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: The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

2 09 2018

Swedish authors (and de facto couple) Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are pivotal figures in the development of Scandinavian crime fiction as a distinct subgenre, with their critically-acclaimed ten-volume series of ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals mapping out a then-contemporary panorama of Swedish society from the mid sixties to the mid seventies.


The Laughing Policeman (Den skrattande polisen, 1968, translated by Alan Blair), the fourth in the ‘Martin Beck’ sequence, won the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Novel in 1971. Set in Stockholm’s miserable winter slush at the end of 1967, it concerns the mass murder of a busload of passengers, late at night, by an unknown assailant armed with a submachine gun. The police investigation has its hands full merely determining the identities of the driver and eight passengers slain in the attack; the crime scene was left badly messed up by the well-meaning first responders to the incident, so the hopes of Beck and his team for clues to the killer’s identity rest with the critically-wounded sole survivor, and with the discovery that one of the bodies on the bus is that of Åke Stenström, a young policeman known to Beck and his associates. But, since it seems that Stenström was off duty at the time of the attack, it’s not clear whether his presence at the scene was intended or merely due to random chance…

As with all of the books in the sequence, this is presented as a ‘Martin Beck’ novel, though it could more justifiably be described as a novel of Lennart Kollberg, Beck’s closest associate and a distinctly more sympathetic character. Unlike Beck, Kollberg does not merely run the gamut of emotions from ‘gruff’ to ‘taciturn’: his personality displays genuine growth within the book’s pages and his interactions with others, particularly Stenström’s bereaved partner Åsa Torell, are moving and memorable.

The writing is detached, distant, consistently downplaying, the setting a half-century past (with its student unrest and massed Vietnam War demonstrations), yet the scenes described are vivid and the sense of involvement immediate. There are aspects to the text which now appear somewhat dated (its examination of sexuality, for example); it’s also interesting to contrast the police response to the atrocity with what the present-day response would most likely entail. In these respects, it’s unavoidable that the book is seen as a document of its times. (I was intrigued to note that the book contains what might be the earliest pop-culture reference to Ronald Reagan, politician—as opposed to Ronald Reagan, actor—beating out Creedence Clearawater Revival’s ‘It Came Out Of The Sky’ by a year or more.) Also as with all of the Beck books, it’s highly class-conscious and—more through Kollberg’s perspective than that of the consistently sour Beck—does not hide its authors’ openly-declared socialist sympathies, with commentary on wealth inequality, police brutality, corruption, journalistic sensationalism, and the prevalence of gun crime in the USA. (Perhaps this contributes to the books’ air of continuing relevance?) At its heart, however, it remains an expertly-told police procedural, with a well-constructed crime and a realistically-frustrated investigation progressing not-quite-blindly towards the revelation of a concealed truth.

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 Darkest Day, by Håkan Nesser

8 05 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish writer, mostly of crime fiction, best known for his series of ten ‘Van Veeteren’ novels set in the fictional city of Maardam, the nationality of which is never specified though it combines predominantly Dutch nomenclature with a somewhat Scandinavian sensibility. He’s a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, a winner of the Gold Key Award, and is currently on the shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award. I’ve previously reviewed three of his books here, including two of the Van Veeteren series.


The Darkest Day (Människa utan hund, 2006, translated by Sarah Death) is the first of Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarossi’ series, although the Inspector himself does not feature at all until page 185, over a third of the way into the novel. The focus is on a family celebration gone disastrously wrong, as what should be a momentous and happy occasion turns into a slow-rolling train wreck of a reunion. Newly retired patriarch Karl-Erik Hermansson is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday on the same day that his robustly businesslike elder daughter Ebba is turning forty; his outwardly-devoted wife Rosemarie Wunderlich Hermansson, a fellow newly-retired teacher, nurses a secret ambition to kill either herself or her husband over his ambition that they sell up their home of thirty-eight years in the (fictional) Swedish town of Kymlinge to relocate to Spain’s ‘Costa Geriatrica’; only son Robert has disgraced himself, some months previously, through an inebriated act of spectacularly public masturbation during filming of a lowest-common-denominator TV show in which he had been appearing. It’s the kind of setup which, in a lengthy and slow-moving novel, could well turn turgid, and yet Nesser’s characterisation and portrayal is a delight. There’s ample time given, in an introductory sequence that busies itself with the kind of skeweringly precise social observation that somehow the Van Veeteren novels (perhaps due to their deliberately muddled location) have not seemed to accommodate, to get to know the several principal members of the Hermansson clan, and therefore to feel genuinely invested in their welfare when first one and then another of those family members goes inexplicably missing within a 24-hour interval.

The novel is well-imbued with black humour, arising more from the character interaction than from the situations unfolding within the tale, and yet the tension of the last hundred pages or so is almost excruciating, as forces converge towards a chillingly disastrous finale. It is, I have to say, very well done.

Book review: Frozen Moment, by Camilla Ceder

4 04 2018

Camilla Ceder is a Swedish counsellor, social worker, and crime fiction novelist. She has written two crime novels, both available in English translation, featuring Inspector Christian Tell of Göteborg CID as principal protagonist; I’ve previously reviewed the second of those books, Babylon, here.


Frozen Moment (Fruset Ögonblick, 2009, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Ceder’s first novel, and follows the investigation of Tell and his team into the murder of Lars Waltz, a middle-aged backroads car mechanic of no identifiable notoriety or wealth. Waltz has been fatally shot at point-blank range and has then been gratuitously driven over repeatedly in a four-wheel drive or similar vehicle. There’s no discernible reason why anybody (other than, perhaps, his ex-wife) would want this man dead, and yet someone was sufficiently motivated to not just kill him but to make of his murder scene a gruesome spectacle. The case attracts the attention of journalism student Seja Lundberg, who’s on the scene early when she drives her elderly neighbour Åke (who first found the body) back to the workshop so he can be interviewed by police at the scene. Seja’s ongoing curiosity about the murder has two effects: it makes her a suspect in the crime, and it leads to an awkwardly burgeoning relationship with Tell, who knows he should know better than to get involved with a witness and possibly a perpetrator …

The characterisation in Frozen Moment is a definite selling point for the book. Ceder has a hugely impressive ability to capture the tells, idiosyncracies, foibles, and unspoken insecurities of a broad range of characters, which are expressed with clarity and candour. Alongside a diversity of witnesses and suspects, the components of Tell’s team are all wrought as distinct individuals, their interactions both credibly mundane and revealing. This psychological depth adds urgency and weight to a story which—other than in its brutal means of murder—does not otherwise place undue emphasis on heightened tension (though there is, usefully, a natural escalation as the story progresses to its close). This is a superior example of the Scandinavian crime novel, which satisfies more novelistic characteristics than just word count, and it’s easily good enough to rue the fact that Ceder’s output to date has been only the two books. If what you look for in a crime novel is truly getting inside the heads of the characters, then you owe it to yourself to read this one (and its successor, Babylon).

Book review: The Mind’s Eye, by Håkan Nesser

24 03 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author whose writing has won the Glass Key Award and three Best Swedish Crime Novel awards. His most well-known work is the ‘Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels, set in an undefined European country with fictionalised (predominantly Dutch-sounding) placenames and a cultured, irascible protagonist whose investigations rely as much on instinct as they do on method. I’ve previously reviewed one of the later Van Veeteren books, Hour of the Wolf, as well as Nesser’s standalone mystery novel A Summer With Kim Novak.


The Mind’s Eye (Det grovmaskiga nätet, 1993, translated by Laurie Thompson) starts with secondary-school teacher Janek Mitter waking from a six-bottles-of-red night. Stumbling through the apartment, he discovers a woman drowned in the bathtub. It’s his wife (and fellow teacher) Eva Ringmar; they were in alone all night. There are signs that Ringmar didn’t kill herself; Mitter can’t remember having killed her, but who else could it be? He’s arrested, he’s charged, he’s found guilty, he’s committed to an asylum. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren harbours some doubt over whether Mitter was in fact responsible for his wife’s death, but there’s no solid evidence, and Mitter’s lack of memory of the night in question means the investigation can proceed no further.

Janek Mitter is a quirky, intriguing character, but readers would be advised not to get too closely attached to him: he doesn’t survive the book’s first section, and as with his wife, his end is plainly at another’s hand. Can Van Veeteren tease out the murderer’s identity, in the almost complete absence of useful clues?

Van Veeteren should be unlikeable: he’s bossy, he’s arrogant, he has no small opinion of himself, and he seems addicted to toothpick-chewing. And yet somehow he emerges as a fundamentally sympathetic character, sufficiently complex to carry much of the novel’s emotional weight (with the remainder falling largely on the shoulders of the suspects and potential witnesses: although some effort is made to individualise Van Veeteren’s colleagues in the investigation, they hardly emerge as separate real characters in this initial novel). The crimes and their underlying motives are well thought out, expertly revealed, and are both resonant and disturbing; the writing is cold and largely without ornamentation. It’s a deeply impressive mystery, and an excellent introduction to Nesser’s skills in this domain.

Book review: The Killer’s Art, by Mari Jungstedt

19 03 2018

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and crime fiction author, best known for her series of Gotland-based police procedurals featuring Inspector Anton Knutas (with most titles in the series available in English translation). I’ve previously reviewed the first three books in the series.


(Before the review proper, I should just reassure readers that the book’s title is not spoilerish: there is no character called Art in this volume.)

The Killer’s Art (Den döende dandyn, 2006, translated by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the early-morning discovery of a naked corpse, which has been hanged from a tall medieval gate in the city walls of Visby. It’s quickly established that (a) the deceased is Egon Wallin, well-known (and apparently universally liked) local art dealer and gallery owner, and (b) Wallin didn’t hang himself. So who did? Inspector Knutas and his team commence an investigation in which no motive suggests itself as plausible, though as they dig deeper into Wallin’s personal and professional lives, several secrets and deceptions are revealed …

As always in Jungstedt’s work, the worldbuilding is very good, with the setting of Gotland ably described alongside the blend of genuine and invented art history that backdrops the novel. The characterisation, also, is effective: one of the strengths of the series is its nuanced depiction of the developing professional relationship between Knutas and his longtime colleague Karin Jacobsson, as well as the rather fraught personal relationship between recurring characters Emma Wingarve and TV reporter Johan Berg. (My sole grievance with regard to characterisation is in the portrayal of regular supporting character Inspector Martin Kihlgård, who’s described as being so food-obsessed that he’s eating something in every scene he appears in: while I appreciate that caricaturish ‘tells’ can provide a shorthand for depicting a less-complex character, it nonetheless seems somewhat cheap and unconvincing in an otherwise well-constructed story.) I think, though, that the danger of a series like this—which now, as I understand it, runs to eleven books—is that ultimately it can strain credulity that an island (a large one, admittedly) with a population of slightly less than sixty thousand can play host to such a sequence of complicated and rather outlandish violent crime sprees. While each book is impressive in isolation—Jungstedt’s writing may not quite have the visceral clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson’s, nor the psychological brutality of Karin Alvtegen’s, but she writes well and excels at the depiction of complicated interpersonal relationships—I do find myself wondering if, perhaps, the whole isn’t somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But at this stage there are another seven books to go before I reach that point, so it’s maybe premature to speculate just yet.