Journalist Anders Roslund teamed up with ex-criminal prison campaigner Börge Hellström to bring us the first Swedish detective Ewert Grens novel in 2004. Odjuret, translated as both The Beast and Pen 33, broke new ground with its realistic portrait of violence and its scathing indictment of the Swedish legal system and society’s reaction to serious crime. The second novel, Box 21 – The Vault in the US – was adapted for TV and launched on All4 in the UK on 7 June.
Over the years the novels have veered more towards entertainment than social critique but it’s always been a balancing act. Knock Knock is Roslund’s first Grens novel since the death of his writing partner Hellström in 2017. Fans will be pleased to know that the spirit of the earlier novels is intact, while newcomers will find a complex plot that explores the underbelly of Swedish society and one of the most distinctive damaged cops in crime fiction.
The past. The big day came and went but the little girl is still living off the cake and singing happy birthday to me, amusing herself with games, doing the things the others would complain about if they could. The Lilaj family, her parents, her brother and sister are still and they’ve been that way since their visitor left. Eventually one of the neighbours reports the loud television to the police and when Ewart Grens arrives he can hear childish singing inside. A little girl in a red dress opens the door, Mummy can’t come, she’s not moving. Grens sees the father at the table, bullet to the forehead, the mother is in the kitchen, the older children in their bedrooms. Grens collects up the child and leaves, but no matter how delicately they try to interview her, she’s unable to help them. It’s frustrating, Grens senses she knows something. The child winds up in witness protection, the murderer is never caught.
The present. Detective Superintendent Grens is six months from retirement, he’s trying to ignore the heat and the inevitable rise in crime that accompanies it, preferring to listen to his favourite singer, Siw Malmkvist. He sighs when Mariana Hermansson knocks on his door – the one officer he knows won’t go away. But why is she bothering him with a break-in at an apartment on Dala Street? Nothing was taken. The address was the scene of a serious crime 17 years ago and there’s a handwritten note from Grens in the file that he is to be contacted if anything ever happens there. The story of the little girl comes back to him.
The woman who owns the flat is suspicious of such a senior detective turning up but Grens wants to see what happened for himself. Almost in passing she mentions a displaced floorboard in one of the bedrooms, something has been removed. Grens is still convinced the girl saw the killer from her hiding place in her wardrobe. He wants to reopen the investigation – but when he goes looking for the witness protection file for the child there’s nothing there but blank pages.
Meanwhile Piet Hoffman’s good life, his security company and his wife and three children, are threatened by someone who knows his past. The youngest boy, Rasmus, receives a present in the post and he’s playing with it before Hoffman realises the toy is a live hand grenade. Piet has two choices – do what they want and possibly protect his secret or fight back and protect his family. Hoffman goes to Grens and he agrees to help – but he wants help with his old case too.
Grens has a considerable backstory. He’s never been happy about the circumstances of his wife’s death many years before, and this subtly feeds into the narrative. We are in familiar territory trawling the Swedish underworld and violent crime, and Hoffman is a character we know from the earlier novels such as Three Seconds.
This is a superior police procedural. The story is satisfyingly complex, the balance between a decent and probing examination of social issues and murder mystery is about right. If I have one qualm it’s again about balance but this time it’s the introduction to the two strands of the story. Hoffman’s tale appears so far removed from the exciting premise of the cold case that it’s a little testing to stay with it until the two coalesce, and that requires patience. On the whole this is a fine addition to the Grens series, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars