An Unusual Investigation Reveals Sweden’s “Dark Heart”

Book review: The Dark Heart, by Joakim Palmkvist (Amazon / Book Depository)

At summer’s end in 2012, an older, miserly farmer went missing from his farm in the Swedish countryside. The surrounding region is dubbed the “dark heart of Smaland,” in reference to its traditional conservatism and religious background. Palmkvist points out that it’s an apt expression for this story, at the heart of which is whether a long-standing squabble over disputed land between two farming families, the Lundblads and the Tornblads, played a role.

Goran Lundblad, the missing man in question, ran a farm and foresting operation in Norra Forlosa and had accrued considerable wealth thanks to his business and the family generations before him. He’s not exactly a sympathetic figure as all his dealings came to light and as portrayed here, but he’s no villain either.

He lived mostly alone after two marriages, with one of his daughters, Sara Lundblad, assisting in the family business. She comes under suspicion because of her Romeo and Juliet-like romance with a son of the neighboring farming family, the Tornblads. They were long a thorn in Goran’s side because of the land dispute and he wasn’t particularly accepting of his daughter’s relationship.

In addition to the narrative of the crime as its details slowly became known, the book includes the Lundblads’ back story and their financial maneuverings, plus a parallel story: that of Therese Tang, the “private investigator” who was key in cracking the case even after it had gone cold.

Therese ran a branch of an organization called Missing People, which recruits volunteers for missing persons search efforts. They searched unsuccessfully for Goran when he was first reported missing, and Therese would later assist in bringing the crime to its resolution in a very unorthodox way. Despite this significance, the book puts the spotlight on Therese and her background mysteriously often.

The excitement seems to be over the fact that she had been a model and worked in the modeling industry, like doing makeup, so was an outsider to criminal justice. She held other jobs too, more than I can name, the details of which were related for reasons I’m not clear on. The number of times we’re reminded she was a model is ridiculous. It felt like this should have been long-form journalism or a profile piece as it’s clear the author considered Therese one of the most interesting angles of the story, and if you agree, you’re sure to enjoy the book; if not, it’s going to drag sometimes.

The case must have been sensational in Sweden, I think in no small part because of Therese’s involvement, as Palmkvist writes: “How the case was solved – thanks to a private investigator who put herself in harm’s way to find the truth and convict the perpetrators – really raised the interest from mere curiosity to public frenzy.” It’s interesting and unusual, absolutely, but I didn’t understand the frenzy.

My biggest pet peeve is that Therese is repeatedly called an investigator. She’s not, she’s a witness. Someone who hears or is told a confession is a witness. And she ran a branch of a volunteer search group but that’s still not an investigator. Swedish justice system quirks aside, she’s not a professional or “private investigator” (the author constantly refers to her as such) in any sense. It irked me.

There are also points where added detail does nothing to enhance the story (“It was exactly 22 minutes and 48 seconds past 11:00 p.m. on June 17 when Therese’s phone buzzed” was a particularly annoying example) and elsewhere a lack of detail hurt it. While the investigation clusters around Sara, whose story, behavior and relationship with a family enemy initially drew suspicion, Goran has another daughter, Maria, who first raised the alarm about him being missing. They were genuinely close, talking on the phone the last night of his life, as they often did for hours at a time – but she’s someone who gets lost in the primary pursuit of Therese’s bland story and retracing threads of the crime. Which is ok sometimes, it was mostly interesting to read the investigation narrative, but I’d have rather learned more about Maria than Therese.

The most interesting and worthwhile element is what the book reveals about the Swedish criminal investigation and justice systems, including some historical tidbits about past cases I’m now curious about. For a country that provides the scenery for so much crime and detective fiction but doesn’t have much violent crime in reality, any story about these systems is appealing. But I can’t imagine that the methodology (or lack thereof) that Therese employed would’ve gone over well in an American courtroom, if not ultimately torpedoing the case for some form of persuasion.

I say that with zero legal background, I could be very wrong (I know you’ll tell me if so, internet) but the whole thing was eyebrow-raising and made me more uncomfortable than impressed. In the end it served its purpose and was legal, so it helped bring closure and justice to what might well have remained unsolved. I’m criticizing too much considering those things, but uncomfortable was how I felt.

The afterword begins with a Clue: The Movie-like line: “This book constitutes one of many possible versions of a long and complex history and a gruesome crime.” I suppose that’s thanks to some ideas about the crime being creatively told, and these sections were very compelling to read, but I’m always bothered by not knowing which parts of what I’ve just read were true or not. It’s by no means a bad read, I found it page-turning and often very absorbing, but had more potential. almost 3/5

The Dark Heart:
A True Story of Greed, Murder, and an Unlikely Investigator

by Joakim Palmkvist
translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé
published November 1, 2018 by AmazonCrossing

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

20 thoughts on “An Unusual Investigation Reveals Sweden’s “Dark Heart”

    1. Yeah, exactly…at most! She was very interested in the case and helped push parts of the investigation but she also said things like (paraphrasing) “I just KNOW [some person] is lying”, which has caused lots of problems in other cases and bothers me. Maybe that’s a weird complaint that will bother no one else because ultimately she ended up helping instead of hurting, but I couldn’t help imagining very different outcomes, including for her own safety, or else inspiring other amateur investigators in all the wrong ways 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Your review started me thinking about many things related to true crime: What makes for a good case to write about? And as for the telling: separation from the case/ style/ details/ etc… I’m trying to think back on a “best of” true crime in my head and about what makes those books great. I remember your discussion of author involvement in the cases. I think this review pushes that further. Excellent!

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    1. That’s so interesting! It’s strange because sometimes what makes a good true crime book for me is completely different in another book, like I mentioned before, I’ve both loved and hated author involvement in different contexts. And it’s interesting because this one clearly held a certain draw for the author (and much of Sweden, apparently) in one part of the story whereas that part made me somewhat uncomfortable. And when I think about the case depicted here without the angle of the amateur investigator, it’s not a particularly unusual or even fascinating one, actually (see “greed” in the subtitle) but even in translation I found it a mostly well told story nevertheless.

      As for what’s a good case to write about, that’s so fascinating to me: there are cases that are compelling or curious in their details but not really done justice in a book, and others that become all the more intriguing when fleshed out book length. It’s all something to keep in mind while reading the genre, you’re making me think more about what I particularly like in certain examples. Thanks for such thoughtful questions! 🧐

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      1. I’m trying to think of a particular case, but I know there have been several books that were written about the same crime. And the difference in quality is exactly what you mentioned: details, author involvement. It would make for an interesting case study to read/ review a series of books like that.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a good point, it’s also something that can change how you consider a story. I think it would be a good comparison in some of the big cases that have multiple books written about them because they use such different tactics, like what you mention. It’s something I’ll be keeping in mind reading this subject…what kind of approach is used and how it affects the story and perception. Thanks for raising that idea!

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    1. Thank you so much! It does discuss a little of the public reaction but mostly in connection to the involvement of the lady who was “investigating”. I would’ve loved to have read more about that angle especially considering it’s such a peaceful, low violent crime country (and yet why so many thrillers/crime novels…?) the time the author spent on the cultural aspects was fascinating but too brief, in my opinion.

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    1. That was my feeling too, I just wanted more from it. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this one to anyone who’s not already a true crime reader! I can’t imagine it would be easy to get into if you’re not already interested in the genre. It’s an odd one!

      Liked by 1 person

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