The Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt: A Review

The fourth entry in the Anders Knutas series, translated by Tiina Nunnelly, has recently been published by Stockholm Text for the US market. (It appeared in the UK back in 2010.) Like others in the series, it is a police procedural set on the island of Gotland with a television news team adding a secondary set of investigators into the mix.

In The Killer’s Art, a successful art dealer prepares to make a major life change after an exhibit of a talented young artist. However, someone has other plans, and Egon Wallin’s body is found hanging from Dalman’s gate, part of Visby’s historic wall. Clearly, he isn’t the victim of a suicide. Someone very strong killed him and made a display of it – which, in a way, is appropriate for a story that is largely about the art world.

At first, the story is a bit fractured, with short scenes from various points of view needing to be assembled by the reader. It’s a bit of a relief when Knutas arrives to take charge of the investigation. He  is soon joined by journalist Johann Berg and photographer Pia Lilja, whose dramatic photo of the hanged man quickly appears on the front page of newspapers across Sweden. Each team digs away at the art dealer’s past, which includes a cache of stolen paintings and a plan to leave his wife.

We also get to know some art dealers who knew the murder victim, one of whom has a drinking problem and a taste for rough sex and for a painting by a famous Swedish artist which is later stolen in a daring and well-planned heist. From time to time, we see the action from the perspective of Egon Wallin’s killer, driven by his own impassioned if murky motivation. We also get to learn more about the ongoing work and family relationships of the recurring characters.

The story is complex but the investigation unfolds nicely, However, the the dependence on the kind of “deviance” depicted in the painting plays too heavy-handed a role in the motivation of the crime and the relationships that lead to it. I also am tired of family members of the sleuths being drawn into the case to increase the drama.

That said, I enjoyed the book once Knutas arrived on the scene, and the scenery as always was a pleasure. This series is part of the shocking-violence-in-pastoral-settings school of Swedish crime, landing it somewhere between the excellent novels by Johann Theorin set on the neighboring island of Oland and the fluffy serial killer dramas by Camilla Lackberg, set on an island on the other side of Sweden. Jungstedt doesn’t strive for Mankell’s social criticism, and doesn’t write with Theorin’s poetic style. Her work is more modestly meant to entertain, and on the whole she succeeds.

Incidentally, Publishing Perspectives has just published an interesting profile of Stockholm Text, the innovative publisher of the US edition. (Hat tip to Rebecka K and the FriendFeed Crime and Mystery Fiction room.)

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