Like many, I first heard of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In when its movie was released in 2008 to critical acclaim. Having read the book, I’m not sure I could handle the movie, but to each their own.
Set in Blackberg, Sweden in 1981, the novel opens with protagonist Oskar in school, being targeted by bullies for the crime of simply existing. Gradually, the story incorporates other subplots that weave together and eventually collide: a man committing killings deemed “ritual” in nature by police, a lonely girl with odd mannerisms and gaps in knowledge moving in next door to Oskar, a group of friends meeting regularly for drinks, a young man stealing, and other vignettes of bleak despair. The lonely twelve-year-old girl who moves in next door to Oskar is Eli, and something is strange about her—she looks alternately sickly and healthy, loves puzzles but has never seen a Rubik’s cube before, uses oddly old-fashioned turns of phrases, only comes out at night…and she needs an invitation to enter a living place.
This is not a tale for the faint of heart. Pedophilia, murder, negligent parenting, and alcoholism run rampant within the pages. Few characters are truly sympathetic; even bullied Oskar vents his frustration with his situation by collecting a scrapbook of murders and fantasizing about taking revenge on the classmates who make him loathe himself a bit more each day. In fact, the day the first murder happened, Oskar had been out in the forest with a stolen knife, stabbing a tree trunk he was pretending was the bullies’ leader. Eli is drawn with enough enigma to render her intriguing while still strongly hinting at her true predatory nature; however, even she seems mild compared to Hakkan, the man who protects her while also lusting after her and is willing to go to desperate lengths to protect his charge.
The pacing is a bit slow to start, but the stakes quickly rise as bodies add up—or rise from the dead. In the background, Cold War tensions ripple with uncertainty. One character makes the decision to finally take a vacation, only to have his life snuffed out violently, the only witness a drunkard with too many cats. Bleak despair abounds, which will appeal to fans of both fans of horror and Scandinavian noir.