This week’s much loved crime novel is a modern Swedish epic and is the choice of Yvonne Klein, editor of Reviewing the Evidence, one of the web’s oldest and best sites devoted to this genre.

UK cover

UK cover

In the heady days of 1975, a band of young people took over the West German Embassy in Stockholm, holding hostages, mining the place with explosives, and demanding the release of members of Baader-Meinhof, the Red Army Faction (RAF), then being held in a German prison in harsh conditions. The Swedish police, perhaps a bit unclear on the concept, waited for the “Stockholm syndrome” to kick in, but before the affair was over, two hostages were shot and killed, and two Red Army Faction members were dead or dying as a result of accidentally detonating their own bombs. Persson recounts the events, which indeed happened, in the detached and faintly sardonic tone that characterizes the style of the narrative as a whole. Eleven years later, the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated. The perpetrator has never been established, but RAF did claim responsibility for the murder, via a group calling itself the Holger Meins Commando, Meins being a jailed member who died during a hunger strike in prison in 1974. All this is essential history for the weighty novel that follows from it.

Clearly, the terrorists must have had help, and local help at that. Who these may have been was not established and there seems to have been a curious reluctance on the part of politicians and police to pursue the matter too closely. In the end, the matter is allowed to die out, swaddled in the notion that terrorism was somehow so “un-Swedish.”

US Cover

US Cover

We leap forward to 1989, to the scene of a fictional murder of a government statistician named Kjell Göran Eriksson, stabbed in his flat. He might have survived had not the emergency services been otherwise employed thanks to a mass rally of Swedish nationalists and neo-Nazis commemorating King Charles XII. The investigation falls rapidly into the sweaty hands of Inspector Bäckström, who comes almost instantly to the unshakeable conclusion, based on the undeniable neatness of Eriksson’s flat and the tastefulness of his furnishings, that Eriksson was the victim of a homosexual affair gone wrong,. Bäckström, who also appeared in the first novel in this trilogy, BETWEEN SUMMER’S LONGING AND WINTER’S END, is an appalling toad, obsessively fixated on possible homosexuality wherever he looks. His vocabulary consists almost exclusively of anti-gay terms of abuse, of which he has a limitless store. As for women, he views his female colleagues all as “temporary,” (real police being, of course, male) and if they are insufficiently subordinate, as “attack dykes.” He is, moreover venal – in this case sneaking back into Eriksson’s flat to pack up the victim’s suitcases with as much liquor as he can manage and lifting as well some bath towels to which he has taken a fancy. In time and to no one’s surprise, the investigation peters out.

But just before the statute of limitations will run out on the embassy attack, it surfaces once again in March, 2000 and this time, much has changed. There is a strong political motive to clarify the identity of the Swedish citizens who abetted the German terrorists. The bulk of the investigation is carried out by a group of women police officers, one of whom Bäckström viewed as temporary ten years previously. And their police work is inspired. Gradually the embassy case intersects with the Eriksson murder to produce a brilliant solution to both crimes. Do the women police get credit for their labours? Well, not everything has changed in Sweden. Is strict justice done? Well, that depends.

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE is a monumental novel, of a kind that with its irony, coolness, and thinly disguised fury at the decline of social democracy is hard to imagine being presented as a crime novel in America. If it were not for the wistful hope of the emergence of a new Stieg Larsson, I wonder if it would have been translated at all. And readers who also hope for another Lisbeth Salander will be sadly disappointed. ANOTHER TIME is very short on action, deficient in thrill, and infinitely detailed. It does, on the other hand, effectively meld fiction with historical fact and situate a crime within the context of massive historical change. It is also engrossing and provocative and, in Paul Norlen’s translation, very readable indeed.

Maxine Clarke shared Yvonne’s enjoyment of this novel and posted her own review last year which prompted the book’s inclusion on the shortlist for the inaugural Petrona Award.

Book Details:

author: Leif G.W. Persson
original language: Swedish
translator: Paul Norlen
publication date (UK): 2012

Contributor Details:

In addition to being an editor and regular reviewer at Reviewing the Evidence Yvonne Klein is a retired professor, writer and translator living in Montreal.

The Inaugural Petrona Award Shortlist

The winner of the first Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year will be announced on 1 June at CrimeFest in Bristol. The award has been created to honour the memory of Maxine Clarke who, blogging as Petrona, was tirelessly promoting Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English long before Stieg Larsson grabbed the world’s attention. This year’s shortlist was derived from Maxine’s published reviews of Scandinavian crime fiction published in the UK in 2012 and the contenders are:

PiercedEngerPIERCED by Thomas Enger, translation by Charlotte Barslund which Maxine thought even better than Enger’s excellent debut novel (BURNED). In this novel the journalist at the heart of this Norwegian series, Henning Juul is asked to find evidence that a prisoner due for an appeal hearing is innocent of the crime he has been convicted of. The carrot dangled before the vulnerable journalist is that Tore Pulli, the prisoner, claims to know something about the fire which injured Juul and killed his young son. Maxine thought the many threads of PEIRCED “combine to make the novel a great combination of detection and thriller”, found it “endearing that Juul sees the world through the eyes of a wordsmith” and enjoyed the occasional references: for crime fiction aficionados such as the mention of French anti-corruption magistrate and turned novelist  Eva Joly.

BlackSkiesIndridasonBLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason, translation by Victoria Cribb, is set partly in the recently turbulent world of the Icelandic financial sector and centres on detective Sigurdur Óli who is asked by an old friend for some discreet help when his sister-in-law and her husband are being blackmailed due to an ill-considered episode of wife-swapping. When Sigurdur Óli discovers the blackmailer dead he decides to investigate the case without telling his colleagues all the salient facts. Maxine’s review includes this summary

…an author as experienced as Indridason never forgets that he’s writing a crime novel first and foremost; the plot is a satisfying and topical one. It is well-paced, as Sigurdur Óli’s and the official lines of enquiry obscure each other until they merge; the story then takes a sudden new direction – which is when the author fully gets his teeth into the financial cowboys (“the new Vikings”) that have wrecked his country’s economy and the lives of many of its citizens. Yet the author also provides us with an excellent character study of Sigurdur Óli, whose arrogance at the start of the book gives way to some personal insight and maturity by the end, partly by his new willingness to examine his relationships with friends and family, but in particular via the tragic case of Anders [a local addict whose revenge fantasy plays out in parallel with the main story].

LastWillMarklundLiza15232_fLAST WILL by Liza Marklund, translation by Neil Smith is the sixth novel to feature Swedish journalist Annika Bengtzon and Maxine thought it “…a fantastic, intelligent crime thriller, containing all the elements [she loved] about the genre.” As it opens Annika is attending the annual Nobel prize banquet on behalf of the paper when the laureate for medicine and the head of the Nobel committee are shot. Because she is a witness Annika is not allowed to cover the incident but does carry on an unofficial investigation. Maxine went on to say of LAST WILL

It is a clever, muscular thriller, combining exciting action with analyses of many contemporary issues: the dangers of security and terrorist legislation, in particular in the tragic case of a man accused of the Nobel atrocity; the plight of modern journalism and what proprietors do to survive in the internet era; the politics of the science profession and the scope for corruption by the financial interests of drug companies; some great descriptions of biological research; the ethics of scientific publication; and, underlying it all, a cracking, puzzling crime – why was the Nobel victim chosen, who was behind the events of that night, and what is the relationship between the first and subsequent crimes? None of these themes is treated as a cliché or in any predictable way; each is attacked with a fresh perspective by the author, abetted by Annika’s characteristic refusal to compromise.

AnotherTimePerssonANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif G.W. Persson, translation by Paul Norlen, is the second part of a trilogy subtitled ‘the story of a crime’ and opens with a consideration of a terrorist attack on the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975 before moving on to a 1989 murder investigation and an even more modern investigation a further ten years after that. After observing some stylistic and topical links to the work of eminent Swedish crime writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Maxine says of the book’s opening segment

The presentation of this first, short section of the book is so distinctive, setting the tone for the rest. It is measured and sober, describing enormities of violence, procedural deficiencies, and institutional stupidities in dispassionate terms, allowing the reader to absorb their full impact. The author’s refusal to be overtly opinionated at first gives his words a face-value authority, but as the book progresses one sees the extent to which the author is wooing the reader to his particular subversive perception of his country’s criminal justice system.

She finishes her review with these thoughts

There are many layers of subtlety in this gripping novel which I haven’t addressed in this brief review, but which I greatly appreciated – in particular the acute characterisations, including (in some cases) the disparities between people’s thoughts and actions. I can only urge you to read it. I eagerly devoured every word, even though it is a very long book. In its superb anatomy of Sweden using the police and criminal justice system as a metaphor, as well as many of the ways characters are presented and evolve, Leif Persson is the true heir of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, authors of the best crime-fiction series ever written.

You still have a couple of weeks to read all four titles vying for the first Petrona Award and, until 29 May, you can vote on which of the novels you think will win the award and which of them you want to win the award. Head over to Euro Crime to vote and stay tuned to find out which of these fantastic novels takes out the inaugural Petrona Award.