The book was awarded best crime novel by the Swedish Academy in 2013 and went on to appear in English translations, adding another layer of darkness to the list of Swedish crime writers that, most recently, started with Stieg Larsson.
Carlsson’s down-and-out hero is Leo Junker, an ex-cop caught in an awkward situation and forced to hand over his badge. Junker wakes up one night and sees the reflection of a blue light flashing outside his window. Lights from police cars that lead him to a murdered woman in his own building. Junker’s ex-cop habits die hard—he talks his way into the crime scene without permission and soon finds himself a suspect. The dead woman is clutching a necklace that he knows only too well and it has his fingerprints on it.
The trail of the necklace takes the story back to Junker’s adolescence in the bleak housing colony of Salem, a dark place with dysfunctional parents and neglected children who grow into bullies and skinheads, much of it recalling Elizabeth George’s English housing estates where socially deprived adolescents tote guns and drugs with equal ease. There, Junker met John Grim and his sister Julia, fell in love and trouble, and something happened that changed his life forever.
Carlsson deftly moves back and forth between Junker’s troubled Salem childhood and the modern day, subtly creating the links. Junker has enemies because of his role as an internal affairs investigator, appointed to sniff out police malpractices, and he thinks that his disgracing was the result of a conspiracy. As a result, Junker is down on his luck and out of love—though women are by no means in short supply in his life. Personal tragedies counterpoint his career chaos and he tries to compensate by drowning his sorrows in absinthe. All this fits in with the typical portrait of the 21st century detective—Rebus, for example, who swigs scotch and just about manages to stay on the right side of the law, though Junker is much younger. Like all young loners, he is a self-absorbed man, hard to get to grips with and occasionally difficult to feel for, though all the factors in his life are guaranteed to evoke sympathy. He is a man intensely involved with his ex-lover Sam, but unable to reconnect with her—even though she becomes a crucial source of information in his investigation.
Like Julia, Sam too has a necklace, but a different kind, one that Junker gifted her. And she sports tattoos that instantly bring Larsson’s heroine to mind. Carlsson is quite obviously well-versed in English crime fiction too—apart from Elizabeth George, there are references to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, with phrases that occasionally float through Junker’s dialogues and add to the confusion that we have in relating to Junker’s character. A jut-jawed Marlowe he is not and the references don’t quite fit in.
Unremittingly bleak though the book is, not everything about Junker is dark—he doesn’t let go characteristics of the good detective and, despite the odds stacked against him, is determined to get to the bottom of the crime because it will help him understand exactly where his life took a wrong turn. In Junker’s world, crime and social deprivation go hand in hand, social deprivation causes crimes and, once you are hooked, life continues to be grim till the last drop—the tower where the adolescent Junker meets his friends is metaphorical in more ways than one.
Noir fans will most certainly take the darkness and deprivation in their stride and find the story satisfyingly well-crafted, though they may think the necklace connections a trifle obvious.