Book review: The Falling Detective, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 02 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer, best known for his noirish ‘Leo Junker’ novels, for which he became the youngest author to ever win the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year award. I’ve previously reviewed his prizewinning debut The Invisible Man from Salem and his YA/crime short novel October Is The Coldest Month.

TheFallingDetective

The Falling Detective (Den Fallande Detektiven, 2014, translated by Michael Gallagher) is ostensibly named after a century-old novella of the same title (or at least, I presume, the same Swedish title) by ‘L P Carlsson’, though Google is silent on whether such a novella (which may or may not have been by an ancestor—Carlsson is a reasonably common name in Sweden) ever actually existed. Be that as it may, the present book opens with the fatal stabbing, in a snow-laden Stockholm courtyard, of sociologist Thomas Heber, a specialist in the dynamics and interactions of far-left and far-right activist groups. With the only witness to the attack a six-year-old boy who watched the dimly-lit courtyard scene play out from the vantage of his bedroom window, the police have very little to go on as the investigation begins. And within hours, the small team to the case is supplanted when responsibility for the investigation is transferred to Sepo, the Swedish secret police. Which should suit Leo Junker just fine—in his first weeks back at work after disciplinary action resulting from a poorly-executed police raid, he’s finding it difficult to perform even routine tasks without resort to antidepressants—but, because he happens to be in possession of evidence that Sepo haven’t been made aware of, he and mentor Gabriel Birck continue a clandestine second-layer investigation into Heber’s killing. It’s a gambit fraught with danger: Leo could stand to lose everything he holds dear if he puts a foot wrong …

Carlsson’s writing has a distinctive fresh noir feel to it, effortlessly blending verisimilitude and grit. Leo is a severely flawed and highly sympathetic protagonist: secretive, addicted, marginalised within the rigid, ruthless, and not altogether trustworthy society of the police force; not exactly gifted, not exactly brave, his career seems like a slow-motion car crash happening around him; and yet he’s determined to catch whoever’s responsible for Heber’s death, and for the deaths that follow in its wake. This blend of dysfunctionality and dogged determination is, of course, a staple of both Scandicrime and noir; and yet Leo feels fresh, unique, in large part thanks to the clarity of the prose. (The only parts of the story that flagged slightly for me were those dealing with the right-wing activists Christian and Michael, which felt a little too scripted, not entirely genuine.) Other than this, though, the worldbuilding is on point and the cast of characters around Leo fascinatingly varied. And although it would doubtless be more sensible to begin one’s reading of Carlsson with The Invisible Man from Salem (the first book in the series), The Falling Detective is amply self-contained that it’s entirely possible to read in isolation.

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