Monday, September 22, 2014

Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, by Leif GW Persson

Let's get one thing out of the way from the beginning: this book  is something of a slog. Remember how everyone said that they loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, except that it packed in too much information? (I didn't actually mind that, though I had other problems with the book.) Well, this book takes information loading to another degree entirely.

On top of that, the translation is often infelicitous--a pet peeve being that women never seem to laugh in the book, they only giggle; the pacing is not what you would call action packed; and the many, many characters are not as individuated as they might be. (This is one of those books where a cast list of characters would have helped.) Some of them, though important and recurring, are never referred to by name--the special advisor, the Stockholm chief constable, and the prime minister being the main ones. And there is an overabundance of characters saying something and then thinking something else privately to themselves, rendered in a repetitious and heavyhanded fashion.

I wasn't obligated to read this book for any reason. Why then, did I persist? Well, partly because I knew that if I did not continue now, I would never have the heart to begin it again, which I would have had to do to have any idea what was going on. But more, as time went on and the journey became harder, because I felt that despite the less than literary rendering, the author genuinely had something to say.

Have you ever read a spy novel or thriller where there's a lot of action and exotic locales, but where the characters are cartoonish and their motivations clichéd? Well, this book is the opposite of that. Persson obviously cares very deeply about what he's really trying to get across, which is basically an indictment of the Swedish police, government and secret service and he's had to write a vast, complex and deeply cynical tale to do it. Despite my complaints, it is actually woven together thoroughly for such a multi-faceted story. Characters that appear at the beginning and disappear for a long while are there again at the end. We may have lost track of them, but Persson hasn't.

The story begins with a falling body. The opening, in fact, promises a book that is not much like the one we actually end up reading, full of character, incident and dark humor. Along about page 97, however, the readership is likely to be thinned out considerably, as we are treated not only to a wholly new cast of characters, but also an extremely dry discussion of the internal and external aspects of the Swedish police structure. And I suppose chapter subtitles should have been a clue, but it took me longer than I care to admit to realize that this thread of the story actually takes place before the part we have just read. They are parallel tracks through the same incidents, but the second one is slightly earlier in time. Knowing that in advance may help you to sort out the timeline here better than I did.

My sheerly intuitive sense of what Persson had in mind in undertaking this was fleshed out by some helpful comments Philip Amos made over at Detectives Beyond Borders recently. Although author notes in the book tell us that Persson is a leading Swedish criminologist, Amos told us that he was actually fired for blowing the whistle on the Justice Minister, who was deeply implicated in a prostitution ring. (The justice minister is another figure in this book that is never mentioned by name.) And he speculates that crime fiction was a way for Persson to 'get the word out' on some of the shadowy activities of various Swedish institutions.

The story Persson is trying to tell in this novel is about another of the great unsolved political crimes, that of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986. We circumambulate this figure without getting to meet him directly, but Persson describes an intriguing figure to say the least. A Kennedyesque figure, in fact, which makes it appropriate that I should have learned more about him, purely by chance, on the comment thread of a post about another chronicler and speculator on political and conspiratorial crime, James Ellroy.

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