This is the second episode in the Harry Kvist trilogy. Like its predecessor, it’s a first-person narrative. Clinch took my breath away, and this is worse. Or, perhaps, given the point of Noir, better. Harry (Kvisten to his friends) is an ex-boxer, repo man (with a specialty in bicycles), funeral parlor and mortuary assistant, as well as general investigator. He also spends time in Långholmen Prison, in Stockholm between the wars. As the book opens, he is at the end of an 18-month stint, and has found love with a young man he calls Doughboy, whom he arranges to meet in a week’s time when they are both free and can live together in Harry’s flat, deep in the impoverished quarters of Stockholm. All Harry has to do, as he leaves prison behind, is stay out of it for seven long days. As he walks away he joins a crowd watching King Gustav V open a new bridge between islands.
His flat, such as it is, is what it is, rats and all. No one has touched it, or his belongings. His dog has been cared for. But time has passed, and with it some of his friends, Beda, for example, who ran the local laundry with the help of her deaf and dumb son. Not only is she dead, but somebody has removed her body and kidnapped her son. And thus Sweden’s once-most-famous boxer morphs back into a P.I., finding clues, identifying persons of interest. Clues for Harry are one thing, but clues for the reader something else, as what appeared to be a puzzling raid on the laundry does its own morphing; Harry doesn’t always tell us what he’s thinking, and probably just as well. Nonetheless, his brain may be rusty, but his intuitions are not. Nor are his reflexes, as he lurches from one fight to the next. In the first book Harry promised Beda that he would take care of Petrus, her son, and the promise weighs on him, as he also stumbles on Beda’s daughter—whose existence he knew nothing of, and together they trace the boy.
Along the way there is a great deal of violence, mixed with moments of kindness and generosity. The immense amount of alcoholism is legendary, as people try to stay alive in the early winter days of bitter cold and darkness. It’s important to remember just how impoverished were the Scandinavians before the post-war welfare state. From the mid-nineteenth-century they headed for America in thousands. Minnesota is crowded with their descendents, as anyone who has watched the Coen brothers’ Fargo knows. The police in this between-the-wars trilogy are an altogether different bunch, whose corruption is only just balanced against Harry’s courage and boxer’s intelligence and speed. I hope he makes it to the end of the third book alive, but this is a noir series, so perhaps not. And, by the way, where’s Doughboy?
Down for the Count by Martin Holmén, trans. Henning Koch, Pushkin Vertigo