Stockholm Text has been doing an interesting job of bringing Swedish books to the English-language market. I’m not sure if I would have picked up Nephilim if I wasn’t already intrigued by the publisher. I tend to avoid books that have words like “biblical” and “global conspiracy” in the description and which promise to include elements of horror and the supernatural. But I’m glad I read it, even if, in my narrow-minded and selfish way, I would prefer that the author cater to my tastes and write straight-up crime.
The premise of Nephilim is (as you might guess from the title) that there are a special group of people among us, ones who protect their secret, that they are descended from fallen angels. But the opening concerns two interpolated stories, one about a wealthy American who believes he is about to uncover the remains of the ark on top of Mount Ararat, its contours having been revealed by global warming and ice melt. He’s a bit of a religious nutter, but fortunately he doesn’t get a lot of page time. In the second story, a group of activists in Stockholm are planning an assault on a corporation that is contributing to global warming by breaking into the opulent home of one of its owners and spray-painting messages on the wall. Nova, the young woman with a paint can, is nervous as she breaks into the flat and does her work – and then discovers the owner won’t get the message. He and his wife and dog have been gruesomely murdered and (not surprisingly) the police think she’s guilty of more than politically-motivated vandalism. It’s a bit of a classic man-in-the-middle story, in which a sympathetic character has to clear his name while evading both police and shadowy bad guys, only in this case it’s a woman and the shadowy bad guys are more shadowy than usual.
Nova is a compelling character. (The police characters are less well-developed, and one of the conspirators is telegraphed a bit too obviously, in contrast.) It makes more sense to compare her to Lisbeth Salander than to a Dan Brown symbologist. She is a smart, principled outsider with a difficult background – in this case a weird and distant mother who has recently perished in a fiery car crash, leaving her to knock around alone in a big house in the oldest part of Stockholm. Like Salander, Nova has allied herself with a band of nonconformist scofflaws, these ones committed to saving the earth. She’s falsely accused and believed to be deranged – partly because the murder she’s accused of is grotesque but also because she’s unconventional.
I don’t mean to imply this is a Stieg Larsson clone. It’s not stylistically similar, and while it has a political theme, it’s not carried out like the Millennium Trilogy, which uses a pastiche of crime fiction motifs to explore violence against women and social institutions that have failed. Schwarz’s conspirators are literally a different breed, not humans behaving badly, and the environmental issue, while certainly part of Nova’s motivation, is more of a backdrop than the driver of the action.
To her credit, Schwarz turns this scenario into an entertaining yarn and her villains are really no less implausible than in many thrillers. I have to admit that I would prefer not to have the supernatural element, but even with that prejudice I thought she carried it off. The translation, by Steven T. Murray, also reads well, as you might hope from such a veteran translator.
I’m grateful to Stockholm Text for providing me with a copy to review and for putting this author on the virtual and physical shelves of English-speaking readers in an elegant, pocket-sized package.
Janet Rudolph has an interesting guest post by the author over at Mystery Fanfare in which she explains how the idea for this book came to her.