You’ve got no idea what you’re dredging up. You’re going to ruin everything.
The past is not going to stay buried in this unputdownable crime novel, the first in a series featuring Detective Hanna Duncker. Fans of Ragnar Jonasson and Ann Cleeves will be gripped by this moving and atmospheric crime novel, already a bestseller in Sweden. Hanna Duncker has returned to the remote island she spent her childhood on and to the past that saw her father convicted for murder. In a cruel twist of fate her new boss is the policeman who put him behind bars. On her first day on the job as the new detective, Hanna is called to a crime scene. The fifteen-year-old son of her former best friend has been found dead and Hanna is thrown into a complex investigation set to stir up old ghosts.
Not everyone is happy to have the daughter of Lars Duncker back in town. Hanna soon realises that she will have to watch her back as she turns over every stone to find the person responsible…
I was drawn deeply into Hanna’s world straight away in this brilliant piece of Scandi Noir. This is the first in Johanna Mo’s Island Murders trilogy, and is already a hit in Sweden. Hanna has returned to her home town of Öland for a post in the local police force. She has to hit the ground running though, because instead of quietly getting to know her colleagues, she is straight onto a crime scene. The body of a young 15 year old boy has been found and everything points to murder. Hanna is partnered with Erik and tasked with breaking the news to the boys family, but there’s one problem. The murdered boy’s mother Rebecka, went to school with Hanna and recognises her the minute she opens the door. If she’d hoped to keep her past secret, or at least in the background, this case will blow her identity wide open. Joel’s birth father also went to school with Hanna and has a reputation for being a bully, in fact Rebecka has openly admitted he was violent during their relationship. Could he possibly have killed his own son? It’s clear that Hanna could be very beneficial to the enquiry – Rebecka trusts her instantly and confides in her on their first visit. Yet her ex-husband Axel, now a well-known businessman in Öland, seems antagonised by Hanna’s presence. In his first interview, Axel tries to manipulate and wrong-foot Hanna by bringing up their past, even twisting the truth to hurt her. He even notices her ‘tell’, because when she’s anxious her fingers automatically rub her arm where her nightingale tattoo is.
‘She wanted to tear back the black material covering her tattoo of a nightingale, the bird that would help keep the darkness at bay. After her mother’s death, her grandmother had given her a small wooden nightingale to keep by her bedroom window. She claimed that because nightingales sing at night, it would help Hanna with her nightmares, but her bad dreams hadn’t gone anywhere. When she complained, her grandmother had stroked her cheek and said: I know those dreams are horrible, but they would be even worse without the bird. Those words had taken hold, and Hanna had kept the bird ever since’.
Yet there’s a worse secret in Hanna’s past than anything that happened at school. She is Lars Duncker’s daughter and his conviction for murder 16 years earlier is still fresh in a lot of the local’s minds. Can her past stay where it belongs, enabling Hanna to remain focused on who murdered Joel? Could being the daughter of a murderer actually help her to solve the crime she’s investigating? Or will being Lars Duncker’s daughter draw attention away from the case?
I loved the structure of this novel, as one timeline follows the investigation and the other tracks the preceding 24 hours, from Joel’s point of view. I found the second timeline really emotional, because this is Joel unfiltered, as only his closest friend knows him. We learn things about him and his life that his parents don’t know, some of which really hit me in the heart as a step-mum of teenagers.
‘As usual. Mum won’t believe him if he tells her how dark and ugly he is inside. She won’t believe what he is thinking about doing. Everything he has already done. But he’s so tired of acting. Of pretending to be someone he isn’t’.
The thought that they might keep things to themselves, scared of my reaction, made me so sad. Yet, this felt like an honest depiction of teenage life, where our friends rather than our family probably know us best. Where crime fiction is often focused on action, or the thrilling twists and turns, this felt quieter and more real. In fact the reason I originally started to read and watch Scandi Noir was because it depicted how violent crime affected the families and friends involved. This reminded me of a another crime writer I read this month, Eva Björg Aegisdottir, who does this very well in her Forbidden Iceland series. It felt like a more feminine gaze showed the devastation caused emotionally. From Joel’s nuclear family and slowly tracking outwards to friends, teachers, neighbours we see all the victims of a murder. Joel’s story takes centre stage, rather than his killer.
I thought the detail of the case was incredible, with every little lead followed up until the truths of the whole town start to come to light. A murder investigation unearths all kinds of secrets and lies before it can be solved. It was interesting to watch Hanna as she tries to settle back in to her home town, and make friends with her colleagues. The author cleverly shows how both she and Erik could come out of an interaction with very differing ideas about what the other one thinks. Hanna assumes people will be prejudiced against her when they find out whose daughter she is, and some are, because someone is ringing her work phone with silent calls which escalate to sounds of a fire burning and a blood curdling scream. As each narrative came closer to revealing the answers, the tension started to build. I liked that the story dealt with a very timely issue and all aspects of the case felt well resolved. However, when it comes to Hanna’s own story, there were enough loose ends left to explore in more detail over the next couple of books. I would recommend this to all crime lovers, but particularly those who enjoy an intelligent, complex and emotional crime novel that focuses on the victims rather than fetishising the killer.
Published 3rd August 2021 by Headline Review
Check out the rest of the blog tour for more about The Night Singer.
Thanks to Headline Review for inviting me on the blog tour.