Friday, 24 February 2012

LEIF G.W. PERSSON'S SWEDISH WINTER'S END

(warning: this review contains some spoilers)

Lars Martin Johansson differs in some ways from the type of detective we've come to expect in Swedish police procedurals, from Beck to Wallander. But although he is charming, adept in some ways at negotiating the police bureaucracy, Johansson is a dedicated, honest cop, and he is also alone. That last characteristic is one that we see throughout the novel, but one whose importance doesn't become important until the story is resolved, and we learn that many of his assumptions, and ours, have not been false as much as incomplete. And this, I think, is Leif G.W. Persson's crucial point.

Between Summer's Longing And Winter's End reads like a cross between Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck books and the third volume of Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. It has the humour implicit in the Beck books, the almost sheer comic delight in the innate blundering mixed with intricate politicking, and the deeper concern with Swedish society, at least as reflected in a right-wing establishment and deeply conservative police force. This history of Cold War Sweden, and the positions taken by its intelligence agencies, is at the heart of Larsson's trilogy—and in the third volume it takes over the narrative. By melding these two strands, Persson moves from the evident suicide of a young American journalist to the central event of post-war Swedish politics, indeed life, the murder of Prime Minister Olaf Palme. It is to Swedish society what JFK's assassination was to America, only moreso. And Persson's tale in Summer's Longing, that Palme was killed by elements of the Swedish intelligence establishment, and the investigation was bungled simply through police incompetence, seems to be one that many Swedes, and probably most Swedish crime writers, would find unsurprising.

The strength of Persson's novel lies in the gap between Johansson's honesty and efficiency as a cop, and the realities of life, personal, political, and police. That Johansson winds up alone, while the secret police man, Claes Waltin, behind the killings in effect gets the girls, is an irony that echoes the fact that Johansson's findings about Palme's past will never be made known, the fact that the American was murdered will never be known, and the killer of both will go free. Johansson remains blissfully unaware that one woman he approaches is a cop, another he feels attracted to is an NSA agent. He is clever in the way he puts on his country Norrland accent when he needs to, but in the end he is just a cop—and Persson's point is that good honest cops have very little effect on what happens in the world. That Waltin is also, beneath his suave exterior, a rather disturbed sexual fetishist, is just a further irony. And that the Swedes have layer upon layer of secret police, to keep some secret from the ones that become known, mixes the irony with humour brilliantly. Not least in its references to Jan Guillou, the left-wing journalist despised by Sweden's secret establishment; his crime novels were best-sellers in Sweden but sadly made little impact outside the country.

Persson, like Sjowall and Wahloo, likes to tell the reader what the characters are really thinking while they say and do what they do. This makes for some very dry humour, and reinforces the sense of bureaucratic infighting, and self-protection, within the police establishment. His cops are not as one-dimensional as Beck or Wallander, but one wonders what Beck might have seemed like were Sjowall and Wahloo to delve that much deeper—or whether the point was there was no deeper to delve! But at times, Persson over-eggs his mixture; this is a 600 page novel that contains too much repetition, too many asides, and too many scenes that in the end merely repeat information we've had before. I enjoyed it, but when you're going to have to spend a long time explaining both the assassination in the book's present and the deep background in its past, it's probably too much. But I found Summer's Longing both compelling and entertaining, and its explanation of Palme's killing makes as much sense as any I've read. Or maybe I, like so many Swedes, am being overly Manichean.

Between Summer's Longing And Winter's End by Leif GW Persson
Black Swan, £7.99, ISBN 9780552774680

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