finds it difficult to handle outside relationships. There are some nice snapshots of other peripheral characters as well: the elderly lady who misses seeing a little red-headed girl she’s fond of watching play, a housing agent who takes the time to attend to an old woman’s concerns, and an annoying witness who may have some information about a car seen near the crime scene. Taken altogether, when Edwardson takes the trouble to develop the characters, they provide a realistic universe that goes far beyond that of the typical thriller.

The Shadow Woman may not be the next Swedish blockbuster, but it is a crime story that will keep you reading with anticipation. It may not have quite the sensationalistic subject matter of some, but it is a thriller that tries to add a realistic depth to the genre.

 

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