Book review: Last Will by Liza Marklund

Last Will
by Liza Marklund
translated by Neil Smith
Emily Bestler books/Atria/Simon&Schuster 2012
First published in Sweden 2006, as Nobels testamente
Annika Bengtzon #6

Last Will is a fantastic, intelligent crime thriller, containing all the elements I love about the genre. Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter for the Evening Post, a tabloid newspaper. She’s attending the annual Nobel banquet for the paper, a formal ceremony in which the new laureates dine with the Swedish royal family and assorted dignitaries. Annika is dancing with another reporter when shots are fired – the laureate for medicine and the head of the Nobel committee are hit. Because Annika is a witness, the senior police investigator “Q” slaps a non-disclosure order on her under terrorist legislation.

Annika’s boss is only too keen to find an excuse to keep her away from the office for a while, so she agrees to a period of paid leave. She and Q go back a long way, however, so she keeps up with the investigation, soon realising that the official solution as reported in the papers is a long way from the real truth of the events of that night. Annika also gets to know some of the biological scientists who work at the Karolinska Institute, finding out about their work and how the Nobel prizes are decided upon each year.

During this time, Annika moves house into a rural suburb just outside Stockholm, using the money she was awarded in Red Wolf, the previous novel in the series. Annika’s marriage to the selfish, smug Thomas is on the rocks — though she is a devoted mother to her two young children and would not do anything to jeopardise their well-being. Thomas not only exploits Annika on the domestic front, but is becoming politically incompatible with her: he has moved from his original job in local government to a new position in the Ministry of Justice, helping to prepare stringent new anti-terrorist legislation that Annika finds appalling. Not only are things bad with Thomas, but Annika’s oldest friend Anne, who regular readers will know has gone through many ordeals with Annika in the past, has become increasingly unstable and unsympathetic as her own life and career implode, criticising Annika while at the same time sponging on her.

Last Will is by no means overwhelmed with domestic trivia, however. It is a clever, muscular thriller, combining exciting action with analyses of many contemporary issues: the dangers of security and terrorist legislation, in particular in the tragic case of a man accused of the Nobel atrocity; the plight of modern journalism and what proprietors do to survive in the internet era; the politics of the science profession and the scope for corruption by the financial interests of drug companies; some great descriptions of biological research; the ethics of scientific publication; and, underlying it all, a cracking, puzzling crime – why was the Nobel victim chosen, who was behind the events of that night, and what is the relationship between the first and subsequent crimes? None of these themes is treated as a cliché or in any predictable way; each is attacked with a fresh perspective by the author, abetted by Annika’s characteristic refusal to compromise.

One of the strengths of this novel is the author’s ability to convey vividly the stresses of modern parenthood and family life, from apparently trivial incidents with difficult neighbours to dangerous events between school “friends”. Without overdoing it, many of the elements in the story turn out to be either related or to have a direct impact on the climactic events towards the end.

I can’t recommend this novel too highly. This series has always been one of my very favourites, but here the author has surpassed herself with a great story, some intriguing historical elements, and convincing human interest – Annika’s dilemmas as a mother, wife and dedicated professional journalist are conveyed in a completely convincing manner that had me rooting for her at the end when she is forced to make a critical decision. And the crime plot is as solid and multi-layered as any I’ve read, as Annika’s tenacity and courageous nature force her to try to uncover what’s really going on. Neil Smith’s translation is remarkably natural, matching the author’s message with perfection. This novel is going to be hard to beat as my crime novel of the year.

I purchased the US edition of this book. The UK edition is apparently not out until September, but second-hand versions of the US edition are available on UK Amazon.

Other reviews of Last Will: The Mystery Gazette, Marianne Delacourt and Bookreporter.

Euro Crime: listing of Liza Marklund’s books, with links to reviews.

Wikipedia: about the author and her books, including the Annika series in reading and chronological order.

Movie news: this book has been made into a Swedish film called Nobel’s Last Will, first in a series of six based on the novels, starring Malin Crepin (pictured above) as Annika – who is dark-haired in the books. The series, made by Yellow Bird, has been sold to the USA, Australia/NZ, Brazil and Benelux.