Book review: Misterioso by Arne Dahl

Arne Dahl, translated by Tiina Nunnally
(Intercrime #1)
Pantheon, 2011 (first published in Sweden 1999)

English-language readers have waited a long time to read Arne Dahl’s well-regarded series about a small unit within the Swedish police force that deals with serious crimes, set up in direct response to the massive and confused official response to the assassination of Olaf Palme. The eventual translation is a US edition – and we have to be thankful that the first book in the series (the second to be written but chronologically the first) has now been published in English, unlike many other crime series from non-English speaking countries which are translated mid-way through. (While mentioning the translation, I note that Tiina Nunnally has done her usual excellent job with this text.)

Misterioso focuses on Paul Hjelm, a police detective stationed in a Stockholm suburb who defuses a hostage crisis before it gets out of hand. Because of the ethnic origin of the perpetrator, and because of his method of resolving the situation, Hjelm is handed over to internal affairs and is interrogated by two unpleasant Sapo (state secret police) officers. Worried that he is going to lose his job, and feeling alienated from his wife and teenage son, Hjelm even begins to doubt his own motives for his actions. He’s soon plucked out of his dilemma, however, by being invited to join a small, dedicated team of police officers in the national crime squad who will be assigned to particularly serious crimes. Hjelm signs up and meets his new colleagues in a useful (to the reader) meeting where each of them briefly identifies themselves and provides a bit of background.

The timing for the formation of the group (informally known as the A team) has been forced by two very similar crimes in which rich businessmen have been assassinated. In the absence of any clues, Hjelm and his colleagues embark on the kind of classic investigation that is familiar to the reader of police procedurals: the team searches for any connection between the men, social, financial or professional, in order to identify and protect the next victim(s). This investigation forms the bulk of the book, as the team follows up clues and possible leads in their increasingly desperate, and apparently fruitless, attempt that lurches from exclusive golf clubs to the Estonian mafia, and from private yachts to the boards of Sweden’s main institutions. For those, like me, who love reading about these details, this book is a real treat – the author provides just enough details about Hjelm’s personal life, and a few hints about the other team-members, to maintain the human interest in the characters while the plot twists and turns.

There is a break in the case after about 200 pages, when the title of the book, Misterioso, is revealed in a three-part ‘definition’. The key clue is a cassette tape which leads to a subplot that is quite quaint to readers in 2011: the book is set in 1997 when many people still listened to cassettes. The book itself has dated remarkably little, however, with the crash of the Swedish economy a few years before the book opens, caused by reckless bank lending – a situation which also contributes significantly to the plot and which is certainly extremely relevant today.

I very much enjoyed Misterioso. Although there are some necessary ‘setting up’ sections paving the way for future novels about the same characters, and although the solution to the mystery involves one event that is necessary to frustrate the A-team’s investigation but is otherwise not (to me) credible, the book is compelling and exciting. The chasing down of the clues was, to me again, more interesting than the showdown section near the end of the book and the revelation of what is going on and why, but overwhelmingly this is an absorbing and intelligent novel that makes me very keen to read more titles in the series (which so far number 11). I hope they will be translated soon.

I was given this book as a gift.

Other reviews of Misterioso are at: Nordic bookblog, Yet Another Crime Fiction blog, International Noir Fiction (a post showing some alternative covers to the book), Reactions to Reading, DJ’s Krimiblog and Mostly Fiction Book Reviews. These reviews are either fairly or very positive. A couple of them give away more of the plot (especially the Misterioso aspect) than I have done in this review.

Author’s English-language website

Arne Dahl is the pen name of Swedish journalist Jan Arnald. Read more about him (and the Intercrime books) at Wikipedia.