Book review: The Dying Detective, by Leif G W Persson

3 10 2017

Leif G W Persson is a Swedish professor of criminology (now retired) and a noted crime novelist. In his professional career, he has precipitated at least one political crisis (when, in 1977, he helped confirm the alleged involvement of the then Minister of Justice in a prostitution ring); he has also acted frequently as a media adviser on unsolved crimes. His fiction has three times won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award; he’s also won the Glass Key Award and the Palle Rosencrantz-prize.


The Dying Detective (Den döende detektiven, 2010, translated by Neil Smith) opens with the hospitalisation of retired Chief of Police, Lars Martin Johansson, with a major stroke. During Johansson’s treatment, his doctor, Ulrika Stenholm mentions to him that her recently-deceased father, a priest, had confided to her on his deathbed that he was troubled by statements he’d heard in confessions twenty-odd years previously, which appeared to identify the attacker in the brutal rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl. The ailing Johansson is immediately intrigued by this news, but his hands are tied with a triple knot: first, he’s flat on his back in hospital (and struggling to regain sensation in his right arm); second, he’s no longer a serving police officer and so cannot officially call on police resources to investigate this cold case; and the nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan’s death occurred slightly more than twenty-five years previously, meaning that any case surrounding her fate has been prescribed by the statue of limitations that prevailed for serious crimes committed prior to the Olof Palme murder. Even if Johansson—who has earned a formidable reputation for being able to ‘see around corners’ in criminal investigations—is somehow able to identify Yasmine’s murderer, there is nothing that he, or the law, can do to see justice enforced in the matter.


If the book were merely to describe Johansson’s sensible decision to eschew involvement in a matter in which he could make no practical difference, and to concentrate on his recuperation, The Dying Detective would be a slim and sombre volume; but it’s neither of those things. As well as his ability to see around corners, Johansson is also able to envisage a mechanism by which justice might be served on Yasmine’s killer despite the statute of limitations; and, flat on his back, he commences his investigation, with the assistance of Dr Stenholm, his former colleague and close friend Bo Jarnebring, and the ‘home help’ which his wife Pia and his brother Evert foist on him in the weeks after his stroke. The tale is meandering and prone to reminiscence, by both Johansson and those around him, but this is appropriate for a case assembled primarily from recollection, and it’s not a massive surprise that the legendary former policeman is able to make substantial progress in an investigation which, led by the incompetent Evert Bäckström (a protagonist in several of Persson’s other books) and sidelined by the assassination of the Swedish PM just weeks later, floundered on its first pass two-and-a-half decades ago. Johansson’s process of deduction is ingenious and insightful, and narrated with considerable flair. The writing has an easy smoothness to it that’s reminiscent of fellow Swedish crime novelist Håkan Nesser and Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, though Persson also infuses the tale with understated black humour, repeated metaphor, and some very effectively quirky characterisation: the interplay between Johansson and his ‘home help’—the feisty Matilda, bedecked with tattoos and piercings, and the instantly-loyal, eerily-silent, and disconcertingly strong Max—is particularly engaging. Persson even manages to (I think) Tuckerize himself into the tale, with a fleeting reference on page 189 to ‘that mad professor on the National Police Board, the one who’s always talking a load of crap on Crimewatch‘. In a more consistently serious book, such flippancy might be out of place, but here it dovetails comfortably with Persson’s storytelling, a practised mix of light and dark. But what is perhaps most impressive about the novel is the way in which Persson uses Johansson’s medical predicament as the principal source of tension in a story devoid of forced intrigue or a steadily-mounting body count: in pursuing closure in a case already quenched by the statue of limitations, Johansson is embarking on a race which he cannot hope to win, but which he can still most definitely lose. It’s handled well.


Book review: The Ice Beneath Her, by Camilla Grebe

26 09 2017

Camilla Grebe is a Swedish economist, audiobook publisher, and crime fiction writer. She has co-written four novels (featuring psychologist Siri Bergman) with her sister Åsa Träff, the first two of which (also available in English translation) were shortlisted for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year; another three novels (the ‘Moscow Noir’ trilogy, as yet unavailable in English) were coauthored with Paul Leander-Engström.


The Ice Beneath Her (Älskaren från huvudkontoret, 2015, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) is Grebe’s first solo novel. It concerns the discovery, in the basement of clothing-store magnate Jesper Orre’s well-appointed home, of a young woman’s body, her severed head placed upright on the floor some distance from the rest of her corpse. The police’s suspicion is that it’s an extreme case of domestic violence; but Orre, who is missing, has long been secretive about his love life (due to hostile media attention) and the woman’s identity cannot be established. The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Peter Lindgren, one of the detectives on the case; Hanne Lagerlind-Schön, a behavioural psychologist who has previously worked with the police on several investigations, and is brought in as an adviser; and (in a sequence occurring along an earlier timeline, in the months before the murder) Emma Bohman, a young sales clerk at one of Orre’s Clothes&More stores, whom Orre has impregnated and then dumped.

Grebe’s evocation of the lives of her troubled protagonists—Peter badly handled an affair with Hanne, some years ago, and now exhibits considerable difficulty working with her; Hanne also struggles with this baggage, and with the further need to disguise from her colleagues the early-onset dementia with which she’s now afflicted; Emma is a survivor of a childhood shared with a suicidal father and an alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother, and punctuated by a schoolyard sexual assault—is impressively detailed. The story, which is studded with unanticipated pivots into new directions, takes some time to properly establish itself, but becomes progressively more engrossing as the questions mount up and the answers remain elusive. There’s a sense in which the entire novel is a long-form thimble-and-shell game, with a few key aspects of the central murder (for example, the particulars of its ritualism, the provenance of the murder weapon) that I felt weren’t adequately addressed in the rush to climax; but overall, there’s a pleasing solidity to the story and a plausibly gritty depth to the characterisation.

Book review: A Summer with Kim Novak, by Håkan Nesser

2 09 2017

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish crime author best known for his Inspector Van Veeteren series of murder mysteries, set in the fictitious Northern European city of Maardam. His work has won the Best Swedish Crime Novel award three times; I’ve previously reviewed his Glass Key award-winning novel Hour of the Wolf here.


A Summer with Kim Novak (Kim Novak badade aldrig i Genesarets sjö, 1998, translated by Saskia Vogel) is narrated by fourteen-year-old Erik Wassman, an introspective boy whose mother is dying of cancer. Erik is sent, for the 1962 summer holidays, to stay with his older brother Henry, a reporter with the local newspaper, at a lakeside summer cottage owned by his mother’s family. Erik’s accompanied by a schoolfriend, Edmund. The ‘Kim Novak’ lookalike of the title is one Ewa Kaludis, a relief teacher at Erik’s and Edmund’s school and the fiancée of hot-tempered handball star Bertil Albertsson (‘Super-Berra’). When ladies’ man Henry gets involved with Ewa, it’s plain even to Erik that all is not going to end well …

This coming-of-age tale, reminiscent in some respects of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow, is rather different to Nesser’s other work, but nonetheless showcases his ability with slowly-unfolding menace and dashes of situational humour (provided largely by the viewpoint of Erik, who is such a sponge for adult platitudes that in his fourteen years he has accrued one for every occasion). The crime at the book’s core is carefully framed, the investigation is reported in a secondhand (and not highly detailed) fashion by Erik, who’s more concerned with extracting as much enjoyment as possible from the summer, by way of excursions with Edmund (whether by bike or rowboat), reading, and fantasising about girls—the glamorous and worldly Ewa foremost among the latter.

This is an unassuming but very enjoyable piece of Swedish crime fiction. It’s slow to start, but digs very successfully into the not-always-edifying mind of a fourteen year old and manages, despite its protagonist’s limitations, to seem at times profound.

Book review: Still Waters, by Viveca Sten

23 08 2017

Viveca Sten is a Swedish lawyer and crime fiction novelist best known for her ‘Sandhamn Murders’ series, featuring police officer Thomas Andreasson and his friend financial lawyer Nora Linde, set on and around Sandhamn, an island in the Stockholm archipelago with a winter population of around a hundred and a summer population of two or three thousand. The ‘Sandhamn Murders’ series currently stands at eight books, of which the first four have seen English translation.


Still Waters (I de lugnaste vatten, 2008, translated by Marlaine Delargy) opens with the drowning of the reclusive Krister Berggren, in a manner which quite clearly indicates foul play; yet when his body is recovered from the waters off Sandhamn a few months later, there’s nothing about the corpse to suggest that the death was anything but accidental. Nonetheless, the police open an investigation to attempt to determine the circumstances of Berggren’s death. When, a few days later, Krister’s next-of-kin, cousin Kiki Berggren, is also found dead, with signs of assault, in a Sandhamn bed-and-breakfast, it becomes obvious that there’s more to the drowning than has previously surfaced. But with the only people who could shed significant light on the deaths dead, how are Thomas Andreasson and his colleagues to find the killer?

Still Waters is somewhat reminiscent of the work of fellow Swedish crime novelist Camilla Läckberg, whose ‘Fjällbacka’ series similarly features a sequence of murders and other crimes in a picturesque location (the fishing and tourism village Fjällbacka) popular as a summer holiday destination. Also in keeping with Läckberg’s series, a substantial focus of the story arc is the juxtaposition of crime and romance: in Läckberg’s books, her protagonists (detective Patrik Hedström and writer Erica Falck) become an item quite early on, while the private lives of Sten’s principal protagonists (Andreasson and Linde) do not quite intersect romantically (at this point, at least) but are certainly explored in substantial detail. This is not to say, though, that Sten’s work is specifically derivative: while it fits quite comfortably into the trope of Swedish crime fiction (other echoes are the writers Mari Jungstedt and Helene Tursten, whose novels similarly blend murder and domesticity), its setting and characterisation are both sufficiently individualistic that Still Waters stands on its own right, and reveals itself as an accomplished debut with a well-researched plot and a comfortable depth of expert knowledge, with interesting local colour added for good measure. I’m inclined to think the plot in this novel could be a little too twisty for its own good, but it’s written well enough that this can be overlooked, and it has enough grit and gruesomeness to avoid falling into a ‘cosy crime’ categorisation. It will be interesting to see how the series develops.

Book review: The White City, by Karolina Ramqvist

13 08 2017

Karolina Ramqvist is a Swedish journalist, magazine editor, and author who has won several literary awards for her fiction and essays. Only a small fraction of her work has yet appeared in English translation.


At the start of The White City (Den vit staden, 2015, translated by Saskia Vogel), Karin and her infant daughter Dream are still living in the luxurious two-storey home she had, until recently, shared with the now-departed John. But the dwelling’s services have been cut, over the past few months of autumn and winter, for non-payment of arrears: there’s no phone, no heating, no food in the refrigerator. John, it seems, didn’t come by the house (or by anything much else of their possessions) entirely legally, and Karin has no independent means of supporting herself or her daughter. So when the functionaries of the Swedish Economic Crime Authority make it plain—one final time—to Karin that they’re about to seize all of those possessions, it forces her to break out of the torpor she’s been sheltering within over the preceding weeks.

The opening sections of The White City are uncomfortable reading, lacking in literal or metaphorical warmth, sharing the severe Scandinavian sensibility of an early Ingmar Bergman film, or of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Ranqvist’s writing is clinical, unflinching: Karin may well be spending her days in a miasma of depression, denial, and desperation, but we’re forced to watch and to empathise with her (and with Dream, utterly at the mercy of her mother’s lapses in attention). Karin is, however, a survivor, and she sets about seeking out John’s former colleagues, to establish whether there’s any compassion among thieves, any way to take control of her circumstances. The reception she gets isn’t what she hopes for.

The White City is a carefully-scripted piece of minimalist menace, akin in tone to Agnes Ravatn’s exquisite The Bird Tribunal—though among many points of divergence, Ravatn’s novel is deeply rural, almost pastoral, where Ramqvist’s is quintessentially suburban. Although both books can, in some measure, be viewed as crime novels, their strong understatement, painstaking attention to detail, emphasis on character and viewpoint, and carefully-implied near-constant tension (in The Bird Tribunal, via the nagging doubt of whether her housekeeper protagonist can truly trust her host and employer; in The White City, via the simple but knife-edged concern over whether Karin can keep her infant daughter from harm while her own world crumbles around her) imbues them with a definite literary feel.

This is a quiet book, subtle, compact, but quite mesmerising.

Book review: October Is The Coldest Month, by Christoffer Carlsson

12 08 2017

Christoffer Carlsson is an award-winning Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer, best known as the creator of the ‘Leo Junker’ series of novels. I’ve recently reviewed the first of that series, The Invisible Man From Salem, here.


October Is the Coldest Month (Oktober Är Den Kallaste Månaden, 2016, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles) is Carlsson’s first foray into young adult fiction, but it is in several ways a natural extrapolation: much of the content of The Invisible Man From Salem dealt with an exploration of the pivotal events in Junker’s adolescence, and conveyed a vivid familiarity with the range and shape of the teenage experience. That same familiarity is on display in October.

School student Vega Gillberg, 16, is home alone when her world is turned upside down by a knock at the door. It’s a police officer, Viktor Franzén, seeking information on the whereabouts of Vega’s older brother Jakob in connection with the disappearance of local man Lars Hellman. Actually, it’s not this event that inverts Vega’s life, it’s something that happened two or three nights earlier, but she daren’t tell the police about that …

October is a smart, snappy, fast-moving tale that places the reader very effectively in Vega’s inquisitive shoes, and that’s steeped in a kind of rural gothic menace that could be almost Appalacian rather than the southern Swedish hinterlands: it’s a landscape of backroads, bogs, and deep forests. The book drips with mood, menace, and the oppressive chill of late autumn. The characters—Vega, Jakob, their mother, one-armed Uncle Dan, Jakob’s friend Malte, Vega’s classmate Tom, his mother Diana—are all quickly sculpted and clearly expressed; everyone in this short novel has an implied backstory and a credibly guilty secret of their own, a plausible reason why they might be resistant to providing honest answers to Vega’s careful questions about just what has been going on. The truth that is eventually revealed is messy, unsettling, and well handled.

Carlsson has quite rapidly proven himself to be an interesting voice in the quite crowded genre of Swedish crime fiction; October Is The Cruellest Month demonstrates that he’s equally at home with YA.


Book review: Unknown, by Mari Jungstedt

8 08 2017

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist, TV presenter and crime fiction writer best known for her ‘Anders Knutas’ series of police procedurals set on the Swedish island of Gotland. The series now stands at thirteen books, the first nine of which have also been published in English translation. I’ve previously reviewed Unseen and Unspoken, the first two books in the series.


Unknown (Den inre kretsen, 2005, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is the third of the Anders Knutas books; it goes under the alternative title of The Inner Circle (which is a more direct translation of the Swedish title) in the US. The book opens with the discovery of a brutal example of animal cruelty: a farm pony, a beloved family pet, has been decapitated during the brief summer night by some unknown intruder. To add an additional grisly dimension, the pony’s head has been removed not just from the pony, but from the scene. Knutas and his team—Maria Jacobsson, Wittberg, Sohlman and the others—commence an investigation, but little progress is made before a competing demand is placed on the Gotland police’s resources. A Dutch archaeology student, Martina Flochten, one of a group of twenty university students on a supervised summer dig on one of the island’s many Viking settlement sites, goes missing, in the middle of the night, on the walk between a restaurant and the hostel in which the group have been staying. As the days mount since her disappearance, concern for her welfare grows sharper; and then Martina is found, early one morning, by a fisherman’s dog …

Jungstedt is exceptionally good at the ensemble-cast crime novel: the reader never knows, when following the thoughts of a newly-introduced character, whether the individual may turn out to be victim, witness, or murderer, and yet any eventual revelations are credible and logically consistent. The writing is clean, smooth-flowing, vividly descriptive. The pace is not particularly fast—there are a lot of characters to introduce—but the tension is maintained effectively.

I should also note that, though the police are consistently focussed on the crime, the text is not: a parallel and occasionally interweaving thread in the books is the developing relationship between reporter Johan Berg and teacher Emma Winarve, a strand that provides useful respite from the details of the investigation while managing not to distract overly from the central case.

It is, on the evidence of the first three books, a very well-written series, even if I do have the concern that, a dozen or more books in, the ongoing sequence of major and unusual crimes on what is, after all, an island with a permanent population of fewer than sixty thousand people might well see Gotland turned into the Swedish Midsomer, with a body count sufficient to alarm actuarists, demographers, and insurers. Still, there are plenty more books in the series to consider before such an assessment could be contemplated.