Book review: Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson

Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson
Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson

When a woman is found murdered and mutilated in a Swedish marina, a trail of evil leads two intrepid investigators all the way back to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1944, and to the hell that was the Holocaust.

A visceral, gripping French Noir murder mystery with the darkest of hearts, Block 46 is the award-winning debut thriller from Johana Gustawsson, a French journalist married to a Swede who was inspired by her grandfather’s wartime experiences in Buchenwald.

Brutal and terrifying, this is a remarkable first novel which promises to take the English-speaking crime fiction world by storm as Gustawsson teams up two intriguing women – a French true-crime writer and a Canadian criminal profiler – in the first of her Roy & Castells series, flawlessly and fluently translated from the French by Maxim Jakubowski.

When writer Alexis Castells discovers that her close friend Linnéa Blix, a talented Swedish jewellery designer, has failed to turn up for the launch of her Cartier jewel collection at a smart London gallery, she immediately senses something is seriously wrong.

Linnéa has been in Falkenberg, Sweden, for one of her twice yearly retreats and within 24 hours, the young woman’s mutilated body is found in a nearby snow-swept marina. It’s a shocking discovery for the police and already Kommissionar Lennart Bergström ‘has the uneasy feeling a Pandora’s Box had just been opened.’

Meanwhile, the police in London have linked the horrific injuries inflicted on Linnéa’s body to the deaths of two boys who were murdered in separate incidents on Hampstead Heath.

Flashback to July 1944 and we meet German university student Erich Hebner who is being transported by cattle truck to the ‘well-organised hell’ that is Buchenwald Concentration Camp. After months of forced labour, starvation and savagery, Hebner is assigned to Block 46, known in the camp as ‘the ante-chamber to death.’ By now, he will do anything to see himself as a human again.

Back in the present day, Emily Roy, a respected and ruthlessly efficient criminal profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, is assigned to the case to help decide whether the murders are the work of a serial killer. Her job is to get to ‘the essence of the killer’s fantasies.’

Alexis has worked with Emily before and as the two women travel between Sweden and London and make their own investigations, they dig deep into the past and unearth connections to shocking events at Buchenwald which are still echoing down the years…

Multi-layered, superbly plotted, brimming with mystery, tension and bone-chilling violence, and with two very different – but equally fascinating – lead female characters, Block 46 is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted.

And yet the timeless elegance and innate beauty of Gustawsson’s writing belies the evil that lurks beneath this harrowing reminder of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the unnervingly authentic evocation of one of history’s most shameful episodes.

As evidence from the past and the present is slowly and subtly pieced together through the warm, caring, emotional intuition of Alexis and the clinically forensic mind of straight-talking Emily, the identity of the killer remains tantalisingly hidden until the jaw-dropping dénouement.

Disturbing, moving and utterly mesmerising, this is a book that has the power to shock and the artistry to impress long after the last page has turned.

(Orenda Books, paperback, £8.99)