An encyclopedia of perversity

For the Washington Post
Sunday, July 24, 2016

Erik Axl Sund isn’t a real person. He’s the pseudonym for a Swedish writing duo who have spun out a trio of dark thrillers. Bestsellers in Europe, they are now available in the United States, in one long, lurid volume called The Crow Girl.

The story centers on three women – Victoria, who has been abused by her father since early childhood; Jeanette, a Stockholm detective superintendent leading an investigation into the murder of several young men who have been drugged, beaten and castrated; and Sophia, a therapist treating Victoria.

These women and the serial killings that connect them provide the basis for a strong if overly gruesome plot. The sexual abuse of children is among the most despicable of crimes, and the authors deserve praise for addressing it candidly. Unfortunately, they have filled their novel with so many instances of rape, sadism, torture and murder that the reader is overwhelmed.

In addition to the two main crimes – the emasculation and murder of young men and the sex crimes against Victoria and other girls – there is also a great deal of sordid detail. We learn, for example, that Victoria’s father not only abused her but was also part of a group of men who have sex with their daughters, insist that this is an enlightened form of love and frighten their wives into silence.

But for the authors, even this is not unsettling enough. One central character has two distinct personalities – one law-abiding, one not – with both battling for control of the body they share. Victoria also has a teenage daughter – her abusive father is also her daughter’s father – who is seeking revenge. When Victoria went to boarding school, she and two other girls were forced by older girls to eat excrement, and those girls, too, want revenge.

A hunger for retribution unites just about everyone here. Victims want to punish their abusers, and some abusers scheme to kill their victims, who as adults may incriminate them.

At one point, we’re abruptly taken back to the Holocaust to meet a young woman who survives Dachau by passing herself off as a boy; decades later, as a man, she joins Victoria’s father’s circle of abusers. The prosecution of those abusers is crippled by a law-enforcement official who is secretly protecting them. Amid all these plot threads, in a very long novel, dimly remembered names keep popping up, and we struggle to recall if they are victims, abusers, police or innocent bystanders.

As if the novel needed more horrors, the authors digress on the crimes of Ed Gein, the 1950s Wisconsin serial killer who inspired the character called Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, as well as the Russian Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov, who murdered more than 50 women and children between 1978 and 1990. Enough, enough! By then, this 758-page novel has become a mind-numbing encyclopedia of perversity.

Still, The Crow Girl (one of the many names that Victoria sometimes calls herself) has some fine moments. One comes after Detective Kihlberg has the wrenching experience of watching films of child pornography that police have seized:

“Jeanette knows what she’s just seen, but doesn’t want to believe it’s true. She feels unable to absorb the fact that there are people who take pleasure in this. Who pay a lot of money to get hold of this sort of film, and risk their whole lives by collecting them. Why isn’t it enough to fantasize about the perverse and forbidden? Why do they have to turn their sick fantasies into reality?

“For the first time in a very long time she feels hatred.”

The detective, mother of a young son, is the book’s moral center, and her rage is understandable. But the authors should have focused their material far more carefully so that we could read their story, however sordid, with understanding if not always with pleasure. Instead, we find ourselves slogging through an ugly, confusing underworld that eventually we only want to escape.