Rites of Spring by Anders de la Motte: A mesmerising amalgam of creepy folklore, festering secrets and dark truths - book review -
A crumbling medieval castle set amidst the marshy, unforgiving forests of southern Sweden, the terrifying legend of a ghostly Green Man who demands a spring sacrifice… and a host of dark and deadly secrets.
If you thought a Swedish spring brought only bright sunshine, beautiful countryside and stunning coastal walks, then you haven’t yet entered the spine-tingling world created by a former police officer who has magically morphed into a master storyteller.
Rites of Spring is Scandi-crime at its best and the latest book in Anders de la Motte’s stunning Seasons Quartet, which includes the three standalone novels End of Summer, Deeds of Autumn and Dead of Winter, all number one bestsellers in Sweden, and all set to be published by Zaffre.
These enthralling books – flawlessly translated by Marlaine Delargy – have earned their author a shortlisting for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year, and this atmospheric, spring-themed mystery weaves menacingly between past and present as a disturbing ritualistic murder from thirty years ago comes back to haunt a tight-knit, backwater community.
On the night of Walpurgis, the eve of May Day, in the town of Tornaby in the southern Swedish county of Skåne, bonfires are traditionally lit to ward off evil spirits and preparations are made to celebrate the renewal of spring.
Local legend has it that the Green Man, a ghostly impression of a face imprinted on an ancient oak tree in the forests surrounding the medieval Bokelund Castle, takes on human form on this night and that he demands spring gifts or sacrifices to hasten the return of life.
But in 1986, the legend took a sinister turn when Elita Svart, a 16-year-old local girl, was found ritualistically murdered in the woods near the castle. Her body – clothed in a white dress and with a bloodstained handkerchief over her beautiful face – was laid on a sacrificial slab in the middle of a stone circle.
Elita’s stepbrother was convicted of the terrible deed and shortly after, the entire family vanished without a trace. Most residents of Tornaby believe it was a family tragedy, ‘a dreadful but simple story’ but others say it was the Green Man himself who claimed her as his ‘spring sacrifice.’
In spring of 2019, former medic with Médecins Sans Frontières, Dr Thea Lind, moves into Bokelund Castle with her husband David Nordin who is returning to his home town after twenty years as a successful chef and restaurant owner in Stockholm.
David and two childhood friends are planning to open a new restaurant in the castle – now owned by a foundation with his mother Ingrid at the head – to promote the traditional cuisine of Skåne.
Thea and David both have secrets that they never share, and when Thea makes a strange discovery in an ancient oak tree in the castle grounds, her fascination with the murder of Elita Svart is awakened and she decides to investigate the death herself.
David doesn’t want to talk about Elita even though he knew her and as Thea uncovers more and more similarities between her own troubled past and the murdered girl, she begins to believe that the real truth of the killing was never uncovered.
What if the spring of 1986 claimed more than one victim?
Rites of Spring is one of the classiest Scandi-noirs you will read this year… a mesmerising amalgam of creepy folklore, festering secrets, dark truths and a damp and mouldering Scandinavian landscape rendered so dark and brooding that it becomes a principal player in this slow-burn, addictive tale.
De la Motte uses several, intriguing narrative voices which add an extra layer of mystery and menace to a host of shocking revelations, not just about events and people in the secretive, suspicion-wracked town of Tornaby, but also in the elusive past lives of Thea and David.
As the two timelines collide, the claustrophobia of the guarded, superstitious community intensifies and a series of plot twists uncoil like a basket of slithering serpents waiting to pounce on their unsuspecting victims.
With shades of The Wicker Man and Stieg Larsson, and a story that consumes the reader from the first, unsettling chapter to a final, jaw-dropping flourish, this a top-notch opener to what promises to be a treat for every season!
(Zaffre, paperback, £8.99)