Eurotour Stop 3. Stockholm, Sweden: “So he took a quick detour to the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden”

Hej from Stockholm! Today’s extract is from…

Leif G. W. Persson, The Dying Detective (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Black Swan, 2017 [2010], 11-12).

Karlbergsvägen 66 in Stockholm is the location of Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden. It’s surrounded by sturdy stone buildings many storeys high, all constructed at the start of last century. Solid brickwork, carefully laid, brick upon brick, with lime-mortar rendering, bow windows and old-fashioned glass. There are generous lawns in front of the properties and – at this time of year – leafy trees lining the street. When you enter the buildings there is usually red marble in both the lobbies and stairwells, friezes on the ceilings, ornate plasterwork, even dado panelling in places. The skirting boards and doors are made of oak. It is an area that gives a bourgeois, affluent impression.

Günter’s is also located within the old city boundaries of the most beautiful capital in the world. Just a few hundred meters south of Karlberg Palace and Karolinska University Hospital, and close to two of the major roads leading away from the north of the city centre.

The former head of the National Criminal Police, Lars Martin Johansson, really ought to have been at his summerhouse up in Roslagen today, but that morning he had been obliged to come into the city for a meeting with his bank, to conclude a deal about a patch of forest that he and his eldest brother had an interest in. […]

Just a few hundred meters before he would be passing the old tollgate at Roslagstull on his drive north, his hunger got the better of him. There was no way he was going to spend an hour driving when his stomach was already screaming at him. So he took a quick detour to the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden for a well-spiced Yugoslavian bratwurst with salt-pickled Åland gherkins, sauerkraut and Dijon mustard. Or maybe a Zigeuner sausage with its taste of freshly ground pepper, paprika and onion? Or should he stay true to his Norrland roots and partake of a lightly smoked elk sausage with Günter’s homemade mash of salad potatoes?

Stockholm gallery

One of my first destinations in Stockholm was of course Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden. What can I say? The hotdogs are indeed divine (I had a Thüringer with salt-pickled Åland gherkins) and it’s clear from the queues that the place has genuine cult status. Pleasingly, part of the extract above was pinned on the kiosk’s noticeboard: they are rightly very proud of their Persson connection.

We’re both rather in love with Stockholm. The city is filled with architectural beauty and its location on the water is stunning. We’re getting around a lot by ferry.

Then there are the buns…

And last, but by no means least…THE ABBA MUSEUM. A lifetime’s ambition fulfilled!

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

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#50 Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective

Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (Den döende detektiven), trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Doubleday, 2016 [2010]). 5 stars

dying-detective

Opening line: Karlbergsvägen 66 in Stockholm is the location of Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden.

Leif G.W Persson is a writer at the absolute top of his game. The Dying Detective is the seventh of his novels to appear in English, and is a gripping, absorbing, beautifully plotted read. Not only does it succeed brilliantly on its own terms, but deftly extends the universe of his previous novels, and, like another of his novels, Linda, pays homage to a giant of the crime genre in a truly inventive way.

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Readers of earlier Persson novels will remember Johansson as a brilliant investigator with an uncanny ability to ‘see around corners’. Now we find him frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery – a sobering depiction of the aftermath of a stroke – and drawn into the investigation of a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he has assembled a rag-tag team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

From the very beginning, the novel adds an extra level of complexity to the investigation of Yasmine’s case: the challenge for Johansson is not simply identifying the perpetrator, but figuring out what to do if he finds him, for a new statute of limitations means that the killer can’t legally be held to account for his crime. And this is where Persson’s literary homage comes in. Around two-thirds of the way through the novel, Johansson is shown praising Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and his Hangman), originally published in 1950. He states that a good book ‘can give you something to think about, and if it’s really good then reading it can even make you a better person. I’ve read this one several times’.

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In The Judge and his Hangman, Inspector Bärlach, who is in poor health and at the end of his career, does battle with an old adversary, a man who delights in committing crimes in such a way that the legal system can’t touch him. Bärlach is desperate to bring him to justice, but knows that he’ll have to act unlawfully to do so – a terrible dilemma for a policeman who has upheld the rule of law all his life. The novel stresses the illegality of Old Testament justice, but also the terrible moral consequences of such action for the self-appointed ‘judge’ or ‘hangman’. And that’s not all. A later Dürrenmatt novel, Das Versprechen (The Pledge, 1958), features a policeman who becomes obsessed with the unsolved murder of a young girl, and whose desperate need for justice leads him to act unethically. This clever ‘intertextuality’ is carried off by Persson with a light, expert touch. It’s like watching a jazz musician improvising brilliantly with the main melody of a song.

What a smart and versatile writer Persson is. He pulls off the big ‘state of the nation’ novels (his ‘Story of a Crime’ series) or the more intimate police investigation (Linda, As in the Linda Murder) with ease, creating an expansive universe in which characters move freely from one novel to another. Regular readers will undoubtedly feel rewarded by the appearance of many old friends in The Dying Detective, from Bo Jarnebring and Lisa Mattei to the shortsighted pathologist who bids good morning to the yukka plant in reception. A special word of praise, too, for long-time Persson translator Neil Smith, who does such an excellent job of capturing the author’s voice, and in particular his wry, often black humour.

The Dying Detective has been submitted for the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. It sets a very high bar!

You can see a list of Petrona Award eligibles over at Euro Crime.

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#34 / Leif G.W. Persson, Linda, As in the Linda Murder

Leif G.W. Persson, Linda, As in the Linda Murder (Linda – som i Lindamordet), trans. from the Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Doubleday, 2013 [2005]). 5 stars

linda

Opening line: It was a neighbour who found Linda, and, all things considered, that was far better than her mother finding her. 

The dedication at the front of Linda, As in the Linda Murder reads ‘for Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – who did it better than almost anyone’. In this newly-translated novel, first published in 2005, author Leif Persson undoubtedly pays homage to the godparents of the Swedish police-procedural, and in particular to the first in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, Roseanna, published exactly 40 years prior to Linda in 1965. Consider the following:

  • both novels are named after a young female murder victim
  • both open with the discovery of the victim’s body, on 4 July and 8 July respectively
  • both are set outside Stockholm in smaller Swedish cities (Motala and Växjö)
  • both depict the police investigation in exhaustive detail
  • both critique misogynist attitudes in Swedish society and foreground the female victim
  • and … the murderer’s name in Linda echoes the murderer’s name in Roseanna!

However, the lead investigator in Linda, tasked with solving the murder of 20-year-old trainee police officer Linda Wallin one hot summer night, is no Martin Beck. Meet Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström, also known as ‘that fat little bastard from National Crime’, whose egotistical, sexist, racist, homophobic, vain and supremely-blinkered mind we are invited to see in all its dubious glory. Bäckström is a darkly comic tour-de-force, a monstrous creation who cares solely about his financial interests, maintaining a steady supply of drink, and the welfare of his pet goldfish Egon. His character is used to shine a spotlight on a less-than-heroic side of Swedish policing: while he is busy impeding the progress of the investigation, capable detectives such as Jan Lewin are forced to work around his prejudices and incompetence as best they can.

Thus, at the same time as paying tribute to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Persson stamps his own style on the Swedish police procedural, imbuing it with a highly satirical edge. Other aspects of Roseanna, such the critique of the press’s prurient interest in female murder victims, are also extended further in Linda (see my earlier post on crime fiction and the media for details).

In the context of Persson’s own work, Linda forms a departure from his first two hugely ambitious novels, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End and Another Time, Another Life, which are set against the much larger political and historical backdrop of post-war Sweden and the Cold War. In Linda, the focus is kept deliberately local, with the exploration of the consequences of just one crime, and strongly drawn characters such as detectives Jan Lewin and Anna Holt, as well as the murderer and the victim’s mother. Hats off also to translator Neil Smith, who captures Persson’s dry, satirical tone perfectly.

In sum, Linda is a rich and satisfying read from an author who’s now one of my absolute favourites.

*****

A useful further note from Neil Smith on Persson’s novels – poached with Sarah’s kind permission from the comments of the excellent Crimepieces Linda review  and with a couple of additions from me in square brackets:

Neil says >> As so often happens, Leif’s books are being published in a slightly different order in translation to their original Swedish publication.

The three books Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (Sw. 2002, tr. 2011), Another Time, Another Life (Sw. 2003, tr. 2012), and Free Falling, as if in a Dream (Sw. 2007, tr. 2014), together make up a trilogy entitled ‘the Decline of the Welfare State’.

One of the main characters from that trilogy, Lars Martin Johansson, takes the lead in a later novel, The Dying Detective (Sw. 2010, as yet untranslated) [and appears a bit in Linda as well].

Evert Bäckström [who appears as a secondary character in the ‘Welfare State’ trilogy] is the focus of a further series of books, of which Linda, As in the Linda Murder (Sw. 2005) is the first. He Who Kills the Dragon (Sw. 2008), due to be published in English in October 2013, is the second in the series, and will be followed by Pinocchio’s Nose (not yet published in Sweden). <<

Mrs. Peabody awards Linda, As in the Linda Murder, a wonderfully rich and satisfying 5 stars

With thanks to Transworld for sending me an advance copy of this book.

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The press on trial: crime fiction and the media

One of my favourite things when reading crime fiction is the random emergence of a theme that links successive books. I experienced this recently with three quite diverse novels from Sweden, America and Australia, all of which focused heavily on the role of the media. None were too flattering of journalists and their trade, using the crime narrative to put the press ‘on trial’.

Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, as in the Linda Murder (2005), is a recently translated Swedish police procedural that investigates the killing of Linda Wallin, a trainee police-woman at Vaxjo Police Academy. The novel is particularly scathing of the media’s sensationalist depictions of female murder victims, which are designed to generate sales: ‘From trainee police officer Linda Wallin, 20. To the Linda murder […] The Kajsa murder, the Petra murder, the Jenny murder… They had quite simply been transformed from women of flesh and blood into media messages’. This transformation is especially resonant in its original Swedish context, where the victim’s first name forms part of a compound noun that reduces her life to no more than its violent end – in this case, the Lindamordet [‘the Lindamurder’]. In contrast, the narrative notes drily, ‘men’s names were never used as prefixes to the word ‘murder”.

Gillan Flynn’s 2011 novel Gone Girl, a darkly humorous dissection of a marriage gone sour, critiques the media’s damaging influence when reporting criminal cases. Husband Nick Dunne, dealing with the press in the aftermath of his wife’s disappearance, soon discovers how fickle journalists can be: he’s styled as an anxious, bereft husband one minute, and as a sinister-looking potential murderer the next. Before long, he’s forced to hire a savvy lawyer who specialises in manipulating media narratives in his clients’ favour. The truth becomes largely superfluous: expensive lawyers and public opinion appear to count more than any meaningful judicial process (one can’t help thinking of the media circus that was the OJ Simpson case, and of the more recent Pistorius case).

Yvonne Erskine’s 2011 novel The Brotherhood is a 360 degree examination of the events leading up to and following a Tasmanian policeman’s murder. The police are shown having to manage press reactions to the killing from the minute the news gets out, a time-consuming and politically sensitive job, as the main suspect has Aboriginal heritage. We’re also introduced to amoral journalist Tim Roberts, who writes up a potentially damaging story knowing that he might jeopardise the case. Investigative journalism is portrayed here as seedy and self-interested, with no positive contribution to make to society.

Three crime novels obviously don’t make a trend, but I’d be interested to know if there are others that are similarly critical of the media. Of course, some crime novels contain more sympathetic depictions of the press: Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon are two examples of journalists who are given leading investigative roles within crime narratives, and who are depicted as thoughtful practitioners of their trade.

If you think of more, let me know – I’ll compile a list if we gather enough!

Update 3 May 2013: The Guardian has just run a profile of Gillian Flynn (interesting discussion on misogyny and female villains amongst other things, including the press angle). My review on Wendy James’ The Mistake (as recommended by Angela Savage in the comments below), can be read here.

#27 / Leif G.W. Persson, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End: The Story of a Crime

Leif G.W. Persson, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End: The Story of a Crime, trans. from the Swedish by Paul Norlen (London: Black Swan, 2011 [2002]). An epic crime novel and bravura account of one of Sweden’s greatest unsolved crimes  4 stars

Opening line: The best informant is the one who hasn’t understood the significance of what he has told.

Like Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, this novel opens with an unexplained fall from a tall building in the freezing depths of a Scandinavian winter. In the case of Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, the casualty is a young American, John Krassner, whose death is initially presumed to be suicide, but might well be something more sinister – for how to explain the fact that his shoe hit the ground a good ten seconds after his body?

For a significant portion of the text, the reader might reasonably assume that Krassner’s death is the ‘crime’ referenced in the novel’s subtitle. However, as the narrative unfolds over a sprawling 638 pages, it becomes clear that his demise is linked to a much larger crime – one that took place in Sweden in 1986 and remains unsolved to this day. If you can’t quite remember that event, I’d advise you to stay away from reviews until you’ve finished the book (my reading experience was considerably enhanced by putting two and two together at a relatively late stage – the biggest ‘OMG’ reading moment I’ve had in years). But if you can’t wait, or are looking for illumination after reading the novel, click here

In common with a number of Swedish crime authors since the 1960s, Persson has a rather jaundiced view of Swedish society and is highly critical of the authorities and the power wielded by the state. The police are depicted as racist or misogynist bunglers, with the Swedish secret police force (Säkerhetspolisen or Säpo) shown in a particularly harsh light. What makes the strength of this critique startling and more than a little interesting is the author’s own long-held position within the Swedish establishment. As the blurb on the inside front cover tells us, Persson has enjoyed an eminent career as ‘Scandinavia’s most renowned criminologist and leading psychological profiler’, as well as being an advisor to the Swedish Ministry of Justice and a professor serving on the National Swedish Police Board. It would be interesting to know how these august bodies reacted to the very negative depictions of the state and its law enforcement agencies within the novel.

One of the few likeable figures in the book is Superintendent Lars Martin Johansson, the ‘honest Swedish cop’ who digs the deepest into Krassner’s death. But even he is only able to discover a portion of the truth: as individual acts collide with one another and fuse with shady political operations in Sweden and beyond, a set of events unfolds whose complexities are beyond the understanding of a lone investigator. In the end, only the reader is provided with a privileged viewpoint in which everything adds up, while being given to understand that no ordinary Swede would ever have a hope of getting near the truth. And of course this is just one possible imagining of those seminal events in 1986 – there are numerous other ways these might have played out.

This is not a crime novel for the faint-hearted: its hundreds of pages, multiple narrative perspectives and complex plotlines require considerable commitment. But once the different strands come together together in the final part the novel, the reader’s efforts are rewarded as the ambition, range and intelligence of the narrative is revealed.  In many ways a political and social history of Sweden since the Second World War, this Kafkaesque narrative tackles big themes (the relation of the individual to the state, loyalty, betrayal, trauma, the precariousness of democracy), but is also rich in satirical humour (look out for ‘Anderson’s Confusion Syndrome’) – and for me was a highly satisfying read.

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End is the first in a trilogy. The second part has recently been translated into English, entitled Another Time, Another Life.

Mrs. Peabody awards Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End an ambitious and satisfying 4 stars.

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