THE CROW GIRL by Erik Axl Sund
CBTB RATING: 5+/5
THE VERDICT: must read
Reading THE CROW GIRL is a visceral, demanding journey down into the depths of human depravity. I can't say I've ever read a book that affected me so deeply, and it has been a long time since I've been this passionate about a book. I'm used to reading books that are meant to shock and horrify, and I've always able to close the book and distance myself from the story—until I met THE CROW GIRL. Writing duo Erik Axl Sund's English debut succeeds at pushing the limits of crime writing, drawing the reader into a world that is as repulsive and deranged as it is addictive and emotional.
This is ultimately a story about the human psyche: our darkness, the pain we inflict on one another, and our unquenchable thirst for redemption.
Before I delve further into the mad genius that is THE CROW GIRL, it's important to understand some fundamentals about this title. Originally published in Sweden as a trilogy, the English translation of THE CROW GIRL combines all three of the Victoria Bergman novels into one massive tome. The US edition of THE CROW GIRL is divided into three parts, delineating the original trilogy. American readers: you can always read the book part by part, but if you have the experience I did, you won't want to - 734 consecutive pages of THE CROW GIRL wasn't enough for me. It's also worth noting that I would not recommend this book as a first crime read: it is graphically violent and explores a side of humanity that will – and should – repulse you. I view this book as the Mt. Everest of Scandinavian crime fiction—demanding, brutal, and utterly addictive for those who know and love the genre.
So what is this book about?
A Stockholm city park: police discover the horrifically abused body of a young boy. Heading the investigation is Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg, a strong-willed individual who finds herself battling a bureaucratic and potentially corrupt police force in her search for justice. Enter expert psychiatrist Sofia Zetterlund: an expert witness for the state, and a woman struggling under the weight of her own baggage. As the body count mounts, Jeanette finds herself confronting evil in its purest form, and grappling with the story's essential question: where does a cycle of abuse and revenge end?
Scandinavian crime fiction is consistently gorier, grittier, and more violent than its American counterparts. THE CROW GIRL raises the stakes for crime writers worldwide—Eirik Axl Sund has successfully mastered a book that is consistently and strategically gripping, engaging, and utterly debased. There wasn't a single moment in this book where I felt the violence depicted was excessive or just for "shock value," which is often a complaint I have with violent crime novels. Instead, the authors have crafted a story that uses these moments of repulsive violence as tools to explore the effects of abuse – both physical and emotional – and trace the impact of these traumas on the abused. This book puts on a gory show for the reader, but at its core it is insightful and surprisingly empathetic.
As you can no doubt imagine, a book of this length contains one of the most intricately woven plots I've ever read. This story introduces its readers to a whole cast of characters: the good, the bad, the innocent, and the monsters—they're all here, and Erik Axl Sund ensures you'll have a hard time pinning down just which is which. This story beautifully illustrates the complexity of real people. How often are people really just "the good guy" or "the bad guy"? In crime novels, all the time; in real life, hardly ever. Erik Axl Sund captures this nuance with dramatic flair, again using shocking twists and truly horrific violence to drive home an important point: people's actions can be evil, but their true character might not be fully defined by those actions.
THE CROW GIRL is simply a crime masterpiece. At once horrific, expertly paced, and consistently engaging, this 700+ page tome will long stand as one of Nordic Noir's most impressive feats. My attention never wavered over the course of this massive novel—a testament to the expertise of its authors and editors alike. It takes a truly special series to be successfully combined into one book that will still leave readers begging for more, and Erik Axl Sund's THE CROW GIRL has done it. I can say nothing more than this: I salute Erik Axl Sund for illustrating the brazen, limitless capacity of crime writing to push its readers towards a more honest understanding of the depths of human darkness, and of the redemption that can be found even in that place.
Update: I had the good fortune to sit down with Erik Axl Sund and ask them my questions about their brilliant debut. Read more here.
Disclaimer: I am an employee of Penguin Random House. All opinions my own.