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by Arne Dahl and Tiina Nunnally, trans
Pantheon, July 2011
340 pages
ISBN: 0375425357

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Swedish crime novels, when they aren't being called "the next Stieg Larsson" are inevitably compared to the work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Rarely is there any stylistic similarity - but Arne Dahl's MISTERIOSO has more in common with their Martin Beck series than any other work of Swedish crime fiction translated into English. It involves an ensemble cast of police officers who spend a lot of time sifting clues and following false leads. The pacing is the first thing that reminds the reader of Martin Beck; the police are civil servants who have a job to do and do it without benefit of psychic insights or forensic wizardry, and most of the paths they go down are wrong. The main character, Paul Hjelm, is a depressed philosopher in a marriage that is failing, yet he is somehow appealing, like Martin Beck. And while the story paints a critical picture of Swedish society and its institutions, it handles that criticism lightly, with the kind of distancing irony that distinguishes Sjöwall and Wahlöö from the work of their more melodramatic and serious-minded heirs.

While this is good news for those who appreciate the Martin Beck series, it may perplex those who expect Mankell's political critique or Larsson's antic mix of obsessive list-making and high adventure. MISTERIOSO is slow to unfold, and there is no loudly ticking clock to hurry along the police as they try to identify the serial killer who is killing some of Sweden's most financially successful business leaders. The convoluted plot hinges on connections that seem coincidental and are - but as Hjelm thinks to himself as several pieces of the story click together "what a small country Sweden is." Everything is connected, and in a way that is what the book is all about.

This translation has been waiting in the wings for a long time, but its introduction to the English speaking world couldn't be better timed. This small country in which someone is systematically murdering rich men is in the midst of a financial catastrophe after a small percentage of the population got rich, not by making things or creating jobs but by shifting money around recklessly. The banks have teetered on collapse and taxpayers have had to bail them out. As the police try to solve the crimes, officers in the national security forces are frustrating their efforts by tying the crimes to imagined terrorist plots and the threat of Sweden being overtaken by darker-skinned immigrants. It will seem very familiar to readers in the US and UK, but the book was published in 1999, when Sweden held a full dress rehearsal of the 2008 crash.

There are eleven books in this series. MISTERIOSO was the second published in Swedish, but chronologically the first, the one in which a team of misfit police officers are pulled together to form a new investigative unit. It doesn't have the adrenaline-filled pacing of many crime novels, and there are a lot of characters introduced in the first fifty pages to keep straight, but it picks up momentum and has its own weird charm. Those who appreciate a wide angle view of society and gently ironic humor - or who have looked in vain for true heirs to Sjöwall and Wahlöö - won't want to miss it.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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