Misterioso opens with an odd prologue featuring a darts-playing bank employee engaging in his daily ritual of opening the bank for which he works. We then jump to a completely unrelated event in which a Kosovar refugee who has recently been told he will be deported has taken several hostages in a Stockholm Immigration Office. Choosing not to wait for backup policeman Paul Hjelm involves himself in the situation and, because no one dies, is treated as a hero by the newspapers. Within the police though he is investigated because his approach broke several rules and just as he fears he will lose his job he is approached to join a new elite team being formed within the National Criminal Police. The team will be temporarily known as the A-Unit (cause for much frivolity throughout the book) and its first job is to investigate a series of high-profile murders of prominent businessmen.
With three rapid changes of story focus and more than a dozen characters introduced in its first 40 or so pages I found Misterioso a bit awkward to get into, and the first half was really a bit of a direction-less slog. There are seven members in the elite new team and while Paul Hjelm is clearly meant to be the main character Dahl does try to give all of the rest an equally significant introduction. The positive view of this is that it means the book (and the series for which it is the debut) does not have to be carried by a single man but the downside is it’s a lot of people to meet all at once. For most of the novel I thought of them all by the first quirk they were introduced with which is probably doing everyone a disservice but I couldn’t help it. I’m not sure that the contrivance of creating this new team of supposed independent thinkers worked all that well as a plot device really because it meant they were all getting to know each other along with us readers getting to know them and at times this felt a bit forced. Hjelm is fleshed out to be a lonely man (though he is married with children) harbouring some strange thoughts and an obsession with a newly acquired blemish on his cheek. Towards the end of the novel there are flashes of real people behind the quirks of his team mates and I’m sure these would continue to be explored more in future novels. The one attempt at a female character did leave me grimacing though as the combination of personal history and behaviour depicted was neither credible nor particularly sensitive.
Dahl did a good job depicting the grunt work of such a case where there is little evidence to go on. The team were shown looking at every aspect of the victim’s lives to see where there might be connections and possible links to killers. There were several threads followed that turned out to be harmless dead ends and I’m sure this is a very realistic occurrence in most real-world investigations. The way that various team members got it into their heads that their angle was the one that would break the case wide open also felt quite credible to me. Though when this led to one of them flitting off to another country and getting himself (non-fatally) crucified I did roll my eyes. That’s what you get for having a team of independent thinkers I suppose
The second half of the book was, for me, much more coherent and tightly written as the team narrowed down an increasingly likely suspect and were able to focus their efforts a bit more. Here Dahl also started to provide some social commentary on issues such as the problems with the Swedish economy (not the recent world financial collapse as this book was first published in 1999) and the eagerness with which people looked to blame foreigners for crimes being committed in their country.
On balance I liked the book enough to look for more by this author and am prepared, as always, to be a little forgiving of a debut. There’s certainly plenty here that shows promise and I do hope that more of the 11 book series in translated into English (hopefully in order).
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Misterioso has been reviewed by several people who all seemed to enjoy the book more than I did (I didn’t hate it but did not love it either) including at International Noir Fiction (where Glenn displays the disparity of the book’s worldwide covers, like Glenn I’ve no clue what the Spanish cover is trying to represent), Nordic Bookblog and Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog (I definitely agree with Keishon about the silliness of this prologue).
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My rating 3/5
Translator Tiina Nunnally
Publisher Pantheon Books [this translation 2011, original edition 1999]
Length 340 pages
Book Series #1 in the A-Unit series
Source borrowed from the library