“The Talented Mr. Varg” by Alexander McCall Smith and “Three Hours in Paris” by Cara Black

The Talented Mr. VargIt’s possible that I just picked an inopportune time to read the second book in the Detective Varg series; I enjoyed the first one, but hoo boy, reading The Talented Mr. Varg was about as much fun as the time I got lost in a nondescript Stockholm suburb trying to find IKEA (true story).

A send-up of brutal Swedish noir, the Varg novels chronicle the Department of Sensitive Crimes, a division of the Malmö police which deals with the sort of minor mysteries Mma Ramotswe investigates at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. That’s obviously not a problem for me, as I’ve read all 20 of those books, but The Talented Mr. Varg spends too little time solving puzzles in favor of meandering digressions about Swedish-Russian relations, bridge construction, dog behavior, prostate problems, tattoos, electric razors…

“Those razors. I have one. It’s waterproof, you know. Well, you can’t put the whole thing in the water—you wouldn’t put the body bit—but you can certainly put the heads under the tap. They have a tap symbol on them, you see, and that’s how you tell whether your electric razor is waterproof or not.” This is said by a colleague of Varg’s known for “his strange world of rambling association,” but all too often, the whole book feels like a series of rambling associations.

Three Hours in ParisThe polar opposite of Varg is Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris, which provides pulse-pounding excitement from first page to last. Here I must insert a disclaimer stating that Cara is a friend of mine, someone I would regularly meet up with for espresso in the Before Times, but I’m confident I would have enjoyed this book even if I hadn’t known her to be a supremely kind, generous and thoughtful person.

In the book’s first 25 pages, American sniper Kate Rees loses her naval officer husband and baby daughter in a Luftwaffe attack (she met her husband, a Welshman, while she was studying in Paris, and moved with him to the Orkney Islands). Vowing revenge on the Germans, Kate’s incredible skill as a markswoman, thanks to a youth spent learning to hunt on a ranch in rural Oregon, cause her to be recruited by British intelligence. She is sent to Paris to assassinate Hitler. She fails, obviously—this book doesn’t take place in an alternate timeline where Hitler is bumped off in 1940—but there are still 325 pages to go, and there are thrills, spills and close calls aplenty. Fans of spy novels, World War II history, Paris, or strong and resourceful female heroines will all find something to like in this book.

“The Department of Sensitive Crimes” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive CrimesOccasionally, a book comes along that I feel uniquely well-qualified to review. Such is definitely the case with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, the first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s new series featuring Swedish detective Ulf Varg. Not only have I been reading the author’s books for many years now, but because I was born in Sweden and have spent a lot of time there, I felt I would have a good sense for how authentically Swedish the characters and settings seem to be.

And the answer is… not very. The book is set in Malmö, which is located in southern Sweden, just across the Öresund Bridge from Copenhagen. I will admit that while I have crossed that bridge, I have never actually visited Malmö, but really, he could have chosen Karlstad or Mora or Göteborg and it wouldn’t have made much difference. There is a plot point that requires Varg to make a crucial discovery at a nude beach, and it is probably true that the province of Skåne has more beaches than other parts of the country. But otherwise, there’s no flavor of the city itself.

Curious about Zimbabwe-born Scotsman McCall Smith’s connections to Sweden, I found this article, which states that the author “has visited Sweden on numerous book tours” and is a big fan of Swedish crime shows. He calls his new series “Scandi-blanc,” the opposite of the Scandinavian noir of authors like Henning Mankell, Lars Kepler and Jo Nesbø. “The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir. I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits… there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”

Readers of McCall Smith’s Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency will be familiar with the kind of low-stakes crimes investigated by Varg and his colleagues in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority. A man is stabbed in the back of the knee; there are mysterious goings-on at a resort hotel; a college student invents a boyfriend to get her friends to stop asking her about her love life, but when she decides to make him disappear, one of her roommates reports the matter to the police, who must then investigate the case of a missing person who doesn’t actually exist.

I only found one really glaring error: the aforementioned college student was raised by a single mother, who was not able to pursue higher education herself because “she simply could not afford to pay for several years of childcare” along with her studies. Sweden has had free or heavily subsidized childcare available since 1975, so that shouldn’t have been an issue for a girl born in the 1990s.

Avid readers of Scandinavian crime fiction may spot some references to other authors’ work, intentional or not: for instance, there’s already a famous Scandinavian detective named Varg, Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen’s private eye Varg Veum. The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a bit like Copenhagen’s Department Q in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series, and Skåne was where Henning Mankell set his Kurt Wallander mysteries.

Still, despite these nitpicks, I’d happily read another one of these gentle, comically absurd mysteries, and while Ulf Varg is no Martin Beck, he does have a melancholy, reflective side: “He thought of all the ways that so many people felt about life. Life was a matter of regret—how could it be anything else? We knew that we would lose the things we loved; we knew that sooner or later we would lose everything, and beyond that was a darkness, a state of non-being that we found hard to imagine, let alone accept.”

“The Red Address Book” by Sofia Lundberg

The Red Address BookWhen I was a child, I remember driving past the local cemetery with my grandmother and she’d often make a comment along the lines of, “I have so many friends in there.” At the time, it struck me as a terribly morbid thing to say, but now that I’m older and have lost some people who meant a great deal to me, I understand. My grandmother joined her friends a few years ago, so I can never tell her that I now know how she felt.

Doris, the protagonist of Sofia Lundberg’s The Red Address Book, is 96 years old, and was inspired by a real person: Lundberg’s great-aunt Doris, whose address book she discovered after her aunt had passed away. “She had crossed most of her friends’ names out and had written the word ‘dead’ next to them,” recalled Lundberg in an interview published on her book’s Amazon page. “It broke my heart to realize how lonely she must have felt. Her death was very painful for me, as we were so close. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

The fictional Doris is paging through the address book she received as a tenth-birthday gift. The crossed-out names inspire her to write down her recollections for her great-niece Jenny, who lives in California with her husband and three children, half a world away from Doris’ Stockholm apartment. Doris’ father died when she was a young girl, and at the age of 13, her mother sent her off to work as a servant in the home of a wealthy woman. After a year, her employer, Dominique, moves to Paris, bringing Doris along with her. But that is only the beginning of Doris’ adventures, which will eventually lead her back to Stockholm.

There was a lot in this book that hit me pretty hard—I am sure that The Red Address Book may strike many readers as too sentimental by half, but as for me, I was reading it in the waiting area of a Toyota dealership as my car was being worked on, and at one point I had to get up and go outside because I felt self-conscious about the tears in my eyes. It’s an international sensation, published in over 30 countries so far, and I can see why, as it deals with universal topics like life, love and loneliness. Doris’ life story kept me captivated from start to finish, and I suspect many American readers will embrace this book once it is published here next month.

The Red Address Book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“The Abominable Man” and “The Locked Room” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Abominable ManWhy would a pair of Communist Party members choose to write a book with a policeman as protagonist? Maj Sjöwall has explained that she and Per Wahlöö began writing a series of crime novels because “we wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they’d only sold 300 copies. We realized that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality.”

In The Abominable Man, Sjöwall (who now says she identifies as a Socialist) and the late Wahlöö for the first time in their series present a truly unflinching look at what happens to a society when the police are allowed to basically get away with anything. The novel, which was originally published in 1971, will seem eerily timely to anyone who’s aware of the many well-known cases here in the U.S. where police have not been held accountable for killing civilians. After a police captain is murdered in a particularly grisly fashion, Martin Beck and a colleague sift through a stack of complaints alleging police brutality that had been submitted to Stockholm’s Justice Department Ombudsman. All of them yielded the same results: “Inspector Nyman dismisses the suggestion that he or anyone else mistreated the complainant… No action.”

If one of those complainants decided to take matters into their own hands and enact some vigilante justice, there are a lot of suspects to choose from, since Nyman was known to be a violent bully. Martin Beck’s friend and fellow policeman Kollberg, who knew Nyman when they both served in the army, tells Beck that “he’s probably committed hundreds of outrages of one kind or another. Toward subordinates and toward arrestees. I’ve heard various stories over the years… A man like Nyman always sees to it that there are policemen ready to take an oath that he hasn’t done anything… the kind of men who are already so indoctrinated they figure they’re only doing what loyalty demands.”

Kollberg, who refuses to carry a gun, has already begun to express doubts about continuing to serve on the force, but Martin Beck finds himself confronting certain truths about his job for the first time in this book. A report on the comparative dangers of police work versus other professions revealed that “police work wasn’t a bit more dangerous than any other profession… The number of injured policeman was negligible when compared with the number of people annually mistreated by the police.” (Construction workers, lumberjacks and taxi drivers are all jobs cited by the authors, and almost 50 years later, statistics bear out that people who work in those professions are still in more danger of dying on the job than police.)

Lest you fear that The Abominable Man is a dull bit of leftist anti-police propaganda, be assured that it’s one of the most pulse-pounding entries in the series, climaxing with a thrilling confrontation with an armed and dangerous man intent on revenge. And the authors don’t shy away from describing the loneliness, long hours and threats from hostile members of the public that police officers confront. Sjöwall and Wahlöö always wrote with great compassion about police and civilians alike.

The Locked RoomThe Locked Room continues the authors’ critique of Swedish society and the police force, as well as presenting a pair of “impossible” mysteries that hearken back to the Golden Age: a locked-room murder and a bank robbery where the witnesses’ accounts are all completely different. Martin Beck is back on the job after taking some time off to recover from injuries sustained in The Abominable Man. He now suffers from recurring nightmares and has been told by his doctors to quit smoking (the horror!). The mysterious death of Karl Svärd—“a most interesting case,” says Kollberg—is presented to Beck as something he can mull over in his spare time. Svärd was found dead in his apartment, with the windows shut and numerous bolts and locks secured from the inside; it took overwhelming force for the police to gain access. He had been shot, so one would think it was a suicide, but no gun was found on the premises.

The other case involves a bank robbery where a customer was murdered by the gun-wielding perpetrator during the course of the crime. Witnesses say the robber was definitely a woman—unless it was a man in a wig. And she definitely escaped in a car—unless she got away on foot. The police have very little to go on, and meanwhile, Stockholm banks are under siege. “A year ago there had been a drive against people passing bad checks… The National Police Board objected to checks being accepted as legal tender,” and the resulting influx of cash led to bank robberies, muggings and assaults. (It’s true that Sweden got rid of personal checks many years ago, but now they’ve gotten rid of cash, too.)

The Locked Room is one of the longer books in the series and it’s pretty heavy on the anti-capitalist and anti-police rhetoric. Also, it seems like most of the Martin Beck books contain at least one reference to poor pensioners having to eat cat food to get by. Was this ever really a thing? I don’t doubt that there are still struggling seniors in Sweden, but my research into this (i.e. 10 minutes of Googling variations on pensionärer + kattmat) seems to indicate that it was something of a myth.

As always, things are changing in Stockholm, and not for the better; the new National Police Board building is under construction, and “from this ultramodern colossus… the police would extend their tentacles in every direction and hold the dispirited citizens of Sweden in an iron grip. At least some of them. After all, they couldn’t all emigrate or commit suicide.” But as the two investigations progress, some unexpected rays of sunshine emerge in Martin Beck’s life, providing an unexpected tinge of optimism as we head into the final two books of the series. Will Sjöwall and Wahlöö give their protagonist a few hard-won moments of joy? Considering that the title of the next book is Cop Killer, I’m not holding my breath.

“Polis Polis Potatismos” (“Murder at the Savoy”) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

korvLet’s talk about mashed potatoes. If you are an American, you probably think of them as a delicious side dish served with steak, meatloaf or fried chicken. But in Sweden, a popular combination is korv med mos—hot dogs with mashed potatoes.

Korv is an ubiquitous street food, usually sold from free-standing kiosks instead of carts, as is common in the U.S. The accompaniments on offer would most likely confuse American visitors. Shrimp salad is a thing a lot of Swedes put on their hot dogs. And so are mashed potatoes. As you can see in the illustration, you can get scoops of potatoes on a hot dog in a bun (korv med bröd, or with bread), for the true carb-a-holic; inside a rolled-up flatbread; or on a plate with a couple of bun-less wieners.

Polis Polis PotatismosWhy do I offer you this culinary/cultural lesson? Because it’s important in understanding the original title of Murder at the Savoy, the sixth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series of police procedurals. That title is Polis Polis Potatismos, which translates to “Police Police Mashed Potatoes.” (My reviews of the first five books can be found here and here.) This week, I decided to do something different and read the original Swedish novel as well as the English version. I wanted to explore how the translators dealt with something that is essentially un-translatable.

The translation is credited to Amy and Ken Knoespel. This is the only book in the series that they worked on (perhaps they were exhausted after trying to figure out how to get around having to explain the title). Ken is now a professor at Georgia Tech. According to LinkedIn, Amy spent much of her career at accounting firm KPMG. How the two of them came to translate this book is something I was unable to discover online. It appears to be the only novel either of them ever worked on.

Murder at the SavoySo what in the world do mashed potatoes have to do with cops? “Polis polis potatismos” is a take-off on “Polis polis potatisgris” (“Police, police, potato pig”), which was reportedly chanted at anti-police protests in the 1960s. In the novel, the bumbling cops Kristiansson and Kvant are tasked with apprehending a suspect landing at Arlanda airport in Stockholm; however, they fail to get there on time because they felt compelled to deal with “a man riding by on a bicycle [who] shouted insults at us.” Further questioning reveals that the duo were actually taunted by the cyclist’s three-year-old son, who exclaimed “Daddy, this little pig” as Kvant was eating a hot dog.

In the Swedish novel, the child cries “Polis polis potatismos” (“he is just three years old and hasn’t learned to speak properly yet”). Naturally, Kvant was eating korv med mos.

This delightfully absurd twist is much more fun than “this little pig,” but how do you convey that in English without including several paragraphs’ worth of footnotes? It would interfere with the amusement of those just wanting to read a good crime story. But it’s a shame that English-language readers miss out on something so funny and significant to the plot.

I could quibble with a few other minor things, like the way Detective Inspector Per Månsson’s favorite cocktail, the Gripenberger, is described as a mixture of gin and “grape soda”—in the original, he’s drinking gin with grapetonic, which is something very different than the sweet purple drink that the American translation brings to mind. Grapetonic is a grapefruit-flavored carbonated beverage, so the Gripenberger is actually just a variation on the normal gin and tonic.

But on the whole, the translation is fine, and Murder at the Savoy is significant as being the first book in the 10-volume series where the authors’ left-wing political leanings are well and truly on display. The murder victim is Viktor Palmgren, a businessman who is, in the words of Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl’s introduction, “given virtually no redeeming or even human qualities… The extremely predictable depiction of the capitalist circles criticized by the book is unrelenting.” However, as a police procedural, it is very enjoyable, as Martin Beck, Månsson, Lennart Kollberg, and the other by-now-familiar characters on the Malmö and Stockholm forces puzzle through sparse clues in order to discover who shot Palmgren. (Of course, if Kvant hadn’t been eating that hot dog, they would have had a much easier time of it. But as is often the case in the real world, one small human screw-up can have massive ramifications.)

To those of us familiar with today’s Scandinavia, as opposed to how things were in 1970 when this book was first published, the milieu of the book often seems unrecognizable; there’s a mention of how polluted the water is (this was certainly true back then, but strict environmental laws have made a huge difference over the past 30 years or so) and Stockholm is described as “an asphalt jungle, where drug addiction and sexual perversion ran more rampant than ever.” As someone who’s spent a lot of time there over the years, I can attest to the fact that it is a clean, safe city, albeit one that constantly seems to be under construction and, much like my current home of the San Francisco Bay Area, suffers from a perennial housing shortage and sky-high cost of living.

Some things never change, though, like the national taste for hot dogs accompanied by a few scoops of mashed potatoes.

“The Laughing Policeman” and “The Fire Engine That Disappeared” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Laughing PolicemanThis week, I continued my reread of the Martin Beck series (here’s part one, covering the first three books). My book group had read The Laughing Policeman a few years back, so this was actually my third time reading it. Did that mean I remembered the solution to the crime? I did not. However, it’s a pretty complex case.

A Stockholm city bus is discovered with everyone aboard, including the driver, shot to death (except for one passenger, clinging to life). Among the slaughtered: one of the homicide squad’s own, Åke Stenström. He was found to be holding his service weapon.

What was Åke doing on the bus? No one on the force has a clue whether it’s a coincidence or if he was investigating something unknown to his colleagues. It takes a long time to unravel the solution. Along the way, another case comes to light, involving a murdered woman named Teresa. She was a “strict Catholic… the most moral person imaginable” who was seduced (I believe the 2018 term would be “sexually assaulted”) by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer; this experience turned her into a nymphomaniac (“[She] started running about like a bitch in heat”) who subsequently got involved with underworld figures. Honestly, I do enjoy this series, but reading them all in a row definitely makes you aware of the retrograde sexual politics.

The Fire Engine That DisappearedI thought perhaps book #5, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, would be refreshingly nympho-free, until late in the novel when a policeman goes to interview a possible witness. He knocks on her door, and before he can start questioning her, she casually asks him, “Do you want to sleep with me? It’ll be easier to talk afterward.” (Naturally, the policeman takes her up on the offer.) But let’s look at the rest of the book, shall we?

Inspector Gunvald Larsson is staking out a small apartment building when it suddenly bursts into flame. Larsson is not the most popular person on the homicide squad among his fellow officers, but in this case, he acts heroically, managing to save the lives of several residents. Among those who didn’t make it out is Göran Malm, the man the police were shadowing. Since he was dead before the blast, it looks like he had intended to commit suicide; did something go horribly wrong? Or was it murder?

There are some cute moments involving the son of a police officer, whose birthday present, a toy fire engine, has mysteriously gone missing; Martin Beck is very much just one of the ensemble here, though we do get some additional glimpses into his rather dysfunctional family life. This time, he begs off of a weekend family trip because of job demands, but he actually just stays home and drinks cognac and works on his model ship. In the evening, he lies in the bathtub reading a Chandler novel. It may be the happiest we’ve ever seen him; but never fear, soon he’s back on the case, complaining about the polluted Stockholm city air and the overcrowded subway.

“Roseanna,” “The Man Who Went Up In Smoke” and “The Man on the Balcony” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A couple of decades ago, I purchased a complete set of the Martin Beck novels by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The editions I owned were mass-market paperbacks, first published in the U.S. by Vintage in the 1970s. They have remained in my collection ever since, even through several moves. I had always intended to reread them someday.

RoseannaWith everything going on in the world right now, it seemed like a good time to revisit the Stockholm of 50 years ago, so I picked up the first book in the series, Roseanna. I turned to the first page, and was immediately struck by how tiny the font size was. Combined with the brittle yellow pages, I found it almost impossible to read. Cheap paperbacks were not made to last; however, living in the modern era has some advantages, as I was able to promptly download the Kindle edition (thanks, Libby)! The ongoing popularity of the series has ensured that it has remained available; a handsome set of trade paperbacks is now available from Penguin Random House, and each book now features an introduction by a well-known writer. Henning Mankell, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly, Colin Dexter and Jonathan Franzen are among those who contributed essays.

Roseanna introduces readers to Martin Beck, the Everyman homicide inspector who plugs away at his job (he often finds a lot to complain about, too). He seems to live on a diet of cheese sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes, and has found the silver lining in all the nights he has to work—it means he has to spend less time with his wife, Inga.

In Roseanna, Beck is dispatched to the town of Motala after the body of a young woman is dredged from a lake. At first, the focus of the investigation is determining the woman’s identity; no one seems to have reported her missing, and she was naked, so there was no ID on her. Once they finally learn who she is, the police attempt a rather risky stunt in a last-ditch effort to find out who killed her.

The Man Who Went Up In SmokeThe emphasis in Roseanna is how plodding policework done over a lengthy period is sometimes required in order to solve a crime; Beck finds himself slightly obsessed. He encounters a very different case in book #2, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke. Beck’s family vacation in the Stockholm archipelago is interrupted when he has to return to the city and then fly to Budapest to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist who traveled there on assignment.

“It seemed to [Beck] quite ridiculous that he should be gadding about Budapest trying to find a person to whom he was completely indifferent. He could not remember ever being given such a hopeless, meaningless assignment.” The contrast with Roseanna, which saw Beck completely wrapped up in his investigation, is clear.

The Man on the BalconyThe Hungarian job is by its nature pretty much a one-man show, since Beck is working far away from his colleagues and for various reasons is not supposed to be in contact with the local police. The third novel, The Man on the Balcony, depicts an all-out effort by the entire Stockholm police force to discover who is killing young girls in the city’s parks. (According to the introduction by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, it is based on a real 1963 case.) This book also introduces us to Kristiansson and Kvant, the two patrolmen who function as a bit of comic relief in several books in the series.

I wouldn’t say the books are hilarious, but there are some chuckles to be had. (In an interview, Maj Sjöwall said that she often “tried to make [her late co-writer Per Wahlöö] laugh” as they were writing the novels.) Having watched Swedish state TV myself, an anecdote in Roseanna about a documentary airing while Beck is interviewing a witness—“[he] looked with despair at the television screen which was now showing a program that must have been at least one month old about picking beets in southern Sweden”—struck me as quite funny.

The books are obviously dated; in one novel, the death of an American tourist requires Beck to get in touch with a police officer in the U.S., which he must do either by staticky long-distance call or by sending a letter. And when a suspect is being tailed, the policeman following him has to check in by making calls at public phone booths.

In the 1960s, of course, Sweden was frequently thought of as a libertine’s paradise, thanks to the export of notorious films like “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and Swedish erotica magazines. Each of the first three Beck books features at least one sexually voracious female character. (“Ari is a nymphomaniac. There’s not much you can do about it,” one man matter-of-factly explains to Beck in The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.) From my vantage point in 2018, I’m not sure if the authors were leaning into the stereotype for the titillation of their readers, or if they were influenced by femme fatale characters in detective novels and films.

However, I’m pleased to report that the series still holds up beautifully, thanks to the authors’ solid plotting and well-drawn characters. I look forward to diving into the next seven books.

“The Boy in the Shadows” by Carl-Johan Vallgren and “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

The Boy in the Shadows“Fun fact: there were 87 murders in the entire country of Sweden last year. Or approximately 2.5 million less than in Swedish crime novels,” comedian Greg Poehler (an American expat living in Sweden) wrote on Twitter recently. It turns out that figure is actually for 2014—I was unable to find statistics for 2015, but the point stands. Sweden is a relatively safe country, and Swedish authors love to murder hordes of people.

I was previously unfamiliar with Carl-Johan Vallgren, but when I looked him up online, I noticed that his novel The Boy in the Shadows had been published in Sweden under the pen name Lucifer. (He has written numerous works of literary fiction under his real name.) That devilish pseudonym seemed to promise mayhem and murder, and that’s what Vallgren delivers in his first crime thriller.

The book begins in 1970, when young Kristoffer Klingberg is kidnapped in a Stockholm subway station. Years later, his brother, Joel Klingberg, disappears, and his wife Angela enlists an old friend who served with Joel in the military, Danny Katz, to find her missing husband. Katz is an ex-junkie who now works as a translator, but Angela is convinced Danny is the only man she can trust. Not surprisingly, the modern-day crime has ties to the unsolved disappearance of Joel’s big brother many decades ago.

The Boy in the Shadows has a rich, powerful family at its core that may remind fans of Swedish thrillers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Vanger clan. But while Tattoo sent its hero to the fictional Hedeby Island, a couple hours north of Stockholm, Danny Katz winds up looking for answers in the much-further-flung Dominican Republic… though only after a whole lot of people have met their grisly ends in Sweden.

Boy is one of those books where people peripheral to the story die by the score, but the important characters prove diabolically hard to kill. Since a sequel (Svinen, or “The Swine”) has already been published in Sweden, it looks like Lucifer’s diabolical career is just getting started. Fans of antiheroes and pitch-black noir will want to give Vallgren’s series a try, but I found it a little too hardboiled for my tastes.

Britt-Marie Was HereAmerican readers are learning that there’s more to Swedish fiction than mutilated corpses and dysfunctional, damaged sleuths. Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove has become a runaway bestseller (it’s currently in the New York Times top 10), and the follow-up, Britt-Marie Was Here, was just published in the U.S. A Man Called Ove managed the neat trick of being both utterly heartwarming and bracingly unsentimental; Britt-Marie strives for the same tone, but I felt it fell a bit short of Backman’s debut.

Despite the fact that the author is in his 30s, he seems to have carved out a niche as a chronicler of cranky, overly fastidious seniors. Britt-Marie is 63 and has just left her philandering husband following his heart attack (he survived, but the fact that the incident brought his affair, which Britt-Marie seems to have tolerated for years, out into the open was unforgivable). She goes to the unemployment office in search of her first job, but the only thing available for a woman of her age and experience is managing a soon-to-close recreation center in the backwater village of Borg.

Borg is a down-on-its-heels community that has lost its supermarket, drugstore, school, health care center and just about everything else, except for a pizzeria and the doomed rec center. Despite the fact that Britt-Marie seems thoroughly unpleasant—she seems to care more about organized cutlery drawers and clean windows than people—the remaining citizens of Borg gradually rally around her, especially when she gets involved with a youth soccer team. (Soccer is very important in Borg.) If you think this is one of those stories where everything leads up to the Big Game, well, you’d be right, though Backman takes his tale in several unexpected directions along the way.

Britt-Marie is given a rather tragic backstory and it’s obvious she’s lived a sad, wasted life, looking after a pompous ass of a man and two unappreciative stepchildren. By the end of the book, I felt like my heartstrings were being plucked a little too aggressively, and I began to resent it. Or maybe I just felt bad about the fact that Britt-Marie would most certainly disapprove of the state of my cutlery drawer?

The most fascinating thing to me was something that was seldom made explicit in the book: the ethnic makeup of the villagers. With a few exceptions, like Sven the policeman, I got the sense that they were mainly Arabs or Africans—there are references to bearded men in caps and the children have names like Omar and Vega. Are there really Swedish towns in the middle of nowhere (as opposed to suburbs like Husby and Tensta) that are primarily made up of immigrants and refugees, people left behind by economic recessions and written off by government bureaucrats sitting in offices far away? Would this be something so unsurprising that a sheltered woman like Britt-Marie would not even feel the need to comment upon it? Now that would make for an interesting book.

“The Room” by Jonas Karlsson

The RoomBjörn, the narrator of Jonas Karlsson’s satirical novel The Room, has just started a new job at the Authority when he makes a discovery. “It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer, files on a shelf. Pens and other office equipment. Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order. Neat and tidy.”

The only “remarkable” thing about the room seems to be that none of Björn’s co-workers know it’s there, despite the fact that it’s located “round the corner, past the toilets.” The room becomes Björn’s special place to unwind; it even features a full-length mirror which makes him look a little more attractive than usual.

In a recent appearance at the Bay Area Book Festival, Karlsson said The Room was inspired by an experience he had at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where he is a company member. Sitting in the wings, waiting to go onstage, he imagined a secret room, perhaps one where the theater’s onetime managing director, Ingmar Bergman, would spend private moments writing in a notebook.

The Room may be written by a Swede (albeit one who admits he’s never worked in an office), but the character of Björn will probably remind viewers of NBC’s “The Office” of the character Dwight Schrute: he feels superior to most of his colleagues, certain that he is the most efficient and hardest working person in his department. A receptionist who doesn’t respond to his awkward advances must be “a junkie… Being taken in by the surface appearance of a drug user was one of the dangers of being an open, honest person.” His co-worker Håkan must have “a hidden agenda… His hair, his sideburns, his scruffy jacket; it all suggested a set of values different from the ones that we in the department live by.”

At just under 200 pages (with 65 chapters), The Room is a brief, breezy read, fun but relatively insubstantial. At his Book Festival talk, Karlsson responded to an audience member who wondered if he would ever turn to writing crime fiction (he’s Swedish, after all!). He said that while his publisher would probably love that, he doesn’t plan to try his hand at the genre. Still, The Room does have a “mystery” at its core: does Björn’s sanctuary actually exist, or is it all in his mind? If he continues to spend time there, will his co-workers assume he’s crazy, which could turn into an H.R. nightmare?

Björn may sometimes be hard for the reader to sympathize with, but upon finishing the book, I suspect most of us will wish we had a room like his: a secret place where upon entering, you suddenly become much more productive, serene and even better-looking.

“Italian Shoes” by Henning Mankell

Italian Shoes by Henning MankellIn approximately 99.9% of mystery novels, a murder occurs—or, perhaps, several murders. But most mysteries aren’t really about death. The fact that a human being is gone forever, the impact that a death has on the survivors, is often downplayed in favor of the whodunit puzzle. (In many crime novels, particularly on the cozy end of the spectrum, the victim is shown to be a horrible person, to lessen our guilt about consuming death as entertainment.)

A couple of years ago, William Kent Krueger won every major mystery award (deservedly so, in my opinion) for Ordinary Grace, a novel that dealt frankly and openly with the grief and loss that follow in the aftermath of a sudden, violent death. The affable Krueger is well known for being “Minnesota nice,” and he’s a churchgoing man as well, so Ordinary Grace managed to be somehow uplifting and faith-affirming despite its sober themes. Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes is like a photo-negative version of Ordinary Grace—instead of young protagonist Frank Drum, we have the retired doctor Fredrik Welin; instead of a supportive, loving family and community, we have a man living alone on a remote island, with only two aged pets keeping him company. Most importantly, the book is suffused with a peculiarly Scandinavian fatalism. If Krueger is Frank Capra in this scenario, Mankell is unabashedly Bergman.

While Mankell is best known for his Wallander series of mysteries, Italian Shoes is a work of straight fiction. There’s death—lots of it!—but it’s all natural, or in one case, self-inflicted. If it sounds depressing, it’s not, because this is a gorgeously-written book (the excellent translation is by Laurie Thompson). It’s harshly beautiful, like a fire-scarred cypress growing out of a craggy rock.

We first meet Welin on his solitary island, which he escaped to after some unnamed tragedy in his past. The only person he sees regularly is the postman who comes three days a week; naturally, Welin despises him. He spends his time writing pointless entries in a logbook and taking a daily jump into the freezing water, a way of proving that he’s still alive. At night, he reads: “A book about how the potato came to Sweden. I had read it several times before. Presumably because it didn’t raise any questions. I could turn page after page and know that I wasn’t going to be faced with something unpleasant and unexpected.”

One day, the fortress of solitude is breached by an ex-lover, Harriet, who shows up on the island on a frigid January day. He hasn’t seen her since he abandoned her nearly 40 years ago. Now she’s dying, and her last wish is that Welin take her to see a certain spot in the north of Sweden that he’d mentioned once before. Thus begins an eventful road trip that takes Welin off his island and far out of his comfort zone; he meets other significant people on the way, and when he eventually returns home, everything has changed. There are moments of searing melancholy and moments of great joy.

“I could still remember the first time I watched a person die,” says Welin (this is the rare Mankell book that is written in first person). “It happened without any movement, in complete silence. The big leap was so tiny. In a split second the living person joined the dead. I recall thinking: This person who is now dead is someone who has in reality never existed. Death wipes out everything that has lived. Death leaves no trace…”

Mankell himself joined the dead last year, but his books will live on for a long time to come. Italian Shoes is a masterwork, a poignant story that serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the unbreakable bonds that join people together even after one of them has passed into another realm.

This review is dedicated to the memory of my friend Janet Appel, whose memorial service will be held today.