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Liza Marklund, Nobels testamente (Nobel's Last Will and Testament)

Pirat,  2006. ISBN: 9789164202260

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:1

The ruthless young American contract killer known only as The Kitten is not looking forward to her assignment in the frozen north. She is finding it hard to focus on the job in hand, but at least the money is good. So it should be, since she is bluffing her way, shivering in evening gown and stiletto heels, into Stockholm City Hall on the chill December night of the glittering Nobel banquet. There she will do a cold, professional execution job on Caroline von Behring, a professor at Karolinska Institutet and chairman of the prestigious committee that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine. Then she will escape through a goods entrance, incapacitate three security guards, race down to the waterfront and be whisked away by an accomplice in a motor boat.

But The Kitten is right to be wary of an icebound country with, as she puts it, a police force that takes itself too seriously, and all those law-abiding, watchful citizens. Her plan does not run perfectly: she skids and falls from a motorbike on a later part of the escape and is left with a permanent limp; accomplices and agents prove unreliable as the weeks pass, and The Kitten finds herself with a lot of messy, unfinished business to clear up. As she fled, she lost a shoe, covered in her fingerprints, giving the police a crucial lead and gifting the press the headline "Cinderella of Death" – and indeed, who is that fairytale blonde beauty in black satin on the steps of the City Hall’s famous Blue Hall in the cheeky cover picture but the author herself, or someone very like her? Most fatally of all for The Kitten’s anonymity, Carolina has died just a few yards from tabloid reporter Annika Bengtzon, who is there to cover the banquet for her paper and has noticed that the killer’s eyes are an extraordinary yellow.

The stage is set for the sixth Annika Bengtzon novel, in which our heroine finds herself in the murky world of cutting-edge medical research, where the financial and academic stakes are huge, and mutual suspicion and back-stabbing are the norm. Big biotec companies have commissioned anti-ageing research that is perceived by others as a godless quest for eternal life, and the lure of fortunes to be made by Nobel prize-winners proves irresistible to the unscrupulous. More, and grislier, murders follow. The narrative is intriguingly interspersed with short reflections on Alfred Nobel’ lonely, tragically frustrated life, and these ultimately prove crucial to the solution of the mystery.

With the Bengtzon brand now well established, Marklund clearly realizes she needs new sub-plots to prevent Annika becoming a two-dimensional action heroine. Here, all is not well on the domestic front. With her reward money from a previous case, Annika has bought a detached family house in the upmarket Djursholm area, but there are problems: with the neighbours; with settling the children into a new pre-school; with her own boredom while she is obliged to be on unpaid leave because her police minder has forbidden her to disclose what she witnessed at the Nobel banquet; and not least with her husband Thomas, who has been briefly unfaithful (while she, though tempted, has resisted an affair with a journalist on a rival newspaper). Thomas is now obsessed with his shiny new top civil service job, drafting questionably illiberal anti-terrorist bugging legislation; he takes her for granted as his hostess, housekeeper and childminder. Annika is delighted to get back to her job, but finds that the ailing paper has had to evolve swiftly, like so many others worldwide, to survive in the multimedia age. Her office has been taken over for digital broadcasting, and she is obliged to be a reporter at large, lugging with her a laptop that soon weighs her down like a lump of lead. She feels rootless and undervalued, and is behaving increasingly irrationally and impulsively as her marriage crumbles, leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre in the next book. There is no need to reveal the violent, action-packed denouement of this instalment; suffice it to say that the seemingly indestructible Annika lives to fight another day.

This plot-driven novel, though clearly the fruit of considerable background research, bears some hallmarks of having been dashed off at speed, and has been surprisingly sloppily proofread. At the time of writing this review, however, the hardback resides in the upper levels of Sweden’s bestseller lists and the huge popularity of Liza Marklund’s thrillers seems unlikely to wane for some while yet.

Sarah Death

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