Saturday, 26 May 2012

REVIEW Another Time, Another Life by Leif G.W. Persson

Their most important common quality was that they were both - in an environment almost exclusively made up of police officers - unanimously described as "real policemen." They were heroes in a large number of so-called police station stories of at best varying degrees of veracity, and in contrast to their colleagues in the world of fiction - who associate with female intellectuals, listen to opera and modern jazz, and prefer nouvelle French cuisine - Johansson and Jarnebring liked regular ladies, preferably female colleagues, dance band music and Swedish home cooking.

Leif G.W. Persson is back. His last book, Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End was a masterpiece, and ShadePoint's book of the year in 2011. Here, it seemed, was a writer of enormous talent: complex plotting, wry satire, page turning drama, and in the end, a real emotional kick. There is Scandinavian Crime Fiction, and then there is Leif G.W. Persson. He really is a rogue, out there operating in the cold on his own, a brilliant cut above the rest. To describe him as a Scandinavian crime writer would be like calling John Le Carre just an English thriller writer. Like Le Carre, Persson is a writer of considerable depth. Reading this second, equally outstanding and perhaps more accessible book, it just seems incredible that Persson's work is not more celebrated outside Sweden.

Another Time, Another Life is the second in a trilogy of books that have at their core the seismic shift in Swedish culture that came from the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme. Like the first in the series, what appears the "story of a crime", a single instance of murder, in this case a civil servant killed in his flat, is actually an event that sits in a much greater tale of a country changing, discovering itself anew - even fighting with itself. Persson's detectives are often wickedly satirised - in a common device in the novel, the author will swiftly reveal what is really going on in their heads, immediately after they have spoken something else, something sanitised and controlled. There is homophobia, racism, paranoid ambition and a kind of defeated will to corruption that is bringing the country to its knees.

Battling through this are the nearest we come to traditional Scandinavian Crime Novel heroes, Lars Martin Johansson and Bo Jarnebring. They are caught in a timeline that starts with the 1975 German Embassy seige in Stockholm, investigates the murder of a Swedish civil servant in 1989 and then slowly coagulates into one at the turn of the millennium. As in the first book in the trilogy, nothing at all is what it seems, there are spooks everywhere. What is on the one hand a police procedural, is on the other an espionage thriller. What Persson does to such devastating effect - and in this he shares the skill with Stephen King - is marshall a great army of characters and multiple chains of events into one cohesive whole. One great big "Ah, right!" moment that is the hallmark, I think, of great thriller writers.

Towards the end of the novel, as if to very consciously signal an era slowly dying to a close, Persson hands the stage to "regular ladies" in the department,  Lisa Mattei, Anna Holt and Linda Martinez. Pointedly more trustworthy to join the investigation than all the men, they drive the investigation to its conclusion with verve, bravery and integrity. Of course, Johansson still lords over it paternally, and Martinez is as liable to get hammered in a bar as some of the shambolic characters earlier in the book, but Persson is I think suggesting some break with the past, a sense of handing over to a different type of professional who gets things done, and gets them done within the lines. Lisa Mattei, for example is a hugely compelling character, and even seems to muse on the consciously symbolic nature of her character herself:

"Sure," said Mattei, nodding thoughtfully. "This is a problem I have when I do this type of job. I have to downplay the literary element of my work. I don't know how to explain it, but to me its often been the case that a really good novel has more to say about what we're really like as human beings than the gloomy accounts of people and their lives that we compile here."

When Martinez is described as a witch at one point for her uncommon skill at creating fingerprint situations, one wonders almost if these three brilliant detectives are meant to be Shakespearean symbols, three seers to Johansson or Sweden's own Macbeth. They are perhaps the prophets of a new way, a new age. The final section of the novel, the section primarily concerned with these three detectives, is wondrous and exciting.

As the book ends, we have a greater sense of the course fixed in the first in the trilogy - which was admittedly hard to keep ahead of at times - and feel part of an event in publishing as the world is developed and sustained so effortlessly. This is piercing, intelligent writing, demonstrating tremendous skill in plotting and characterisation. With the right break - a film trilogy perhaps, a TV adaptation, who knows - these books could become absolutely huge. They deserve to - they have more to say about what we're really like, as Mattei would put it, than virtually every other book Shade Point has reviewed since the site started. They tower above most other Scandinavian crime novels, and yet the comparison is a construct of marketing - Persson's novels inhabit a time, a life, a Sweden entirely of their own.