Book review: The Thin Blue Line, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 10 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer. He has won several awards since his crime-novel debut, The Invisible Man from Salem, in 2013. He’s best known for his four-volume ‘Leo Junker’ series, of which Invisible Man marks the start, and which concerns a highly-conflicted Stockholm detective who seems persistently unable to escape his and others’ mistakes. I’ve previously reviewed several of Carlsson’s novels.


The Thin Blue Line (Den Tunna Blå Linjen, 2017, translated by Michael Gallagher) sees Junker once again inveigled into one of his escaped-criminal friend John Grimberg’s intrigues. This time it’s a plea for Leo to unofficially reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of Stockholm prostitute Angelica Reyes, a low-priority five-year-old cold case that’s a couple of months away from being passed on to a team specialising in such cases. There’s no ostensible reason why Grim should want the case investigated by Leo in particular, but Leo feels compelled… and as he and colleague Gabriel Birck dig deeper into the records of the original investigation, which are meticulous but with unexplained gaps, it becomes clear that something important, something deadly, has been concealed. But the time available for Leo’s and Gabriel’s investigation is short, and much of it hinges on the need to talk to people who do not wish to come forward…

Carlsson’s Leo Junker novels combine immediacy, neo-noirish intrigue, and a measured pace that seems consistently unhurried while never flagging. In Junker, Birck, Grimberg, and Leo’s partner Sam he has crafted a memorable central quartet of characters who, across four books—and there is reason to believe this to be the last in the series—play off each other to extraordinary effect. The background, too, is particularly well crafted, with considerable credible detail.

In my review of the first in the Leo Junker series (The Invisible Man from Salem), I suggested that Carlsson may have affectionately Tuckerised fellow Swedish crime novelist (and fellow criminology specialist) Leif G W Persson as a background character in the novel. I suspect Carlsson has done something analogous in this book also—his pair of ‘lazy beat cops’ Larsson and Leifby, who just happen to be patrolling out-of-area at a crucial point in the story, appear intentionally reminiscent of the similarly-alliterative and similarly unprepossessing team of out-of-area beat cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, who appear in certain of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ novels, such as The Laughing Policeman. If this is indeed intentional, it leads me to wonder what other examples of homage might occur in books two and three of Carlsson’s series… but it would be remiss of me to imply that the books require a deep familiarity with Swedish crime fiction for full enjoyment, because I don’t believe that to be the case. They are their own thing, and Junker is a surprisingly sympathetic if deeply-conflicted protagonist.


Book review: Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend, by Christoffer Carlsson

19 08 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime novelist whose ‘Leo Junker’ series (soon to add a fourth title) has gained international acclaim for its heavily noirish contemporary tone. I’ve previously reviewed several other novels by Carlsson.


Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend (Mästare, väktare, lögnare, vän, 2015, translated by Michael Gallagher) is the third volume in the Leo Junker series. It opens with the death, from a pistol shot to the head, of the troubled Leo’s mentor and sometime confidante Charles Levin, who had recently retired back to the same Bruket house in which he had lived three-and-a-half decades ago. Leo, who’s well aware that anything involving Charles is highly unlikely to be either accidental or the least bit straightforward, decides he needs to investigate. This decision is complicated by two important considerations: first, the Stockholm police force has placed him on personal leave for reasons of ongoing painkiller abuse, and second, the local Bruket detective with whom he initially liaises on the case (having glossed over the detail of his suspension from active duty) is Tove Waltersson, an officer whom Leo has never previously met. Waltersson, however, knows plenty about Leo, by virtue of the fact that it was Waltersson’s older brother Markus whom Junker mistakenly shot and killed during a disastrous police raid three years previously. But if, for these reasons, the present is distinctly problematic, the past is even more so…

The book cycles erratically through three main time periods: 1970, when as a young police officer Levin meets a woman, Eva, whom he will subsequently marry; 1984, when for a variety of reasons Levin’s personal and professional life undergoes torment; and midsummer 2014, when various debts are called in, including Levin’s death. The viewpoint character for the earlier scenes is most often Charles Levin, while the 2014 sequences are seen through the eyes of alternatively Leo and Tove Waltersson. It’s a giddying, mesmerising, and impressively detailed story that takes its time to assemble itself around a framework of observations and well-placed misdirections (in which context it should be noted that as a SEPO—Swedish secret police—officer, misdirection and deception was Levin’s stock-in-trade, and as a double agent he grew practised in deceiving even those trained to be professionally alert for such techniques). As with Carlsson’s previous excursions into the ill-starred career of Leo Junker, a complicated plot still leaves ample room for tension, high-stakes character interplay (involving deeply flawed, credible, empathetic characters), and the social commentary that typifies Scandinavian crime fiction. The book is a joy to read: Carlsson does this kind of thing incredibly well.

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.


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.

Book review: The Invisible Man from Salem, by Christoffer Carlsson

5 08 2017

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish lecturer in criminology who in 2012 was awarded the International European Society of Criminology’s Young Criminologist Award. He’s also a writer of crime fiction with six novels to date, one of which (the one under review here) was awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, as well as shortlisted for the Glass Key Award; his first YA novel has been awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers. His best-known work to date is the Leo Junker series, which now stands at three novels.


The Invisible Man from Salem (Den Osynlige Mannen från Salem, 2013, translated by Michael Gallagher) opens with the Stockholm police called, late one night, to a women’s refuge within an apartment building, where a woman suspected of prostitution and petty drug dealing has been killed in her sleep by a gunshot to the head. The apartment block is home to Leo Junker, a member of the police’s Internal Affairs department, currently suspended (though he prefers the term ‘on leave’) following his involvement in a botched police raid on an arms shipment. Concerned at an apparent hit-style killing in his own building, Leo starts his own investigation into the death. But you know that saying about curiosity, cats, and the sudden onset of death? Leo manages to fit himself squarely in the frame for the murder …

The book’s title is a reference not to the Massachusetts town, nor to the Oregon state capital, but to the municipality in Sweden which functions largely as a dormitory suburb of Stockholm and from which Junker hails. The text alternates between the present-day investigation and the formative events in Leo’s adolescence, a decade and a half ago. This detailed backstory at first appears somewhat gratuitous, until it becomes apparent that it’s not. There’s a reason why Leo fits so well as the crime’s perpetrator.

There’s very little to cavil about with this book. The writing has a nice intensity about it, the book’s tone of gritty paranoia and slow-burning injustice serves it better than would any play to sensationalism, and Leo is an interesting, sympathetic, and seriously-flawed viewpoint character. Those in his circle of friends, former friends, and colleagues are also conveyed as complex and relatable characters, many of whom guard their own secrets. It’s clear, too, that Carlsson is well-versed in the particularities of Swedish jurisprudence and policing (as could be expected, given his day job), but this shows more through small, telling details rather than through any tendency to awkward infodumping. This holds true, too, of the book’s social commentary (most of which emerges from the Salem backstory chapters), with a credible and well-informed feel about it. None of this detail eclipses the plot: the tension builds significantly as Leo gets closer to uncovering the identity of the person behind the crime, and the climax is suitably uncomfortable to read. All up, this is an excellent introduction to Carlsson’s talents, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.