Flickan i Stenparken
(The Girl in the Stone Park )
by Nilla Kjellsdotter
reviewed by Kathy Saranpa
A teenaged girl, injured and barely dressed, battles wind, snow and cold to cross the ice on the frigid western coast of Finland. Her goal is to reach Stone Park, a local sculpture garden doomed to be excavated. She doesn’t expect to survive, and her final wish is to be ‘reunited’ with someone or something. After collapsing at the park, she’s found by a construction worker and taken to a hospital. Miraculously, she recovers, but she cannot give her name or explain what brought her to the park under such wintry conditions and in such a state of undress. With whom or what she wished to be reunited also remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, a Somalian cleaning woman in Djupön, an exclusive area in the Vaasa archipelago, makes a grisly discovery in a posh home left empty while its residents are away: the father of the family, David Heselius – a prominent diabetes researcher – has been murdered, his body lying in a pool of blood in his granddaughter’s bedroom. His wife, daughter and granddaughter are on holiday in Sweden. Strangely, the man’s fly is open.
Enter Detective Mija Wadö, an unconventional woman in a traditionally male field who’s always going too far to solve a crime and has gotten in trouble for it. In some ways she seems familiar – she’s certainly not the only ‘outlier’ woman detective in current crime fiction – but she’s well-differentiated here with intriguing personal characteristics. She keeps forgetting dates with her new boyfriend but reconnects romantically with an old colleague. She prefers snus and coffee for breakfast and fails to keep her refrigerator sufficiently supplied. She maintains a strong, close connection with a retired colleague who considers her a substitute daughter. The reader sympathizes as she grumbles to herself about a new Norwegian workmate she considers superficial and vain, knowing that she’s probably envious of the woman’s put-together look. Mija is anything but put together – except when it comes to solving crimes.
Detective work runs in Mija’s blood, and she’s uncannily good at it. (She diagnoses her friend’s daughter with diabetes before the doctors do simply by the smell of the child’s breath.) With the assistance of her retired colleague and his meticulous examination of the department’s cold cases, she is able to identify the girl in the hospital and her relationship to Heselius’s brother and business partner, Krister. The crimes unraveled send the reader’s thoughts to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: their perversity and evil rival anything Stieg Larsson wrote.
It’s unusual for a Finland-Swedish writer to be picked up by a Swedish publisher, and this attests to Kjellsdotter’s ability to develop a compelling crime story with on-point local color. The reader feels with Mija as she navigates the weather-beaten roads of the archipelago and can sense the oppressive dark of early Finnish winter. Kjellsdotter’s ability to compose realistic dialogue and pace the narrative are superb. The red herrings are carefully and cleverly placed and the ending is that fine combination of complete surprise and trigger to reread the book to find those previously ignored clues. Now and again a worn cliché pops up and disturbs the flow, but not enough to make the reader put the book down.
It’s a difficult thing to write about child sexual abuse and get it right – too many details distract from the story of detective work, but euphemizing shows disrespect to the reader. Kjellsdotter has a straightforward, effective and yet sensitive way of portraying this crime, as well as the complex psychology of grooming. Her ability to describe what goes through the young victim’s mind – in a retrospective of what led up to the flight across the iced-over bay – will stay with the reader, uncomfortably.
Another Mija Wadö book, Himmelsgården (Weak Flesh), appeared earlier this year – with a character this rich and sympathetic, one can hope that there will be more to come.
Flickan i Stenparken
Foreign rights: Grand Agency
Winner of the Finnish and Swedish Storytel Award 2023, as Best crime and suspense of the year
Nilla Kjellsdotter hails from Ostrobothnia, Finland. Flickan i stenparken quickly rose to the bestseller charts in both Sweden and Finland on its release in 2022.