A Reading Life

From Nordic climes, come chilling thrillers

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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When I think of my early impression of Sweden, I realize that it must have been formed from material supplied by Catholic nuns of the 1950s. In that distant day I associated the country with a progression that began with Protestantism and spiraled down through godlessness, licentiousness, socialism, and suicide. My views have changed, of course, and I admire Sweden for being the irenic, modest, ungreedy nation it seems to be, a nation, moreover, that shares my own passion for pickled herring. Still, I would like to see the looks of triumphant horror on the faces of those good nuns of yore if they could just see the goings-on in the pages of the Swedish crime novels now pouring into this country. There, rape, torture, human trafficking, murder, corruption, and Nazi-sympathizing appear to be national pastimes — though the perpetrators rarely have the decency to kill themselves.

It’s all very good fun. And now that the floodgates have been blown off their hinges by the-girl-who-did-this-and-that, it is certain that we will be treated to translations of many otherwise unknown (to us) specimens of the genre. And, indeed, here before me is Leif GW Persson’s “Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End: The Story of a Crime’’ (translated by Paul Norlen; Pantheon, $27.95), unquestionably the best Swedish crime novel I’ve read so far.

In it, Persson takes up the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, a crime that has never been solved. Aside from that event, the specific goings-on, as well as the characters, motives, involvements, and actions are fictional, but they are also completely believable. The novel consists of two chronologies and a fraught history. Sweden’s geo-political predicament is the backdrop, especially the years that spanned the end of World War II as it segued into the Cold War up to the mid-1950s. In Sweden this was the time during which “wherever you turned you only saw the Russian bear with his mighty paws, ready to deliver the final embrace.’’

The story itself begins with police being called to investigate the death of an American freelance journalist who has plunged from the 16th floor of a student-housing apartment building in Stockholm. Is it suicide? Accident? Murder? After taking up the ensuing investigation and the several characters involved, the action jumps back to events that preceded this death, gradually moving toward it, introducing even more players. The story lines alternate, the two eventually melding in the novel’s complex, excellently satisfying denouement.

But be warned: This is a novel to read with your cerebral capacity at its highest setting and with, perhaps, a little notebook at your side. Most of the book’s characters are members of the Stockholm police force or of the country’s security organizations. They are numerous, and their names and official titles are nothing but trouble, starting with our hero, outgoing Police Superintendent Lars Martin Johansson, who lives, should you wonder, on Wollmar Yxkullsgatan. Lonesome and diffident, he is also a relentless and gifted investigator. Among the many others at large are his best friend, acting chief inspector with the Östermalm police, Bo Jarbring, an ex-athlete, big guy, and ladies’ man; Special Agent Bäckstrom, a drunken, misogynist bully; Detective Inspector Wiijnbladh, cuckold; police trainee Oredsson, neo-Nazi; police assistant Stridh, devotee of his dinner and Winston Churchill; Claes Waltin, special undercover agent, embezzler, and sadistic sexual pervert; secret agents Kudo and Bülling, partners with hyperactive bees in their bonnets about terrorist Kurds; and a big bug simply called Berg, head of Swedish secret police operations.

Persson’s sardonic depiction of how both uniformed and secret police operate is devastating and, at times, acidly funny. Indeed, this novel presents a macabre anatomy of national security organizations: Operationally unintegrated and mare’s nests of competing and conflicting interests within, these huge organizations are dysfunctional by their very nature and immune to external regulation by virtue of their extraordinary and often secret prerogatives. The Swedish security organization in place here is made up of a number of bodies: a central organization headed by Berg; a smaller “external group,’’ camouflaged as a management consulting firm established for the purpose of pursuing the most secret operations; a special “threat group,’’ which Berg thinks of as his “marketing department,’’ and a further group, whose task is to spy on everyone else in the organization.

A strangely sympathetic character, Berg began his career with the general good as his object; but he has now become the personification of the organization’s will to power. “What security work was primarily about,’’ he reflects, “was refining information that was being gathered anyway, taking care to manage every conceivable risk, and exploiting this to the organization’s advantage. In that way conditions for expansion could be created.’’ The truth brilliantly shown in these pages is that it doesn’t take bad men to make such organizations run amok: These monsters have their own life force and momentum that co-opt their creators’ best intentions. On the other hand, bad men aplenty are drawn to them, and in these pages there are a number of nasties of the first order — and one dead prime minister.

Things are a lot more straightforward elsewhere in the Nordic regions, in Iceland, for instance; or at least they were before the recent collapse of the country’s banks, a prelapsarian era reflected in the pages of Arnaldur Indridason’s “Arctic Chill’’ (translated by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb, Picador, paperback, $15). Originally published in 2005, the novel concerns the common or garden ills of murder, racial hatred, xenophobia, pedophilia, smoking, and the weather. You will not need to take notes, but you will need patience. “Glacial’’ would be a good way to describe the plot’s movement. It begins with a 10-year-old child lying in a pool of blood, stabbed to death. He is the son of an immigrant Thai mother and an Icelandic father, and the solution to his murder is the job of police investigators, Erlendur, Eliborg, and Sigurdur Oli. Meanwhile, Erlendur finds himself obsessed by a missing-persons case; upset with his grown, drug-addict children; saddened by the fact that his old boss is dying; and haunted by memories of his long-dead brother.

The novel is part of a series and perhaps a previous acquaintance with the three police investigators, their vexed lives and sad pasts, would have made the book less wearying. As it is, its most arresting aspect is Iceland’s blasted, wintry terrain, its lava shorelines, and treacherous bogs.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at