Monday, August 22, 2011

Anger Mode, by Stefan Tegenfalk

Nordic Noir Books/Massolit Publishing, 2011
originally published as Vredens Tid, 2009
translated by David Evans
472 pp.

It's difficult to stick Anger Mode into a single pigeonhole.  It starts out as a murder mystery and police procedural, then adds the political thriller element, spends some time in the conspiracy-thriller category, and to top it all off, it's a cliff-hanger to be continued in the next installment of this series, Project Nirvana. The blurb in the back of the book notes that the series featuring main character Walter Gröhn is actually a trilogy, so any loose ends in the first two books may not be resolved until the very last. Normally, I tend not to choose books in the political/conspiracy thriller zones (which is also why I don't read many American writers who tend to crank this stuff out) but there's enough of a police/mystery element here that kept me reading, and I liked the main character. 

Without giving away any of the specifics, a series of deaths has the Stockholm County CID in a quandary.  The first death, noted by the head of the CID as a "real hot potato," occurs when a judge from the Stockholm District Court loses his temper and strangles his taxi driver to death with his belt. The case is handed to Detective Inspector Walter Gröhn, who has an "unorthodox mindset that often set aside legal conventions," yet manages to have a high rate of closed cases.  His maverick methods will probably keep him at the level of Detective Inspector until he retires, as his bosses see him as not "potty trained" or diplomatic enough to move up in the ranks.  There is no apparent motive in the taxi driver's death; even worse, the judge has only some vague idea of what actually happened, not being able to remember what would have set him off enough to commit such a crime.  Gröhn begins to realize that the case is ultimately going to be swept under the rug and is a bit disgusted.  But just when he gets started on the investigation, another murder with the same M.O. provides some interesting results during the postmortem exam, and the case is handed off to the National Security Service (SÄPO) and the Prosecutor's Office for reasons of national security.   But while the second and then a third murder allows Gröhn a path which to follow in terms of a pattern, he has to run a secret, parallel investigation because a) he's in the hospital after surgery to remove a brain tumor; b) he's learned that it's only a matter of time before he's going to be placed on indefinite suspension -- it seems he's broken the rules once too often; and c) his presence in the case is unwelcome as it is no longer a police matter. With nowhere else to turn, and a determination to solve the case, Gröhn has to trust de Brugge and another unlikely partner, a journalist with a propensity toward blackmail, to help him out while he's sidelined. The three have to work against the clock to stop whoever is behind all of the deaths before anyone else is killed.

On the plus side, Anger Mode has a wide range of well-drawn characters and the action never stops.  Gröhn's somewhat unorthodox crime-solving skills and his disdain for rules make him a likeable protagonist. He's a rebel who genuinely cares about keeping the bad guys off the streets, no matter how he has to make it happen. He has contacts on the street that owe him favors, a fact which allows him to operate under the radar and get the job done. His partner, de Brugge, is also an interesting character. She's the daughter of a shipbuilding magnate, drives a Porsche, but is sensitive to what others think of her.  Her transformation from rule- and procedure-oriented cop to working with Walter using his methods is fun to watch as the novel progresses.  Another positive aspect of this novel is the parallel investigation being run from Walter's hospital room -- it is good police work, albeit not too kosher in its execution, using a combination of old-fashioned detection and more modern methodologies to get the job done. Finally, there's never a dull moment; the action never lags. 

But on the flip side, the premise is a bit far-fetched and improbable; the book is a bit more commercial and more mainstream than I've come to expect from Swedish crime writers or from Scandinavian crime authors in general. Once the main thrust behind the crimes is revealed, the novel  sort of loses some measure of its credibility as a believable story.  Furthermore, when the case is handed off to SÄPO, the tone of the novel changes from a who and whydunit (although actually, the "why" is a bit obvious to the reader) to a political/conspiracy thriller complete with paid hit men, terrorist threats, rogue agents, and misappropriation of power.  I was a bit disappointed that the book started taking this path when there's a perfectly good crime fiction novel that got a bit lost to the roller coaster ride of events. 

Would I give the second installment a try? Sure -- I hate loose ends and I have to see what happens to Walter. I think this book is best suited to readers of political/conspiracy thrillers who are all about the action and the intrigue.   Of course, my own personal preference leads away from these sorts of novels, and many people have given this book four and five-star ratings, so there may be more to it than I realize. It's not my personal cup of tea, really, but I'd definitely suggest giving it a try.  I do predict that when this hits the US, it will sell well; people here seem to eat this kind of stuff up (including my husband). 

crime fiction from Sweden

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