I love dark mysteries, good ghost stories, and books about family secrets. The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin, a Swedish mystery writer, is one of my discoveries from the past year. It is an excellent book, atmospheric, absorbing, part mystery and part ghost story.
Katrine and Joachim move to Öland, a large island off the coast of Sweden, with their two children. Katrine has been living on the island with the children for several months and remodeling their house while Joachim finishes up his teaching job. Katrine lived in an outbuilding of the house as a child with her artist mother.
The house itself is almost a character in this book, and the first few chapters are about its history. It was built to be the home for the families of lighthouse keepers, and two lighthouses are nearby. The walls of the house are actually built from the wood salvaged from a ship wreck, and as with any old house, many people have died there. There are local stories about the house.
Joachim has just arrived to live permanently in the house, but he needs to make one more trip to pick up a load of things from their home in an upscale neighborhood of Stockholm, a home that they had also bought and restored. On his way back to the island, he gets a confused call from the Öland police who tell him that his daughter has drowned off the pier near the house. But when he gets home, he finds it is not his daughter but Katrine who has died. The police told him the wrong name. As he tries to take care of his young children and cope with his grief, Joachim begins to think the house is haunted. And his daughter is having strange dreams about her mother.
In the meantime, a policewoman starts work at the new police post on the island. Her first investigation involves a rash of robberies of summer cottages. Another point of view is of one of the housebreakers, who is becoming dismayed by the growing violence of his partners, who have decided that they will get more by breaking into occupied houses. The atmosphere and our sense of dread builds as Joachim gets a little odder and the housebreakers become more vicious.
And let’s not forget that we don’t actually understand the circumstances of Katrine’s death.
I was especially impressed by Theorin’s skill in revealing important pieces of information naturally throughout the book instead of laying them out at the beginning. For example, early on Joachim has a few stray thoughts about a woman. He feels some guilt about her but we don’t know why or who she is. We find out later, naturally, as Joachim thinks about her, in addition to some other facts that turn out to be important to the plot. This technique doesn’t seem artificial at all, but more organic and reflective of how thoughts and memory actually work.
I’ve read one other book by Theorin, also set on Öland. I can’t wait to read more.