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discover helene tursten

author of the irene huss investigations set in goteborg, sweden


Helene Tursten's Göteborg

Göteborg, Sweden offers visitors many things (fun fact: the city officially changed its name to Gothenburg in 2009 to make the city more international—even today, you’ll see many street signs that are spelled “Göteborg”). After browsing past the Rembrandt and Monet masterpieces at the Gothenburg Museum of Art (one of the finest in Europe, it has three stars in the Michelin Green Guide), you can stroll along one of the many placid canals before tucking into a cozy café for some tasty gravlax and a warming akvavit. You’ve never really been in Sweden unless you’ve had “fika” (similar to “hygee,” and meaning to take a break, sit down with a friend for a cup of coffee and some baked goods)—most recommended for your “fika” is the cinnamon bun found at Café Husaren in the cobblestoned neighborhood of Haga. Next: shop the trendy, boutique stores for your new favorite scarf or sweater, and then bundle up for an easy walk in a city full of historic architecture. For a jealousy-inducing Instagram-worthy spot, check out the Kuggen, or “the cog,” a modern, colorful, iconic building at Lindholmen. But really, this entire city is Instagram-worthy, and the best way to see it? The Padden canal cruises. During this tour you’ll pass by famous sights—the opera house, the famous fish market “Feskekörka,” green parks, the old ship yard areas and docks along the harbor, all while learning about the history of Göteborg.

These are all the classically Swedish experiences, easy to find in guidebooks. But there is another half of the city. A darker half. A seedy underbelly full of violence and secret societies. Street gangs, neo-Nazis, a marginalized and struggling immigrant community. This is the hidden world Helene Tursten shines a light on, the world that doesn’t make it on the glossy tourist brochures or postcards.

Helene Tursten was born in Göteborg. Before she became a writer, she was a nurse, dentist, and translator of medical articles. That’s most of what we know about her—she lives a private life in Göteborg—but her work must have informed the anatomic accuracy of her grim tales (medical articles, you say?). Irene Huss, a detective inspector of the Violent Crimes Unit, deals with gruesome murder after gruesome murder. And as if that weren’t difficult enough, she must navigate the socio-politics of working in the male-dominated world of the police force. Although this series is set in the late 1990s, there is a feminist thread that contains a universal ring of truth about gender issues in the work place today. How Tursten tackles these issues adds a dimension to this series that is poignant and necessary.

            The first novel sets the tone for the entire series.

Nobody saw him fall through the dense November darkness. With a dull, heavy thud he hit the rain-wet pavement.
— From the series debut, Detective Inspector Huss

It turns out that body belonged to a prominent businessman. “Society Suicide” is what the police had initially deemed it—maybe due to a crash in the stock market, or a big investment gone bad. But, there are many loose ends, and after digging deeper, Detective Inspector Huss reveals the suicide to actually be a carefully plotted murder. The high-stakes investigation leads her from the upper-echelon of the Swedish business world to the darker hang outs of Hells Angels bikers and neo-Nazis.  

            Irene is a thirty-something year-old mother, with a husband, and two teenage girls. She lives a normal life with her supportive family. The police work can be tedious, and she spends her days in meeting after meeting (always with pizza—she laments that they could really spice things up with the office lunches). When she confronts this underworld, she does so with procedural curiosity and confidence. And she doesn’t do it alone: the Violent Crimes Unit works together to interview suspects and track down leads.  

But who is Irene Huss?

A change-up that might be nice for readers who are a bit tired of the misanthropic, angsty protagonist: her family life is supportive and gratifyingly average. Irene and her husband, Krister, set a few hours out of the week to spend with each other—and they never break it (something we could all learn from). And lucky for Irene, Krister, is a high-end chef, a local celebrity in Göteborg. Jenny, one of her daughters, takes after him, and as a vegan, has inspired many of his dishes. It’s her other daughter, Katarina, that takes after her mother. She looks like Irene and is interested in sports—specifically capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines dance of African origin and elements of aerobics. Irene also loves dogs and rescues Egon, her energetic dachshund, from the crime scene of a woman who met a most unfortunate end by an Old Testament spouting serial killer [Who Watcheth, Book 9].

            Although her fiction is dark (what murder case isn’t?), Tursten distinguishes herself from the rest of the Scandinavian crime pack (Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson). There is a real juxtaposition to Irene’s home life and her job. Her day to day may be full of dead bodies and skinheads, but in the cover of darkness, the warmth of her hearth is full of light and quiet joy. Family dinners. Kids that enjoy her company (whoa). An attentive husband. In contrast to the shattered relationships and alcohol abuse that populate many police procedurals, this warm home life sets Irene apart and informs her emotional intelligence

Detective Inspector Irene Huss may not be the smartest person on the force, nor the strongest (even though she’s a jiujitsu champion), but her ability to read human complexity with a generous, quiet eye is what solves the cases. A talent and intuition that makes her the one you want to investigate your case (unless you’re the murderer, of course).