Europa Blues: Swedish brilliance

EuropaBlues2There’s good Nordic noir. And there’s excellent Eurocrime. And there’s outstandingly accomplished crime writing which uses the genre to illustrate greater human truths, to bend perceptions, to shine light on subjects most folk would rather leave unseen in silent shadows. The Intercrime / A-unit series of police procedurals does all of the above.

Europa Blues, the latest to be translated into English although it was written at least 15 years ago, is eloquent, entertaining and insightful. It’s also witty and gripping, not scared to blindside the reader with ugly truth and gruesome details.

In short, this series is superb and this episode is particularly effective.

In it, Sweden’s international crime investigation unit are confronted with a series of strange murders. They must find the links between a Mafioso being eaten by wolverines; a mugger who comes off much worse than his mark, and a Jewish concentration camp survivor who’s killed in an unusually weird way.

All this would add up to a fascinating procedural investigation if anyone else had written it, but Arne Dahl uses his familiar cast of characters to add multiple dimensions which layer through the story, lifting the narrative beyond its immediate morality and into something much broader. So the musings of Hjelm, Holm, Arto et al touch on the very nature of time, or how free market capitalism is the thin end of the fascist wedge. How economism drives a wedge between people, reducing every interaction to a profit / loss transaction, and Sweden’s unspoken guilt over the Holocaust. If this book wasn’t categorised as ‘crime’ then you’d find it on the ‘modern literature’ shelves.

Yet Europa Blues is never stuffy, never stifling. The interactions between the members of Intercrime are perfectly pitched; rolling banter which turns serious in a syllable, and speaks paragraphs in single words. Dahl also gives us those casual, knowing interactions between long term partners, where a nod or a shake of the head says it all. It’s all beautifully observed, from a personal to a political level, with a sprawling cast of generously developed characters, full of individual quirks and genuine personality. The author has a fine eye for the detail of an ensemble police procedural with strategic re-caps to keep track of the intertwining plot-lines, all skilfully controlled. He also demonstrates a blistering ability to portray the gruesome alongside the mundane so that it feels as if it might actually happen.

What’s more, he can even take a preposterous personal coincidence – the type which usually has me yelling ’cheat!’ when I encounter them – and weaves it into the plot as if it were an incontrovertible part of human history, a fact beyond challenge, not a sneaky plot MacGuffin which relies upon staggering happenstance.

However, it’s harder to forgive Dahl’s inclination to suddenly convert one of his characters into an unlikely version of Jason Bourne for a chapter of death-defying derring-do. The action-packed finale goes a bit boy’s own adventure and felt more than a little out of place. All the preceding chapters with their subtle nods and winks were capped with an eyebrow-raising bang-bang and thank you, ma’am. I just can’t quite credit Arto the accountant as an all-out action man.

That small snag aside, Europa Blues is a hugely satisfying novel on every level. If only these books were being translated just a little bit quicker… but then, we might lose some of the beautiful nuance in the multi-lingual humour and philosophy. So maybe it’s better to wait a while for the next.

8/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

Europa Blues and the preceding Intercrime novels are available in print and ebook formats

 

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