Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Three Seconds, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellström

Silver Oak/Sterling/Quercus, 2010
originally published as Tre Sekunder, 2009
translated by Kari Dickson
489 pp.

Three seconds:
The time it would take for the ammunition, in a wind strength of seven meters per second and a temperature of eighteen degrees Celsius, to leave the church tower and at a distance of fifteen hundred three meters to hit a head in a workshop window.

Just whose head is in said window is only of the questions in this quick-paced thriller ride of a novel, the third by Roslund and Hellstrom after The Beast  and Box 21, both of which were superb, although the latter was  infuriating.  Three Seconds also won the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award for Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, and falls just this side of the line of what I would consider more edgy and gritty crime, although it's closer than most of what I've been reading lately.

The authors take a new tack in this novel, which centers around a police informant code name Paula, real name Piet Hoffman. Piet has done something unprecedented: he's infiltrated the Polish mafia to the point where he is put in charge of their drug operations in Sweden.  When we meet Piet, he's going through the regurgitated stomach contents of a drug mule, who has smuggled in amphetamine in little rubber balls.  He also has an appointment with a buyer who's going to drop a lot of money if the product is good.  But during the deal, watched over by no-nonsense mafia associates, something goes terribly wrong -- and the buyer is killed.  The police are called in (long after Hoffman and friends have vacated the place), and Detective Inspector Ewert Grens is put in charge of the case. It isn't long until the body of the buyer is identified: it is an undercover Danish police informant, working on a drug case for the cops there. But this story is just the tip of the iceberg: this little branch of the Polish mafia has decided that they can increase their coffers by taking over the prison drug market, "the closed market" -- and leave it to Hoffman to figure out how to make this work.  There's really only one way -- Hoffman must get himself arrested and put into prison to remove the current drug dealers and take over the system.  At the same time, Hoffman will be helping out the Swedish police nail the Polish drug lords.    But first he wants a guarantee....

While the novel thankfully doesn't proclaim Roslund and Hellstrom to be the "next Stieg Larsson," as many publishers touting new crime fiction coming from Scandinavia seem to be doing, I couldn't help being reminded of Larsson's Millenium series, especially The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, due to the vast amount of detail about political and police corruption that exists in Sweden.  The authors are also meticulous in detailing Hoffman's plans down to the last possible contingency -- and frankly, the attention given to Hoffman is one of the finer points of this book, although I didn't like him personally as a character. Grens is the other star of this show, and if  you've read Box 21, you'll remember him as the older, curmudgeonly inspector of a most horrifying case who made a very bad decision (I won't go into it here, but suffice it to say, it was most disappointing and I remember wanting to throw the book across the room at the time), or as the cop who was never without his music by a Swedish pop singer named Siw Malmkvist, driving his colleagues crazy -- well, he's quite different in this novel, having to finally deal with his grief over the loss of his partner both at home and on the force, Anni. Still in the throes of depression, still sometimes laying on the floor, he has only a few days to bring something more to the death of the dead Danish police informant before the prosecutor downgrades the case.  And as things begin to heat up in the investigation, which sadly, doesn't really happen for quite a long time here, he becomes a pit bull, refusing to let go of his findings, no matter what the cost. As an aside,  I have to wonder if he did this to atone for his earlier actions, but that's something the reader will have to decide for him or herself. 

While the book is definitely an action-packed page turner as you ponder a) how the heck Hoffman is going to come out of all this as things begin to fall apart from the very beginning and b) if Grens is going to be able to solve this case, it is a bit slow in places.  For example, there are several spots where the author repeats bits of conversation and plans we've already read, most notably when Hoffman mulls things over and over in his mind.  This happens quite frequently throughout the story and is a bit irritating.  Or then there's the odd page or two showing what a bad dad Hoffman is, drugging his kids here and there, or  taking them along to watch videos of Winnie the Pooh while he cuts amphetamines with grape sugar at his office.  And it takes forever for the really dynamic stuff to happen. And okay, enough with the politics sometimes.  But overall, it's a good read, one that will keep the reader's attention from page one onward through until the end. 

I liked this book, and it's definitely recommended if you're into Scandinavian crime fiction, although I think that it might be wise to start from the series' beginning so you get a handle on Ewert Grens and what makes him tick. Coming into this one without that background might be a bit tricky.  I've already preordered Cell 8, by this awesome writing pair, and if that's not recommendation enough for their books,  well, I don't know what else I can say.

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