In Watching You, one of the Nordic nations’ premier crime writers delivers a masterclass of misdirection and suspense. Arne Dahl – or Jan Arnald, if you prefer his other pen-name – kicks off what appears to be a standard Scandi crime police procedural with a stand-out, set piece action sequence which simultaneously curls your toes and sets your stomach churning. The whole book is saturated with unsettling scents; blood, bodily fluids, decay, and each scene is soaked with the incessant precipitation – from downpour to near-constant drizzle – which is the investigators’ near-constant companion.
Into this bone-deep discomfort squelches Berger, who at first glance is the archetypal rogue detective. Senior in the force, in line to be squad leader if he could only keep his unconventional impulses under control. Respected by his colleagues, with a sassy female sidekick. A man with a troubled domestic situation that he can’t resolve, ignore or avoid. Shameful secrets in his distant past, repressed and regretted. Prone to veering away from the conventional investigation to follow wild goose chases of his own creation. So far, so very normal Nordic noir.
You think you know exactly what’s going to happen when Berger decides that a missing girl isn’t the first 15 year old female to be snatched, but is instead the third in a series. And there’s the word: series. Serial. As in killer. Which has never happened in Sweden, so his bosses won’t accept the possibility without absolutely concrete evidence… or perhaps evidence scraped into a concrete floor by a desperate captive…
Just when you think you have this book sussed, the author takes a 90-degree turn in an altogether different direction. You get to grips with that, and suddenly the focus changes again. This is a book to read in a few breathless sessions so you can keep up with the pace of change and the destabilising disruption of certainty. This is not a typical slow-burn, sedately paced novel of Scandinavian contemplation – it’s more like an American or British psychological thriller. Arne Dahl layers puzzles on top of clues, hidden away like the cogs in the clocks which form the theme of the perpetrator’s obsession. It’s a gripping, twisting and occasionally horrific mystery, one which does little to shelter the reader from the torment suffered by the various victims.
In fact, it’s such a ripping yarn that only after finishing it do you start to think ‘hang on, but that means…’ and then wonder how so many coincidences, happenstances and life-long events could possibly have happened to fulfil the narrative purposes. Well, it’s an infinite universe. Something like this might happen in one of them – but it’s probably more enjoyable not to dwell on such instances of improbability and instead sit back and enjoyed an intellectually challenging and emotionally mature example of a crime-thriller writer in his prime.
All credit to the translation, too, which succeeded in evoking the grim aspects of the story without being overtly gory, and which beautifully captured the subtle nuances of interminable rain. My joints started aching in sympathy.
To date, the author’s other crime novels which have been translated into English are part of the Intercrime series (as dramatised in the Arne Dahl TV series). As a stand-alone thriller, Watching You makes an ideal – if not exactly comfortable – introduction to his writing.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Watching You by Arne Dahl is available in various formats