Fresh Meat: Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House

Carin Gerhardsen The Gingerbread HouseThe Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen is the first in the Hammarby series of Swedish thrillers (available June 5, 2012).

“A serial murderer? You’re out of your mind! How many of those have there been in Sweden?” While this naïve Swedish detective in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House might win his debate on a technicality (or whatever you want to call reality), he obviously doesn’t read crime fiction. Otherwise he’d know that Sweden is crawling with serial killers. Not just serial killers but one-off murderers, too. They’re everywhere. Stockholm. Ystad. Malmo. Gothenburg. Uppsala. Fjällbacka. It’s a good thing the Swedes have universal healthcare because their crime writers are maiming and killing the (fictional) citizenry by the boatload. But in real life? Not so much.

It’s also a little ironic that Gerhardsen’s detective, Jamal Hamad, expresses his incredulity about the possibility of a Swedish serial killer after a fair number of bodies have stacked up on his beat. To be fair, the team, under the command of the father-like figure of Conny Sjöberg, hasn’t made the connection yet between their main case of a bludgeoned corpse and the other murders cropping up around the city. But, as Sjöberg muses one evening, it’s a bad time to be a 44-year-old in Hammarby. Especially if you want to be a living, breathing 44-year-old. If you’re content to have your head shoved in a hot oven and then get your throat slit, or perhaps be drowned, slowly, in your own toilet, then the winter of 2006 is an excellent season to be 44 in Sweden.

Of course, the team isn’t privy to the same information as the reader. Such as sections conveniently labeled “Diary of a Murderer.” The fact that there are multiple entries for multiple victims seems to answer at least part of Hamad’s query (wait, was his a rhetorical question?). And this diary doesn’t pull any punches. But who reads crime fiction to be coddled? The scene of oven head-shoving is brought even more vividly to life by what’s being cooked (a juicy moose steak) but it’s nothing compared to the slow and painful death of the second victim, a once-beautiful woman who’s turned to prostitution to pay the bills. There’s the requisite tying up, some slicing of flesh, but then the killer, whose words we’re reading and yet whose identity is still unknown, gets down to business.

I put the sheet back and take the cigarette and burn a deep hole on her belly with it. All the while I am telling her more childhood memories, but the cigarette goes out after a while. I wonder how salt in the wound might feel, so I get salt from the kitchen and pour it in on the wound, but it doesn’t seem to feel good at all, and I explain to her what loneliness feels like and self-contempt. I’m starting to get tired of the physical violence, because I’m not a physical person at all, I prefer to stay on the mental plane instead, but I can’t think of anything more to say, so for the last time I take the sheet out of her mouth and ask her nicely to really beg me for forgiveness from the bottom of her heart, then it will be over, and she does that and I strangle her and then it’s over.

It’s hard to create a killer, especially one whose methods are as sadistic as Gerhardsen’s, and maintain any shred of sympathy. But Gerhardsen pulls off if not sympathy—it’s difficult to feel truly sorry someone who is holding another person down until they drown in the toilet bowl—then certainly a degree of empathy. We have more empathy for the serial killer than we do for the slick doctor who seems to have drugged and possibly raped one of Sjöberg’s team members, Petra Westman. It’s curious whom we’d side with if push came to shove. Slowly the killer’s past is unraveled and it’s full of horrors nearly as brutal, just not as fatal, as those inflicted decades later. The roles of the tormenter and the tormented have simply reversed and the child who was savagely beaten in preschool by classmates now metes out a similar punishment. Only instead of limping home to parents, the bullies, now old enough to have children of their own, pay the ultimate price for their actions.

It’s refreshing that even when Sjöberg’s team finally catches up—it takes them a few corpses to get on the right track but we must remember that they’re not accustomed to look for serial murderers—there’s no grand, expository finale where everything is smoothed out. Bodies are still bodies. Bullies are still bullies, alive or dead, and the question still remains: is revenge worth it?

Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly and Bookish. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.

Read all of Jordan Foster’s posts for Criminal Element.