SCANDINAVIAN countries can be very dour and dismal places, and perhaps that's what makes their crime thrillers so compelling. There's a gloominess running through them that permeates the characters, the plot and the writing styles, mirroring how the cold, depressive weather casts a pall over the entire region.

Cell 8 starts in equally chilly Ohio, where John Meyer Frey is waiting on death row after being convicted of murdering his sweetheart as a teenager. Authors Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström rapidly draw you into the cell with Frey by their evocative descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and thoughts that keep the young man captive as the time relentlessly heads towards the hour of his execution.

Then suddenly it's six years on and we're on a ferry in Sweden, where John Schwarz is a late-night crooner with a vicious and volatile temper always lurking too close to the surface.

How Frey became Schwarz is the mystery that puzzles the reader as well as Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens, who finds the young man in his custody after an assault.

The plot swings easily from one time and place to another, gradually revealing more of the complex background that has brought Schwartz to another date with death.

I was hooked on Cell 8 from the start, with the authors delivering an intriguing plot populated by likeable but highly flawed characters. Grens is a gem; an irascible old renegade detective who is rude to his colleagues and haunted by his own demons. Underneath he's hurting and tender; on top he's a demanding, uncompromising battle-axe willing to defy the authorities for what he believes is right.

As Grens and his team try to find out who Schwarz is and how he got to Sweden, a diplomatic furore erupts as the news leaks that one of America's most secure prisons managed to lose a death-row inmate. Schwarz has to go back and resume his identity as Frey so the US can claim justice and retribution has been wrought.

Tension builds up beautifully and the descriptions of the people, events and surroundings are rich and authentic. The pace never flags and the storyline is thoroughly enthralling. Cell 8 is a very real and intelligent story of human emotions. Perhaps I enjoyed it even more because I've recently read too many thrillers rampant with undefeatable heroes and bristling with heavy armaments to blast the bad guys to smithereens. Here there are no obvious bad guys, no steely gung-ho saviours, just genuine people caught up in bizarre and unwelcome circumstances.

The descriptions of the lives and feelings of the characters are mesmerising, particularly when the authors capture the anguish and grief that still torment the parents of the murdered girl, 18 years later. The mother has moved on but not forgotten, yet the father has become an ugly mass of seething hatred, convinced that only seeing the murderer fry will release him from the loathing that has quashed all other feelings.

Cell 8 isn't only a crime thriller, it's also a well-argued case against the death penalty. Roslund and Hellström never moralise or batter your with their beliefs, but their descriptions of the inhumane processes and the hints that it has never worked as a deterrent make you think about the issue with fresh and unsettling information.

More than that, however, it's a superbly clever plot with an ending that may catch you out even if you're a sharper detective than old Ewert Grens himself.

TITLE: Cell 8

AUTHOR: Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

PUBLISHER: Quercus