Arne Dahl, the pen name of Jan Arnald, a Swedish novelist and literary critic, born in 1963, is one of the latest Swedish crime writers to hit Britain. He has won several awards for his crime novels and is particularly popular in Germany.
BBC Four screened ten episodes, based on Dahl’s first five novels about an elite Swedish police task force, the Intercrime Group, from April to June this year – I missed them – and an English translation of Bad Blood, the second book in the series, was launched in mid- June, presumably to coincide. The book was written in 1998 and indeed the first five novels were all written over a decade ago.
This tendency to back-publish, which is occurring with increasing frequency as “ new” writers enter into vogue, can sometimes backfire, as it does slightly with this book. The opening chapters describe the attempts of the police team to apprehend a suspected serial killer believed to be travelling to Sweden on a flight from the USA. There’s a rather unsatisfactory keystone cops- like event at the airport, but beyond this is the sheer implausibility of the episode – even pre Nine Eleven.
Essentially an intending passenger cancels – by phone – his reservation seventy five minutes before a scheduled departure from Newark and five minutes later the vacant seat is bought at the airport by a walk-up passenger with no baggage.
Post Nine Eleven this would be impossible. Homeland Security and the Airline, for a start, would not allow anyone to embark at such short notice. But even before 2001 the possibility of someone, particularly a non-citizen, gaining access to a transatlantic flight by a European carrier at seventy minutes’ notice was remote. The novel also shows its age elsewhere in terms of how e-mail and the Internet are treated – silent testimony to the incredible developments in mass communications since the book was written.
This, however, is a minor point. Bad Blood is the first of Dahl’s novels I have read. It’s certainly a page-turner with a lively plot concerning the hunt for a particularly sadistic serial killer who has migrated from the USA to Sweden. The gruesome details of the killer’s method of murdering his many victims are piled on to appal or entertain or both. The pace, the action, the twists and turns maintain the reader’s attention.
Some of the team travel to the USA to collaborate with the FBI in the hunt for someone who has suddenly recommenced killing after a fifteen year gap. Was he in jail? Was he somewhere else? Is this a copycat killer? Are there links with the Vietnam War? Is there even an old Cold War aspect to the killings? And, most importantly, why has the killer now arrived in Sweden?
The book seems eminently suited for screening as part of a TV series a la “The Killing” or “ The Bridge” and I’m looking forward to watching the repeats. I want also to read Dahl’s other novel available in English, “The Blinded Man,” since some of the action – and extreme violence – takes place in Tallinn, a city I know well.
Like several other Swedish crime writers Dahl also criticises and offers some brief comments and analysis on the way Swedish society, which on paper presents such a positive face, has changed since the 1980s. Some of the social criticism, and the violence, are echoed in the later Dragon Tattoo (2005) and other works by Stieg Larsson. Henning Mankel, through Wallender, paints up the same themes of corruption, violence and racism – I am currently re-reading “One Step Behind,” written about the same time as Bad Blood.
I don’t know enough about Swedish society to comment, but in a number of interviews, including a recent one in the Irish Times, Henning Mankel has made the point that outsiders have tended to idealise Swedish society, which in fact has much the same social problems, strains and disaffections as other countries, as witness the riots in Stockholm several months ago. Ditto with regard to Norway and Anders Breivik. Perhaps some of the international popularity of Scandinavian Noir is because we outsiders are fascinated by stories of crime in what appear, from our perspective, near idyllic societies.
A final point. Most thrillers and crime novels feature one or two central characters. This book, and the series, are about the activities of the Intercrime elite police unit, a group numbering anywhere from six to ten. It is unusual to feature a large group like this and extremely difficult to handle adequately this number of “heroes” or characters, fully fleshed out. Normally one or two are given star billing, as for example, Steve Carella in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories, with the others given supporting roles. While the book’s blurb appears to designate Paul Hjelm as chief hero, the others all have significant roles to play. I’m not sure this works all that well, but perhaps the author resolves this in later books.
October 23 2013