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The International Writers Magazine
Book Review - From our Archives

The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Viking (5 April 2007)
ISBN-10: 0670916145
ISBN-13: 978-0670916146
A Josephine Green review

unpredictable and surprising"

The Savage Altar is Larsson’s first thriller in a series of six and this unusual piece of detection takes us into the hidden depths of Sweden and its captivating church, "The Source of All Our Strength," a cult that holds many individuals secrets, lies and fates.

We are immediately drawn in by the death of the vicar, Vicktor Strandgard, founder of "The Source of All Our Strength", whose death paints a gruesome picture on the page, "The eyes have been gouged out and the long hair is covered in blood…There is a cut on the right of the neck, but no bleeding, and the hands are missing." It is an image that is of course in no way appealing but that justifiably creates a tense and imaginable murder scene.

The main character, Rebecka Martinsson, is called up by an old friend, Sanna Strandguard, the victim’s sister, who asks Rebecka to help her clear her name and find out the true murderer. What intrigues me to read on is the relationship between Rebecka and Sanna that has obviously been challenged as they have grown up and what begs me to read on is an inclination to find out what happened so long ago. Rebecka has to return to Kiruna, where she grew up, to uncover the truth and in doing so has to confront past ghosts. This part of the story is heightened by the emergence of a past relationship between her and Vicktor many years ago, along with an interesting sub-story between Rebecka and Thomas Soderberg, one of the pastors at the church, which intensely grabbed my attention. I found that at this point I started questioning Rebecka’s previous involvement with the suspects and her reasons behind finding Vicktor’s killer.

For me, what makes this book different from other detective fiction is the interesting Swedish setting and the uncommon protagonist that I find in Rebecka. She is asked to take on the job of finding her old lover’s murderer but she is not necessarily a great detective: she is a lawyer after all. It seems what she actually, more effectively discovers, is the reason behind the rift between her and Sanna and an understanding of what happened between Vicktor and herself. The death of Vicktor could well symbolize the death of past relationships that she now has to confront.

I did enjoy parts of the book, as at times I thoroughly wanted to continue reading, but I was disappointed that having built up a reasonable suspense in the story, when the killer was finally revealed, I had to return to the beginning of the book to remember who this character was. It felt like the killer had not played a big enough part within the story to justify the outcome. I would say, however, that I was pleased that the story was not dragged out as I did feel that Larsson provided a good amount of built up tension before the murderer was exposed, even if the character was not prominent.

All in all I would say that the motives behind this piece of detective fiction were unpredictable and surprising, allowing the reader plenty of time to consider murderers and motives. Unfortunately I feel that I was not completely convinced by some of the characters, and therefore could not wholly connect with them all to convince myself of a more positive final outcome.

© Josephine Green April 2007

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