Sam Berger Series – Arne Dahl

Watching You is the first book in the series.

Some crime is slow burn. Some crime is relentless. This falls into the latter category, taking hold of the reader from almost the first page, and putting on a fireworks display of a novel that fizzes and bangs as the tale unfolds.

Sam Berger thinks that there is a serial kidnapper/murderer at large. His bosses think otherwise. But as he looks for a young girl, the most recent kidnapping victim, he not only has to keep his theories to himself – because the hierarchy have told him there is insufficient evidence for his wild conspiracy idea – he has to work out why the kidnapper has left a clue behind at the scene – one that is very personal to Sam.

Sam’s main police sidekick is his assistant Deer, and she sometimes keeps him onside when he might otherwise go too far in his bid to find the girl. But, generally, Sam follows the natural trend of defective detectives and has abysmal relationships (work wise) with his colleagues and fellow officers of the law. This will come back to haunt him.

In the course of the investigation, Berger finds a common thread that links all the disappearances. When Berger tracks down and confronts this potential voyeur, witness, or killer, the reader’s perspective is drastically altered. To say more would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, it’s a big twist among many.

The characters are well drawn, believable, and interesting. The Scandinavian backdrop will have you turning up your heating. The plot will have you scratching your head.

While at times I wondered if the writer was trying to be too clever, I came to the conclusion that was an unfair criticism. The author has put in a ton of work to furnish a complex but polished tale, full of great characters, interesting twists, and pacy adventure. The ending is a stunner.

Which leads on to…

Hunted is the second book in the series.

Mentioning the plot here would give too many spoilers, so I will restrict myself to saying that it continues the Sam Berger story. Whereas the first book was smart, sassy, and sharp, this one tries to be the same but doesn’t quite reach the same (high) standard. There are some more of the great twists and turns before the reader gets to the final showdown.

The characterization is still good, with plenty for the reader to mull over. And there’s plenty of action.

Overall, well worth reading. But the first book is better, and if that doesn’t engage you, don’t bother with the second.

Europa Blues – Arne Dahl

This is the fourth book in the author’s Intercrime series, being the continuing cases, challenges, successes, and failures of a top level Swedish police unit of that name.

The novel has several strands, starting with the bizarre slaying of a foreign criminal by some wolverines. Then there’s the elderly, distinguished professor, Holocaust survivor, strung up and tortured to death at a Jewish cemetery. And let’s not forget the somewhat puzzling disappearance of a group of eight female refugees. Finally, there is the vigilante killing of a mugger. What’s going on?

First, continuing the trend from the earlier books, the author keeps developing his characters. They are going from strength to strength. In the same vein, the quality of writing, and the general way the whole package hangs together, is an improvement on the last book in the series, and that was no slouch.

Second, the story is very well put together, and the tension builds up, slowly but surely. Again, given the multiple strands, and the time given to several characters, this is deftly done. Very impressive. What I also noted were two features that, in other books by other writers, can be overpowering and irritating. Here, that’s not the case. Dahl’s observations on Swedish society of the 1990s are reasoned, and poignant. They may be part of the author’s message, but they are not a rant. Also, his quirky tendency to go off at a tangent, irrelevant to the plot, is kept in check, and does just enough to add a fine, believable, realistic sheen to his character portrayals.

There is one tiny clue (the smallest of details) in an early part of the proceedings that gave the whole game away to me. However, that did not spoil the enjoyment of reading the book. Further, I very much doubt if 99.9% of readers will spot it – not that I claim any superior intellect, but my particular mix of upbringing, culture, and interests, gave me the knowledge to spot the tell tale detail.

My only regret was reaching the end. It’s a terrific book, with a lot to say, and it says it well. In other words, as some reviewers would put it, although it’s a crime novel, it’s also more than that. Indeed. I would argue it’s a novel that skillfully records the time portrayed, and asks – directly and indirectly – some pertinent questions. There are sometimes no easy solutions. By way of a hopeful bonus for those of us who are fans of Mr Dahl, his work includes several great characters, and a wealth of potential for the future. I hope there are many more to come. Very highly recommended.

[My reviews of the other books are (1st) here, (2nd) here, and (3rd) here. Do read the books in the right order. That way, your reading pleasure will be much enhanced.]

To the Top of the Mountain – Arne Dahl

This is the third book in the author’s Intercrime series, being the continuing adventures, trials, and tribulations of a top level Swedish police unit. [Spoiler alert!] The unit was broken up at the end of book 2, after their last case ended badly. But when two bombings occur, it’s time for the authorities to get the boss of the unit, Jan-Olov Hultin, and his team, back together again.

One of the many differences that make this series stand out is the wealth of characters. Although there is a lead, the supporting cast are so much more than that. They are given time and space to develop as characters, with each successive book adding to their portrayal. But that should not suggest the plot is lacking; far from it. Dahl is as good as there is at taking several apparently different strands, and weaving them into a coherent, believable, engrossing tale.

So the unit investigates, and the action ramps up. It hurtles along, with many an interesting snapshot of Swedish society – not all of it complimentary – sneaked in to the narrative, but not detracting from the action. In that regard, Dahl is no shrinking violet, and the explicit violence can often shock. I don’t think he overdoes it, but I am not convinced it’s all necessary. What do I know?

In any event, the author manages to keep everything (apart from the violence!) well balanced, maintaining the tension to the end, but still finding time to skilfully craft the development of his characters.

Looking back, it does appear that the writing has sharpened over the course, and many of the rough edges from books one and two have been suitably sorted.

In short, what is on offer here is fine writing, great entertainment, and highly recommended. For the avoidance of doubt, it is well worth reading the first two in the series. Any minor issues notwithstanding, you will get a much better sense of the characters and their relationships.

[My reviews of the other books are here and here.]

Bad Blood – Arne Dahl

The Swedish National Criminal Police’s Special Unit For Violent Crimes of An International Character, or A-Unit, are alerted by the FBI that a murderer who kills in a manner remarkably similar to that of a serial killer thought to be dead (the Kentucky Killer), is travelling to Sweden. He must be intercepted and caught. (You may be able to guess how that part turns out.)

The original Kentucky Killer (K) tortured his victims terribly, while keeping their screams of agony silent with a device that squeezed shut the vocal cords shut. These killings stopped, but started again after a long break. Has K returned? Or is there a copy cat? What is the Swedish connection?

Generally, when I read the background to a crime novel, and get into the initial chapters, I have a broad idea about the direction it’s going to go, and what the range of possibilities are. Bad Blood completely outwitted me. That made it that much more pleasurable.

The police characters are interesting, though they get less coverage than the first book in the series. Pretty normal people. In the main. The action is very bloody and graphic at times. And the plot is wonderfully crafted, and expertly unwrapped. The twists are terrific.

If anything, it’s the setting that gets the short straw. This could have been set anywhere in the civilized world. There’s nothing much that is particularly Swedish.

The novel occasionally takes a break from the adrenalin rush it is inducing with observations about the world at large, and some geo-political opinions. That is where the writing is at its weakest. It’s not material enough to have a major impact, but it does jar.

I enjoyed this book enormously. The last half picked up the pace and I just had to keep reading. And, as always, the universal mark of a good book was there at the end: I was sorry it was finished.

In short, if you like crime books, this is highly recommended.

The Blinded Man – Arne Dahl

This is a Swedish crime novel dealing with the investigation into the killing of several businessmen. Is this, as it appears, the work of a serial killer? And what is it that connects the victims?

The lead character for us is another defective detective, Paul Hjelm. He does a Rambo impersonation at a hostage scene, and although that puts him in the target sights of the internal affairs type investigators, he is rescued by being plucked from there and dropped into a brand new team tasked with sorting out those multiple killings.

Hjelm is moderately defective. Some of his colleagues are more quirky, and even less suitable as candidates to be stuck in an elevator with. However, that’s what the forces of law and order have, so off they go in their merry little way, hunting through the forest and swamp like mess of clues, red herrings, lies, deception, corruption, and evil. It’s a dirty job, and they do it as best they can.

One of the quirks here is the apparent importance of some obscure jazz music. That comes to be a crucial clue.

The plot is OK, and serves as a decent platform for some of the sharp observations the author makes about society. However, I wasn’t impressed with one detail where the ease of access to the victims’ homes is explained in a throwaway line that does not convince. It’s almost as if the author didn’t have a solution he had faith in, and so tried to skip past it. That annoyance apart, it’s certainly a page turner, freshened up with some interludes of fine writing that seem to go off on loose tangents, but end up joining the main story.

There are moments of great pathos and humor, and some darkness as well. I found it, on the whole, an enjoyable and engrossing read, with just enough raw edges to keep it from the top rank of crime fiction. But it’s about 90% of the way there. I will be following the series to see if the author can build on this solid start.