THE SHADOW IN THE RIVER - Frodde Grytten
I've had this tradition for the last few years that my first favourite book of the year pops up in January. Well that's for the last two years anyway - The Broken Shore by Peter Temple and then Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland. Breaking the tradition slightly, as Frode Grytten is Norwegian not Australian, but it's January and THE SHADOW IN THE RIVER's officially my first entry in my favourite books of 2008.
This has the sort of style that particularly appeals to me. Dry, sardonic wit, pointed and quite discomforting social commentary, this book reveals what the investigation of a murder does in a closed in, threatened little town. Set in Odda, a small and rapidly dying town, this place has had the guts ripped out of it as industry has closed, jobs have dried up and social services have gradually receded. The remaining residents stay, partly because they have been there for a long time or maybe because they don't know what else to do. Ultimately, that sort of despair and deeply ingrained social disconnection can lead people to look for somebody to blame. And it's very straight-forward to blame the outsiders, somebody who is different. Even if you don't blame them, they are different, so suspicion comes easily.
In the middle of this mix is the main character in this book - Robert Bell. He's trapped in Odda, partly because he can't be bothered, but mostly because the love of his life is in this town and he can't leave her. She's married to his brother mind you, but that hasn't stopped Robert from loving her since the first night they met - when she chose his brother Frank. Frank is now in the police force, and he's investigating the death of the young man whose car was forced into the river. Robert is also looking into that death - as is, it seems, half the media of Norway - drawn to this small town and this murder, you have to suppose, simply because of the presence of the asylum seekers - the easy scapegoats.
This isn't a police procedural, despite the presence of the police. Really it's not much at all about the solving of the crime (which does happen), but it's about the impact that a seemingly meaningless crime has on a small town. And that's what I loved about it. That commentary of the impact - of the loss of a young man - of the suspicion - of the media intrusion. The book is frequently incredibly, poignantly sad; it's often funny, it's tragic and it was completely involving.
One June night, in a small town gripped by a sweltering heat wave, a young man is forced off the road and into the river. Robert Bell, a disillusioned local journalist with a dry sense of humour and an escalating drink problem, leaves behind the banality of his quiet office to investigate the mysterious death. Simmering racial tensions in the town threaten to boil over and local Serbian immigrants become the easy targets for blame.