Still reeling with hangover from Martin Cruz Smith's eight-novel vodka-sodden Arkady Renko crime series, I felt the need for a freshening change somewhere a tad more wholesome. Sweden seemed just the ticket, I decided, after reading Bitter Tea and Mystery blogger Tracy K's enticing review of a novel by Helene Tursten. I forthwith downloaded Tursten's first in her series featuring Irene Huss, a detective in the Göteborg Police Department's Violent Crimes division.
The opening scene in Detective Inspector Huss was so startling I came close to hopping into the pickup for a run to the ABC store to pick up a fifth of Beluga in case I needed to chase away what I assumed were lingering Renko demons. In the scene, a filthy rich international financier plunges to his death from his high-rise apartment in Göteborg. That’s precisely how Wolves Eat Dogs begins, except the filthy rich international financier who splats awkwardly on the street below his high-rise apartment is in Moscow. Renko and his vodka-swilling sergeant had to fight bureaucrats, international criminals, and maniacs for the entire novel before determining whether the Russian financier was murdered or committed suicide. It took Göteborg’s medical examiner several seconds to decide the Swedish financier was murdered, and Huss and about a dozen Göteborg detectives and forensic technicians, the rest of the novel, with cooperation from everyone except the suspects, to know whodunnit and why.
Pure police procedural. Twice longer than I prefer in a crime novel, but ultimately a satisfying depiction of the problems, strategies, and techniques involved in a complicated, high-profile investigation.
My only nit to pick with the plot structure is the investigating team coming off as too experienced, too well oiled for what we are told at the beginning: “Glamorous TV murders like the von Knecht case almost never occurred. But when they did, the police were completely at a loss. Suddenly there were all kinds of tender toes they had to avoid stepping on. They couldn’t proceed in their usual way with the investigation.” True, the detectives were restricted to the book—no rubber hoses—when questioning the usual suspects, and they did, the only deviation being Detective Inspector Birgitta Moberg kneeing a suspect in the balls after he shoved her against a wall and grabbed her crotch. The “cute, young, blonde” detective suffered sexual harassment as well from at least one of her male colleagues, but only with words and pornographic pictures. (I learned that her colleagues outed another male team member, in a later novel in the series, as the sender of the pictures.)
The novel doesn’t shy from addressing the tensions in a traditionally male police force dealing with female members, but Tursten handles the issue without the stridency one might expect in modern fictional treatments. There’s an earnest rudder steering the conflicted sensibilities through these unfamiliar waters. The team’s boss, Supt. Sven Andersson, struggles with his own biases, constantly correcting himself mid-word when slipping into locker-room language referring to women, and Det. Inspector Irene Huss, a former European judo champion, has won respect as a veteran of the force. Andersson, who also has issues with aging, including his own, quickly apologizes to Huss, excluding her from his reference to the local female prosecutor as “another old crone.” But Huss reflects to herself: “Again the problem of attitudes toward middle-aged, competent women. Why were they so intimidating? She realized that she herself was well on the way to joining this group of women. But Andersson never seemed to feel threatened by her, even though she was a bona fide expert detective. Evidently because he knew her and liked her, in his eyes she never grew older.”
No one objected, however, when Andersson used an unflattering metaphor to describe the imperious medical examiner, Yvonne Stridner, “undeniably one of the country’s most talented pathologists,” we are told. After viewing the body on the street and pronouncing it a murder, “she hurried off...Irene watched her go and said, ‘She’s actually quite human.’
“Andersson snorted. ‘Human, her? She’s got the emotional life of a backhoe!” This gave me my first genuine laugh of several throughout the novel. Having a bad day, Huss tried to remember a song to describe it, wondering if it was one of Frank Sinatra’s. She gave up. “Didn’t make a damned bit of difference which old fart it was. It was a rotten day even before it got started. And after it worked for her on a subway she shared a trick for handling people who stare at you in public: “She gave the woman in the suit a radiant smile and sat down. That’s the most effective way to startle people: They think you’re crazy and instantly avert their eyes.”
The novel pokes into other current societal issues that involve the detectives and their suspects.
Huss visits a young man dying of AIDS, whose mother tells her his condition is so bad he must be fed intravenously: “That’s not something I can take care of. Thank the good Lord that the national health-care system is still functioning!”
There are drug-dealing biker gangs and racist skinheads. One of Huss’s two teenage daughters shaves her head to join a punk band spewing anti-Semitic lyrics that advocate killing Jews. The girl argues that it’s the music that interests her, not the lyrics, but when Huss presses her the daughter claims the Holocaust was fiction. Huss then invites one of her colleagues to dinner with her family (her husband’s a professional chef), and in a deeply moving scene the detective tells the story of his own family. His mother’s father was unknown, a young Nazi who participated in a gang rape of the detective’s Jewish grandmother. Shocked, but still disbelieving, the Huss daughter runs to her room and slams the door, sobbing loudly.
Larsson borrows a Finnish detective from another division to interview a Finnish woman who cleaned the financier’s apartment. Finnish immigrants, we learn, are a disrespected minority in Sweden.
The story takes place over the days leading up to Christmas, but Göteborg, second only to Stockholm as Sweden’s most populous city, is having trouble getting into the holiday spirit, what with seemingly endless icy winds and freezing rain. It didn’t help that retailers had started their push earlier than usual in order to “suck as much as possible out of people now that income tax refunds weren’t paid out at Christmas anymore.”
I hit a speed bump early on, when Tursten described in minute detail the pricy features in the financier’s luxurious apartment. Too much detail can easily clog a narrative, robbing me of the pleasure of using my imagination from just a bare sketch of details as cues. Ordinarily I’m apt to abandon a novel were such distractions to persist. Possibly it did with Detective Inspector Huss, but if so, the narrative was so smooth and tightly written I was able to skate over unnecessary (to me) descriptive sections without losing track of the story. I’m curious to see how Tursten’s craft and her characters develop in subsequent outings of Irene Huss’s team. As they apparently have not all been translated into English, and those that have are not in sequential order, I have yet to decide which one I should choose next.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]