Tom Rob Smith’s contribution to the Scandi noir canon is born of authenticity. His mother was Swedish although not, one presumes, the model for Tilde who turns up on his son’s London doorstep one day with a story straight from the dark heart of that troll-ridden country.
His father, Chris, phones Daniel to warn him that his mother has gone quite mad and should be sectioned rather than believed. Meanwhile his mother begs him to ignore his father, listen to her story and judge for himself. She has a few hours before Chris lands in London.
The author’s skill is to turn his parent’s plight into the reader’s own. Not specifically or literally. But how many know, or want to know, their parents beyond the amiable folk who provided a home and tea and conducted the darker stuff surely but “not in front of the children”.
Daniel, who imagined his childhood was idyllic and his parents blissfully happy, is not immune to secrets. He has yet to tell his parents he is gay.
Not that they would disapprove but because he fears they would worry that he thought they might. That is the tortuous, kindly, go-the-extra-mile solid world of family love that Tom Rob Smith unpicks and needles with forensic skill.
It is Tilde’s monologue mostly – a speedy, gripping read this – and every twist and turn of the story forces a re-assessment of the essential questions – is Tilde deranged or persecuted? Is Chris right or wrong? Who should Daniel believe?
In Sweden, things turned out badly, his mother said. His parents had not gone there after selling their garden centre but not for an idyllic retirement as he thought but because they were broke.
Isolated, and with money worries, Tilde begins to view her neighbours with suspicion. Especially Hakan Greggson, a powerful farmer who has a troubling relationship with his adopted daughter Mia.
Greggson seems to resent the fact that the couple had taken a property which he wanted for himself while the reason the previous owner sold up is
shrouded in mystery.
While Christopher is charmed by the land and the village folk, Tilde begins to see and sense something sinister and corrupt. She fears for Mia and when Mia disappears, she fears the worst.
Caught in an acute dilemma, Daniel has to take apart his foundations and view one or both his parents with suspicion, a task that undermines all that he knows and is.
Ultimately, Daniel must find out for himself the basis of the dark fairy tales he has heard and discovers that truth – like family life – is rarely a case of black and white.
Tom Rob Smith (Simon & Schuster)