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Saturday, 18 May 2013

She's Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel

It's no secret that I am drawn to Scandinavian crime titles like a magpie is drawn to shiny things. So when I was at a ReadItSwapIt meet-up a couple of months ago and I spotted this in the pile of 'up for grabs' books being passed around, I snapped it up straight away. I had never heard of the author before, but the taglines on the cover make great claims: "The most terrifying crime novel I have ever read" "This is the story that has obsessed readers across Scandinavia for the past year". To be honest these quotes did feel a little bit bold and raised my suspicions a little bit, but at least there was none of the usual "The next Stieg Larsson!" or "If you liked Jo Nesbo, you'll love this!" that seems to be plastered over every Scandinavian thriller and police procedural these days.

Mike likes to think he and his wife Ylva have a pretty solid relationship. Sure, she has strayed in the past, but he was able to forgive and forget and move on. So when she's late home from work one night he assumes she's stayed on for a few drinks with colleagues. But when there's still no sign of her when he wakes up the next day, he's worried. Days become weeks and weeks become months, and still nobody is any closer to finding out what has become of Ylva. Little do they know she is being held captive in the basement of the house across the road, only able to watch helplessly via a hidden camera as her family begin to forget her and get on with their lives.

Meanwhile, a couple of men halfway across the country stumble across their old high school yearbook and start to reminisce about the old days. They were the class nerds back then, tormented by a group of bullies they remember as the 'Gang of Four'. Nostalgia drives them to look up those children who gave them hell and they are startled to discover that all of the 'Gang of Four' seem to have met an untimely end.

From the beginning I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters in this book. All of them are a bit vague and non-descript, almost like shells of personalities. Ylva herself is difficult to work out. When we read scenes that she is involved in she comes across as an inoffensive enough person. But when Mike's experiences are explored there are frequent hints to her promiscuity and disloyalty. This is reinforced at the very end of the book when the motive of her abductors is revealed and we find out more about Ylva's past. The whole thing feels a little like the reader is being pushed towards doing a bit of victim-blaming, which is something I really dislike.

I also had some niggles with the plot itself. It is unbelievable just how little action the police take to investigate Ylva's disappearance. The two officers are absolute caricatures of the typical bumbling cop, more worried about what flavour of ice-cream to choose than about the task at hand. Their suspicions fall on Mike and Mike alone from the very start, and they do nothing at all to investigate any other leads that arise over the course of the novel. The involvement of her two old classmates also seemed tenuous and I found their motive for getting involved to be quite far-fetched.

Something would be amiss if I didn't highlight the fact that Ylva is subjected to numerous attacks of sexual violence during her capture, and these are described on multiple occasions. I can say that I, personally, didn't find them too traumatic to get through. For comparison, I can say that they certainly didn't repulse me anywhere near as much as the rape scene in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which everyone and their grandma seems to have managed to read by now. But if you are somebody who is particularly averse to tackling this kind of subject matter then this book should definitely be avoided.

I am sorry to say that I found little to excite me in She's Never Coming Back. The woman-trapped-in-basement plot is one that has been done several times, and nothing new is brought to the table in this book. The writing is solid but without a flair to make it stand out among its contemporaries. I believe that the author is already an established writer of childrens' books under his real name but that this will be the first in a crime trilogy. This strikes me as odd as there is literally nobody in this book who I can begin to imagine as the lead protagonist in a mystery series. I can't help but wonder how he will take this further.

For those whose interest has been piqued by this synopsis, I might recommend Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen, as that was a really excellent read that uses a similar female hostage situation but has really grea, unique characters. I guess this will teach me to be more discerning about my Scandinavian crime choices in future!


  1. What a pity this book disappointed you so much. I read it and liked it, but there were definitely some things that I didn't like about it, too.

    My review (in Dutch, if you're curious, there's Google translate) is here: http://boekblogger.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/boek-recensie-ze-komt-nooit-meer-terug-van-hans-koppel/

    I think not all Scandinavian crime writing is equally strong, and how could it? It's just a marketing ploy of course!

  2. The whole plot sounds like something I would not be happy reading, so just as well that I saw your review and won't worry that I missing something. Thanks for this review.

  3. This doesn't seem like my cup of tea at all. Like Tracy, I too am glad to have read this review and now needn't worry about picking up the book otherwise the title with its melancholic undertones would have made me give it a try.