Review: Arne Dahl – To the Top of the Mountain

Arne-DahlArne Dahl has rightly gained a reputation for producing taut thrillers with a strong political slant. We’ve had two of them translated into English, The Blinded Man and Bad Blood and are, therefore, a long way behind the series in its original Swedish language. To the Top of the Mountain picks up the threads of the now disbanded Intercrime team following the tragic end to its last case. The detectives are spread around the city in different departments and the unit’s leader, Jan-Olov Hultin has retired to his country cottage.

An explosion in a high security prison is closely followed by an attack on a well-known drugs baron and a shocking massacre. The events may be connected but it needs the skills of the Intercrime to pull together the strands of what appear to be random attacks. But a complex child pornography case is occupying Gunnar Nyberg and he is given permission to continue with this investigation. A couple on the run with a suitcase containing the keys to a security box may hold the answers to the violence unfolding in the city.

Dahl’s skill as a writer is evident in how the narrative of To The Top of the Mountain is structured. He holds back from reassembling the team too early in the story and instead we get vignettes of how each former member of the elite unit is now functioning. This is as interesting as the main crime story for readers of this series. In fact, it isn’t until the middle of the book that Hultin finally makes his entrance.

Once the investigation is underway, the story cracks along briskly, a style we have come to associate with Dahl’s books. I found this one to be less violent than his previous ones, in particular Bad Blood.  However, more than the crime story, it was the relationships portrayed that I most enjoyed. Chazez, the Swedish-Chilean policeman, finally meets his match in love and Kerstin Holm and Paul Hjelm’s relationship shifts once more. And, on a personal note, I love the fact that two of the central characters are choristers.

This is my favourite book so far from this solid series. It’s always gratifying to read an author who gets better with each book.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Alice Menzies.

Review: Arne Dahl – Bad Blood

Bad BloodArne Dahl’s The Blinded Man was a book I managed to read before its UK publication via a US copy entitled Mysterioso. It confirmed for me that the accompanying hype was justified as it managed to give us a slightly different style of Scandinavian crime thriller with a strong cast of central characters. We’ve had to wait a while for the next book in series, which has been preceded by its dramatisation on BBC4. However, Bad Blood proved to be an excellent read and not marred by my familiarity with the story.

Detective Paul Hjelm and his team at the special unit within the Swedish National Criminal Police receive an urgent call from the FBI to say that a notorious serial killer has boarded a plane to Stockholm after killing a Swedish national. The ‘Kentucky Killer’ murders his victims by squeezing shut their vocal cords with a torturous implement. When the killer escapes detection at the airport, the team have to try to unravel why the American killer has travelled to Sweden and who his next victims are likely to be.

Dahl’s writing is always a pleasure to read, detailing in equal measure a complex police investigation along with the relationships that form within a tightly-knit unit. The characters that we got to know in The Blinded Man are back but most of the relationships have subtly shifted: Paul Hjelm is back with his wife, his colleague and ex-lover Kerstin Holm is mourning the death of her partner, and former Mr Sweden, Gunnar Nyberg, is trying to atone for past sins. The book’s title is one that has been used by other writers but it sums up the central theme of the novel – how family relationships can often destroy lives.

Dahl has previously stated that he wrote ten books in his Intercrime series partly as an homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. I could see the influence of the crime writing duo’s series on this book: the trip that Hjelm and Holm take to New York had echoes of Roseanna  in it and the tone of the novel had the restrained feel I often associate with Swedish crime fiction, with the exception of the conclusion. The villain, when caught, is a larger than life figure which, while befitting the monstrosity of the crimes, gave the ending a Hannibal Lecter feel.

Overall Bad Blood, written in 1998,  is a worthy follow-up to The Blinded Man and there is plenty of mileage left in the series. I just hope the remainder of the books are translated as soon as possible.