The Will Dean story is almost so good that you might wonder if he had to write fiction at all.
Briefly it is this: Lived in west London, designed electronic trading platforms for banks in the City, moved to Sweden with Swedish wife, chose to live in a very remote area up a mile-long track in the heart of the forest, built house from a kit, wrote first novel.
And to cap it all, the novel he chose to write is Scandinoir, taking on the masters in their own backyard, as it were. That takes confidence, or arrogance, or a desire for a quick literary death, depending on which way you look at it.
Dark Pines, then, is Dean’s debut. And from the outset it is clear that he gets a lot right.
A Forest Of Fear
The opening pages are distinctly disturbing and edgy with their languorous descriptions of the forest. For this is not a bunch of pretty sunlit trees, it’s a claustrophobic melange of fern, fungus, damp, rot, mulch and stink. It’s uncomfortable and it’s threatening, particularly for deaf Tuva Moodyson, Dean’s protagonist, who is a city girl fresh out of London, working in the area only because she needs a job that is closer to her dying mother. She finds one with the local newspaper, a bit of a come-down compared to The Guardian and The New York Times.
Tuva dreams of the journalistic big-time, so when an eyeless body is found in the most impenetrable of the local forests, Utgard, she seizes her chance to stay ahead of the local police and the national press by doing her own investigation.
Dean has reportedly said that the idea for the book came one day when he heard gunshots in the forest near his home. Hunting is a big part of the lives of many men in these areas, both for survival and sustenance. Big game, like elk, is plentiful. But what if one hunter has a different prey in mind?
A Mossen Mystery
Tuva rapidly links the contemporary shooting with the so-called Medusa killings 20 years earlier. Those also featured eyeless corpses.
As Tuva asks questions, the local community closes ranks against her, accusing her of bringing the small town of Garvik into disrepute. Its inhabitants need the business revenue that seasonal hunting brings, cousin and second-cousin relationships bind the community together, and friendships inhibit the local police from objective inquiry.
The focus of their and Tuva’s investigations is the tiny community of Mossen, deep in the forest and close to where the body was found.
Dean provides a bizarre assortment of inhabitants and suspects: an army veteran turned militant vegetarian; a ghost writer; two troll-carving sisters, and the leader of the local hunting group who owns much of the land.
These are eccentric characters, even outright threatening, none more than the creep of a taxi driver who drives Tuva to a dark and lonely place. But perhaps more intriguingly still, why do so many leads trace back to the local strip joint just outside the town?
Into The Wild
Tuva’s investigation forces her to confront her own fears. The forest is alien to her and profoundly uncomfortable. Her deafness contributes to the isolation she feels and also her fears. Tackling the forest entails ramping up her confidence and courage, spying on the main suspects, unravelling a ball of coloured wool as she goes deeper into the forest to ensure she does not get lost.
The star of Dark Pines is the forest itself. Dean writes with obvious knowledge and understanding of the vast tracts that characterise northern Sweden: thousands of acres, filled with wildlife, some of it in itself dangerous – moose, elk, bears, wolves. He uses the forest as presence, as a cloak for dark deeds, as a metaphor for tangled webs of intrigue. The forest is a character with presence.
Of some of the other characters I am slightly less confident. Tuva is ambitious, complicated and driven but not yet, I feel, a fully realised character. The troubled investigator is a cliche of modern crime fiction (probably accurately) but I did not find Tuva particularly likeable or – anything really. She moves the story forward breathlessly and we follow her. We look out for her but do not love her.
A Promising First
Crime fiction depends above all on its plotting. Dean moves Dark Pines forward with considerable pace and skill. This is a good, compelling read although I have to confess that I got to the perpetrator well before the end.
His suspects are a motley crew, occasionally almost comic – I am thinking of the way-over-the-top troll-carving sisters, one of whom speaks and the other who doesn’t. But then again, very isolated communities do have a habit of throwing up very odd people.
Dark Pines is the first of what promises to be a series of Tuva Moodyson mysteries. I shall be interested to see where Dean takes her next. But this is a very promising start, full of threat, pace and intrigue. It may be a flawed debut, but it is nonetheless impressive.
Author: Will Dean
Publisher: Point Blank, crime fiction