Thursday, May 17, 2012

2,493: Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End by Leif G.W. Persson

So far, in what was originally intended to be a week of posts on international crime fiction books but has turned into more like three weeks, the books I have reviewed have all been from Mediterranean lands and from the “lighter” end of the crime fiction spectrum.  So, for a complete change, I’ve hopped over to Sweden and to the other end of the spectrum with Leif G.W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (or BSL as I’ll call it for convenience).

Having been a winter visitor to the part of Sweden that sits north of the Arctic Circle, I can appreciate why long term residents might develop a certain gloominess about the onset of winter but, apart from that and the high price of alcohol, I sometimes struggle with the dark nature of much Scandinavian crime fiction.  As the lead in to a Guardian piece by John Crace in 2009 put it, The plotlines are bleak, the locations are forbidding and the main characters are usually angst-ridden alcoholics.”  It is for this reason that I have, up to now, largely avoided Scandinavian crime.

Nevertheless, it would take a crime fiction reader with the eyesight of a bat and the hearing of a post to remain unaware that crime writers from this region are the current rock stars of the crime fiction world and so, when Black Swan, part of the Transworld, kindly sent me a copy of BSL, I gave a firm nolle prosequi to the unread Zouroudis, Leons and Nadelmans on my Kindle and plunged headlong into a very different Stockholm than the one we came across whilst staying in the Grand Hotel a few Christmases ago.

BSL is the first volume of a trilogy, subtitled with an ultra-British sense of self-deprecation “The story of a crime”, centred on the unsolved murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986.  At first, I couldn’t really see where the connection was.  BSL opens, conventionally enough, with a suspicious death – in this case, an American student falling from a window in his accommodation block.  The local Stockholm police unit is on the scene immediately to investigate and, despite two of the cops being both unappealing and incompetent, it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide until Superintendent Lars Martin Johansson, the hero (at least to the extent there is one), becomes involved.

At this point, I was enjoying it as a well-crafted police and fairly complex police procedural with more than a sly touch of humour and, truth be told, had it stayed like that, I would have happily read it and added Persson to my list of authors to follow.

But, in truth, Persson had carried out a neat little piece of misdirection as BSL turned into a very different kind of book.  Although the investigation of the student’s death formed the backbone to the novel, it gradually revealed itself to be a complex political thriller dealing with the operations of Sweden’s secret police (the “closed operation”) before finally positing a theory as to how and why Palme’s assignation might have really happened.

Even that doesn’t really encapsulate the true scope of BSL as it takes the form of the crime novel and uses it to expose the nature of Swedish society and it’s not the social democratic paradise of popular belief.

One of the most striking things about BSL is the level of political extremism and misogyny that Persson would have us believe exists (or existed at the time) in the Swedish police force and presumably, by extension, parts of Swedish society.  It is difficult to find a male character in the book who does not exhibit some sexist tendencies, from the “old-fashioned” to the downright disgusting.  Persson also hints at a fairly substantial far right-wing element within the force.

I was also very much taken with the almost ensemble-like feel of the novel.  Although certain characters take a more central role in the plot, it is, on the whole, difficult to point at a small number of “main” characters, something which adds to the sweeping nature of Persson’s vision.  Many of the characters feature in other novels by Persson (as I know from having read some articles about his work) and, had I read any of these, I am sure this would have given the impression of an organic, and somehow more “real” fictional world.

Structurally, too, BSL, goes way beyond the norm for police procedurals and thrillers.  The storyline cuts between the two investigations into the initial death, using different timelines and then coming together until a very neat device has members of the two investigating teams coming face to face at the crime scene immediately after the time of death.

BSL is rich, complex and, at over 600 pages in the paperback edition, a chunky read.  I’d call it satisfying but, as the plot unfolded, it was significantly more than that and I’d say that it was one of the best crime novels I’ve read in recent years.  I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of the hardback edition of the sequel, Another Time, Another Life by Doubleday and it took a fair amount of resolve not to dive into it immediately, as I didn’t want to gorge on Persson and then have a long wait until the publication of Falling Freely, As If In A Dream, the last in the trilogy.  And, as I haven’t been able to find English translations of any of Persson’s other novels, I can’t even get my fix that way – so come on Transworld, what are you waiting for?  More Persson, please!


Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

I see you really liked it - does that mean the plotlines weren't bleak, the locations weren't forbidding and the main characters weren't angst-ridden alcoholics?

Two of my favorite crime authors are Swedish. Have you ever read anything by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö?

Falaise said...

I did indeed like it, Alex and there were only a couple of angst-ridden alcoholics!

I haven't tried either of tehm but I am now officially into Scandinavian crime so will defintely try them.