It would be easy to scoff at the amateur detectives out there searching, climbing, and snooping, or to dismiss the whole thing as shadow chasing, as if Therese and her colleagues were merely out on a ghost hunt, looking for shapeless bogeymen and imagined perpetrators, dreaming up convoluted conspiracy theories. Yes, they could be dismissed as civilians without any level of insight into murder investigations, who enjoyed playing detective and feeling as if they mattered. It would be just as easy to speculate about how the figments of their imaginations were amplified by the attention they got whenever they meddled in things, through the media, and also from the local residents, who had no one else to turn to. But they carried on. (224)
Joakim Palmkvist’s The Dark Heart (2018) is a fascinating story of murder, intrigue, obsession, and the Swedish legal system. While my feelings were mixed about this one as I read, I became more and more drawn into this story and the inner workings of Swedish law. Palmkvist’s novel focuses on the murder of millionaire landowner Göran Lundblad, who went missing from his farm in Sweden without a trace. Police struggled to find a shred of concrete evidence that the man had come to harm, despite the fact that, as time went on and his bank accounts remained untouched, it became more and more clear that he had.
After police were called by Maria, Göran’s daughter, who strongly suspected that her sister, Sara, was behind their father’s disappearance, police began to look closely at Sara and her boyfriend, Martin. Still, with no body, there was no evidence of a crime, and the case floundered until Therese Tang, an investigator with Missing People Sweden, got involved.
Palmkvist’s book focuses both on the murder of Göran Lundblad and Therese Tang’s incredible role in helping to solve it. While the murder itself is tragic, it is also relatively unremarkable. A daughter and her pauper boyfriend conspired to murder and dispose of her father’s body in an effort to gain authority over Göran’s money and assets. While the murderers’ ability to get away with the crime is notable, there are no shocking twists and turns inside the crime itself. However, Therese Tang changes all of that.
An ex-model from the fashion houses of Milan and a mother of three, Tang has that true crime bug à la Michelle McNamara. She has not only the desire to read about crimes, but to help solve them as well. Tang’s story is compelling. Not only is it a story about a woman who faces down a killer, but it is a story of resilience, talent, and power. Palmkivst does an excellent job of blending Tang’s story with the story of Sara, Martin, and Göran, creating a perfect storm of events before they intersect dramatically. I was in awe of Therese and I really encourage anyone to read this book for her perspective alone.
In addition to the relationships portrayed between the murderers, the victim, and Tang, Palmkvist also takes the reader on a journey through the Swedish justice system. I think as readers of true crime (and as people in North America in general) our reference point for the law seems to be in the United States, so it was so interesting to see a different portrait of a criminal justice system that made this murder both harder and easier to solve. For example, although there are many instances where murder cases have been tried in the US without a body, Sweden’s legal system is such that, without a body, it is nearly impossible to prove that there has been a crime. Palmkvist even cites murder cases where, though the body has been found, reasonable doubt is such that the murderer can be set free through a number of loopholes. In the case of Sara and Martin, after the murder of Sara’s father, they were able to avoid charges for so long precisely because they had hidden the body and cleaned up the crime scene so well. Without a body, the police were limited in what they could do.
However, Sweden’s legal systems also proved to help the case and eventually to solve it—not necessarily through the police, but through who the police worked with. The other star of this book is Missing People Sweden, a fascinating organization that works to help locate missing individuals across the country. What’s fascinating about this group is that it is entirely made up of an organized team of civilians from all walks of life. These people often have day jobs or other careers, but they volunteer to help find missing people whenever they can and offer their own expertise and resources as well. Of MPS, Palmkvist writes
In January 2014, Missing People was still having a good run in Sweden in the wake of several notable successes in 2013. As they gained recognition for their work, the organization was building a gleaming reputation for itself. There had been a discovery of a dead man in the trunk of a car in Billdall in October 2012, a car the police had overlooked during their own search, even though it belonged to the victim. That one had been a suicide. And in Boden, missing people’s search teams had found the dismembered corpse of twenty-year-old Vatchareeya Bangsuan in an abandoned house in May 2013, a discovery that had made it possible to convict her boyfriend for murder. In cities all over Sweden, including Gavle, Norrbotten, and Halland, the police had publicly thanked MPS for successful searches during 2012 and 2013. Starting in 2013, the Gotland police had even incorporated MPs as a permanent resource in their local actions plans. (180)
The positive and helpful relationship that the police had with the civilian organization becomes especially important when we consider how crucial these volunteers are in helping to boost the police force’s numbers. The fact that searchers are able to help recover missing bodies, no matter the circumstances, is both laudable and invaluable. Because of the country’s low murder rate, which Palmkvist writes is between 80-100 killings per year, most of which are solved, Missing People Sweden are often tasked with finding people who have run away or wandered off. It is rare for them to gather to search for a purposefully hidden body, so Göran’s case was already unique. However, Therese Tang, an investigator with Missing People, is no stranger to murder or violence, and her efforts to not only locate Göran’s body, but to help catch his killers, go above and beyond simply walking a grid. Her close relationship with Missing People and the police, as well as her own gumption, gave her the resources to seek justice. Without Tang, Palmkvist assures us, this murder may well have gone unsolved.
I was totally enthralled by all I learned about Tang, this case, and the Swedish justice system. Palmkvist interweaves all of these threads quite expertly, celebrating Tang’s ingenuity at every turn. Because this book is translated from its original Swedish, I felt that the writing was a little jagged at times, but that’s simply to be expected when reading outside of the original language. As I said, although the murder itself is not overly compelling at face value, the people involved in investigating it are. I think that if you want to read about a foreign justice system in action, this is a great book to start with. Additionally, this book is a source of inspiration, as it recounts the story of a woman who goes above and beyond for a family fraught with secrets, risking her own life to find the truth.
Don’t forget to follow True Crime Index on Twitter and please visit our Goodreads for updates on what we’re reading! You can find Rachel on her personal Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA in English from the University of New Brunswick and an MA in English Literature from Queen’s University. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and is forthcoming in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbraryand the co-creator of True Crime Index. Rachel is also co-Editor-in-Chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry.