Although billed as a standalone novel, with legendary policeman Lars Martin Johansson taking centre stage THE DYING DETECTIVE is not entirely new territory for Persson’s fans. He’s had at least a minor role in all three of the author’s books I’ve previously read and he was the main character in 2015’s FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM. Here he has retired and as the book opens he suffers a stroke and heart damage, the side-effect of a life of excess. While recovering in hospital he meets a doctor with a secret. Her father, a pastor, confessed on his deathbed that he knew the identity of the person responsible for a brutal rape and murder of a child that had gone unsolved for 25 years. Of course he failed to reveal the person’s name. Johansson, the policeman who could see round corners when he was in top form, becomes obsessed with solving the case even though there is scant evidence to go on and his health is not at its best.
Although much of the crime solving here takes place from Johansson’s sick bed, or his sick couch to be more precise, and the tension is not triggered in the usual ways this is the most accessible of Persson’s novels I’ve read. On previous occasions I’ve struggled with the level of detail even when enjoying the book overall but this one is relatively short and seems to have made the acquaintance of a good editor.
Storywise this is not one for fans of non-stop action as the case is closed with a series of tiny clues being quietly pieced together. I found this quite delicious but appreciate that it’s a little slow for some. At about the half-way point of the novel Johansson identifies who he thinks responsible for the murder of nine year old Yasmine Uryegan and I’d argue that’s when the real tension starts to build. How is Johansson going to prove that his gut feeling is correct? And, more importantly, what is anyone going to do if he manages to pull that off given that the statute of limitations on the crime has expired? This last issue proves a particularly thorny one as various characters who have been roped in to the investigation have different ideas about how justice might be delivered in such a scenario. Will they ‘take care of’ the suspect as Johansson’s borrowed muscle would like to do? Or will a lifelong commitment to doing the honourable thing prevail? It’s a thought-provoking dilemma and the issues are well-teased out.
The characters here also seem to shine in a way that hasn’t been the case with past books of Persson’s. Johansson himself could be insufferable – being a hotshot policeman who never made mistakes – but the fact that he is fragile due to his health problems and is facing his own mortality head on gives him a real humanity. I thought it a wonderfully credible depiction of the ageing process and of someone used to being in control of things having to deal with the gradual loss of that control. The minor characters who become embroiled in the investigation are also engaging but the other real standout character is the criminal who even via the mostly second-hand knowledge we have of him becomes a very vivid person. Throughout the book Persson demonstrates true insight into human beings at their most vulnerable.
I’d been tempted to skip this book after really struggling with FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM but I saw it on a couple of trusted bloggers’ best-of lists for last year so decided to give it a go and am very glad I did. It might be my favourite of all his novels though I’ve still got a big soft spot for ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE. Utterly mislabeled as Nordic Noir, Johansson’s mild self-destructive streak aside he is about as anti-noir as it’s possible for a hero to be, this book is nevertheless an excellent example of crime fiction that mixes the personal and political with police procedure in a very compelling way.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Neil Smith
Publisher Doubleday (this edition 2016)
Length 352 pages
Book Series standalone (sorta)
Source of review copy borrowed from the library