The Cruel Stars of the Night

The Cruel Stars of the Night

by Kjell Eriksson

translated by Ebba Seggerberg

Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur

312 pages, 2007






Restless in Uppsala

Reviewed by David Thayer


The murder of an elderly farmer and the disappearance of a classics professor set this mystery in motion. The Violent Crimes Unit of Sweden’s Uppsala police department is baffled by the apparently random nature of the crimes: the vanished professor may or may not be linked to the homicide they’re investigating, a crime that itself has no apparent motive.

The Cruel Stars of the Night is the second English-translated work from Kjell Eriksson, author of the much-lauded novel The Princess of Burundi (released in the United States just last year, but winner of the Swedish Crime Academy Award for Best Crime Novel back in 1992). Once more, Eriksson’s large cast of cops is assigned to keep Uppsala (Sweden’s fourth-largest city) safe and secure. I haven’t seen this many Swedish names since the closing credits of an Ingmar Bergman film. Eriksson gives even his minor characters full names, plus a job title, and when the police get together for meetings the entire roster occupies slivers of the spotlight. Readers inclined to put books aside and pick them up later may feel as though their party has been crashed by a phenomenal assortment of Swedes, all of them interesting, if hard to place.

Ann Lindell is the lead investigator in Cruel Stars by dint of the fact that she’s the most complete character in these pages and certainly the most interesting one. Inspector Lindell is thorough, something of a loner in the squad, and a single mother with a young son to look after.

In the course of her inquiry she interviews Laura Hindersten, the thin, 35-year-old daughter of that missing professor. Absorbed as she is by another case, the murder of an elderly man, Lindell accepts Laura’s explanation at face value -- that her father simply wandered off. Yet, even before any inquiry can be made into the disappearance, Laura suggests that her father “may be dead, murdered.” Her state of mind is revealed in a scene in which Laura cleans the house she shares with her parent, reliving her childhood as she sorts through family belongings:

When Laura entered the living room it was as if she were transported back twenty five years. The cage stood in its place, and she thought she could hear [the parrot] Splendens run through its repertoire of curses and dirty words in the Tuscan dialect, phrases that Laura sometimes used in the office. These were always a big hit, Laura as a fresh-mouthed Italian hussy became a staple at the annual office Christmas party, even if afterward she felt dirty inside.

For Lindell’s part, she and her colleagues at Violent Crimes are alarmed and baffled after the death of a second elderly man. The inspector finally makes a connection between the first dead farmer and a mysterious woman who traveled to Majorca with him years earlier. But an impending royal visit from Swedish Queen Silvia complicates the investigation, as does a sidetrack into a chess-related conspiracy theory. This excerpt from Ann Lindell’s point of view summarizes the mystery:

Why kill two seventy-year-old farmers? Just as in Blomgren’s house, nothing here was touched. Straight into the house, bash the old man’s head in, and leave the same way. That’s how the whole thing must have happened.

Lindell embarks on a relationship with one of her colleagues, a man who has transferred in from another town and asks her out. Lindell is cautious, concerned about her child, but in need of a more complete life. Her dilemma in fact parallels that of Laura Hindersten, who takes a lover just as her world disintegrates into a delusional fantasy based on fragments of memory stirred up by her vigorous housecleaning. Laura fixates on a married couple from work, Stig and Jessica Franklin, imagining that Stig can be hers once Jessica is out of the picture. Laura’s encounter with Stig is real enough, even if her expectations are not.

There was only one thing left to do: follow through. She had an idea of how it should be one, but now she wavered. Stig had not been in touch with her. Laura imagined him standing in front of her with that hopeless look he had when Jessica turned on him. Jessica did not use many words but her whole body signaled superiority and Stig adopted the posture of a subordinate.

Laura’s insights may be accurate, but her grasp on reality is disintegrating. She plans a future, while reliving childhood memories of Italy, where her father sought fame as a distinguished scholar and her mother faded into the background. The dysfunctional couple dragged Laura through the drama of their failure until her mother, Alice, died in a fall down a staircase.

This elaborate back-story puts the reader squarely in Laura’s point of view. We spend so much time with her that her incipient madness overshadows the efforts of the police. The reader finds him- or herself many steps ahead of the fictional investigation -- so much so, that the intrigue of apparently motiveless crimes in Uppsala is lost. Knowing why Laura is doing the things she’s doing pales in comparison to the question of why no one is paying much attention during her spectacular meltdown.

The Cruel Stars of the Night is an interesting book, due to author Eriksson’s restless inquiry into Laura’s state of mind, and his eye for detail at every turn. The chess subplot and the visit to Uppsala by Queen Silvia add to the squad’s burden, but Cruel Stars doesn’t lose its crucial focus on Lindell and Laura, women who seem like kindred spirits before the nature of Laura’s madness becomes clear.

The climax here is exciting, although it seems almost to be a tongue-in-cheek paean to cheesy slasher movies in which everyone separates in order to be killed. This aura of improbability undermines the tension of Lindell’s confrontation with Laura and, by this time the latter has evolved from case study to full-fledged outlaw, from neighborhood eccentric to dangerous lunatic. Laura’s wrath spreads from books on Italian literature to anything that moves, before Cruel Stars’ final scenes in the woods near the farm where her mother grew up.

Kjell Eriksson has been compared both to Henning Mankell (The Man Who Smiled) and to the late Ed McBain, but I think he’s more of a one-off. Mankell’s ramrod stoicism is on display in Eriksson’s work, but that Scandinavian fatalism is more observed than felt. Eriksson’s sense of humor lingers beneath the surface. The Cruel Stars of the Night may be too introspective for everyone to classify it as a thriller, but it does gently nudge the police procedural toward true north. | July 2007

David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He’s also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.