Author: Johanna Gustawsson
Publisher: Orenda Books
Wow! WowowowowowowowowWOW! Where do I even begin with this stunning book? It’s going to be nigh on impossible to review this beauty without spoiling it all, so you’ll just buy it and discover it for yourselves. But until you do, here’ s the blurb:
“Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Ebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French true-crime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light. Plumbing the darkness and the horrific evidence of the nature of evil, Block 46 is a multi-layered, sweeping and evocative thriller that heralds a stunning new voice in French Noir.”
Now, if that doesn’t pique your interest then you seriously need to reassess your views on crime fiction.
Block 46 takes place across two timelines: 1945 – present, and the present. I’ve made that sound slightly more confusing than it is, but it really isn’t. As you can see from the blurb above, a young, talented designer Linnea Blix is murdered and her friend Alexis Castells, a true crime writer finds herself in the hunt for her killer. Along the way she reunites with Canadian profiler, Emily Roy, who is called in to investigate the murders of several children in London. The pair had met previously whilst Alexis was researching a book about Fred and Rosemary West, as you do, Together they form a partnership of sorts in the hunt for the murderer that spans both London and Sweden. You can figure out the rest from the blurb.
Both Alexis and Emily are very strong characters. Alexis’s life is turned upside down after the murder of her friend. She is still recovering from the death of her partner some years before, and is a slightly closed book emotionally. Emily Roy is an exceptionally talented and perceptive profiler, on loan to New Scotland Yard in London from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. What I love about her is that although she is a skilled and remarkable profiler, she is also flawed; she overlooks details in her over-assuredness. Basically, she fucks up. Not in any huge way, but enough. She’s aloof and lacks some basic personal and social skills when in the throes of her profiling, but also displays empathy and kindness with the friends and relatives of the victims when required.
Block 46 is not an easy read at all. Emotionally it packs one hell of a punch. Mike Tyson levels of punch. This is a book that will stay with you long after you have closed the final page, put it on the shelf, sat down, had a drink, hugged a loved one, done the weekly shopping and, yes, even had a little poo (or any other bodily function – I’ll leave that one up to you). Jo (and through her translator Maxim Jakubowski), manages to create whole passages that frankly repelled me to my core. The antagonist/s in this story are thoroughly repellent individuals. There are parallels in this book, both in tone and in the profiler protagonist, with Jacqueline Chadwick’s Ali Dalglish series, particularly In The Still (my review here). Not in terms of story, but most certainly in terms of the revulsion that the perpetrators of the crimes detailed instilled in me. I didn’t think I’d read a book that was so thoroughly disgusting in its acts as In The Still, well, I was wrong there! This isn’t criticism at all; it is a true testimony to the skills of both writers that they can create words and situations that evoke such feelings in a reader.
Some of the most disturbing moments in this book though come from the events detailed during the war years in the the Buchenwald concentration camp. Of course, the characters here, Erich Ebner and his fellow prisoners, are fictitious, but the main staff of the camp and the atrocities that they committed there most certainly were not. Stories like these often resonate more, I feel, with people of my generation, as we quite often have relatives who witnessed the war, and in some cases, the horrors of the concentration camps first hand. My own paternal grandfather Harry, who I never knew – he died at the very young age of 59, several years before I was born – was one of the first troops to enter Belsen at its liberation. From what I understand he never spoke of what he saw there, but this book has sparked my interest to maybe try to find out. Sadly, there are very few relatives of his generation still with us – my grandma died when I was 9 – but I may try to discover what he witnessed there some day. In the book, the horrors, beatings, and downright degradation meted out to Erich, and to his fellow prisoners during their time at Buchenwald, make you wonder how anyone ever survived and went on to live their lives in a relatively normal way in the post-war years.
Once again, this is a book that is best left for the reader to discover for themselves. To say any more about Erich’s story, or of the investigation in to the crimes committed here, is to truly spoil the joy of this utterly remarkable book. Jo has crafted a novel of exceptional depth, character and emotional resonance that should be enjoyed and discovered as spoiler free as possible. Jo doesn’t waste her words; she never lingers more than necessary to describe the scene or to convey the emotions of the characters. In fact so much so that as the end of the book approached I thought that we were going to be left with a cliffhanger into her next book, Keeper! It’s no spoiler to say that this isn’t the case though, and it’s also no spoiler to say that the finale is truly wonderful. The last part of the book thunders along to it’s conclusion, resolving in a highly emotional and most satisfying way, to me at least.
Confession time: I read the last 100 pages or so if this in the pub. As a single chap, and a rather unsocial one at that, I rarely ever go to the pub alone; I feel like a bit of a gooseberry sitting there all alone with a pint and no-one to chat to, but recently I’ve decided that I need to shake off this feeling and get out more. So, short story long, off to my local ‘spoons I went for breakfast and to read. Why, I hear you cry in despair, the bloody hell am I telling you all this for? Good point, well, as I read the last few pages and closed the book, I had tears in my eyes. Yes, not only was I feeling slightly silly for sitting all alone surrounded by families, couples, friends, etc, but I was sitting there all alone blubbing like a fool, ha! But they were tears of immense joy; of huge satisfaction of being part of something so bloody brilliant. I doubt anybody actually noticed of course, but I had to compose myself and have a few larger than anticipated mouthfuls of Doom Bar to stabilise myself 😉 There really aren’t many books that have this effect on me. Yes, there are books that I love unconditionally, but few that move me to tears for whatever the reason (except any book, especially How To Be Brave, by Louise Beech)
It comes as no surprise at all to know that this is yet another Orenda Books success story. Karen Sullivan, Queen Bee of Orenda, is an extraordinarily perceptive publisher. I have no affiliation to Orenda at all, but without their books, my current love of reading outstanding crime fiction, and from there discovering other books/authors from other publishing houses, simply wouldn’t exist. I thank you Karen, sincerely from the very bottom of my beardy book loving heart.
I think I’ve maybe said enough now, don’t you 🙂 All that is left to say is buy this book! Savour every page and then buy her next book, Keeper (this is already out in eBook – buy it here – but I’ve ordered the paperback, out in April, so I can shelve it and look at it lovingly. Maybe I’ll hug it, too.)
Highly, highly recommeded.