The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

I’m woefully behind on reviewing books. I read this one shortly after Stockholm Text kindly sent me a quartet of their newly launched imprint, one that takes advantage of new technologies to make translations of Swedish work available as ebooks and through short-run printing.

Carin Gerhardsen has written a police procedural series set in Hammarby, which I gather is a southern suburb of Stockholm. For once, the first of her books to be translated is actually the first in the series. In The Gingerbread House we meet a genial detective, Conny Sjoberg, who works with a team of detectives (including a bright young woman, Petra Westman, and the Lebanese-heritage Jamal Hamad, who gets rather fed up with comments about his background, having to say with exasperation “I’m Swedish, damn it!”) We also meet a nameless individual whose festering rage at being bullied in school many years ago, described in a disturbing prologue,  has led in adulthood to a moment when it’s time for revenge.

This made for a disconcerting reading experience for me, going between Conny’s hyper-normal home life (he has a calm, efficient wife and no less than five children, including adopted infant twins), then spending time with a disturbed and isolated person acting on a long-harbored grudge. The first crime is chillingly described as a man is lured from his home and family to a vacant house. His body is then discovered by an elderly, somewhat addled woman returning home after a stay at the hospital. She’s not much help to the police, being entirely ignorant of any reason her house became a crime scene and a bit crabby about the inconvenience. The police are stumped, and it takes them some time to connect this unsolved murder with others that have occurred elsewhere. The reader, of course, is well ahead of them, having a ringside seat on acts of escalating violence, the last attack one that I flipped past because it was too graphic.

This structure made me a bit impatient with the police – come on, what’s taking you so long? – but they don’t have much information and do eventually connect the dots. For the smug reader who thought the police failed to see an obvious pattern, well … the author has a trick or two up her sleeve yet. The narrative that seems overly schematic (scenes with the killer and victims alternating with baffled police holding pieces of the puzzle, unsure how they fit together) turns out to be quite a bit more sophisticated than it may have appeared.

In some ways, this is a classic Scandinavian mystery, though it lacks the standard-issue divorced and introspective gloomy detective. Gerhardsen, like so many Swedish crime writers, doesn’t just attribute the causes of crime in a killer’s dysfunctional childhood, she shows how a social institution that has failed can lead to situations in which social norms go awry and the resulting damage has long-lasting cumulative effects. In this case the failure is at a school where an indifferent teacher lets small children develop into a nasty Lord-of-the-Flies tribe of savages in which the weak are routinely tormented by the strong. The violence lives on in shattered lives as the victim-perpetrator roles are reversed. In contrast we see up close two institutions that function well: the team of earnest police and the well-adjusted family.

Ponderous thoughts alert:

Many years ago Ian Hacking wrote an interesting article in Critical Inquiry (subscription or a willingness to read one of the many unauthorized copies lying about the Internet required) about how American ideas about cycles of violence and the intergenerational transmission of abuse were in part a tactical way to call attention to a problem without suggesting society needed expensive repairs. When doctors wanted to raise awareness about the high numbers of children being seen with injuries in emergency rooms, they argued it was a problem all classes experienced so they would not get mired in an unwinnable fight over funding for social programs. Later, when a not-very-rigorous study suggested abused children became abusers, it was seized on because it helped absolve the rest of us from having to address the human costs of broken social contracts. We Americans don’t like to pay taxes and are big on individualism, and we like to think our choices are ours to make – or at least that problems are all in the family.

I think this is reflected in much mainstream popular fiction. Police organizations backed by totally reliable forensic science pursue problems that originate in choices people make or started in a family without proper family values. There is also a strong tradition of finding villains in rapacious corporations, sinister government agencies, and in lifestyles of the rich and famous. Less common are these kinds of stories, where the roots of violence can be traced to a school where a teacher was indifferent to her responsibilities, nobody noticed, and the children were not all right. In some ways, these causes are too small and quotidian  for big thrillers. In other ways they are far too big. It costs a lot to have good schools, so we’d rather pinpoint the sources of violence elsewhere.

Sometimes I’m a bit exasperated with the social critique found in novels set in countries that seem to work so well. You have good schools! health care! a safety net! Our failed social institutions can top yours any day! Yet I also appreciate the nuanced way in which this wide-angle lens makes us feel some empathy with all of the characters. In this case, I thought Gerhardsen did a good job of showing how both bullies and their victims were shaped by their experiences so many years ago in the schoolyard. Responsibility is shared; no answers are simple. I also appreciated the fact that what seemed a bit cut and dried at first just means I wasn’t paying enough attention.

4 thoughts on “The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

  1. Excellent review and analysis. I did enjoy the book, but like you I felt it was a bit disjointed in its oscillation between normality and “abnormality”. I liked the subplot about Petra’s possible date-rape (though the history lesson in the bar was very clunky). She’s an interesting character. Personally, I found the psychology a bit “cod”, though I agree that childhood experiences and lazy teachers (parents also in these particular cases) are highly influential.

    I really enjoyed your “ponderous thoughts”. In the UK we do have a social welfare system and less (overall) fascination and worship of the gun/violence culture as America, though of course it is here too to some degree. I think your points about the taxes and the “fobbing off” of social responsibility are very well taken. In my naive way I have been rather shocked by the attitude of some people on the internet who are intelligent and who write blogs I admire, in their robust refusal to accept taxes et al, cloaking it as “big government” or “government interference in individuals’ lives” or invoke constitutional rights. There is something sick about this attitude “I am alright/I made it from nothing so you are/can too”.

    In the past (long before the current financial crisis) I’ve been shocked by stories from colleagues living in places such as Boston, about schools closing part-time or before terms end, because there is no money left to keep them going/pay teachers. Scientists I know working for top-class universities have had to take pay freezes/not been paid etc. Now of course it is much worse.

    At the end of the day, responsibility does start at home, with the parents. in the UK you get a lot of this awful attitude from parents that schools are a babysitting service & they expect to put little Johnny or Jill in at 11 and get a four-star Oxbridge entrant out at 18, the parents having spent the intervening years in the pub or watching TV. Of course this is an exaggeration, but parents (whether in a couple or as separated individuals) are part of the social framework that should support children. Of course the state should kick in early-on (nursery and primary school) when problems first are spotted, and sadly, as you point out, all too often people fall through the cracks and then don’t contribute positively to society when they are older (they probably ask why they should bother, if they ask).

    Sorry for the ramble/rant, it is Sunday afternoon and I’m resting up!

  2. Thanks, Maxine – I did find Petra the most interesting of the characters and hope she’ll play a role in future books in this series.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to the ponderous bit. Higher education in the US is being enormously affected by public disinvestment. I work at a private institution, but the tuition at public schools has gone up so steeply to make up for cuts that it’s a real shame. There’s a lot of fury at the increasing cost of college that doesn’t always take into account that they have much less funding from the state to pay the bills. We had a state government shutdown a year ago when the legislature wanted to pass an austere budget that the governor wouldn’t sign. State parks closed, fishing licenses weren’t issued (a huge crisis for this part of the world) but the universities were able to carry on with classes – good news, but also a bit sad in that they basically collect enough from student tuition that they didn’t rely on the state’s funding. My son works as a physicist for one of the national labs and always wonders what the next federal budget battles will lead to.

    I’m actually surprised public libraries haven’t been closed more widely. They have taken budget hits, but only a few community’s have actually said “we can’t afford this public luxury.” Communities seem to rally around when their libraries are threatened. It’s one institution that seems to be valued by all kinds of people, though there’s huge variation in support depending on how much wealth is in the local economy.

    Agreed that the general well-being of a society is is a mix of individual, family, and social responsibilities. I think that comes through in good crime fiction – the complexity of it all, and the capacity for understanding a person who goes off the rails without making excuses or wagging fingers at the authorities or the bad mother or whatever might have played a role.

  3. Have read the next two books as well, and Petra continues to play a major role. (And the rape sub-plot doesn’t go away either). I really like the series, even if books are a bit uneven – I realise this sounds a bit silly, but it’s nice to read books with pleasant main characters!

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