Politics often plays a huge part in Swedish thriller writing, but usually it's the politics of the past. Stieg Larsson's trilogy moved from who-dun-it to chase thriller before moving into politics in its third volume (The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest), which centered, in the end, around the assassination of Olaf Palme, and the idea of elements of the Swedish state working against its elected government. This trope recurs constantly; in Henning Mankell's final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, the crime goes back to relations with allies, and subterfuge (literally) concerning the crisis of submarines caught in the Stockholm archipelago.
So it is no surprise that Andreas Norman's first novel should take up those themes, of the state within a state and the abuse of Swedish trust by allies. What is new and surprising is the way he does it, in the present day context of the war on terror, and Sweden as a part of the European Union.
Carina Dymek works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She's a career-minded, unexciting, dare we say boring, prototype Swede. On a trip to Brussels, after a meeting of the EU's committee on security, she is approached by stranger who claims to be an EU civil servant, and who hands her a memory stick. On it is a proposal for a unified EU security service, one which would have the right to spy on suspected terrorists in any EU state, and share such spying with EU allies, like the US.
Being a good civil servant, she immediately turns the stick over to her superiors back in Stockholm. And quickly finds herself suspended from her job, and being invetsigated as a potential terrorist. To make things worse, Carina has a boyfriend, a fellow civil servant called Jamal, born in Egypt, and within hours MI6 is in Stockholm, saying Jamal is a terrorist, and Dymek is part of a major terror plot to strike against the EU in Brussels. The Swedes assign one of their toughest agents, Bente Jensen to the case, and she soon discovers there is more going on than she, and her department, are being told.
There is a lot that is familiar from novels of paranoid conspiracy in Into A Raging Blaze, but what makes it work so well is Norman's familiarity with the milieu; he worked in the Swedish foreign ministry, and he is very good at conveying that sense of humdrum bureaucratic inevitability about the progress of this case. The novel starts slowly, but gradually gathers momentum as Dymek, in effect, goes on the run. There's a little of the deus ex machina of Larsson's trilogy; skilled hackers seem not only thick on the ground in Sweden but also remarkably accessible—after all it is a small country so everybody knows one. The story is forced to resolve itself somewhat mechanically—but not until Dyke herself has been rendered; a nice touch as Sweden's putative allies turn out to be taking liberties with Swedish liberties...this is the other subtext of much of Swedish political thriller writing, a sense of naivete, a willingness by sections of the democratic society to throw ideals away for a chance to play with the big boys.
What also helps this novel work well are the two main characters, both women, whose contrasts are evident, but whose similarities, while more subtle, are even more telling. If we think of Swedish society as being, in theory, fair and rational, it's interesting how it is left to the women in the tale to display those characteristics, and for the men to be the ones duped.
Because what is most chilling, and realistic in the wake of what the world now knows about the NSA and GCHQ and their massive spying on their citizenries and on those of putative allies, is that when an intelligence organisation chooses not to believe in something, facts don't matter. And Norman does a brilliant job of putting that idea into context by using a book of Arabic poetry send to Jamal by his uncle, whom MI6 are claiming is a terrorist. The idea of MI6 as literary critics is both amusing and frightening.
As with most thrillers of paranoia, unless the ending be tragic, it tends to be a little forced. But here there is a realistic element of unhappy resolution, enough to suggest that the abuses will continue and any checking will be only temporary. In the meantime, this thriller starts slowly, builds nicely, and manages to do a good job of putting the reader into the mind of the character whose position is rendered almost hopeless by the security state. An impressive debut.
Into A Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Quercus £12.99 ISBN 9781782066033
note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)