This week’s much loved crime novel is a modern Swedish epic and is the choice of Yvonne Klein, editor of Reviewing the Evidence, one of the web’s oldest and best sites devoted to this genre.
In the heady days of 1975, a band of young people took over the West German Embassy in Stockholm, holding hostages, mining the place with explosives, and demanding the release of members of Baader-Meinhof, the Red Army Faction (RAF), then being held in a German prison in harsh conditions. The Swedish police, perhaps a bit unclear on the concept, waited for the “Stockholm syndrome” to kick in, but before the affair was over, two hostages were shot and killed, and two Red Army Faction members were dead or dying as a result of accidentally detonating their own bombs. Persson recounts the events, which indeed happened, in the detached and faintly sardonic tone that characterizes the style of the narrative as a whole. Eleven years later, the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated. The perpetrator has never been established, but RAF did claim responsibility for the murder, via a group calling itself the Holger Meins Commando, Meins being a jailed member who died during a hunger strike in prison in 1974. All this is essential history for the weighty novel that follows from it.
Clearly, the terrorists must have had help, and local help at that. Who these may have been was not established and there seems to have been a curious reluctance on the part of politicians and police to pursue the matter too closely. In the end, the matter is allowed to die out, swaddled in the notion that terrorism was somehow so “un-Swedish.”
We leap forward to 1989, to the scene of a fictional murder of a government statistician named Kjell Göran Eriksson, stabbed in his flat. He might have survived had not the emergency services been otherwise employed thanks to a mass rally of Swedish nationalists and neo-Nazis commemorating King Charles XII. The investigation falls rapidly into the sweaty hands of Inspector Bäckström, who comes almost instantly to the unshakeable conclusion, based on the undeniable neatness of Eriksson’s flat and the tastefulness of his furnishings, that Eriksson was the victim of a homosexual affair gone wrong,. Bäckström, who also appeared in the first novel in this trilogy, BETWEEN SUMMER’S LONGING AND WINTER’S END, is an appalling toad, obsessively fixated on possible homosexuality wherever he looks. His vocabulary consists almost exclusively of anti-gay terms of abuse, of which he has a limitless store. As for women, he views his female colleagues all as “temporary,” (real police being, of course, male) and if they are insufficiently subordinate, as “attack dykes.” He is, moreover venal – in this case sneaking back into Eriksson’s flat to pack up the victim’s suitcases with as much liquor as he can manage and lifting as well some bath towels to which he has taken a fancy. In time and to no one’s surprise, the investigation peters out.
But just before the statute of limitations will run out on the embassy attack, it surfaces once again in March, 2000 and this time, much has changed. There is a strong political motive to clarify the identity of the Swedish citizens who abetted the German terrorists. The bulk of the investigation is carried out by a group of women police officers, one of whom Bäckström viewed as temporary ten years previously. And their police work is inspired. Gradually the embassy case intersects with the Eriksson murder to produce a brilliant solution to both crimes. Do the women police get credit for their labours? Well, not everything has changed in Sweden. Is strict justice done? Well, that depends.
ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE is a monumental novel, of a kind that with its irony, coolness, and thinly disguised fury at the decline of social democracy is hard to imagine being presented as a crime novel in America. If it were not for the wistful hope of the emergence of a new Stieg Larsson, I wonder if it would have been translated at all. And readers who also hope for another Lisbeth Salander will be sadly disappointed. ANOTHER TIME is very short on action, deficient in thrill, and infinitely detailed. It does, on the other hand, effectively meld fiction with historical fact and situate a crime within the context of massive historical change. It is also engrossing and provocative and, in Paul Norlen’s translation, very readable indeed.
author: Leif G.W. Persson
original language: Swedish
translator: Paul Norlen
publication date (UK): 2012
In addition to being an editor and regular reviewer at Reviewing the Evidence Yvonne Klein is a retired professor, writer and translator living in Montreal.