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Swedish novelist, critic, and editor Jan Arnald began publishing a series of police procedurals centered on a crack team of Swedish investigators in 1998, writing under the name Arne Dahl. It wasn't until 2011 that MISTERIOSO finally hit the shelves, but it was timely. It centers on the hunt for a man who is systematically killing off members of the one percent after the careless greed of the rich threw the country into a financial crisis. Sweden, advanced as always, had a disastrous housing crash and bank bailout in the early 1990s. Dahl's social setting seems very familiar twenty years later.
He's done it again with the second book in the series, BAD BLOOD. (In fact, this book was published first in Sweden, but in the chronology of the fictional world it comes after the events of MISTERIOSO, so that change is an advantage for English language readers.) The story opens with graphic violence. A Swedish literary critic, held in a closet at the Newark airport, is being tortured to death. Someone – possibly his killer – then cancels his ticket and that empty seat is snatched up by a last-minute passenger. Because the torturer used a device that is the signature of a notorious serial killer who had been sought by the FBI for years, the Swedish police are warned that one of the passengers aboard that flight might be a public menace, but because of a mix up in New York (compounded by mistakes in Stockholm) they aren't sure which passenger it is. If the killer did, in fact, take the murdered man's seat, he has passed through customs and is on the loose.
As the team digs into the murdered man's background, learning that the spiteful critic cultivated lots of enemies over the years, including his own son, they also begin to collect reports of killings that appear to confirm that America's killing machine has taken up residence in Sweden. But that killer's history is confusing, as they learn from the FBI agent who was so obsessed with the case it cost him his professional standing. Apparently he learned to use an instrument that simultaneously causes intense pain and cuts off the vocal cords while serving in an intelligence unit during the Vietnam war. His string of murders ended with his death in a fiery car crash. Years later, identical killings began to happen again. Someone is not only a copycat killer, he has a copy of the tool designed both to compel victims to talk and to silence their screams. How has this monster been brought back to life, and what is he doing in Sweden?
One of the themes of the story has to do with fathers and sons and what it is that men choose to pass on to the next generation. Another is the connection between individuals' lives and the social fabric of Sweden. The backdrop to this story includes the American invasion of Iraq. Though it's the first Gulf war, the geopolitical stage is eerily contemporary. In Sweden, neoliberal policies adopted by the state have encouraged a shift in individuals' sense of morality, exchanging social cohesion for the pursuit of wealth. State violence, in turn, breeds blind and meaningless violence that cannot be contained.
At one point a character muses about the way his country has changed and concludes "one can't be choosy about what is imported from the rulers of the universe. If one chooses to import an entire culture, then the dark sides will come along too, sooner or later." A scene later in the book, in which two Swedish detectives have traveled to the US and are traveling in a car, questioning the FBI agent about the country's acceptance of the death penalty and the effect of inequality on the American dream, when their host pauses to point out the skyline of Manhattan, bathed in sunlight, a vision of possibility. Like his literary ancestors, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Dahl frequently steps back to look at the social issues implicated in crime and its effects and why we yearn for the things we do.
In 2013 many readers are heartily sick of the serial killer narrative and may be tempted to set this one aside after sampling the first paragraphs, related from the point of view of dying man being tortured by a sadist. In that respect this book, originally published in 1998, might be considered past its prime. However, Dahl doesn't indulge in violent suspense or replay the standard Manichean battle between an evil monster and a tormented, heroic detective. This is a much smarter treatment of how state violence and monstrousness are related by blood. Though this entry in the series has a less accomplished translator than MISTERIOSO's sure-footed Tiina Nunnally, it's a complex and intriguing novel that even those who have had their fill of serial killers will find surprising.
§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.
Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2013
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