Book Review: The Night of the Fire by Kjell Eriksson
By Janet WebbOctober 30, 2020
It has been ten long years since Swedish novelist Kjell Eriksson wrote about police inspector Ann Lindell. Since retiring from the Uppsala police department, Lindell “is living a quiet life, producing local cheese in a small town in Uppland.” She has not moved far since Uppland is only 30 kilometers from Uppsala, the fourth largest city in Sweden. The quiet of the Uppland countryside is shattered on New Year’s Eve when someone sets the former village school ablaze, a school that currently harbors asylum seekers. Tragically, three die in the inferno. Lindell’s bred in the bone investigative instincts are aroused, and she questions her neighbors. Her forays are ill-received—pigeons with their heads snapped are left in her mailbox, her window is shattered by a thrown branch, and in a particularly vile act, a rotting dead badger is deposited legs up in her bed. Lindell can’t discuss her feelings with Matilda, her employer and friend.
Otherwise she could talk about everything with Matilda, but there was one thing she hadn’t mentioned, and that was the badger in the bed, even though she thought about it every day. That was an act that soiled not only her home but the whole village and its inhabitants. She understood for the first time the feeling that crime victims tried to explain to her before: impotence and degradation, mixed with fury and a kind of disconsolation at people’s desire to harm others.
Sammy Nilsson, Lindell’s former colleague, is unable to solve the New Year’s Eve arson and murders. Months later, Bodin, his superior, taps him to return to Uppland when a woman is found murdered.
“This is a strange village,” Sammy said, breaking the silence. “Open, yet closed. Idyllic, yet so full of shit.”
“There are a few,” Bodin commented, apparently with no great eagerness to expand on the subject.
“Sweden,” said Sammy, but did not explain further what he meant, didn’t think he needed to.
The Night of the Fire is a disturbing book. There are unmistakable if unintended parallels with tensions in Sweden and the United States over immigration and the integration of refugees into the fabric of society. Ericksson is a perceptive writer: his characters speak of the past with nostalgia-tinged with the sickening reality that “past is prologue.” Elderly Swedes feel abandoned and share their unhappiness with Lindell, a relative newcomer.
Edraimsson smiled. “Honor is in decline. It started when Birger Persson was forced to close down his country store, a shop that had existed for eighty years, at least. Then it was the buses. Now there are only two runs per day, so soon they can point to a dwindling base and shut down the whole line. They canceled the bookmobile last year. And so it has continued. And when the authorities, or whatever they are, have cut back and shut down, declared us unnecessary, well, then they send a load of refugees here.”
“You didn’t like that?”
“You miss my point,” said Efraimsson, but did not explain how.
But she does get his point: the villagers close ranks rather than confront disruptions in their way of life (including murder), preferring to return to memories as if they were talismans. The dismissive attitude of the village echoes Francisco Goya’s prophetic words: “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters).” The “monsters” are young villagers with conspiratorial doubts about their country and their future: “Hate was their primary occupation. It was exhausting, because they hated so much, and so many.”
From his upstairs window, during a visit to the john, Lindell’s closest neighbor, Gösta, witnesses three young men running away from the schoolhouse fire. He doesn’t tell the police, arguing with himself that perhaps he was mistaken. But Gösta’s night vision is precise although it sometimes spins into fantasy. His dearly departed wife Irma once told he should “write a horror novel” based on his nocturnal visions: “For him it was almost reality, and he didn’t like that she belittled his revelation.”
Lindell is warned anonymously that there are more horrors ahead: “His message is short and clear: Many will die.” The stark warning comes to pass when “a bomb explodes in a suburb of Stockholm.” Edman, one of the conspirators is sickened by the carnage and lashes out at Give, his superior.
“What about that kid who was killed too?”
“I knew it! I knew you’d bring that up!”
“It was a little boy.”
Give leaned forward and took a can of beer out of a cooler.
“That’s just because you have one yourself, but there will be those kinds of losses.”
“He was a Swedish boy. His name was Jonathan.”
“I damn well don’t want to know what his name was. I don’t give a damn. A gang of Abdullahs and Alis died too, that’s more important. Don’t you understand, you see!” He made a motion with his hand. “We’ve made history!”
Edman glanced at the TV. Once again the destruction at Peppartorget in Hökarängen was shown, and how people flooded the square with flowers and lit candles.
Evil and prejudice metastasize from a country village to the suburbs of Stockholm. Careless youths caught up in “various racist and Nazi groups,” don’t realize that they are agents of men who seek nothing less than chaos. Meticulous detective work unearths the guilty and ends the escalating violence, but Eriksson is too realistic to pretend that the events that started on New Year’s Eve are more than a skirmish in an ongoing war, a war that will have to be fought by Swedish citizens.
On a lighter note, The Night of the Fire reminded me of similarities between middle-aged, high ranking female detectives. If you like Jane Tennison and Vera Stanhope, you’ll also enjoy Ann Lindell. Possibly because of the vagaries of Lindell’s personal life, alcohol is a temporary solution that has been known to morph into a crutch. She sets up a hammock in her new backyard—why?
She could not say why she’d bought it. In a hammock you rock, and in motion it’s harder to drink wine. And it’s impossible to place a table in front of a hammock, in other words there’s no place for a glass.
Lindell’s generous way of viewing the world, and her innate self-honesty and self-awareness is very appealing. I will be eagerly awaiting the twelfth Lindell mystery and I am grateful for the generous backlist.