cover image To Cook a Bear

To Cook a Bear

Mikael Niemi, trans. from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner. Penguin, $18 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-14-313390-2

Swedish author Niemi (Popular Music from Vittula) draws on classic murder mystery elements for a sumptuous, deeply informed historical account of 19th-century Lutheran revivalist Lars Levi Laestadius and his adopted son, Jussi, a Sami runaway who narrates most of the novel. After his education, influential teetotaler Laestadius returns to his native Kengis in northern Sweden to minister to the nomadic Sami people, driven by a mission to help end the alcoholism that has affected them over the past few decades. As a crime spree hits the village, with bodies piling up at a precipitous rate, the local authorities attribute the deaths to bear attacks, accidents, or suicides. Laestadius draws on his powers of observation as a botanist to investigate the cases, one of which plays out as a traditional locked room murder. The preacher enlists the aid of Jussi, who Laestadius taught to read and write, and who eventually becomes the target of suspicion among the villagers once they realize foul play is involved. While the plot isn’t likely to leave mystery aficionados baffled, it provides a lively framework for a story that, in other hands might have been devoted to sermon writing and leaf examination. Niemi’s sensitive approach to cultural differences and sharp interest in period details make this worthwhile. (Jan.)