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by Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström, Kari Dickson, trans.
Silver Oak, January 2011
489 pages
ISBN: 1402785925

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Piet Hoffman has been recruited as an informant by a high-level Swedish narcotics officer. After successfully infiltrating a Polish gang that imports methamphetamines into Scandinavia using human mules, he is close to getting evidence on the gang's leadership. But Hoffman's cover is threatened when a Danish undercover officer announces his presence during a drug deal and is shot dead by one of the traffickers. Because nobody has gotten so deep into the organization before, Hoffman is forced to play along as he becomes the Polish mafia's man inside a new and lucrative drug market: the Swedish prison system.

While Hoffman gets himself arrested on a trumped-up charge and takes his place inside a maximum-security prison, Swedish police are investigating the murder Hoffman witnessed, unaware of the narcotics operation. Because Ewart Grens is the lead investigator, Hoffman's handler is worried. Grens is dogged enough that he might find out what happened, and that could threaten their painstaking infiltration of the Polish mafia – and the life of the man inside. To complicate things, it's not entirely clear who's really pulling the strings. As Grens digs deeper, his colleagues in the upper reaches of the criminal justice system do their best to derail his investigation, and Hoffman finds his back against the wall.

Just about every Scandinavian author of crime fiction to be translated in the past year or two is marketed as "the new Stieg Larsson," and no doubt this novel will be hyped the same way. There are some genuine similarities. Roslund and Hellstrom write with the same mix of sometimes numbingly detailed description and dramatic episodes of suspense, and both the Millennium Trilogy and Three Seconds depict Swedish social institutions as havens of corruption. But unlike the swashbuckling duo of Blomqvist and Salander, the two protagonists of THREE SECONDS – a depressed and aging detective who can't get over the death of his partner and an ex-con ex-junkie whose life depends on quick wits and his ability to keep up a charade – embody a burnt-out, cynical version of heroism. Like a previously-translated novel, BOX 21 (published as THE VAULT in the UK), THREE SECONDS is brutally realistic about the inner operations of East European criminal enterprises in Sweden, but this novel has a less engaging premise and a slower fuse. It's not until about the halfway mark that the action switches into high gear, but the remainder of the book is gripping as it counts down the seconds in a fast-paced, twisty conclusion.

Anders Roslund, a journalist, and Borge Hellstrom, an ex-con who helps released convicts reenter society, write with authority about the criminal underbelly of Scandinavian society and the complicity of authorities who aren't that easily distinguished from the bad guys. THREE SECONDS was named the best crime novel of 2009 by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers.

§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, January 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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