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The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

Carin Gerhardsen’s artful revenge tale The Gingerbread House features several hallmarks of the mystery stories for which Swedish authors have become rightly renowned. Gerhardsen has the same clear eye for solitude and singularity as Henning Mankell, and Stieg Larsson’s talent for character composition. Like the American expatriate Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, whose brilliant series is set in Leon’s longtime home city of Venice, Gerhardsen’s detective protagonist is philosophical, sagacious and driven by unerring instinct, and without prejudice in his view of people and evidence.

Most of all, The Gingerbread House recalls Roald Dahl’s stinging short story ‘Galloping Foxley’, in which a commuter, recognizing another man his age on the train, reflects on the parade of horrendous assaults he suffered as a student at an elite English public school. That story ends without bloodshed, at least in the present day – Gerhardsen’s shows what happens when traumatized adults determine that their torment can no longer go unavenged.

Dahl’s scenario is revisited when Thomas, a now middle-aged man whom we first meet as a bullied boy in the town of Katrineholm, is travelling home from work. His life has been one of ostracism and increasing despair. He works in a low-level job delivering internal mail in an electronics company, he lives alone, and his awareness that is he is not valued or even seen by others is acute. To the reader’s eye, he is a man on the verge.

Commuting home one day in Stockholm, he spies a man whom he identifies as ‘King Hans’, a ringleader of the bullying gang of six-year-old girls and boys who visited misery upon him. As Thomas tracks Hans, we learn that he is happily married with three children and a principal in his own thriving real estate agency. He is on his way, in the early evening, to view a potential listing near his home, and shortly after he enters the house he dies violently.

The death of Hans turns out to be the first in a string, as several of the adults who were once members of the loose gang of sadistic children meet their makers in scenes Gerhardsen crafts as if with a scalpel, dispatching the victims with surgical precision.

Enter the coppers, led by DCI Conny Sjoberg, chief inspector of the Violent Crimes Unit and the head of an harmonious household of five children under nine. He craves order and logic, and is the first to notice that the seemingly unrelated murders all involve 44-year-old victims. Aiding him, and leading an excellent subplot, is Petra Westman, a police assistant who finds herself conducting her own revenge mission.

The Gingerbread House is that rare thing: a nearly flawless cat-and-mouse thriller in which the predators and prey switch roles, a personal drama of suffering and relief, a mildly feminist warning that not all strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. It is no less compelling for its contemplative, unhurried style and regular scenes of peaceful familial togetherness; like a slow-moving river, the danger is just below the surface, awaiting discovery.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones