THE DARKEST ROOM is the winner of the 2010 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger. It was chosen over THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, AUGUST HEAT, HYPOTHERMIA, BADFELLAS, and THIRTEEN HOURS.
ECHOES OF THE DEAD, the first of Johan Theorin’s mysteries set in Oland off the coast of Sweden, was reviewed in this blog on July 11. It won the New Blood Dagger for best first book in 2009.
Theorin sets the stage for THE DARKEST ROOM within the first few pages by recounting a part of a nineteenth century Swedish folktale. “The dead gather every winter to celebrate Christmas. But on one occasion they were disturbed by an old spinster….the old woman caught sight of her fiance from the days of her youth. He had drowned…but there he was, sitting in a pew among the others.”
The book opens in the winter of 1846. A group of men have been building lighthouses at Eel Point, an area of shallow water and dangerous rocks. For three seasons of the year, Oland is a pleasant place to live and work but in the winter there are blizzards that come from the sea bringing death to the unwary. As the winds of one such blizzard subside, men on the shore hear cries coming from the water. There is a shipwreck and there is nothing the men can do to rescue the sailors. The ship had been carrying timber and the timber and the bodies of the sailors wash up on the shore. Valter Brommesson is responsible for building the lighthouses and the buildings to house the keepers and their families. The timber is perfect for building a large house. Brommesson knows that bad luck can come from building on the spoils of a shipwreck but he is willing to take a risk and builds a manor house, the grandest on the island. To placate the souls of the dead, a room is set aside as a memorial to the dead sailors in the magnificent new house to be built on Eel Point.
More than 150 years later, Joakim and Katrine Westin and their two children move from Stockholm, eager to restore the Manor and build an idyllic life on Oland. They hear the comments from the locals about the stories of ghosts who inhabit the manor but neither Joakim nor Katrine are concerned. Things from the past hold neither fear nor interest for the Westins. Then Katrine dies, drowning in the shallow water of Eel Point.
The author structures the book in much the same way as he structured ECHOES FROM THE DEAD. Joakim’s story is interspersed with stories of the people who had lived in the manor from the time it was built through 1950. The old stories contain comments from Mirja Rambe, a famous artist, a resident of the Manor in the 1950’s, who is Katrine’s mother. It is Mirja who writes, “I have heard the dead whispering in the walls. They have so much to tell.”
As Christmas approaches, Joakim’s children talk about their mother coming to celebrate with them. While shopping for Christmas gifts for the children, Joakim finds himself buying a gift for Katrine, feeling her presence all through the Manor.
One day, Mirja takes Joakim to the hayloft in the old barn and shows him a wall of planks carved with the names and dates of death of people who had lived in the Manor. Beginning in 1884, the names of the dead had been carved into the wall by people who were close to them. Joakim adds Katrine’s on the wall of remembrance, wanting to mark her brief time at the Manor. As Joakim finds himself repeatedly drawn to the wall he realizes that there is a room behind the wall but there is no opening, hinge or knob to allow anyone to enter.
Tilda Davidsson is the police officer assigned to Oland. She meets with Joakim frequently although there has been nothing to suggest that Katrine’s death had been anything more than a tragic accident. Joakim enjoys talking with Tilda especially about the Manor and the stories of the ghosts who are still present there. Tilda suggests that Joakim meet with her grandfather’s brother, Gerlof Davidsson, who has lived on the island his whole life. Tilda has been recording conversations with Gerlof and she is sure that he can answer many of Joakim’s questions about the Manor and the ghostly inhabitants that Joakim is coming to accept as real. Joakim believes that Katrine will come at Christmas and he is convinced that the darkest room behind the memorial wall in the hayloft will reveal the mysteries of the manor and the people who had lived there.
Gerlof, who featured prominently in ECHOES OF THE DEAD, is the tie that binds the old stories to the new stories. THE DARKEST ROOM is part ghost story, part mystery, part thriller, part police procedural. All of it works together to provide a story that draws the reader in completely.
The book begins with the deaths of sailors in a blizzard; the book ends with a blizzard that takes some lives and gives clarity to others. THE DARKEST ROOM is in fact filled with light from another dimension, light that reveals that life never really ends but continues on the other side of a wall. Christmas is a celebration of life including life beyond the grave.