The district commission's estate administrator Marianne Folkesson is given the task and finds, in Gerda's apartment, books with personal dedications from the author acclaimed Nobel Prize winner, Axel Ragnerfeldt.
Axel Ragnerfeldt is in a nursing home, a stroke having left him paralysed and unable to speak. Marianne contacts his son Jan-Erik, who lectures about his father's work, sets up charitable foundations, and sleeps with available women who come to his lectures. His marriage has become a farce, sex with his wife Louise non- existent, while he virtually ignores his daughter Ellen.
Louise spends her money on breast surgery, runs a smart boutique and remembers the time when she was a published poet. Her mother in law Alice drinks, watches television, mourns a dead child, and thinks about her own long lost writing career. Both women have been destroyed by their husbands and the overbearing Ragnerfeldt legend.
Gerda Persson was the Ragnerfeldt's house keeper during Jan-Erik's childhood and he remembers her looking after them before he left to live in the USA for a few years.
The old servant has left all her estate to Kristoffer Sandeblom, a disturbed young playwright who is ashamed that he is a foundling, and has only one friend the equally inadequate Jesper.
Marianne contacts Kristoffer and in the days before Gerda's funeral he wonders if he will find the reason his parents abandoned him. Jan-Erik, his marriage collapsing, searches his parents old house for a photo of Gerda and discovers secrets that were better left buried.
Kristoffer wonders why a man called Torgny Wennberg, an old associate of Axel Ragnerfeldt, has said he will come to Gerda's funeral, and decides to make contact with Jan-Erik.
This is a complicated and complex novel which paints a very bleak picture of humanity with its cast of socially damaged characters. The most damaged is Halina, a Holocaust survivor, who becomes infatuated with Axel and this is the precursor to the future disasters.
Author Karin Alvtegen with a series of flashbacks and backstories sets out to explain why her characters are so desperately unhappy and as she peels back the outer shell of their lives we discover some terrible secrets on the way to a brutal ending.
The translation by McKinley Burnett [aka Steven Murray, aka Reg Keeland] is excellent, as usual, and this helps makes the novel unputdownable.
The book succeeds on many levels but especially as a lesson that once you take that first shaky step away from the straight and narrow you have no idea where it may lead. This book like the other Alvtegen novel I have read Betrayal is brilliantly written and plotted; but it is very dark definitely not a cheerful read.
"We're not equals."
"What do you mean by that?'
She still had her back turned away from him.
"Because I'm content and you're not. You're always chasing after what you imagine you could become."
Gerda went back to whisking, marking the end of their talk. Axel sat speechless, contemplating her words. And realised that he'd received the most serious insult of his life.
This novel won the Danish Academy of Crime Writers Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year, and I would not be surprised if it won further awards.