This odd and engaging dark crime thriller is set in a dystopic Sweden.
By Katherine A. Powers for The Barnes & Noble Review
I don't know whether I would have read Arne Dahl's Misterioso – yet another Swedish crime novel, by yet another hitherto-unknown-to-us Swedish crime writer – if I hadn't noticed that it was translated by the great Tiina Nunnally. I first came across this master of Englishing in her scary and wondrous translation of Hans Christian Andersen's "Fairy Tales" and, later, in her stunning rendering into crisp and vivid English of Sigrid Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter." That was a momentous discovery; so disguised and disfigured had this magnificent work been by its musty, faux-archaic 1920s translation that I had previously found it unreadable. My own command of Swedish doesn't extend beyond knäckebröd and smörgåsbord, so I'm unable to tell you if Nunnally's translation of "Misterioso" is true to the original; but I can say that it seems true to the spirit of this odd and most engaging story.
Paul Hjelm is an alienated, chronically weary policeman who does things his own way – a familiar figure to readers of Swedish crime novels. It is the mid-1990s, and we meet Hjelm as he intervenes in a hostage situation without waiting for specialists to arrive on the scene. This maverick act, successful and celebrated by the media though it is, nearly leads to his dismissal. Instead he is assigned to the A-Unit, a newly created task force for solving major crimes quickly by cutting through the tangle of mandates, prerogatives, and obstructive jealousies of competing law-enforcement and security agencies – the muddle and malice which turned the investigation of the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme into a fiasco.
The unit is led by Superintendent Jan-Olov Hultin: cool, peremptory, and legendary for his head-butting prowess in football. The list of his colleagues – all of whom are drawn from various police forces – includes a son of Chilean immigrants, who, as a "blackhead," is the object of ethnic prejudice; a surly former body builder and "meat mountain"; a scholarly Finn; a woman from the North Sea coast; and a former Stockholm policeman, a stickler for protocol and regulation, who evolves into a crusader so single-minded in his mission that he not only parks illegally but throws the consequent parking ticket on the ground.
And there is Hjelm. A virtuoso of existential loneliness, he returns again and again to his own private reservoir of emptiness to extinguish the slightest flare-up of fellow feeling: "The more they got to know each other," he observes of his fellow unit members, "the harder it became to understand each other. As always." Sometimes you just want to give him a swift kick in the knäckebröd.
The unit's first task is to solve the murder of two well-connected financiers, crimes that have the earmarks of a serial killer. Aside from the dead men being "titans of business," boat owners, and members of the same golf club, they also belonged to the Order of Mimir, a fraternal organization dedicated to secret Nordic rites, one that had recently hived off an even more arcane group. The last connection looks promising and, to the wistful Hjelm, downright attractive in its orderliness. "The fraternal order," he muses, "a fine old classic straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, had gone up in smoke – that type of puzzle intrigue belonged irrevocably to the past – and instead they had landed squarely in the present day: postindustrial capitalism, Eastern European mafia, and the collapse of Sweden's financial regulatory system in the 1990s."
Crimes in Sweden are no longer outrages committed against the backdrop of an orderly society; in contrast, they arise out of the country's economic collapse, corruption and dissolution, out of a widespread anomie. "Fraud was now an entire division within the service sector, just like any other division," one of Hjelm's colleagues reflects. "The old smalltime crooks stood on the sidelines, looking on and feeling positively honorable. Desperation and frustration were flourishing like never before in a society in which hordes of young people had been shut out of the job market without ever getting even a whiff of it."
Another moneybags is murdered, and another. Clues turn up, but they tend to be misleading or dead ends; hypotheses forever disintegrate and become, in their way, further instances of an overall loss of coherence and meaning. Looking for some kind of design, the scholarly Finn notes that the first murder took place on the anniversary of the death of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Is this a coincidence? Or what? When the killer is finally identified (on the anniversary of the Turks' invasion of Constantinople, as it happens), it is, in fact, thanks to "the inexplicable hand of coincidence," a hand which truly governs this plot. I don't know that the more fastidious readers of crime novels will rejoice in the large role given coincidence; still, it does have a thematic and notional purpose: It is coincidence alone that forms connections in the void. It is a thing of mystery and a simulacrum of fate.
All that aside, the novel's real appeal – and it is great and gladdened by wit – rests in the growing relationship among the members of the A-Unit, in the development of their characters, and in the what we learn of their pasts. I hope to see the A-Unit again; indeed, the book ends with the team having been ordered to return to duty on August 4th – which, though not stated, happens to be the anniversary of the death of Hans Christian Andersen. Coincidence? I don't think so – though its meaning, as ever, is dark.
Katherine A. Powers is a book critic for The Barnes & Noble Review.