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1 june 2012

Back-cover blurbs compare Arne Dahl's Misterioso to the Martin Beck mysteries by Sjöwall & Wahlöö. Such claims are often more about marketing than literary history, but in this case they have a point: Misterioso does remind me more of Sjöwall & Wahlöö than any other Scandinavian Krimis that I've read.

Protagonist Peter Hjelm, for instance, is a sort of Martin Beck Lite. He's in a stale marriage, he takes absurd risks in his work, he's existentially confused – and I'm not just inferring that last observation from his Swedishness and his endless cups of coffee. On p. 151, Hjelm looks into his wife's eyes and experiences "the horrifying sensation of absolute existential loneliness." It's bleak being a Stockholm homicide detective.

Hjelm is drafted into a top-secret "A-unit" tasked with anticipating the crimes of a sinister serial killer. Sounds like elite work, but the crew that assembles is more like a Dirty Half-Dozen than anything else: each detective, brought from a different Swedish police force to work on this crucial case, has something sketchy in his or her past, and all have thus been derailed from the standard career track. Types familiar from the Martin Beck novels reappear: the gruff bully, the insecure overachiever, the empty suit, the idiotic Säpo guys. Tensions abound, weird cowboy stuff goes down, but the A-unit proves itself a keen murder-thwarting ensemble.

Meanwhile, Hjelm is sinking more and more into the depression that afflicts fictional Swedish detectives from Martin Beck through Kurt Wallander to Ann Lindell. His marriage disintegrates; he can't stop obsessing about his A-unit partner, Kerstin Holm. Others in the unit succumb to rages or, alternatively, anomie; all are disillusioned. The crimes they uncover seem to involve a ceaseless round of corruption, profiteering, and the Estonian mafia.

It's somewhat corny stuff, given the shocking murder rate among the financial elite of Sweden in this novel, especially when combined with the by now pro-forma insistence that things like this don't happen in Sweden. (Nobody in Swedish murder mysteries seems to be a reader of Swedish murder mysteries.) But hey, this is my favorite genre, and I give Misterioso, in Tiina Nunnally's vigorous translation, an above-average grade. Evidently there are now about ten A-unit novels in Swedish, though only Misterioso has yet made it into English. My shopping list grows; I may have to charter a second aircraft on my Baltic holiday this summer.

Dahl, Arne. Misterioso. 1999. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. New York: Pantheon [Random House], 2011.