Friday, 31 December 2010


For years, whenever I would discuss Henning Mankell or later Stieg Larsson with Swedish friends or relatives they inevitably would suggest I start reading Jan Guillou, whose series of spy novels featuring Swedish intellgience agent Carl Hamilton were the country's most popular books. I also think it was Guillou's back I saw after he'd exchanged a greeting with Henning Mankell when I was interviewing Mankell in the lobby of London's Savoy; Mankell pointed and said 'that's the second-best novelist in Sweden.'! I finally came across a copy of Enemy's Enemy, the fourth in the series, originally published in 1989 and in English in 1992. The novel's translation was credited to Thomas Keeland, who apparently was actually Tiina Nunnally and Steven Murray working jointly; Murray later would translate Stieg Larsson, and unhappy with the published reslt, use the pseudonym Reg Keeland.

What is fascinating, given the Swedish enthusiasm for Guillou, is the idea that he turns out to be a real-life Mikke Blomkvist. If you recall Larsson's Millennium trilogy, it begins with Blomkvist, a journalist for a small left-wing magazine, being sent to prison for libelling a major industrialist. Jan Guillou was one of three people (his co-writer and editor being the others) sent to prison in 1973 for espionage, after publishing a series of articles in their small left-wing magazine. Even more interestingly, given that the Millennium trilogy turns out to be about exposing a small, unknown group within Swedish intelligence which has had Lisbeth Salander committed to protect their secrecy, Guillou's expose was of something called the 'Information Bureau', which turned out to be a secret agency within Swedish intelligence which was spying domestically on Swedish citizens suspected of being communists, subversives, or other leftish undesirables.

There are more parallels in the work itself. Enemy's Enemy is a sophisticated work of spy fiction, more concerned with political reality than thriller action. Although Hamilton is often called the Swedish James Bond, this novel at least carries a sort of realism, un-romantic, matter-of-factly violent, which reminds me more of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm, who is nominally of Swedish descent, and made me wonder if Hamilton's name was intended as some kind of hommage. The Helm books, if you don't recall, or only saw the Dean Martin movies, were very much in the Gold Medal mode, and Helm was the kind of efficient, everyday kind of killer one could appreciate working for a quasi-secret branch of intelligence. Guillou is also playful with his Swedish influences; there is a character in this book named Gunvald Larsson, who makes a point of disassociating himself from Martin Beck's colleague; there is also a character named Stig Larsson, which could be a name-check for the Stig who caused the big Stieg to add the 'e' to his name, but would be very prescient otherwise, as Stieg was still writing for small magazines in 1989.

Enemy's Enemy pits Hamilton against his fellow Swedish agencies as much as against the Russians, and eventually unites the ostensibly neutral Swedes with their Red enemies (there is much reference to a previous Swedish operation against Russian submarine intelligence in Swedish waters) chasing a turned mole. Guillou is excellent at Hamilton's time in Moscow, which rings true from my (admittedly non-spying but journalistic or business) experience in the city. He also plays the relationship between Hamilton and the Russians brilliantly, even skipping the chance for one final twist which would have made it a different story entirely, and may have been a more realistic, if less happy, ending.

But the tour de force of the book is an extended courtroom scene, just as it is in the third of the Millennium trilogy. Here Hamilton faces down a parliamentary committee, transforming himself from suspected abuser of Swedish democracy and human rights world-wide, to national hero. Guillou handles it extremely well, shifting the tension and the equilibrium between politicians and spies brilliantly. As I said, the focus of the novel is indeed politics, and this not only resolves much of the book's action, but reinforces and explains its reason for being.

As far as I can tell Enemy's Enemy is the only Hamilton novel translated into English; not even the first, Coq Rouge, appears anywhere. Guillou is in print in English with a trilogy of novels set in the Crusades, which is interesting because part of Enemy's Enemy is set in Beirut. I've picked them up, and will look at them sometime soon, because Guillou is the real deal. I just hope they did well enough, or the Mankell/Larsson phenomenon is strong enough, to get more Carl Hamilton novels into English print.

Enemy's Enemy by Jan Guillou (translated by Thomas Keeland)
Bloomsbury 1993, £10.99 paper, ISBN 0747515778
The Crusades trilogy, translated by Steven Murray,
published in paperback by Harper


David said...

Matt Helm's boss was named "Mac". I recently re-read a couple of the Helm books (first time in at least 30 years) and I had forgotten how good they were. Much different from the Bond-style secret agents, and Hamilton, a much underrated writer.

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks--I should have checked that. Maybe he seemed like an old man. I'll adjust the piece to reflect it...