On a snowy night just before Christmas John Jonsson, an unemployed welder and expert on African ornamental fish, fails to come home for his supper. He later is found in the snow tortured and brutally murdered.
'Little John' Jonsson is survived by his beautiful wife Berit, his teenage son Justus, and by his brother Lennart, well known to the police as a local small time villain.
Lennart does not trust the police and begins his own investigation into his brother's murder, and a secret shared by John and Justus.
The story follows Lennart's efforts, the activities of a psychopath Vincent who went to school with John, and the systematic investigations of Uppsala's police team.
The team under the kindly direction of chief Ottosson are missing detective Anne Lindell, who is on an extended maternity leave looking after baby Erik. The other detectives Ola Haver, in charge, Frederiksson, who prefers paper to computers, germophobic Peter Lundin, Berglund, Beatrice and Riis begin a trawl through the life and contacts of John Jonsson. Lindell will later get involved both in the police work and in an emotional entanglement in what is a very good example of police procedural crime fiction.
Kjell Eriksson is an interesting author born in 1953 he was for many years a construction worker and then a gardener for ten years before giving up to become a full time writer. His politics are very left wing [possibly a member of the SKP Swedish Communist Party] and this comes over in the book in the way he talks about the nobility of labour and the goodness of John's father, a roofer and representative of Uppsala's working class.
In 1999 Eriksson turned to writing crime fiction because he "wanted to deliver and experience suspense" and "the existence of a built in voltage moment". [from translated article in Ordfront Forlag].
When he first started writing he was treated with suspicion by his friends, but now he is regarded with warmth and respect by his former co -workers.
"Mentally, I am still on our side of the river, but I utilize the principal means of expression of the west side-the written language." [Behind the Headlines, Behind the Dividing Lines:Kjell Eriksson: Mystery Readers Journal Fall 2007]
He is now "World famous in Uppsala".
Although The Princess of Burundi is the first Anne Lindell novel to be published in English it is number 4 in the series, and the next two books in English The Cruel Stars of The Night and The Demon of Dakar are numbers 6 and 7. This makes it a little difficult to get into the book because we have not got to know the characters in the way in which the author intended.
Number One in the series The Illuminated Path won the Best First Crime Fiction novel in 1999 and The Princess of Burundi won the Best Novel award in 2002.
The derivation from the Sjowall and Wahloo Martin Beck and the Ed McBain 87th Precinct team police procedurals is clear to see and is even referred to when a Rastafarian locksmith asks Frederiksson "Are you Sweden's answer to Carella?".
I thought it apt that a tribute to McBain's procedurals in the city of Isola should be located in Uppsala.
With any of these police procedural team novels it is the quality of the characters and the interaction between them that decide whether they are successful. Carella, Meyer, Kling, Gunvald Larsson, Kollberg, Bennny Skacke and Martin Beck were all memorable and I am not sure that apart from Anne Lindell and possibly Ola Haver the police are quite as interesting in this Uppsala novel.
But what Eriksson does do very well is introduce with the characters of the pathetic Vincent and the very angry Lennart a study of the split society in a university city, and how the failure to recognize problems early in school can destroy future lives.
He also places Anne Lindell firmly on his side of the tracks:
" I am certainly not sophisticated", she said quietly to herself. "Not like the detectives on TV, the ones who listen to opera, know Greek mythology, and know if a wine is right for fish or a white meat."
I have lived in two university cities and seen the vast social gulf that exists between 'town and gown' and sometimes the effect is not pleasant.
"But Berglund was certainly aware of the fact that there were two cities, two Uppsalas: Oskar's and the skankarna [a slang word for university graduates], with their academic degrees."
The Princess of Burundi is the sort of book that grows on you and while it does take a little more concentration to follow all the different strands of the story it is certainly worth the effort.
I enjoyed this book more because I had spent a day in Uppsala many years ago, the west side, and I thought it was a beautiful city. Also the constant reference to roofers reminded me of a story my father told me. My father and grandfather were both master glaziers used to working at heights. During a Zeppelin raid in the First World War my grandfather, an air raid warden, tied my father aged then about 7 to him, and they climbed over the roofs dealing with the primitive incendiary bombs.
I should point out I did not inherit any of their ability with glass or their bravery.
You can read another review of The Princess of Burundi here.