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.