Chilled by Roslund and Hellstrom

This week’s post comes to us from Ali Karim who is or has been editor, writer or contributor to just about every crime fiction publication worth its salt in recent years and here discusses how he came to read – and appreciate – the work of the Swedish crime writing duo made up of journalist Anders Roslund and reformed criminal Börge Hellström

I was taken aback last December when I heard the terrible news of the passing of Maxine Clarke, better known with her reviewing hat as “Petrona”. The book reviewing world lost one its champions, especially one for an eye for translated fiction. I often shared similar interests with Maxine, especially with the work of the Swedish duo [Anders] Roslund and [Borge] Hellstrom.

In October 2010, Roslund and Hellstrom were over in the UK launching their novel Three Seconds. Their publisher Quercus had arranged a party in the West End. Many critics / reviewers were invited and I was delighted to see Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke among the guests.

During the party, I managed to interview Roslund Hellstrom for The Rapsheet and produced a two part feature.

In part one, I referenced Maxine’s review for The Vault [aka BOX 21], a novel that I also loved but Maxine’s insight like all her reviews was delightful –

The Vault is a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime-fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!

I think this book is quite brilliant, most particularly in the story of the tragic Lydia, both in the present day and in the past, as she remembers her younger life and as Sundqvist finds out the details of her betrayal. It made me very angry indeed as the authors explore to the limit the extent to which the police bind together to protect their own, and how in so doing they are betraying those weaker victims of society who not only need their protection the most, but who the police are entrusted to serve. 

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In part two of my feature I interviewed Roslund Hellstrom as a precursor to their visit to Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco.

So it appeared that Maxine and I agreed in our enthusiastic championing of these two Swedish Writers –

the-beast-roslund-hellstromMy introduction to Roslund (a journalist) and Hellström (a reformed ex-criminal who works to help place ex-cons back into society) came during the winter of 2005. As usual, I was reading more books than I ever had time to review. But one that I did want to comment on–The Beast, Roslund and Hellström’s debut novel–I found I could not write a word about. Although I’ve read many shocking and disturbing works of crime fiction in my time, The Beast took my psyche beyond anything I had ever experienced before. After I’d finished the book, I reflected back with new insight on the précis that publisher Little, Brown had sent along with it:

Two children are found dead in a basement. Four years later their murderer escapes from prison. The police know if he is not found quickly, he will kill again. But when their worst fears come true and another child is murdered in the nearby town of Strengnas, the situation spirals out of control. In an atmosphere of hysteria whipped up by the media, Fredrik Steffansson, the father of the murdered child, decides he must take revenge. His actions will have devastating consequences. As anger spreads across the whole country, the two [Stockholm] detectives assigned to the case–Ewert Grens and Sven Sunkist–find themselves caught up in a situation of escalating violence. A powerful and at times profoundly shocking novel, The Beast has been likened to both Hitchcock and Le Carré. It is also an important and timely exploration of what can happen when we take the law into our own hands. It has been shortlisted for Glasnyckeln 2005 [The Glass Key Award] for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

I am the father of three children, and what The Beast did was challenge my bleeding-heart-liberal values system. It made me think about the question: What would I be capable of doing, should a predatory pedophile commit the unthinkable act of murdering my offspring?

I found it as disturbing as Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, another book about youngsters victimized by adults, published seven years earlier. I thought perhaps I would be capable of exacting a terrible retribution from my children’s attacker. But Roslund and Hellström added a further dimension to their tale, detailing the consequences that can come of such vengeful, blind-rage acts.

After I finished that novel, I couldn’t rid myself of the images it had embedded in my mind. And the idea of revisiting the world of The Beast in order to write a review repulsed me. So I put the book away in a box and tried to erase the memory of having read it.

Then along came Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008). I was already interested in Swedish crime fiction, but that work made me so much more so. After hassling the delightful Lucy Ramsey and Nicci Praça at Quercus Publishing for an early copy of Dragon Tattoo, I published the first English-language review of it here in The Rap Sheet. I went on to write more about Larsson and his debut novel. But, like everybody else, I had to wait … and wait … and wait until its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released by Quercus in 2009. In the meantime, I found a copy of Roslund and Hellström’s Box 21 (published in the States as The Vault), the follow-up to The Beast–also starring detectives Sven Sundkvist and Ewert Grens–in my possible-review pile. I held it in my hands as if it were a cobra preparing to strike. The Beast still haunted me; was I ready yet to give Box 21 a try?

Thankfully, Box 21’s plot did not involve children. Here’s the synopsis:

the-vault-box-21-roslund-hellstromWhen a severely wounded woman is brought to a hospital in Stockholm, doctors are horrified to learn that her injuries are the result of a brutal whipping. She is Lydia, a victim of people-trafficking, a young girl from Lithuania sold by her boyfriend and now trapped in a Stockholm brothel, forced to repay her “debt.” In the same hospital, police officer Sven Sundkvist and senior officer Ewert Grens are chasing a lead that may just expose a notorious mafia boss, a dangerous man Grens hates with a vengeance. Two stories of passionate reprisal twist together, ending in a dramatic climax: two bullet-riddled bodies and a room full of hostages in the hospital’s basement. But in the cold light of day, will Sven protect the senior officer he so admires, even from his own corruption?

So I brewed up some coffee one evening, cracked Box 21’s spine, and discovered another deeply twisted yarn that held a mirror to my values system. Petrona’s Maxine Clarke summed up my own reaction to Box 21, calling it “a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!”

Following the release of Box 21, though, Roslund and Hellström pretty much fell off my radar, because Little, Brown UK stopped publishing their work in English. Which was a great disappointment. Even though their stories were disquieting and forbidding, I was impressed by their writing abilities and their sheer brilliance in unfolding a tale ripped from the headlines. The pair were also fearless in handling subjects unflinchingly, that many other scribes would have avoided.

Today, I miss Maxine’s insight into the crime-fiction genre, as she championed so many writers, introducing them to readers.

I am delighted that we are remembering Petrona with an Annual Award keeping Maxine Clarke’s name alive, as well as using her name to enthuse readers with the best of translated crime fiction.

Ali Karim 

Book Details:

authors: Anders Roslund and reformed criminal Börge Hellström (learn more at their website)
original language: Swedish
translator: The Beast, Anna Paterson; Box 21/The Vault, unknown (possibly the authors themselves)
publication date (UK): The Beast 2005, Box 21/The Vault 2009

Contributor Details:

Ali Karim is a Company Director, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being the Assistant Editor of the e-zine Shots, he’s also a contributing editor at January Magazine, writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines as well as Ali is also an associate member [and literary judge] for both the British Crime Writers Association as well as The International Thriller Writers Inc