Friday, August 5, 2011

Misterioso, by Arne Dahl

Pantheon Books, 2011
340 pp.
translated by Tiina Nunnally

"Misterioso...It's a play on words....There's an inaudible mist in the title. Behind the mystery, the mysterium, there's a mist.  When you say the word, you don't hear the mist.  It's hidden by the more pronounced mystery. And yet it's there and has an effect...The mystery is immediately apparent, intangible, of course, and yet physically manifest. The mist inside is harder to distinguish. But it's there in the mist that we go astray."

 Actually, the character in the book speaking these words is referring to the song "Misterioso" by the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, but this quotation is highly appropriate regarding Arne Dahl's novel of the same name.   Misterioso is another fine example of Scandinavian crime fiction, this time more of a police procedural with a few twists and turns along the way. There is definitely no measure of cutesiness to be found in this book -- it's police work through and through, and some of the scenes are a bit violent.  At the end of the book, there's a page that says that Misterioso is the first book in the Intercrime trilogy, but looking at Wikipedia, I see that there are actually eleven novels in this series, one prior to this one.  Hmmm.  Hell-o-o-o, American publishers: why only three???  I'm seriously considering learning Swedish for reading as this happens so often.

 The main focus of this novel is a group called (for lack of a better term) the "A-Unit," which is "top, top secret," answering only to the National Criminal Police (NCP).  Each member of the A-Unit is "in a position of higher authority" than those who come to his or her assistance, be it the Stockholm Police or the NCP itself.  The unit was formed largely because of the frustration over the failed attempts to solve the real-life case of the murder of Olof Palme after years of investigations that got nowhere for a number of different reasons.  The A-Unit is desperately needed at the moment: a serial killer is out there committing a series of crimes labeled by the press as "The Power Murders,"  so named because he or she is targeting some of Sweden's high-powered business leaders.  This is a top-priority case.  The killer leaves very little behind: two bullets, removed from the wall after the deed is done. Then he sits back on the sofa and listens to the Theolonius Monk song "Misterioso" on tape.  The A-Unit must stop the killer before he can strike again, a task easier said than done, because of the number of investigative paths the Unit is following. 

The main character of the novel is Paul Hjelm, whose career is about to be trashed after he intervenes in a hostage situation. A Kosovar Albanian  is holed up at the Immigration office, angry because after he and his family waited for years for their citizenship, he recently found out he was being deported and snapped.  Although Hjelm is hailed by the press as a hero, his department wonders if he's got a racist, anti-immigrant bent, which in Sweden's current political climate, would look bad for the police department. As Hjelm waits for the curtain to come down on his career as he is made an example of, he is snatched up by the NCP and dropped into the A-Unit, where he works with some of the best crime-fighting minds in the country.

Misterioso  is well-written, the characters are interesting with varied personalities, especially the crew of the A-Unit: they're all flawed in some way, as humans normally are and they have egos and differences that must be put aside to work together.  They learn from each other as well, especially Hjelm, who for example,  by dint of having to share an office with the only "blackhead," Jorge Chavez, he comes to realize that perhaps he's not as racially unbiased as he believes. And then there's Söderstedt, whose reports sometimes diverge into tangential revelations about the economic or political woes of the country á la Sjowall and Wahloo.  Sometimes the group members use less than savory methods to get what they want from suspects or from people they're interviewing -- the special weapon of the Unit's leader is a killer head butt -- and the members of the group often take advantage of their status as being higher in authority than everyone to get what they want. I don't know if I agree with that, but then again, the author could have made the Unit do worse things than they did to produce results. And it's probably a realistic scenario.

I liked Misterioso, and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Scandinavian crime fiction, but to anyone who likes police procedurals. If you're looking for a suspense-filled, action-packed adventure, well, there is some of that in places, but largely it's a lot of tedious police work: stakeouts, going through records, following up leads, talking to witnesses etc -- all quite well portrayed by the author.   I had just one small niggle here:  I like the team approach, but with so many characters it's hard to really engage with more than just a few of them. Not that this is a deal breaker, but outside of the main characters, you get a few snippets here and there that don't really give the reader more than a bare-bones outline of who these people really are.   And finally, not a complaint, but  if you're a bit prudish you might want to gloss over some of the racy bits, although they're not prolonged to any great length, which is always a definite plus, as I hate sex as filler or something unnecessary that needs to be in the book to sell it.

Overall, with the abundance of red herrings, the story hooks you, then lets you run and play with the bait for awhile before reeling you in at the finish.  Misterioso definitely held my interest, tempting me to stay up all night and finish it,  and I'll be eagerly awaiting Dahl's next novel.  And then the third.  And if I ever learn Swedish, 4 through 11!

crime fiction from Sweden


  1. I have been waiting to see what English readers think about Dahl´s terrific series for ages. Good to see him receive fine reviews; I really think he deserves it for his intriguing team.

  2. amazing review, Nancy! thanks for this recommendation! 'Misterioso' by Arne Dahl sounds really interesting and captivating! I can't wait to read it! The novel of Elizabeth K Lee is another great example of crime fiction. I warmly recommend it to anyone who likes police procedurals.

  3. Thanks for your comments! The book is really good and I hope it does well in the US -- maybe the publishers will bring on more than three of his novels to us non-Swedish speakers!

    By the way, your link does not go to a novel; do you have a specific title?


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