Saturday, July 13, 2013

*Two Soldiers, by Roslund and Hellstrom

Quercus, 2013
603 pp
originally published as Två Soldater, 2012
translated by Kari Dickson

paper, UK

I've sort of been weaning myself away from Scandinavian crime, which at one point I would have said was the best crime written anywhere, but that just doesn't seem to be the case any more. Seriously, I've slowly been watching it lose that edge that used to elevate it over crime from other countries, slowly being replaced by top-notch writers from South America, Italy, Poland and elsewhere.  There are a few notable exceptions, including the books by the writing team of Roslund and Hellstrom, the authors of today's book, Two Soldiers.   These two writers have consistently put out some incredible books that throughout the entire series have remained edgy, gritty and contemporary.  Although this installment is a bit long and could have used some paring down, Two Soldiers remains true to form and is consistent with the fine writing and focus on important issues that these authors bring to the table. 

The "two soldiers" are two teens (18 to be exact), Gabriel Milton and his gang "brutha" Leon Jensen of what was formerly the Råby Warriors, now changed to Ghetto Soldiers. They see themselves as a family unit of brothers, and once you're in, you stay in until you're dead.  Leon is in prison, but still runs things from his cell; outside, Gabriel and the other members of the gang carry out their usual business with the help of even younger kids, one of whom in this novel is only 12 and longs to be a true gang member and will do what it takes to become full fledged.    The gang sets fires in their own area of Råby; when firefighters respond, they often find themselves forced by violence to just let things burn without being able to intervene.  They have zero respect for others outside of the gang,  demand protection money from local businesses without really providing protection, and have absolutely no fear of authority. As one character notes, "This is our everyday reality, a lawless country ruled by a mere few, and no one out there must fail to understand that."  All come from families where dad is non-existent and in some cases, where mom has been behind bars herself -- and they are not the only gangs that the stretched police force have to contend with.  In fact, Jose Pereira, who is the head of the Organized Crime and Gang Section, keeps his walls "decorated" with pictures of gangs, arranged in hierarchical order -- and Leon is seething at the fact that his group is not at the top of that wall.  To get to the top, he realizes that the gang has to step up its game and do something no one else has done -- but first he has to get out.  His escape from prison, carefully planned down to the last detail, brings Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens into the picture, after a young female guard (also 18) is kidnapped and later killed as part of the escape plan. He is brought in because of the kidnapping, and has a very difficult time with this case because of an intervention he was part of years earlier.  His guilt eats away at him, causing even greater angst than normal, and he takes this particular case very personally, willing to pull out all the stops  to get things under control, going up against the constraints of the law and authority:  As he notes in a heated debate with the prosecutor,
"There are no laws in Råby right now. Certainly not our laws, as they mean nothing here. So we have to find new ways ... ones you won't find in your law books, we have to do what they do."
Grens realizes that time is running out -- not only does Jensen have to be captured, but evidence pointing to the making of a bomb has been discovered in one of the Råby apartments.

The first part of the novel takes the reader through the lives of the gang members -- a no holds barred, graphic and grim look at various facets of gang life on the streets and also in prison.   There are the young children who are so disconnected from any reality except that powerful need to belong to something more like a family than they already have, and there are convicts in prison who want to be part of  the group as well. One of the most haunting scenes in this book that will stick with me long after I put the book away is a conversation between the "two soldiers," when one finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and the other reminds him about fatherhood:
"Your dad was burned alive...My dad disappeared...Alex's dad kicked the shit out of him and Reza's dad drank himself to death and Uros's dad sits on a bench on Raby Torg and shouts cock at anyone who passes and Marko's dad ... blew his brains out...And say that you're going to be a dad?"

An omg moment if ever there was one, truly.  The second part of the book focuses on the police investigation into the prison break and the murder, and the race to find the location of the bomb before it's too late.

In reading over reviews of this novel, I came across one that noted the following:
"... I do wonder why so much modern literature coming out of Sweden has to portray, or consider, the darker side of life."
Yes, well...crime fiction may be a form of entertainment, but in the hands of these two authors and others,  crime fiction has definitely become another medium for examining what's wrong in society -- a huge factor behind why I read any book.  In this case, the problem is not localized to Sweden, but an issue that touches everyone pretty much everywhere.   So, why bother to read crime at all if you don't deep down inside want to "consider the darker side of life?" Should it be all happy endings and sweetness all around where you refuse to believe that your little corner of the world doesn't have the problems that are portrayed here?

Personally, I feel like this novel could have been pared down without losing its shock value and portrayal of the "darker side of life," but overall, it's an amazing read, one I'd recommend without hesitation.

crime fiction from Sweden

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