The Dying Detective

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leif-gw-persson-the-dying-detectiveWritten by Leif GW Persson, translated by Neil Smith — As retired detective Lars Martin Johansson, a living legend in the Swedish National Police Force, approaches his favourite hot dog kiosk in Stockholm, he hasn’t a care in the world except to savour his favorite lunch ritual. Will it be Yugoslavian bratwurst, Zigeuner schnitzel, or elk sausage? The revered detective is surrounded by admirers as he ponders his choices, all delicious but none too healthy. Unfortunately, the fat and happy ex-cop suffers a massive stroke before his first bite. When Lars wakes up, he is in the neurology ward with a doctor leaning over him.

Besides a right arm rendered useless by the stroke, Lars also learns he has a bad heart and must reform his eating habits before he kills himself. Even his adorable wife Pia can’t cheer him up after that news. Barely on the mend, he is definitely not in the mood for the next development. His doctor, Ulrika Stenholm, begs Lars to help solve a cold case from 1986 – the rape and murder of nine-year old Yasmine Uryegan. The doctor believes she has new information and that only Lars Martin Johansson, the detective who sees around corners, can solve it. Ulrika conveys the story of her father, the priest who died knowing the identity of the child killer via a confessional statement, but whose identity he never revealed. The case hinges on two evidential clues: a feather and a hair clip.

True to his nature, the dogged detective can’t resist the case and starts gathering information while still in hospital. The attendant coroner, still on the force, remembers it well. He outlines the psychological profile of the killer, sardonically referring to him as the sensitive brand of paedophile who is characterised by friendliness, fastidiousness, deep narcissism, and being very dangerous. In fact, the failed investigation has stuck in the craw of Lars’ former colleagues, not just because it was mishandled in every way by a notoriously mediocre, lazy and selfish chief. Had it been his case, Lars would have solved it in short order. And solve it he does.

Before you think you see a spoiler coming, understand that the unique take of this book is that it is not a whodunit, as Lars hones in on the prime suspect early on. The main thrust of the plot is just what he plans to do with the information when there is no hope of the murderer being charged. The statute of limitations applies to the crime.

Working mostly as an armchair detective, Lars ventures out into the field on crutches when needed, pushing away thoughts of his own mortality as he stalks his prey. He deputises an oddball crew of people to help him, recruited gradually as the story unfolds. There’s Mina, his tattooed Goth caregiver; Vladimir, muscle-bound yet gentle helper with the tragic past; and his brother-in-law Alf, a tax officer who leaves no record un-turned. Additional back-up is supplied by ex-partner Bo Jarnebring and Lars’ big brother Evert. There is no shortage of former co-workers who lend their support too, some cheering him on and others offering to kill the perpetrator themselves.

In Leif GW Persson’s carefully paced thriller, the tension instilled into the narrative comes not from identifying the murderer so much as what form of justice can be brought to bear on the guilty who are outside the reach of the penal system. The last quarter of the book deals with Lars’ strategy to confront the child killer and extract a confession. But since this monster can’t be tried for the crime, who should serve as judge, jury and executioner?

Although relatively few of his books are in translation, Persson, along with Swedish contemporaries Sjowall and Wahloo and Henning Mankell, has been at the heart of the Nordic noir literary movement which deals in the dark doings lurking just beneath the idyllic veneer of social democratic society. The Dying Detective is actually the eighth part of a series that began in 1978 featuring the detectives Jarnebring & Johansson, the last three all relating to the shocking unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme. Even this book touches on the subject as the murder of the girl took place before Swedish law lifted the statute of limitations following Palme’s assassination.

With its fascinating combination of dark humour, sentimentality and procedural detail, the book’s somber ending and the stoical outlook of its characters makes The Dying Detective a must-read for fans of Nordic noir. Winner of the 2011 Glass Key Award, the book is a landmark event in Scandinavian crime fiction. Fans of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Dept Q series‘ brand of endearingly imperfect but dedicated heroes will find much to enjoy in this title.

Sound like your thing? You might also like Mr Mercedes by Stephen King or the Lincoln Rhyme series by Jeffery Deaver.


CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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