Strange Bird by Anna Jansson, set in Sweden on the island of Gotland, is Book One of the fourteen books in the Maria Wern series, translated into English by Paul Norlen (available September 17, 2013.)
Something deadly has landed on Gotland. Ruben Nilsson raises homing pigeons and has been preparing for an upcoming race when he discovers that a new pigeon has flown into his dovecote, a “sturdy, light brown speckled bird with a white head.... A truly powerful bird, although a bit worn out after the flight. Marked with a metal ring around the foot. A foreigner—in Sweden, the pigeons have plastic rings. A flying tourist on a visit?”
Nilsson believes the bird, which comes from Biaroza in Belarus, will prove to be a prize worthy treasure. Instead, like a Trojan Horse, it carries inside it a means of killing thousands. The foreign bird is the source of a deadly flu, which soon turns into a pandemic; deaths begin to mount, and panic spreads among the Island’s inhabitants.
A dead man is discovered on an abandoned farm. The man, who has no identity papers, has been murdered. An empty birdcage is found in his car. Detective Inspector Maria Wern is assigned to the case and soon learns that there is a link between the dead man and the pandemic.
Wern can’t solve the case fast enough. Just two days after first encountering the bird, Ruben Nilsson is dead. His neighbor, Berit Hoas, who nursed him through what she thought was a simple flu, falls ill, but not before making breakfast for kids at the soccer camp where she works as a cook. Peter Cederroth drives her to the hospital in his cab. Through these seemingly innocent and neighborly actions, the pandemic spreads quickly through the island from the children at the camp to the staff at the hospital.
A newly built health center, which has a vaccine for those who can pay, might be at the center of the case. Something about it makes Maria Wern uneasy. “She looked with disfavor at the pompous entryway and tried to explain to herself what it was that aroused such feelings of antipathy. The injustice in that someone can buy themselves a place before others in the line for healthcare, faster diagnosis, faster treatment. And yet. If you were in that position yourself and had the chance to pay to be rid of pain. . . .And yet you would hope that the public healthcare system could offer the optimal treatment, that solidarity would somehow find a way.”
Detective Maria Wern appears more concerned with the pandemic than the murders she has been charged with solving. Perhaps this is because her son is infected. Talking to a doctor at the hospital where her son is being treated for the flu, Maria says, “I read a book about the plague last summer . . . It sounded mostly like an exciting fairy tale. I never thought about it as the reality of living people. Maybe you can’t understand history without experiencing it. That’s why mistakes are repeated over and over. It’s not just about reason. The author had a theory that the plague spread so quickly because people fled from death. They didn’t know that they were infected themselves and so it spread like wildfire.”
The author is perhaps using the plague allegorically, saying to readers that Gotland and even Sweden are infected and ill prepared should disaster strike them as it has elsewhere in Europe. While I admire Jansson’s social conscience, I would have preferred more mystery and less pandemic.
As this is the first of Anna Jansson’s series to be translated into English, I am willing to suggest that her next book might well be worth reading. It can take two or three novels in a series to really get going. Some of the elements of a successful series are already in place: a detective with flaws and heart, an intriguing location, and a prolific author.
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