Monday, October 06, 2008

New Swedish crime: Roslund-Hellström's The Vault

Anders Roslund is a well known journalist in Sweden and Börge Hellström is a former criminal and an activist in the rehabilitation of young offenders and drug addicts. They've co-written two interesting crime novels, The Beast and the just translated The Vault (which was originally advertised under the title Box 21, which might have been a bit more appropriate to the content of the novel--for reasons I can't go into without revealing too much). The novels are published in English with the author listed as Roslund-Hellström, and neither has received quite as much attention as others of the recent Scandinavian crime wave, perhaps because the stories of both novels are complex and the message of each is pointedly social (in that respect and others, these books resemble the famous Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels of the '70s). The Beast is ostensibly about pedophilia and child murder, and that's what the blurb leads the reader to believe. But a good portion of the novel is actually about the ills of prison life, and when the child abuse plot runs out (even when the revenge tale of one of the parents of the murdered children runs its course) the prison story remains and is the source of the twist at the novel's end. The cops, Ewert Grens and Sven Sundkvist, are not actually at the center of the story, though they're thoroughly characterized, particularly the angry Grens, who's always listening to outdated Swedish pop music by his favorite singer. The Beast is good, but The Vault is a leap forward: it's one of the most ambiguous (morally and thematically) of all recent crime novels. The topic this time is human trafficking and sexual abuse, though there's also a substantial story involving two of the criminals from The Beast, a professional enforcer and a junkie, whose paths cross on the outside with consequences that are at once tragic and just (in a left-handed way). The prostitution/trafficking plot is pretty lurid, and leads to a hostage situation involving guns and plastic explosives that would have been the climax of most thrillers or crime novels, but here only leads to the real resolution, involving corruption, cover-ups, loyalty, deception, and considerable obstruction of justice. The clearest moral position, involving the ability of the victimized Lithuanian prostitutes to have a voice (even to have the most minimal life of their own), is frustrated first by the traffickers and then by the complicated machinations of Grens and Sunkivist (for very different motives--and even those motives are undermined in a surprise ending that is more effective than the one in The Beast. That final twist is tellingly told in a flashback, adding a gloss to the whole story in retrospect). The Vault isn't a pleasant story: Grens is difficult to like, though colorful and even tragic (the enforcer had caused his girlfriend, also a cop, to be brain-damaged many years earlier) but his anger is not endearing, much less his moral failings. Grens and Sundkvist are not merely investigating the crime, they are in different ways implicated in it, and we become implicated along with them. Part of why The Vault works better than The Beast is an effect of the subjects: we can hold the topic of child abuse and murder at arms length--the perpetrator is indeed a monster we don't need to recognize in ourselves. Though human trafficking may have become something of a cliche in crime fiction these days, it's also a more pervasive crime, along with the prostitution that feeds on that traffic, along with the abuse of women vividly portrayed in the novel. It's harder for us (for male readers at least, and perhaps not just for men, as the book makes clear) to dissociate ourselves from the crime or from the illicit acts of the cops--their moral failings are too easy to see as possible in ourselves. Roslund-Hellström deserve to be considered at the first rank of the Swedish and Scandinavian crime novels being translated today (and that's actually saying a lot, given the quality of Nordic crime fiction these days). Though perhaps not as subtle as Arnaldur Indridason's work or as vividly realized as Jo Nesbø's, The Vault is nevertheless one of the most complex and most effective crime novels I've read, and the dilemmas faced by the characters are deeply felt by the reader and deeply etched by the authors.


Uriah Robinson said...

Another excellent review that has me rushing to my online bookseller for a copy.

Maxine Clarke said...

I've just finished this book - one of my (requested!) Christmas presents. I enjoyed it tremendously, both as a great police procedural but also for the awful moral ambiguity which you outline in your review. The book made me very angry indeed (in a good way!). One of the better examples of Swedish crime fiction, and that is saying something as there are so many excellent books available in translation from that country at the moment, thankfully.