The Darkest Day

Written by Haken Nesser

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Darkest Day
RRP: £16.99
Released: November 2 2017

Rosemarie Hermansson wakens from a nightmare. The matriarch of a large family in a small Swedish town, she faces the question: should she kill her husband or herself? Is this an omen, a threat or a warning?

The Hermansson clan is gathering to celebrate two birthdays: Karl-Erik’s 60th and daughter Ebba’s 40th.  Karl-Erik and Rosemarie are retired and about to emigrate to Spain: the Costa Geriatrica, according to Rosemarie who wasn’t consulted. Spouses in this family are either domineering or dominated. Ebba, the strong elder daughter, is a successful surgeon, married to a plain and plain-spoken butcher. The younger sister, Kristina, is beautiful and shallow, with an autocratic husband. There are children: Kristina’s infant who sleeps a lot and comes out with isolated obscenities, Ebba’s two boys, and Robert, in his thirties, son of Rosemarie and Karl-Erik, who has committed a sin so heinous  his name is not mentioned within the family; nation-wide it’s on everyone’s lips along with its sobriquet, Wanker.

Robert is a small-time actor in one of the live TV shows that steer close to the line. Recently the line was crossed and Robert is the scapegoat. He arrives unexpectedly at the family party, causing such consternation that when he walks out into the December night and doesn’t return the relief is palpable. It’s assumed he has gone abroad. However he’s forgotten when it becomes apparent that his nephew, Henrik, Ebba’s older boy, went missing at roughly the same time and he is only 17, and much loved.

Abhorrence of publicity (the family’s link with Wanker Robert) results in delay in reporting Henrik’s disappearance and when the police do arrive, in the person of Inspector Barbarotti, there is considerable relief, at least on the part of the reader. Here is a good cop: a stabilising element in a welter of discordant personalities, where emergent snobbery and rampant neuroses disguise fears that are more intense than the horror of ridicule.

Barbarotti is a series character, and fun. Besides his common sense he introduces humour, part facetious, part witty, and both welcome where until now events seem to have been influenced by this the darkest day in the Nordic winter. It had been obvious that there was more than one skeleton in one cupboard; sex was deeply implicated and not only among the teenagers with their raging hormones, nor is it wholly covert.  By the time the police are called in the reader knows more than some of the characters: that, for instance, Robert was wandering the streets in search of one particular girl when he disappeared. We are aware that Henrik made an intimate confession to Aunt Kristina, that his young brother was involved.   We know even more than the police, and this knowledge persists, the reader clued in by the author: always one step ahead of Barbarotti, and yet the suspense is continually racked up, almost unbearably. How can this be resolved? The final dilemma is excruciating.

There is an epilogue  with Barbarotti considering God and truth and human behaviour while, at a distance, Rosemarie is finding a kind of contentment drinking sweet wine at Malaga airport as she waits for her daughter to arrive from Sweden.

A fresh and exciting example of Nordic Noir. I haven’t  been so much engaged since Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Fire Engine that Disappeared.

Translated by Sarah Death

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