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the hand that trembles

8 december 2011

The Hand That Trembles – the most recent of Kjell Eriksson's crime novels to be translated into English – is reminiscent in structure of an episode of CSI: two intractably complicated murder cases that never converge. Or rather, three cases (the third being a baffling missing-person case) that resolve themselves into two. Eriksson's series hero Ann Lindell is central to one investigation (a murder where the victim is known only from a severed foot), and more tangential to another (a long-cold murder and a long-vanished politician).

Swedish mystery writers, as I often note, like their murders old, well-buried, and with some connection to fascists past. Central to the cold case in The Hand That Trembles is a Swedish veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The scene is set in the mid-2000s, putting veteran Ante Persson at the edge of actuarial verisimilitude if we are to believe he fought for the Loyalists in Spain. But Ante is a well-realized character, an unrepentant leftist whose commitment to fighting fascism has gone from the battlefields of Spain to more private venues in postwar Uppsala.

Also intriguing is Ante's nephew Sven-Arne, a plumber who has risen to the local heights of political power as an Uppsala socialist. And then done a disappearing act worthy of Judge Crater. In fact, as we soon learn, Sven-Arne Persson has gone all Razor's Edge on his respectable Swedish life of committee meetings and social-service initiatives. He's moved to Bangalore, shed his possessions, and devoted himself to planting trees in the botanical gardens.

Meanwhile, what is a severed foot doing in a sparsely-populated seaside locale near Uppsala? Ann Lindell doesn't want to be assigned to answer that particular question: it's a hike out to the crime scene, and she has bad associations with the venue. But she's drawn to the case because of its difficulty – and increasingly, because its victim was so helpless. In several senses, that victim – whose name barely appears, but is salient in the novel's closing sentence – is Sven-Arne Persson in reverse. She rides an opposite wave of globalization, but with results equally tragic.

It's not a feel-good novel, in other words. But what do you want if you pick up a Swedish police procedural?

Eriksson, Kjell. The Hand That Trembles. [Den hand som skälver, 2007]. Translated by Ebba Segerberg. New York: Minotaur [St. Martin's], 2011.

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