Written by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt — Sebastian Bergman is the first title from Trapdoor, a new imprint from Little, Brown (UK) and Grand Central (US) aiming to translate and publish crime stories from around the world. And if the name Sebastian Bergman sounds familiar to you, that’s because BBC4 ran a Swedish TV series based on the novels earlier this year. In Sweden, this first book in the set was entitled Dark Secrets, and Trapdoor plans to release further Sebastian Bergman stories in due course.
The authors both worked on the Wallander TV series, and on telly the criminal psychologist Sebastian Bergman is played by Rolf Lassgärd who had the Wallander role before Krister Henriksson. Rosenfeldt was also the creator of The Bridge, another popular Scandinavian crime drama.
After the death of his mother, Sebastian Bergman finds himself in Västerås, a small-ish city west of Stockholm. Around the time of his arrival, the body of 16-year-old Roger Eriksson is discovered in a marshy wood. Roger was reported missing three days before the bumbling local police even started looking for him and has died terribly – his heart hacked from his chest. Enter Riksmord, a central force dedicated to investigating the harshest of crimes.
Riksmord is led by seasoned detective Torkel, and consists of computer expert Billy, junior investigator Vanja, and Ursula who occasionally sleeps with Torkel but is the forensics expert. Roger’s mother is in shock, his girlfriend seems to be holding back information, and the headmaster at the upper-class school Roger attended also has something to hide. Roger had been bullied most of his life, and was beaten up just before his death, but CCTV evidence shows that thug Leonard Lundin is unlikely to have killed and mutilated the boy. And, it emerges that Roger had a lot of secrets too.
Torkel and Sebastian go way back and when they bump into each other in Västerås, Sebastian is invited to help out with the case. On the one hand, he’s a famous criminal profiler who’s helped catch Sweden’s most notorious serial killers. On the other, Ursula and the rest of the team hate him. And not without reason – he’s rude to his colleagues, arrogant, obsessed with seducing women, and completely self-absorbed. The death of his mother, however, has thrown him. Going through her things he finds letters from a woman who might have borne his child. He sees working on the Roger Eriksson case as an opportunity to use police databases to track down the woman.
On top of loathing his parents and upbringing, Sebastian carries the grief of losing his wife and daughter who were killed in the tsunami while on holiday in 2004.
The book’s not quite as dark, nor as pacy as Steig Larsson or Jo Nesbo‘s work. Nor is it as quirky as Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s books. It is a police procedural more similar to The Killing or the Wallander series. There is a lot of detail to take in and it’s a little too slow in places – lengthy descriptions of how cold a character feels or how Ursula compartmentalises her sex life tend to hamper the excitement. Perhaps it could be 50 or 100 pages shorter.
However, few crime books have a team of detectives, and suspects for that matter, as believable as the ones Hjorth and Rosenfeldt have created here. The personalities and interrelationships between the characters – with all their flaws and proclivities – are excellently portrayed. And the likening of Bergman’s need for sexual conquest with a serial killer’s desire to murder is genius. The authors will do a lot with this character, who has been called the Swedish Cracker after Jimmy McGovern’s creation from the 90s.
There are nice little touches too. One sub-plot involves Haraldsson, a local policeman who believes he should be part of the murder investigation but seems to fail at every attempt. These lighter moments are juxtaposed with more chilling snapshots of the killer who thinks of himself as ‘the man who is not a murderer’ and more of these moments might have heightened the tension. However, the ending is full of twists, surprises and satisfying reveals and the Nordic Noir completist will enjoy this novel.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars