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.