Historical crime fiction novels typically lean towards the gentler end of the murder / mystery / suspense spectrum. Not this one. It is every bit as grim and grisly as a contemporary noir novel, and reveals characters as morally corrupt and callously cruel as any modern serial-killer thriller.
But there’s much more to this gory story than straightforward shock tactics – the bleak brutality of the time, the place and the prevailing personalities create an ideal backdrop to exhibit their exact opposite. In the worst situations, the light of the righteous shines the brightest.
However, I suspect that readers who enjoy less stressful historical whodunnits – like the Brother Cadfael or Shardlake series – might find The Wolf heavy going. It’s set in the squalid backstreets of Stockholm, during the final decade of the 18th century, amid a deprived population who’ve been impoverished by conflict and corruption. Our mismatched detectives are an antisocial intellectual with no future (he’s dying of consumption) and a crippled soldier who’s plagued by his past (alcoholic, violent, hopeless). Their gruesome task is to see justice done for a murdered man – tricky, as he’s been horribly tortured for months, mutilated beyond recognition. If that sounds pretty nasty… well, I did say it was strong stuff.
The storytelling, however, is simply superb. Author Niklas Natt och Dag abandons the conventions of a procedural investigation and instead presents a series of stunning character sketches. These propel the plot at a prodigious pace while vividly bringing to life the casual cruelty of the time, which in turn illuminates the lives of the pivotal players. A few of these people defy their destinies to prove Nietzsche correct – events do not overwhelm them and they are instead made stronger, tempered by pitiless adversity.
We’re shown the evolution of the mystery from multiple overlapping perspectives. Each episode reveals tantalising fragments of the truth but leaves other characters dangling in dire peril. This has to be the mostest page-turningest historical novel I’ve ever read.
Even so, there are moments when the story was all but submerged under a metric tonne of factual background. Some of it was crucial to understanding the subtle intricacies of the tale, especially the political situation which underpins the period. But the naval battle in particular was overlong, and added little to the narrative.
That flaw is more than counterbalanced by the simply brilliant final chapters. Many books are described as ‘unputdownable’ but in this case it was true: the ending is one of those conclusions where you can hardly bear to look but won’t sleep until it’s over.
Just for once, the people who hand out awards got it 100% right when they rated The Wolf as the best debut crime novel of the year.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Wolf And The Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag is available at Amazon
Imagine what might happen if the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo came up against Jack Reacher…
…find THE CORRUPTION OF CHASTITY at Amazon