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