Andrew Hankinson

Murder in the dark: The Eighth House, by Linda Segtnan, reviewed

Motherhood prompts Segtnan to research the cold case of Birgitta Sivander, a nine-year-old found murdered in a Swedish forest in 1948

A newspaper photograph of Birgitta Sivander that appeared after her murder in 1948.

It takes a Scandinavian mother to write like this: ‘Why murder a nine-year-old girl? She wasn’t raped. Rape is the only motive I know of for the murder of little girls, unless the killer is a close relative.’ Linda Segtnan’s The Eighth House benefits from this bluntness. Its author, a historical researcher based in Stockholm, was browsing through a newspaper archive in 2018 when a photograph of nine-year-old Birgitta Sivander caught her attention.

The girl lived in a village called Perstorp in southern Sweden until one evening in May 1948 she went out to the football field and did not return. A search was organised, the human chain making its way into the nearby forest in the middle of the night to look for her. They found her clogs. Then they found her:

A pile of stones in a watery ditch. The forester feels feverish. There’s a ringing in his ears; he is at sea amid a storm. Beside one of the stones, a pale hand rises out of shallow water. He feels his body start to tremble. His voice sounds like someone else’s as he calls out for the police.

The investigation concluded that Birgitta had been chased through the forest and hit on the head with an object before her body was covered with stones. Nobody was ever convicted of her murder. A 14-year-old boy was the prime suspect. He was taken from his family and kept in a detention centre for months.

So the book is a true-crime whodunnit. So far, so what? Two things make it exceptional. The first is access. Segtnan gets permission to examine the original investigation, including interrogations, forensic statements and the autopsy. An archivist arranges a private room, since the material is too disturbing for public areas. Gradually Segtnan pieces together what happened, helped by the victim’s brother, now an old man, who replied to her first letter: ‘My arms are wide open for you.’ She writes to the prime suspect, but gets no reply. She posts on the local Facebook group: ‘The second response is from a man saying that previous posts about the murder have been removed, and mine is upsetting people.’

Which prompts the question, what is the point of her book? Since the murderer was never identified, Segtnan, being a professional researcher, wants to have a shot at solving the case. Fair enough. But also – the second reason why the book is exceptional – this is a memoir about the author’s experience of being the mother of a son, and giving birth to a daughter at the time of her investigations.

Scandinavian bluntness makes the memoir aspect equally bracing:

I stop here to remember what it feels like to give birth to a child. I can still remember the impossibly steep mountain peak, right before the last contraction pushed my pelvis open. A small figure slid out like a seal.

Segtnan even confesses: ‘I think the forbidden thought. I wish I didn’t have any children.’

Her ‘obsession’ with Birgitta’s murder is fuelled by her experience of motherhood. Most parents know the change that occurs once they begin to nurture their own – the fuller understanding that children are innocent and only want to be loved. It makes a story of one being deprived of love and treated cruelly seem like an inhuman act of betrayal.

Who could do this to a child? Segtnan asks the question not just about the murder of Birgitta but also about the treatment of the prime suspect and another local boy she learns about, whose childhood was so grim he could have been made cruel enough. Like the case of Mary Bell – which she refers to – the implication is that adults, not children, should be the ones being questioned.