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Friday, January 3, 2014

The Fire Dance by Helen Tursten, translated by Laura Wideburg

Soho Press, 336 pages, $26.95, c2005 (U.S. release 1/7/14)

This is the sixth in the Detective Inspector Irene Huss series to be translated into English from the works by Swedish author Helen Tursten. Although it’s far down the line in the series, it’s fine to read it without having the prior books as background. Author Tursten does a good job of presenting the background of the relevant repeating characters, especially since part of the story is a flashback to right after Irene Huss joined the police department in 1989.

This is how her superintendent, Sven Andersson, thinks of Huss in 1989: “He had a hard time hiding his irritation that he’d gotten a female inspector, and one with two small kids to boot.” When the second part of the book moves forward to the present day of 2004 (the book was originally released in Sweden in 2005), Andersson is still her supervisor and how times have changed! Huss is now an accepted and valued member of the violent crimes team in Göteborg. (But Andersson is still a grumpy old warhorse.)

In 1989, greenhorn Huss happens to be in a more rural area when she catches a call to proceed to a house fire at a farm. The body of a man is found in the wreckage. Huss meets the man’s wife, Angelika; his son, 8-year-old Frej; and his stepdaughter, 11-year-old Sophie. Suspecting that the fire might have been caused by arson, Huss interviews witnesses. She finds out that there is something strange about Sophie. She will not speak to Huss or any authority figure. She might be traumatized by the event, or it might be something more intrinsic: “Irene became intensely aware of the temperature shift around the girl. It was hard to tell if it was warmer or colder, but something was there that Irene would later describe as an ‘energy field.’ The phenomenon was so unusual that Irene started to wonder if it was due to her own nervousness about the interrogation.” Eventually other investigations intrude and a verdict of accidental fire is found, but Huss finds it hard to forget Sophie.

In 2004, Detective Inspector Huss and her partner, Tommy Persson, investigate the disappearance of — wait for it, wait for it — Sophie Malmborg, the same Sophie from 15 years earlier. She had grown into a striking young woman with a passion and extraordinary talent for dance, but apparently still had difficulty communicating with people. Once again, Huss and Persson reacquaint themselves with Sophie’s family: sultry and libidinous Angelika, nervous Frej, and combative and demented Ingrid (Angelika’s ex-sister-in-law and the owner of the farm where the house burned down). This time, Huss has more experience and now knows what questions to ask about the incident 15 years ago, just in case that had something to do with Sophie’s disappearance. Huss has to ramp up her detecting skills as more untoward events occur as a result of poking her nose into old passions.

Helen Tursten does a great job presenting both the crime story and her character, Irene Huss. Huss is the rare fictional police detective who has a real family (husband, 18-year-old twin daughters), doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t listen to jazz, and isn’t obsessive about anything other than getting to the bottom of the crimes she is assigned. She’s even a jujitsu expert.

Tursten defines her major and minor characters well without bloating the word count, throws in decent atmosphere, tosses in a few red herrings (or barely pink herrings maybe), and offers up a decent crime novel with an engaging, competent main character.

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