Think back to the most violent, twisted and darkest Scandinavian crime fiction you’ve ever read. Now imagine the polar opposite and you might be close to Alexander McCall Smith‘s Scandi Blanc series – his own cosy version of Nordic Noir. You won’t find graphic murders or tormented serial killers here, but rather the obscure and peculiar cases other detectives might find dull.
The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf is the fifth novel in the series, with Senior Detective Ulf Varg from the Department of Sensitive Crimes in Malmö taking the lead. Unlike Varg Veum in Gunnar Staalesen’s long-running series set in Bergen, McCall Smith’s Varg, or ‘wolf’, has far simpler, significantly less violent crimes to solve. Here the name is used ironically. This Varg is one of the kindest characters you’ll encounter in crime fiction. In keeping with the wolf theme, each book in the series so far has a reference to wolves in the story, as well as a silhouette of a wolf on the cover.
There is uncertainty in the division. Cases seem to be few and far between – probably because successful criminals are on holiday in Aegean resorts, Ulf reasons. However, downsizing is coming, someone needs to be sacrificed to the Department of Litter and Waste and as head of the department, Ulf must choose. Should it be Anna Bengsdotter, the married subject of his unrequited love; Carl Holgersson, who revels in red tape; or Erik Nykvist, whose greatest passion is fishing?
Carl and Erik already have a target in mind. Blomquist is the detective in the department nobody likes except Ulf. He is a cynical hypochondriac with a vocal opinion on anything from Lyme disease to Albanians. As he’s not officially part of the department and works from a large stationery cupboard on another floor. Still, in spite of the friction he brings, Blomquist asks the right questions, which helps crack cases.
With this going on in the background, a case lands. Someone’s house has gone missing. Yes – an entire building. Fridolf Bengtsson’s timber cottage one stood firmly next to a picturesque lake but now it has been lifted from its foundations and relocate. Bengtsson is the owner of a bacon empire. Could the theft have been committed by animal rights activists or was it a case of a neighbour’s house envy? And why are there wolf tracks in the area? Pigs, wolves, disappearing houses, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Ulf Varg’s motto in life is simple: be kind. He became a detective believing in the importance of bringing to justice those who harm others. Ulf’s moral compass is perfectly calibrated. He is as steady and dependable as the classic silver Saab he drives – a gentle, sympathetic sort of car. Above all, he believes in fairness, saying what he means, and not passing judgement on others. When Blomquist unfairly assumes that the house theft was perpetrated by Albanians, Ulf gently but firmly corrects him. Stereotypes are unfair to the group in question and the victims of crime.
Occassionally, Ulf’s thoughts do exhibit a tinge of melancholy. At times like these, he worries about the lack of compassion, cruelty and pettiness displayed by some people. It’s something he laments to his psychologist, Dr Svensson, along with his guilt for being in a relationship with Juni, whom he doesn’t really love. His involvement with the veterinary receptionist stems more from a fear of growing old than love.
We can sympathise with Ulf, primarily because Juni is particularly demanding and abuses Ulf’s soft-heartedness, bullying him into agreeing to a treatment for his hearing-impaired dog. Martin is a source of pride among Malmo dog owners because he is the only lip-reading dog in Sweden – and possibly Scandinavia. Juni persuades Ulf that restoring Martin’s hearing with a new, experimental cochlear implant, a procedure Ulf cannot afford, will make Martin a happier dog. Martin himself isn’t convinced.
The idea of cosy Swedish crime fiction is somewhat novel, but it has been successfully demonstrated by writers like Jonas Jonasson. What makes McCall Smith’s books fun to read is a certain wholesome playfulness, with quirks and checkbacks throughout the mystery, which you’ll be used to if you’ve read the No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. This even carries through to the cover where a diaeresis has been added to Älexander. This accent isn’t used on the name in Swedish so perhaps the author is indicating that he has no intention of aping Nordic noir. And, The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf isn’t your typical Scandinavian crime fare, which is what makes it even more endearing and satisfying.
For a similar setup with some much tougher cases, see Jussi Adler-Olsen’s truly Scandinavian Department Q series.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars