Red Wolf by Liza Marklund
Published in Sweden in 2003, Red Wolf made its debut in English in the same year that her latest novel, The Postcard Killers, written in collaboration with James Patterson, reached the number-one spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list (making Marklund the second Swedish author, after Stieg Larsson, to attain that position).
Like the majority of the writer-journalist’s crime novels, Red Wolf chronicles the adventures of the tabloid journalist Annika Bengtzon, who, after a brief sabbatical from daily reporting, has opted to become an independent investigative reporter for a major Stockholm tabloid, with a focus on terrorism and its history and consequences.
Having made a few routine reports on 9/11, covered the bombing of a shopping centre in Finland, and interviewed survivors of the Bali bombings, Bengtzon wants to sink her teeth into a knottier, less publicized act, and the (fictional) 1969 attack on the F21 military base near the Swedish city of Lulea proves the ideal case.
Though dual investigations of the incident, in which a fighter-plane exploded and caused fatal burns to a young conscript, were conducted at the time by police and security police, every suspected Swedish left-wing group remained untouched, and the attack was blamed on Russian paramilitary forces.
However, the inability of investigators to penetrate Sweden’s activist underground, combined with the unsavoury treatment of the victim’s family, which was placed under a gag order and denied compensation, left a cloud over the incident which an eager Bengtzon finds all too enticing.
Her hunch about a cover-up appears confirmed when she learns that a veteran journalist in Lulea, Benny Eklund, has been killed in a hit-and-run – days after he published an article about F21 and terrorism. She tracks down a young witness to the incident whose evident terror is justified when he is found murdered in his home a short while later. Bengtzon’s dogged digging goes on, and more bodies pile up.
It is no giveaway to say that subtlety is not Marklund’s great talent – though, in fairness, one never knows what has been lost in translation. Her strengths are structural – the pacing of Red Wolf is top-notch – and in the development of dramatic tension, though here it is a pair of familial sub-plots that snatch the reader’s attention, making the resolution of the F21 mystery the less satisfying part of the story.
You see, Bengtzon is a workaholic with two young children and a put-upon husband, Thomas, who is finding the charms of a sympathetic colleague hard to resist. Separately, Bengtzon’s best friend Anne is drowning her grief over her ex-husband’s remarriage and baby-on-the-way in too much wine.
Swedish crime writing has a distinct flavour, set as it often is in the frozen hinterland of the Arctic nation; more than most crime writers, the likes of Henning Mankell, Larsson and Marklund seem to enjoy taking their reader on a tiki-tour of outlying, snow-bound villages in pursuit of their investigators’ prey. While Marklund’s writing might lack some of the depth and resonance of the others’ work, she has in Bengtzon an appealing and versatile protagonist whose tenacity makes Red Wolf a satisfying Scandinavian adventure.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones