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Black River by Will Dean

I started to get an uncanny and disturbing feeling while reading this latest book in the Tuva Moodyson series. It was as if the author had climbed into my head and discovered my two worst fears – snakes and confined spaces. There were a couple of scenes where I almost adopted the strategy of Joey from Friends and put the book in the freezer. I was determined not to give up though, because I’ve been waiting desperately for this next instalment! This is Tuva Moodyson 3 and picks up as she’s several weeks into her new job in Malmo. However, the Northern town of Gavrik does seem to exert a strange hold over her and just as she settling and has her apartment the way she’d like it, a phone call changes everything. Lena, editor of Gavrik’s local newspaper calls to say Tuva’s best friend Tammy has gone missing. It seems Tammy might have been abducted from her Thai street food van, with only a drop of blood left behind. Without a thought, Tuva jumps straight into the Hilux and makes her way back north.

It’s not long before we’re meeting even more of Gavrik’s eccentric inhabitants and I thought the Troll sisters were crazy. As Tuva points out, the police have to follow quality evidence, but as a journalist she can follow rumour and check out anyone who just seems odd. It seems Tammy has possibly dated Freddy from the shoe shop, who has ringlets, a soft baby face and a foot fetish beyond any imagination. The description of his unnaturally long fingers made me think of an Aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur. There are also rumours about Tammy and Karl-Otto whose family lives out by the river and whose Mum is known as Snake Sally. This is where Tuva comes across a community living in large shipping containers. There’s Sally who breeds and does all manner of unspeakable things with snakes. There are the ‘cousins’ who talk and act almost like Siamese twins and are maybe a little too close. Nearby two travelling foresters are ripping Utgard forest apart with tree harvesting machines. Tuva spends time with each of them and finds Sally the most welcoming, although it’s an uneasy conversation. Sally is dating Viktor the Viking Paramedic who has also dated Tammy in the past. Sally suggests her son was only fooling around with Tammy because he would only get serious about a Swedish girl. This suspicion of outsiders is something Tuva has experienced herself and no matter how many times she tells people that Tammy was born in Sweden, her Thai parentage seems to exclude her. This racism bleeds it’s way into the search when a local girl called Lisa also goes missing. Her family organise the public search and Tuva soon finds that Lisa’s face appears on more posters and inspires a bigger reward.

Will Dean is a master at creating that unsettling and uneasy feeling in the reader. It’s not just that there’s suspense, although there’s plenty of it, it’s genuine fear. Tuva’s deafness instantly adds to this, because we’re very aware that at night she has to take her hearing aids out and this leaves her very vulnerable. She stays in Lena’s garden in a ‘friggebod‘ which is an outside bedroom for guests. Although Lena double bolts the door, Tuva is still plagued by movement in the night and there is one scene that might leave me checking under my bed before I go to sleep for a while. The snakes and Sally’s ease with hatching and dispatching them unsettled me too. She uses the skins in nail art, for belts and for specialist taxidermy she sells online. She has every kind of snake and breeds in order to create beautiful skins. She tells Tuva that what she does is ethical because she uses all of the snake – something Tuva sees with her own eyes when Sally throws a still writhing rattlesnake on the BBQ. The cousin’s ability to mirror each other is also very strange and they have a lot of storage that they’re very protective about. When Tuva calls at the troll sister’s house she notices one of them is missing their eyelashes and concludes they probably fulfilled a special order for a troll with human lashes. They observe that the ‘snake river’ folk are odd, and if a woman making trolls from human body parts thinks you’re weird, you probably are.

I read the last quarter of the novel in one go because the suspense was just too much. I couldn’t leave it. Tuva’s ordeal towards the end of the story had me literally holding my breath. I had to keep stopping and reminding myself to relax. I think it’s all the more horrifying because of the perpetrator, and the cool, detached way he studies his specimens. I have never, in any of the Tuva novels, been able to work out who is behind the mystery and this was no exception. I love that I’m still questioning all the way to the end. The background of Midsommar is clever, because it is one of those folk festivals that has been portrayed in horror films. The sense of being an outsider, that everyone around you knows what’s coming next when you don’t, gives it a ‘Wicker Man’ vibe. Even Tuva has a sense of bewilderment because she’s a lone person amongst a tribe. The noise distorts her hearing and she wants to switch them off. There’s also such a nationalistic feel to the celebration that Tuva feels Tammy’s ‘otherness’ even more.

In amongst all this strangeness I enjoyed seeing Tuva’s character progression. She moved to Malmo to be nearer to her mum, but she has now died. We see more insights into their relationship when she talks to her Aunt Ida. The searches take place over Midsommar, a Swedish holiday where people gather together to eat, sing, and raise a ‘maypole’ covered in birch leaves and flowers. Girls wear white dresses and flower crowns, and eat picnics of herring, potato salad and Swedish strawberries. Tuva receives a call from her Aunt wondering where she is, and Tuva realises she hasn’t told her about her rescue mission up North. Ida has the ability to guilt trip her exactly like her Mum used to, but at least follows up with a text to say she missed her. Tuva knows this is a concession her mother would never have made. So there are possible new family connections to nurture, but Tuva also seems to realise that a lot of what she needs was always there in Gavrik. In Lena and Tammy she has friends who mother her, Thord is always there like a big brother and in the course of this novel her relationship with policewoman Noora progresses. I loved to see this Tuva, happy and loved as she deserves to be. At the end of the novel she is left at a crossroads and I’m looking forward to knowing where she goes next. Does she go back to Malmo or does she take advantage of an opportunity offered by Lena? Where is truly home?

The Tuva Moodyson series:


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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