Note: This review does contain a spoiler of sorts. You can leave the final paragraph until after you’ve read the novel!
When I reviewed Leif G.W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing And Winter’s End earlier this year, I likened it to a cross between Sjowall & Wahloo and Stieg Larsson (particularly The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest). There the subject was the murder of Olaf Palme, and it was ironic that policeman Lars Martin Johansson, investigating a different murder, is not only unable to ‘solve’ the most important crime in Swedish history, but that the man most responsible not only gets away with it, but gets the girl Johansson fancies.
In Another Time, Another Life it’s years later, 1999, and Johansson, is now married to that woman, though the circumstances of their re-connection are not as innocent as he knows. Thought of as a safe pair of hands, has just joined the Security Police, Sepo, one of the many layers of secret police set up to protect themselves from public scrutiny each time the public is given scrutiny to the previous layer. But the story begins in 1975, when the Red Army Faction took over the West German embassy in Stockholm, leaving four dead, two of them the terrorists. Johansson discovers that files on two Swedes who allegedly helped the Germans, have disappeared and reappeared in his files, and want to find out why. One of them was the victim of a murder in 1989, and the statute of limitations is about to run out—but Johansson’s friend Bo Jarnebring, who also appeared in the previous book, and the competent, attractive Anna Holt, were the detectives on that killing. Their investigation got nowhere, primarily because it was headed by the pig-headed, corrupt, alcoholic Backstrom (think NYPD’s Bunce without the conscience).
Now, reopening that investigation takes Johansson deep within the workings of the Swedish state—not only in terms of solving the crime, but also in terms of figuring out just who wanted the whole thing reinvestigated, and why. And why it was covered up in the first place.
If Summer’s Longing crossed Martin Beck with Mikke Blomkvist, Another Time, Another Life is like Beck crossed with Joseph Wambaugh, and Backstrom, convinced this is a simple homosexual killing barely worth solving, is a character worthy of Wambaugh at his best. Johansson, who in the previous book showed signs of being bound for the lonely life of a Beck, here seems much more in command. The subtleties required by his new job are still a strain, but not beyond him, and in the end he achieves a result that satisfies his sense of justice, and probably pleases those above him as well. My one criticism of Summer’s Longing was for its being somewhat prolix, but not only is this book written much more tightly, the result for Johansson means the story is resolved in a way the Palme killing never could be. In that sense, despite the fact that you almost need to know the characters’ backstory from the previous book, and you can see where some of their personal lives are headed, this might be a better place for newcomers to Persson to begin.
The brilliance of the story, however, lies in its coda, where Backstrom gets the last laugh, in the end ‘solving’ the 1989 murder, pinning it on a gay serial killer. That he uses liquor he stole from the murder victim’s cupboard ten years earlier, and that the bottle is a banana liqueur which even the thirsty Backstrom presumably found unapproachable, is a bit of subtle irony which Swedes would recognise, and I assume find even more amusing than I did. Underneath the humour, Persson does shine a light on Swedes and their society, and in that broader sense may be the most interesting of the novelists in the current Swedish crime boom.
Another Time, Another Life
by Leif GW Persson
Doubleday £16.99 ISBN 9780385614191
This review appeared first at Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)