While I’m a fan of of crime fiction, I have particular tastes. I generally prefer noir to cosy mysteries and I generally avoid novels which feature serial killers. Generally speaking, there are just too many serial killers in crime fiction and in my opinion it’s a lazy trope. That said, occasionally I’m persuaded to read such a story and occasionally I come across a writer who pens a serial killer novel that’s fresh. Dark Pines is one such book. Quite simply this is a brilliant novel and one that gripped me from page one.
Tuva Moodyson is a reporter on a local paper in the small town of Gavrik, in deepest, rural Sweden. She’s an outsider, working at the paper having returned from London to look after her dying mother. Gavrik is an insular place where nothing ever happens. Tuva spends her days writing the kind of benign local stories that make up the pages of small local papers everywhere. But one day a man is found murdered in the sprawling, forbidding forest nearby, the eyes removed from the corpse. Twenty years previous a similar spate of killings occurred. They were never solved. Has the Medussa killer struck again? Is this the work of a copycat?
I won’t give away any spoilers, instead I will focus in this review on what separates Dark Pines from the mass of other novels that feature a serial killer. For a start, the book doesn’t really focus on the serial killer or the murders in particular. This novel isn’t characterised by the grotesque and gratuitous violence that characterises many others. Rather the story focuses on the community the crimes occurred in and the forest which Tuva has an almost primal fear of. Very quickly she connects the crime to the isolated village of Mossen - really just a stretch of houses on a lane in the forest - and its odd inhabitants. Here the novel comes into its own and becomes almost Fargoesque -though in a sinister and noirish sense, this is no comedy.
Another feature of the novel is the protagonist. Tuva is deaf and needs hearing aids and the author does a great job of using this to draw out her character. He’s clearly done his research and there are some great touches, for example, the benefit of being able to turn them down so as to concentrate on her work in silence, something which enables her “disability” to actually benefit her in comparison with her peers. Many novels try to have a compelling protagonist and many novelists give their character’s a trait which they hope sets them apart. The danger is that this becomes a crude device they use as a shorthand fro characterisation. The author avoids this error however and I felt I would have warmed to Tuva regardless of whether she was deaf. The fact she is deaf adds to her character and draws the reader’s interest in the first case, but once we get to know her as a person it soon becomes just one feature of her multifaceted character.
Then there’s that old adage a “sense of place”. Many crime writers strive for this believing that if they can just give their novel an interesting locale it will draw readers in. At worst this becomes a crude travelogue to shoehorn any old story into. What struck me about Dark Pines, and one of the novel’s strongest features to my mind, is he eschewed this. While the novel takes place in Sweden, it could really have been set anywhere where there is mile upon mile of forbidding and dense forest: Canada, Sweden (where it is set of course), Russia. This is not a criticism, far from it in fact, for in Dark Pines the forest is a character in and of itself. Tuva is a modern woman, a product of cities and technology. She’s terrified of untamed nature and the wild forest frightens her. Time and again she has to travel into the forest and each time it is a terrifying trial. The author does a terrific job drawing this out and combined with the disturbingly eccentric characters of Mossen village - each one of which is a suspect and a potential murderer - this makes a memorable and brilliant novel.
Apparently Dark Pines is the start of a series to feature Tuva Moodyson and this both excites and worries me. Tuva is undoubtedly a compelling character, as is the community she lives in and of course the untamed forest. In some ways I welcome a return. However, I also worry that what made this novel so fresh will quickly turn stale. That said, Will Dean is clearly a gifted writer and if he can mine other areas, perhaps other isolated villages populated by strange and sinister characters, who knows, perhaps he is onto a winning formula. I await book two with interest to see. Either way, Dark Pines is definitely worth a read.