Arne Dahl: Misterioso

Pantheon sent us a galley of this Swedish murder mystery to review. Since I’ve reviewed some of the books in the Icelandic series written by Arnaldur Indridason, it made sense for me to pick this one up, too.

The main character of Misterioso (and presumably of the series) is Detective Inspector Paul Hjelm, a man in his early middle age with a wife and two teenaged children who don’t seem to understand him at all. His base of operations is in one of the suburbs of Stockholm.  At the start of this novel, he has just received public acclaim for successfully defusing a hostage situation that involved a perpetrator from one of the emerging Balkan nation-states.  Because Paul’s intervention broke a few rules, he is worried about its impact on his career.  And in fact he is initially suspended from duty pending investigation of the circumstances.

But then everything changes.  Instead of the expected dismissal, Paul is invited to join a team of law enforcement officers recruited from around the country to participate in the investigation of a series of high-profile murders.  Under the auspices of the National Criminal Police, the so-called A-Unit is led by Detective Superintendent Jan-Olov Hultin, one of the most effective and unconventional law enforcement officers ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.

All the other members of the team are distinctive in their own ways.  Viggo Norlander, in his late forties, is a by-the-book kind of cop, but persistent as a bulldog.  Kerstin Holm, the only woman on the team, amasses hours of taped interviews with people who knew the suspects; some of these are pretty racy.  Jorge Chavez is a so-called ‘blackhead,’ the very derogatory term used by the xenophobic Swedes to refer to members of immigrant groups whose presence has had a dramatic effect on life in Sweden.  Arto Soderstedt is also an immigrant to Sweden, but he’s just over from Finland.  A former athlete, Gunnar Nyberg has a history of steroid use and still struggles to control his violent episodes.  He sings in a church choir.

At the time the NCP organizes the A-Unit, only two murders have actually occurred.  However, both the victims and the means of the murders lead the authorities to expect more activity from the perpetrator(s) and that expectation is fulfilled.  Both of these victims are leaders in the Swedish business world.  As Soderstedt points out, they are capitalists of the new breed, the kind that don’t manufacture anything, create jobs or pay taxes in any meaningful sense—they simply move money around.  Both are executed in their living rooms with two gunshots fired at close range, the bullets then removed from the scene.  No prints and no other compelling evidence arises from either of these events.

In their quest for the killer, members of the A-Unit visit some of the preferred haunts of the Swedish capitalist class, including an exclusive golf course, a yacht club, and a very secret society. They also experience several unpleasant encounters with members of the Russian-Estonian mob that is attempting to gain a foothold in the Scandinavian nation-states.  Although Hjelm remains the center of the novel’s unfolding and suspenseful plot, a few early chapters provide scenes from the viewpoint of the murderer, while some later chapters follow the misadventures of other members of the investigative team. The novel’s title is a reference to a Thelonius Monk jazz composition that ultimately leads the A-Unit to the murderer.

Misterioso was definitely worth reading.  In general, Dahl does a splendid job of framing a police-based mystery in a way that enables the reader to make some sense of contemporary Swedish politics and culture.  It might be helpful to readers outside of Sweden to include a brief introduction or afterward offering some explanation of the way the Swedish criminal justice system is organized, since that matters to the way the A-Unit operates.  I would have also found it helpful to have a simple map of Sweden or at least of the regions of the country that were relevant to this case.  Without that, I wasn’t at all able to visualize where the characters were from or where they were going in search of evidence to solve the crime.

Arne Dahl is the pen name for Jan Arnald, a Swedish author and literary critic. Written in Swedish and originally published in 1999, Misterioso has been ably translated into English by Tina Nunnally.   It’s an early entry in a series that includes a total of eleven titles, the most recent published in 2008.  It will be interesting to see how many more titles Pantheon picks up.

(Pantheon Books, 2011)

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