Swedish author Johan Theorin on his crime quartet set in the island of Öland

Writing crime fiction is his way of dealing with the darker side of things that happen in his homeland.

Theorin on the porch of a house in Lenggong, during his visit to Perak (Photo: Johan Theorin)

Johan Theorin’s Öland Series — one book for each season of the year — surprises on many turns. Set on the island off the eastern coast of Sweden where tourists flock to relax every summer, the four books dwell on crime, spliced with horror, mystery, ghosts, folklore, strange tales and a lingering chill that does not let up after the last page.

Taking readers to dark places where evil happens seems at odds with the clean and wholesome image visitors have of his homeland. Why this focus on Sweden’s underbelly?

“I think it is some sort of therapy. Sweden is peaceful in that we haven’t had a war with a neighbouring country for over 200 years. But at the same time, there have always been crimes and murders, just as in every other country.

“We had a political assassination that shook the whole nation 35 years ago, when our charismatic prime minister Olof Palme was shot in central Stockholm one cold winter night. This murder has never been solved. I think that writing and reading made-up crime stories is one way for Swedes to deal with this trauma.”

Gothenburg-born Theorin, 61 this year, was in Penang for the George Town Literary Festival last November. He visited Perak and made a brief stop in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Stockholm, where he resides.

Northern Öland is where his mother’s family has lived for centuries, farming the land, fishing and sailing. Growing up, he spent summers there and remembers islanders settling down at home “in the twilight hour” to tell stories or exchange news at the end of the working day.

“Some old relatives remain and the summer cottage my grandfather built still stands. We go there regularly. And the ghost stories he told me when I was little are still very vivid in my mind. There were those about drowned sailors returning to Öland, invisible trolls stealing things, fairies trying to drag people into the fog on a misty summer night, and many others.”


From left: Moderator Lee Chwi Lynn and crime authors Theorin, Rueben Dass and Nat Sario (Photo: George Town Literary Festival)

The 1,342 sq km isle in the Baltic Sea lends itself to his books, with mist, wind, rain and snow almost a shroud for heinous deeds. Busy in the summer, it is empty, almost deserted, during the cold months, making it an ideal backdrop for crime fiction. His “enduring relationship” with the land prompted him to invent settings based on real places, such as the rocky coast where the beaches are filled largely with rocks, blocks of gravel and stone, and limestone quarries, or structures like  windmills and lighthouses.

“I knew the island very well, having visited my grandparents every year since I was a baby. Not many authors had written about it before me. So, it felt natural to create stories around it.”

Theorin’s debut novel, Echoes from the Dead, released in 2007, was voted Best First Mystery Novel by authors and critics of the Swedish Academy of Crime and has been translated into 12 languages. Its Swedish title, Skumtimmen, is a local term for “twilight”, used in the old days in some parts of Öland.

In 2008, his second book, The Darkest Room, won the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger award. Subsequent titles in the series are The Quarry (2012) and The Voices Beyond (2016).

“When I wrote Echoes, I realised it was very much a crime story about autumn on a popular island, after the tourists have all gone home. When it was nearly finished, I had the idea for a dramatic winter novel, The Darkest Room, about the same island, when there sometimes are violent blizzards along the coasts. I then told my publisher they could have a seasonal quartet about Öland, which they accepted.

“As for the novelty, Ann Cleeves in Britain actually had the same idea, at about the same time, to do a seasonal crime quartet about the Shetland Islands. Great minds think alike. It is a good idea because the weather is palpable on an island for tourism and boat traffic, so it does affect the story as well.”

Various characters resurface at unexpected turns in his series, giving it a sense of familiarity and continuity. One that stays from start to end is retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson, who makes an unlikely “detective”. Was he inspired by, and named after, Theorin’s grandfather, Ellert Gerlofsson, a skipper for more than 30 years who often carried limestone from Öland to Stockholm?


'Echoes from the Dead' (2007) and 'The Darkest Room' (2008)

“Yes, Gerlof has the same background as my grandfather, both having worked on sailing ships in the Baltic Sea for many years. But his personality is a mix of several different men I have met, including myself. My grandpa was not as grumpy as Gerlof sometimes is.

“And Gerlof keeps a notebook in which he writes every day so he won’t forget anything; I do the same when I am writing about him. It is easy to get lost in a 400-page novel!”

Theorin usually starts with a major mystery — a murder or disappearance on the island — then tries to solve it “along with Gerlof. I try to make it grow”.

Do crime writers attempt to stay one step ahead of their readers?

“I don’t think my crime novels are ‘puzzle mysteries’ in the old sense that the reader is given clues so they can solve a murder before the detective. Agatha Christie did crime puzzles so well long before me, I do not want to try to imitate her.

“I try not to have too many clues, just to have Gerlof thinking in odd ways, as an old man, and come up with a solution that way. Sometimes his solutions are wrong; sometimes problems in the novels are resolved without him.”

Echoes opens with Jens, almost six, who wanders out from the backyard in September 1972 and vanishes into the fog. His mother Julia, who has spent 20 years trying to piece together what happened, returns to Öland after her father, Gerlof, receives through the post a sandal she had strapped on the boy that fateful autumn day. Running alongside this narrative is that of young, wealthy Nils Kant, who fled the island after a killing spree. Could he have a hand in Jens’ disappearance? But Nils had died in the 1960s!

Theorin was a journalist for years, and there is one in the book. Bengt Nyberg pops up now and then in his quest to get to the bottom of the case. When he finally does, he takes a step back, a touching show of respect at Jens’ “dignified” funeral.


'The Quarry' (2012) and 'The Voices Beyond' (2016)

In 2013, Echoes was made into a film directed by Daniel Alfredson. The author was not involved in the movie script but says it stayed pretty faithful to his novel.

The Darkest Room sees Katrine and Joakim Westin arriving with their children at their new manor house at Eel Point, Öland, in mid-winter. Before they can settle in, Katrine is found drowned off the rocks nearby. As the winter storm closes in, weird things start to happen, making Joakim wonder if the dead really return come Christmas.

Is writing crime fiction an innate talent or a matter of craft and technique? “It is probably something you learn through experience and having people criticise the novels. Two common mistakes of the beginner are to either fill the story with too many things happening, which makes it confusing, or too few, which makes it slow and dull,” Theorin replies.

All the Öland titles were translated from Swedish by UK-based Marlaine Delargy, a teacher for almost two decades before leaving to concentrate on translation. “I think she has been faithful. She has done a marvellous job with my books and that of many other Swedish writers as well.”

Theorin mainly works as a fiction writer now and has various other novels as well as a play, Swedish Love, which he wrote 20 years ago after interviewing sex workers for a series of articles. The play was then made into a book, which he does not think will be translated into English.

Asked about reading and early influences, he reveals that “I actually read more crime fiction before I started writing it myself”. These days, he is more into non-fiction, and historical and biographical books.

He has many favourite English and American crime authors, among them Patricia Highsmith, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson and Ann Cleeves. In Scandinavia, Karin Fossum, Åsa Larsson and Hakan Nesser write very good detective novels, he thinks.

Theorin has a new crime novel out, set on beautiful Öland naturally, and is looking at a trilogy. He hopes the books will be translated into English, like the quartet, “but that is not in my hands. Hopefully, all who have read one of them will also visit the island because it is a wonderful place!”


This article first appeared on Jan 22, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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