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.

14 thoughts on “Book review: Misterioso by Arne Dahl

  1. So true that there always seems to be a financial crisis going on and you’re right the book didn’t have a dated feel. I think you liked it mre than I though I did the second half was very good, for me the first half was a bit woolly. There was one cliche that absolutely grated on me (to do with the female team member’s behaviour) but I will look to read the next books. In some ways I’m comparing it to Helen Tursten’s first novel which I happen to be reading now and is comparable in terms of being the first novel in a procedural series featuring a large team and it seems more tightly written to me.

    • I know just what you mean about that cliche, Bernadette, it had me cringing too. Some male authors just don’t “get” aspects of women I think.

  2. I am so glad you liked this one. A couple of years ago it was one of my favourite Scandinavian series (before Danish writers like Jussi Adler-Olsen and Lene Kaaberbøl). It is not flawless, but I liked getting to know the team and the complicated relationships between them.

  3. Maxine – An excellent review – thanks. One of the things that struck me as I was reading it was the different ways authors have of introducing the reader to a “cast of characters” that includes more than just two or three. It’s not an easy thing to do well or to help readers keep track of their interactions, and Dahl chooses an effective approach here.

  4. First it was on my TBR list. Then, after reading a few reviews, it was off the list. Now it’s back on again, and miraculously, my library has it.
    (By the way, I just read The Missing Head of Damenesco Mateiro by Antonio Tabucchio, set in Portugal, an interesting book, unusual, could not put it down, light and witty, yet serious. Camilerri refers to this author, or rather, Montalbano does.)

  5. Pingback: Misterioso by Arne Dahl | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  6. I am in the midst of reading Mercy, over here named The Keeper of Lost Causes. It never ceases to amaze me that another police procedural can be interesting and bring new elements, twists and turns, characters, etc. And also be well-written, with just the right doses of political commentary and humor.
    I just looked up your review and found it to be very well-said and right on target. This review and a few others were a reason I put this book on reserve and the library; miraculously they had it. And it’s certainly worth my time. But I better not read more — and I do want some surprises.

  7. Maxine,
    Once again I turn to you for your expertise in crime fiction. This was a fascinating post. If only I could indulge all the wonderful leads you offer!

    Although I can’t follow them all, I do have tremendous fun reading your blog.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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