The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
JOHANA GUSTAWSSON (TRANSLATED BY MAXIM JAKUBOWSKI)
Orenda Books, 2018
Kindle Edition, 184pp.
Johana Gustawsson is being hyped as the new queen of French Noir. Keeper is her second novel and the second outing for her crime-fighting duo of Emily Roy, a Canadian psychological profiler, and Alexis Castells, a French true crime writer. This time they are joined by Aliénor Lindbergh, a criminal law student with Asperger’s, who’s the first to spot a connection between Jack the Ripper and the recent spate of grisly murders in Tower Hamlets and Halmstad on the west coast of Sweden.
In Block 46, her debut novel, Gustawsson invoked the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II as the starting point for her modern-day serial killer thriller. She does the same kind of thing here, drawing on the Lusk letter and the life story of Elizabeth Stride, the Swedish victim of Jack the Ripper, to propel her contemporary police procedural. Her themes are human evil and sexual depravity, and the ways in which abuse and psychological damage are passed down through the generations.
In effect, what we have here is a blood-soaked sexual horror story that seeks to repulse and nauseate:
She couldn’t take her eyes off the woman’s face. It was so deformed, it was barely human, peppered with monstrous red and purple blisters that puffed her lower lip down as far as her chin and a hole in her right cheek like a window into her mouth filled with yellowed, porous gums and a greyish tongue.
Her tale of a cannibal serial killer on the loose, scoffing breasts and kidneys and meat off the bone à la Miller’s Court, is spectacularly unpleasant in places, and deeply, unremittingly grim. While she is not averse to shock tactics (even stealing the ‘I can smell your cunt’ scene from The Silence of the Lambs), her novel achieves its most unsettling effects through an accretion of small, insidious images: I was particularly impressed by the way she queasily juxtaposes the eating of Swedish pastries and English junk food with images of necrophagy: posh ladies in Kensington Park Gardens nibble slices of lemon cake as a servant girl relates the latest atrocity in the East End; crime scene photographs of partially-eaten bodies from 2015 are speckled with cinnamon brioche crumbs.
At times the novel is a little confusing to follow – the action jerks around like an 8mm home snuff movie, and the short chapters (sometimes no more than a page and a half in length) give the book a choppy, distracted feel. However, the various strands and storylines gradually come together to bring this readable, fast-paced thriller to a melodramatic finale.
Early on, in what may be another nod to Thomas Harris, we watch lambs being shepherded down Buck’s Row on the way to the slaughterhouse. This gruesome, ogrish book will turn your stomach and scare you half to death.
Review by David Green.