Mikael Niemi’s To Cook a Bear was one of those books I dithered about, historical crime fiction not really being my kind of thing, but a combination of the publisher – Maclehose Press whose books are reliably good – and its Swedish setting persuaded me to take the plunge. Set in the far north, Niemi’s novel explores the life of Læstadius, the nineteenth-century founder of an evangelical Revivalist movement still popular today, through a series of brutal murders committed in the pastor’s village.
In 1852 a servant disappears but rather than call in the sheriff, her master turns to the pastor for help. Læstadius is a passionate naturalist who has taught the young Sami boy he’s rescued from destitution and cruelty how to look carefully at the world. Both are outsiders: Jussi makes himself as unobtrusive as possible, his longing for a neighbour’s milkmaid unvoiced; the pastor preaches fire and brimstone aimed at the demon drink, beloved by many of his congregation but antagonising those who stand to lose trade. Convinced by the prospect of a handsome reward, the villagers set a trap for the bear claimed to have taken the missing girl by the sheriff but closer inspection by the pastor and Jussi suggests otherwise, their suspicions confirmed when her body is found. Then another young woman disappears, later found barely alive. The pastor is convinced a violent criminal is on the loose but the sheriff will have none of it setting the scene for a clash that will further deepen the divisions in the parish as, assisted by Jussi, the pastor sets about his investigations, convinced he’s engaged in a battle against evil.
But if libraries exist, do we need churches? The pastor fell silent and I was afraid that he was angry. But when he turned to me there was something else in his eyes, something wandering, vague. Something like fear.
Niemi’s Afterword places his main protagonist in context for those of us unfamiliar with charismatic religion or Swedish history while making clear that his novel is a work of fiction. We see Læstadius through Jussi’s eyes until the book’s last section which switches perspective to the pastor. He’s a complex character, convinced that education is a means to betterment and progress, a champion of social justice and excited by scientific advances yet capable of believing in the devil. With his reverence for the written word, Jussi stands as a testament to the power of literacy, a target for suspicion by those who want to thwart the pastor. Niemi maintains his story’s suspense well – the clever ruses used by the pastor to collect evidence and test his theories were particularly enjoyable – but for me it was its setting and cultural exploration that made this novel such an interesting read. A useful lesson in the value of taking several steps outside my literary comfort zone.
Maclehose Press: London 9780857058928 464 pages Hardback