Monday, 15 April 2013

ARNE DAHL'S BLINDED MAN

I haven't yet watched BBC4's broadcasts of the TV adaptation of Arne Dahl's novel, but when I read the book a few months ago I was struck by how firmly it was anchored in what I consider the classic Swedish tradition, which flows from Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck, and how consciously it seems to address modern society, while still maintaining its suspense as a police procedural.

The Blinded Man begins with two seemingly unconnected events—a well-planned bank robbery and a hostage situation in an immigration office. The first is unexplained. In the second, we follow Paul Hjelm, whose day begins with yet another instance of missed communicaton with his wife. Hjelm then has to deal with the Kosovar Albanian who's been let down by the system in the only way he can figure out how, by shooting him, non-fatally. For that, he is suspended and investigated for misconduct, but in the meantime he is recruited to join a new elite task force being assembled to deal with the murders of two of Sweden's leading businessmen.

You can see familiar elements already: while Hjelm is not quite as depressive as the popular image of Scandinavian detectives dictates, he is serious, inward, and finds communicating a challenge. Most of the best Scandinavian detectives function within a team—which serves as a microcosm of the society and its ethos in which they function. In Hjelm's case, this microcosm is a sort of rainbow coalition: an almost equally serious woman; an aggressive body-builder, who once in roid-rage turned wife beater; a Finnish intellectual (which plays on some Swedish ethnic stereotypes); a plodding Norrlander called Norlander (which plays on others of the same) and a 'new Swede' of Latin American decent. What is particularly interesting is the way Dahl plays, within the group, on generational differences in traditional Swedish values—particularly racism, and not only in regard to immigration. Perceiving minute differences in their own native society, Swedes have been both open to immigration and felt swamped by it, and this is an important side issue throughout the novel.

Meanwhile, the hunt for the serial killer has a somewhat clockwork feel to it—there is actually an Agatha Christie reference which seems somewhat self-conscious. There are secret societies and a clue built around an obscure jazz tape, Monk recorded live, that would be worthy of Michael Connelly or John Harvey had they ever worked in that fashion. Slightly less self-conscious is the analysis Arto Soderstedt, the braniac left-wing Finn, presents of what makes serial killers in the first place. It's worth quoting: 

'Plenty of magazines in the United States make heroes out of serial killers and mass murderers. It's related to the fact that their society is on the verge of collapse. A widespread feeling of general frustration makes it possible for an entire nation to empathise with extremists and sick outsiders...their disregard for all social rules exerts a strong fascination...we need to ask ourselves what sort of effect this sort of mess could have on the national soul of the Swedish people. There's no such thing as a simple act.'

This resonates within the book's approach to Swedish society, if you go back to Beck the whole idea of serial killing hasn't occured, while in Wallander it is a particularly bizarre crime. But it's also crucial
that both Beck (in Murder At The Savoy, to which I wrote the introduction to the Harper Collins edition) and Henning Mankell's Wallander (in The Man Who Smiled) were brought face to face in confrontation with Sweden's upper crust businessmen—Hjelm faces the same challenges, made more intriguing because the businessmen themselves are the targets.


Hjelm reminds me a bit of Leif Persson's Lars Martin Johnsson (who is a Norrlander himself) in that he's not, as previously suggested, as depressive as a Beck or Wallander or Harry Hole. Hjelm is decent, relatively good with people, but, as with most good Nordic detectives, finds his real battles come within the bureaucracy he faces—and that, again, echoes the society the police are supposedly serving.

Hjelm's relationship with his wife Cilla, however, is pure Beck, though Dahl writes it with more emotion than Sjowall and Wahloo. Here's their marriage, and their lives, in a nutshell: 'Did those few moments in the kitchen draw them closer together? Or had the final chasm opened up between them? It was impossible to say, but something decisive had taken place; they had looked right into each other's naked loneliness.'

These are the things television would find hard to adapt. In some ways, I expected The Blinded Man would find its way to television—more along the lines of the Danish Those Who Kill. The ensemble playing can be managed, and the plot itself works well. As with all police procedurals, the question of reveals, and thus managing tension, becomes crucial. But what made the novel most interesting was the inward-looking part, as with the above, and that would be the hardest to transfer to the small screen. I found The Blinded Man a worthy, if unspectacular addition to the line of Scandinavian police procedurals, and Hjelm potentially a major figure. I will turn to the adaptation with keen interest.

The Blinded Man by Arne Dahl, translated by Tiina Nunnally
Vintage £7.99 ISBN 9780999575689 

Note: This review will also appear at Shots (www.shotsmag.co.uk)

2 comments :

Evert Pang said...

Thank you for this well-written review. I like the way you compare Hjelm with Beck and Harry Hole and others. As a hardcore Arne Dahl fan, having read all the novels at least a couple of times (in Scandinavian and German languages), there are some certain things in his writing that makes him a favourite for me:

1) the microcosm and the invidual character development
2) the complexity of the plots/intrigues
3) the criticism of society and social matters
4) the dialogues and poetic language (I haven't read the English edition yet, but I will. Still, I prefer Swedish, no matter what, even though I'm Norwegian).

Having read "most" of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, I find Arne Dahl the absolute best. Jo Nesbø is for sure another favourite, as well as Håkan Nesser, Roslund & Hellstrøm, Jens Lapidus and more, but none of them can match Arne Dahl - in my preferences.

I'm looking forward to follow your reviews of the sequels to "The blinded man". Thumbs up!

Michael Carlson said...

tak skar du har! I'm going to read Bad Blood, in English, soon, and I'm watching the TV adaptation of Blinded Man now...