Serial killer digs Thelonious Monk in Swedish crime novel
Review by John Bear
It's easy to imagine Arne Dahl's Misterioso being made into an action flick. Protagonist: unshaven, pissed off, half-drunk à la The Last Boy Scout. Bruce Willis' Swedish cousin Brüucce Willliiss could star, or Viggo Mortensen's Swedish cousin, Viggo Mortenson.
I picture Swedes being a little more civil than Americans. There should be less spousal yelling and, more than likely, no bedroom gunplay. But an early scene in Misterioso has a woman throwing a maxi pad at her husband, protagonist Paul Hjelm, during an argument regarding early morning sex (or lack thereof). Hjelm keeps running that incident over and over in his mind, and you will too.
Misterioso begins with a Kosovar Albanian man taking over an immigration office because he doesn't want to be deported from Sweden. It's the middle ’90s and the Swedes are apparently shipping them off in droves, even if they’ve lived there for years and consider themselves countrymen. Police officer Hjelm arrives and knows that the SWAT guys will shoot to kill, so he runs inside and shoots the perpetrator in the arm.
Police officer Hjelm arrives and knows that the SWAT guys will shoot to kill, so he runs inside and shoots the perpetrator in the arm.
Although his intent is to save the foreign-born Swede, he soon finds himself accused of of xenophobia, which is rampant in the department. Racists derisively refer to anyone from another country as a “black head.” (Swedes are all blondes, get it?)
Even so, Hjelm is declared a hero by that blackest of all blackness, the media, so instead of being fired, he is promoted to a special investigation unit. A shadowy serial killer is whacking elite business people and, oddly enough, listening to jazz on the tape deck while he extracts the bullets from the walls. Hjelm is teamed up with a detective named Jorge, an immigrant who is suspicious that his new partner is a xenophobe.
Part of the book’s fun is reading the Swedish names—Hjelm, Ernstsson, Mårtensson, Chavez. The great hero of Misterioso is not the plays-by-his-own-rules detective, but the Swedish language. It's a linguistic gang bang of too many consonants and diacritical markings. I always loved the Swedish chef on “The Muppet Show,” and now I’m kicking myself for being such a stereotypical, monoglot American. (Off to order Rosetta Stone.)
Dahl is funny in a darkly Swedish kind of way (flying maxi pads, flying maxi pads). One cannot help but think, however, that some of the jokes get washed away in translation like Shelley's violets crushed in the crucible. It’s as if Carl Hiaasen (Strip Tease, Basket Case) moved from sunny Florida to dark, broody Sweden and created a character who, say, got a night job at Ikea.
It's all a little familiar. The cop who breaks up the hostage situation to the ire of the higher-ups borders on cliché, as does the urbane serial killer who cleans up the crime scene while listening to obscure Thelonious Monk bootlegs. Is there any other kind of serial killer? Mystery novels tend to follow a certain formula. So it's not all that original. But it moves along at a brisk pace, the protagonist is sympathetic to say the least (flying maxi pads) and the names of Swedish towns (Kungsholmsgatan) are just fun to read.
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