Title: Light in a Dark House
Author: Jan Costin Wagner
Publisher: Random House UK
Read: July 17 - 23, 2013
Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa is called to the local hospital in which his young wife died several years before. An unidentified woman in a coma has been murdered by someone who wept over the body, their tears staining the sheets around her. The death marks the start of a series of killings, with the unknown patient at their centre.
As autumn turns to winter, and Christmas fast approaches, Kimmo's attempts to unravel the case and identify the first victim are complicated by the disappearance of his sometime girlfriend, who has vanished after an awkward encounter at a party thrown by the head of the police force, and by a colleague's spiral into the depths of a gambling addiction.
Light in a Dark House is an atmospheric, haunting and beautifully written psychological crime thriller from an award-winning crime writer.
In an autumn when no rain fell, Kimmo Joentaa was living with a woman who had no name. The anticyclone keeping the weather fine had been christened Magdalena. The woman told people to call her Larissa. She came and went. He didn’t know where from or where to.
Thus starts Wagner’s latest novel, Light in a Dark House. Young detective Kimmo Joentaa has finally found the courage to move on after the death of his wife and is living with a mysterious woman who calls herself Larissa. When he is called to the scene of the murder of a nameless woman at the local hospital in Turku, Joentaa is surprised – the woman had been the victim of an unsolved violent crime and had been in a coma for weeks, not expected to survive. What would be the motive to kill her? Even more mysterious is the evidence that the killer has shed tears at the woman’s bedside – a murderer who weeps for his victim? For Joentaa, solving this particular crime takes on a new meaning when he not only has to deal with the memories of his wife’s death on the same hospital ward years ago, but also Larissa’s disappearance from the house at the same time the victim is murdered. Soon more victims follow, and Joentaa links the murders to his nameless victim in Turku – someone is apparently seeking revenge for a crime committed years ago, but what was it, who was the woman, and most importantly, who is the killer?
German born and raised and having made Finland his new home, Wagner writes an unusual hybrid type of mystery – a Scandinavian setting with the melancholy atmosphere of Northern Europe. The scenes play out almost movie like in front of the reader’s eyes - imagine a kaleidoscope of atmospheric visual backdrops accompanied by mournful violin music. Snow softly falling on a lost key under an apple tree, a lonely cabin with its lights burning waiting for Joentaa’s lover to return, the stark halls of a hospital where Joentaa’s wife died. Each scene providing a small glimpse into a character’s most innermost feelings, hopes and dreams. Wagner doesn’t offer explanations, but instead slowly develops the picture of his characters through carefully placed hints and descriptions which circle in the air like carelessly blown smoke rings, expanding and intertwining until the reader can form his/her own picture.
Unlike many other Scandinavian thrillers, violence is understated in Light in a Dark House, though it is always present, a menacing shadow bearing down on its characters. Wagner is not interested in serving up graphic scenes of violent death to shock his readers, but instead focuses on the crime’s victims and its aftermath of sadness and loss on others. Often the boundaries between good and evil, justice and crime are blurry, with the victims becoming the perpetrators and vice versa. Wagner does not judge, simply presenting each character’s thoughts and emotions and letting them speak for themselves. And yet the novel deals with some dark and disturbing issues: domestic violence, sexual abuse, trauma, loss, grief and the fate of the nameless victim with nobody to fight for them.
Sadness is a dominant thread running through the entire novel, expressed in the tears the murderer sheds for his nameless victim, in Joentaa crying when confronted with the crime’s secondary casualties, or in Larissa sobbing in her sleep. Wagner shows a rare insight into the dark night of the soul when a loved one dies, and explores this in the thoughts and actions of his characters. Everyone who has ever lost a loved one will relate to some of the desolation described in the novel – both in its symbolism as well as its characters. Light in a Dark House is more than simply a murder-mystery, but deals with intricate emotional issues which stay with the reader long until the last page has been turned. In the end not everything is explained and much is left to the reader for interpretation, which in this case worked well for me and left me mindful of the complexities of the human psyche. For my part, I loved Wagner’s writing style, which is both sparse and yet rich in emotional depth. Joentaa, who is not afraid to shed tears for the victims of the crimes he is trying to solve, is a complex, mysterious character who I would love to know more about. Only after reading this novel did I find out that Light in a Dark House is the fourth book in a series featuring Kimmo Joentaa, with earlier novels dealing with the aftermath of his wife’s untimely death and developing a character with rare psychological insight into the minds of the perpetrators.
I highly recommend Light in a Dark House to anyone who is looking for a bit more than your average murder-mystery. For my part, I am planning to read all of Wagner’s earlier books, and eagerly await the next Kimmo Joentaa book in the series.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.