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Höken sjunger om död review

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Issue number: 2024:1


Höken sjunger om död

(The Hawk Sings of Death)

by Johan Tralau
reviewed by James Walker

It is night in Uppsala, in the area around the oldest university buildings and Sebastian Grimner, recently widowed, is, as he does quite often, walking his daughter in her push chair in order to get the insomniac little girl to fall asleep. As he nears the fountain in front of the old castle he sees a lifeless body.

The body is that of Kim Nyman, a young man who is enrolled in the Department of Literary Fiction and is studying for a doctorate. Sebastian recognises him immediately, as he teaches in the same department. 


The police arrive at the scene and despite the fact that someone has attempted to make Nyman’s death look like an accident, detective Erika Lönnroth is not convinced. An autopsy confirms her suspicions that this is in fact a murder.

Kim Nyman was an odd person, a loner and had not been seen at the literature department for a long time. He was a very gifted student and was writing a dissertation on the Swedish seventeenth-century renowned scholar Olof Rudbeck, who was also based in Uppsala, and his famous work Atlantica. However, nothing is found on the body: no ID, no mobile phone, nothing. A search of Nyman’s flat draws a complete blank. The police find no further clues: no laptop, no manuscript and no notebooks..

Then Sebastian Grimner’s colleague Jan-Svante Witt, who was supervising Kim Nyman’s doctorate, anonymously receives the first chapter of what appears to be Kim Nymans’ doctoral thesis. The manuscript is full of complicated, complex theories in and around Rudbeck’s Atlantica, including the theory that the university has been run for centuries by a cloak and dagger secret society. Erika Lönnroth is at pains to make head or tail of it and so she enlists the help of Sebastian and Svante to help her understand it.

The manuscript is a literary puzzle that needs to be solved, and one which will appeal to fans of mythology. As per the title of the book, Höken, the hawk, and various other birds are key parts of the riddle and a detailed knowledge of birds and mythology, as well as Old Norse and the antiquities is required to unpick the complex and compelling manuscript.

One chapter leads to the next and the first murder leads to a second - it is clear that a serial murderer is on the loose, and Erika and Sebastian have no time to waste.

Johan Tralau is himself an academic based at Uppsala University although in a different department – Political Science – and this adds a great deal of extra colour and layering to Höken sjunger om död. Even if the hawk here is singing about death, Uppsala itself, pardoning the pun, is very much alive in the book's pages. Added to this is a fabulously colourful cast of characters working alongside Sebastian and Svante, and who Tralau takes the time to describe and characterise in some detail so that we have another layer to unravel, as it could be any one of them, maybe even the controversial and ill-disposed Georges Rossignol (whose surname means ‘nightingale’ in French!).

The reader has to be on the ball to fully appreciate Tralau’s debut novel and to enjoy the riddles, clues and connections that are constructed, then reconstructed and subsequently deconstructed.

Höken sjunger om död is purported to be the first of a series including policewoman Erika Lönnroth and academic Sebastian Grimner in the leading roles. Although the novel could easily stand alone, having finished it, there are still a few stones left unturned and hopefully they will be ‘turned’ in a sequel.

Johan Tralau in beige blazer against an olive background
Johan Tralau. Photo: Sören Vilks.

Höken sjunger om död

Polaris, 2013

409 pages

Foreign Rights: Gustaf BondePolitiken Literary Agency

Nominated for the 2023 Crimetime Award for best debut crime novel.

Johan Tralau is a professor in political science at Uppsala university. Höken sjunger om död is his literary debut.