By Cecilia Ekbäck, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan – Swedish-born writer Ekbäck’s debut crime thriller is set in remote north Sweden in 1717. The long darkness of winter is closing in, and the scattered homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain are preparing for what the signs suggest will be a rough time. The Lapps who have come south for the season say it will be a “wolf winter,” which they describe as “the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”
Paavo, his wife Maija (MY-ah), and their daughters, 14-year-old Frederika and six-year-old Dorotea, are new arrivals from Finland, and they haven’t spent a winter this far north before. They aren’t sure what to expect, even though they don’t know the mountain’s dark history of evil portents and mysterious disappearances. One thing they do not expect is for Paavo to decide to leave his womenfolk on their own and travel to the coast to try to earn some money. He won’t return before spring. And they definitely don’t expect that Frederika and Dorotea will discover the mutilated corpse of one of their new neighbors, a man named Eriksson, in a glade where they’d intended to pasture their goats.
When Eriksson’s death comes to light, some of the neighbors attribute the savage attack to a bear, others suggest wolf, but Maija who is an earth-woman by training—a midwife and healer—insists the death was caused by a human agent. Almost certainly, a murderer is in their midst.
Yet no one misses Eriksson, a man who made it his business to ferret out and exploit people’s weaknesses. “Sometimes God did take the right people” seems to be the view. In this tiny community in which everyone knows everyone else and, presumably, most of their secrets and hidden grudges, the layers of deception keep being peeled back.
In the region’s central town the immense power of the church resides in the person of the priest, Olaus Arosander. He starts out as Maija’s adversary, skeptical of her belief Eriksson was murdered. While he doesn’t trust her kind of knowledge, he has secrets of his own that put him at odds with his church’s views. Over time, Maija and Arosander both become committed to determining what happened to Eriksson, and whether his death is the end of violence on Blackåsen Mountain or the beginning.
The notion of wolves takes on both a corporeal and metaphoric significance in the story. It becomes clear that predators are ravaging the countryside, preying on the community’s weakest members. Darkness, too, means more than the months’ long absence of sunlight. It also refers to the special knowledge—call it intuition, call it the ability to read signs, call it something more, but don’t dare call it sorcery—that helps Maija sort truth from misdirection. In that place and time, such “special knowledge” was a potentially deadly inheritance, one that Maija received from her dead grandmother and which she fears has been passed on to Frederika, who doesn’t yet understand its power or how to control it.
Wolf Winter works well as an audio book. Bresnahan’s narration is clear, and the characters are easy to distinguish both by the reader’s voice and Ekbäck’s helpful cues regarding the speaker’s identity. This is a perfect listen for the shortest days of the year—preferably in front of a fire, in heavy socks and woolly robe, because the novel’s chills come from both the weather so ably described and the hearts of the characters. Another great contribution to the Nordic noir tradition.
A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website here.