Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

The Sandhamn Murders

By Miriam R. Kramer

With a monstrous heat wave burning up the South and Southwest of the United States recently, we could all use a physical and mental break. So why not sit on a covered porch or under an umbrella at the beach and take a trip to Sweden? Try out The Sandhamn Murders, this series of nine murder mysteries set on Sandhamn, a popular island near Stockholm where tourists vacation in the short, beautiful summer months. Viveca Sten has written a clutch of books that make for perfect beach, lake, or pool reading, especially for travelers looking to escape to someplace with sun and cool summer breezes. Her novels have been televised as a popular Swedish crime series as well.

The Sandhamn Murders features two primary protagonists: Nora Linde, a lawyer, and Thomas Andreasson, a police detective with the Nacka police division in Stockholm. Having known each other since they were children, they love each other as brother and sister

Nora owns a home on Sandhamn which she has visited for mini-breaks and vacations since she was a child. At the beginning of the series, she arrives there with her two young sons and a handsome doctor husband. Thomas, who has lost his wife when his child died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also has a small summer home on a nearby island, Harö.

Nora and Thomas face diverse crime schemes and murders that take place not only in Sandhamn, but also in the archipelago of small islands with summer cabins that exist east of Stockholm. They exchange information to help each other solve the homicides. Instead of being a safe haven for hordes of tourists looking for a weekend getaway from the city, along with celebrating the popular Swedish holiday of Midsommar (Midsummer), murders taint festivities and the cherished atmosphere on the islands. Amid their own uncertain family circumstances, they trust each other, which gives them a stable base from which to approach the slayings.

In the first few books, Nora has problems with her husband when she wants to explore a much better job in Malmö, a Swedish city close to Copenhagen. He flatly refuses without listening to her, throwing a wrench into their marriage. Despite her growing resentment, she tries to parent her children as best she can. Her trips to Sandhamn provide her with escape and comfort, until dead bodies start showing up in odd places.

Thomas is a loner. Frustrated by office politics, he also feels guilt about the death of his daughter from SIDS despite having nothing to do with it. In their mutual grief, he has divorced his wife, whom he misses greatly. Despite an affair with a younger woman at the office, he keeps his mind focused on work, and in particular the murders that start popping up all over the Swedish archipelago.

From a shooting on a yacht during a regatta to an investigation on a nearby island about a death during the training of a group of elite soldiers, lawyer Nora uses her professional resources, along with her informal network of locals, to find answers. Thomas uses the force of his procedural police pack of colleagues as an official researcher of the crimes. During the books they also encounter former Yugoslav criminals working in Sweden, domestic abuse victims, and child abduction, along with business tycoons who will do anything to prop up their secretly failing ventures.

Over the years, their lives grow and change as they find strong connections with new people in their lives. The constant is Sandhamn, and the islands around it, which give Nora and Thomas another steady base from which to solve cases. Even when their lives cross minimally in the novels, they work together and support one another. They visit their island homes for respite even during the winter when tourists are scarce. Murders do not wait for summer in the archipelago.

Both experience plenty of dramatic moments during chilling encounters when tangling with neighbors, summer visitors, and criminals on the mainland. Their vulnerabilities are also always on show.

Although these books are thrillers, the characters do develop somewhat along the way. This series is firmly in the tradition of Scandinavian noir, in that they experience brutality and face down murderers during some very dark moments. Yet the sunny descriptions of the beautiful islands during the summer lighten the atmosphere.

I zoomed through them all because I enjoyed the setting in particular. They are an enjoyable read for the summer, in which you are or hope you are on an island where you can swim, sunbathe, or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view. In this series, Sandhamn and the surrounding islands are as much a character in the books as Nora or Thomas. The lovely Swedish archipelago off Stockholm, where residents go during the summers and the winters, may be one of your next vacation spots after reading these books.

One of the writers who popularized the Scandinavian noir genre, Stieg Larsson, set a small part of his novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, on Sandhamn years before Viveca Sten started publishing her batch of novels. His character Mikhail Blomqvist retreats to a summer cottage in Sandhamn to feverishly draft his book about financial misconduct in Sweden.

I thought about Larson’s Millennium Trilogy after I finished The Sandham Murders. (Stieg Larsson only wrote The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I do not count sequels written by other authors.) The Sandhamn murders are a much quicker and surface-level read. I loved The Millennium Trilogy for its depth and intricate depiction of Swedish society, along with its singular heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

Sten’s output proves thematically lighter and less grisly than the works of Norwegian noir writer Jo Nesbø. One might even term it Noir Lite. If you are interested in a series of propulsive, sun-dappled crime novels featuring characters whose lives change as they solve a diverse set of crimes, you could do worse than picking up The Sandhamn Murders for a quick and enjoyable summer read.

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