When two young girls find the body of a man in the woods, their mother is the only person in the area who thinks the culprit is one of their own, and not a wolf. Cecilia Ekback’s debut novel, Wolf Winter, is a fascinating, if ultimately flawed crime novel that sticks close to the tropes of the genre, even when it tries desperately hard to stray from them.
Set in 1717 in Swedish Lapland, we follow three narratives: the mother, the daughter, and the local priest; as they traverse the bleak landscape of Blackasen and each, in their own way, investigate a murder. The story weaves in some historical fact, but is never overburdened with research, rather leaving the whodunit as the key component driving the story forward.
There is plenty to like about Ekback’s approach to what is, essentially, a by the numbers procedural thriller; the landscape of Blackasen in particular is beautifully sketched, and there are several standout sequences, especially in the middle of the book where the titular Wolf Winter takes hold. Ekback also manages to create one of the more interesting investigative duos in recent memory in two of her leads, Frederika and her mother Maija.
But this isn’t enough for the book to become anything more than just another run of the mill thriller. There is a murder, several people suspect foul play, interrogate suspects and reveal a murderer. Several times in the book the reader will likely find themselves ahead of the mystery, and on at least two occasions, characters glean important information regarding the murder, only to hold it back from the others for no reason other than the pacing of the book. It can make for a very frustrating read. Even in the endgame, those accustomed to the genre will find themselves becoming ever more aware of the tropes at play.
That may be the most frustrating thing as the book, in the end, winds up investigating and dissecting a much more modern problem than it first seems. Relaying the denouement here will spoil the ending, but when the story finally gets its act together, it becomes much more interesting, and the final third is what makes this an almost gem.
Any Cop? A debut crime novel that, despite touching on interesting themes in its conclusion, treads a much more banal path through a foreboding landscape than you would expect. One perhaps, for fans of the genre.