Superintendent Evart Bäckström is one of Scandi crime’s outstanding creations. He’s an utterly loathsome creature; lazy, corrupt, bigoted and entirely self-centred. Yet his sly intelligence and his ability to manipulate any situation to suit himself mean that he has an impressive case clearance rate and a public persona to match his inflated self-image.
Bäckström is just the man, then, to investigate the murder of a leading criminal defence lawyer… which turns out to be a complex case involving a maltreated dog, a minor member of Sweden’s royal family, the mafia, feuding Iranian and Iraqi factions, the Russian Romanovs and Fabergé eggs.
Author Leif Persson delights in detail and, as a result, this is a solidly dense read. However awful Bäckström’s behaviour (and it can be truly appallingly terrible), he is blissfully unaware of how ghastly he is, so the joke is always (even if it’s unwritten) on him. The real detectives are the women around him, who Bäckström despises and denigrates as he carelessly delegates. The supporting characters are beautifully drawn; often seen only through Bäckström’s eyes yet Persson cleverly gives them depth and detail that Bäckström would never notice.
There’s a lot of plot in this novel; some of it integral to the tale and some of it existing only to entertain. There’s an entire shaggy dog story involving a parrot, which is ridiculously funny. By contrast, the extended art history lesson on the provenance of missing Russian icons was so tediously presented that I actually had sympathy with Bäckström and yearned for it to be cut short.
Persson doesn’t write ‘Nordic noir’ as such, and this is far more than a simple police procedural. It is extremely clever, engaging and subtle. However, there were several sections which were so slow that the narrative flat out stalled; perhaps it’s time for an editor to intervene in the author’s extended indulgences?
Just like a Russian doll, The Sword Of Justice contains a series of separate stories, each one buried within another narrative. There’s a real sense or surprise as each new aspect is unveiled, and the eventual solution is entirely satisfying. But this isn’t a thriller, and nor will it satisfy readers who seek a rapid page-turner. It’s a slow-burn, sophisticated series of observations, wrapped in a convoluted plot that is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. A bit like one of Bäckström’s better dinners, in fact.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Sword of Justice by Leif Persson is available at Amazon