Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of where you stand with Sebastian Bergman. Or Rolf Lassgard, who plays Bergman on TV, and who is thanked by the authors for his inspiration in creating the character he plays. The Man Who Wasn’t There is the fifth novel in the Bergman series; there have been two TV series of two 90 minute episodes each, and honestly sometimes I can’t remember whether I read a scene or saw it on the screen. There are five Bergman novels, this is the third, and the third translated into English, but the titles the English titles of the last two have been styled to remind people of Stieg Larsson, for example the original Swedish title of this book translates literally to ‘The Mountain Tomb’, and honestly, the English title may be a better one! And of course there is the problem that as a reader it becomes difficult not to see Lassgard’s face in the role, and sadly it is correspondingly difficult to actually give most of the other characters any kind of real life of their own.

And the lives of the characters in the Riksmord elite murder squad really do form the crux of this story. Six skeletons found in a grave in the mountains of northern Sweden bring Riksmord onto the scene, and the story moves relatively slowly for a long time, partly because there are few clues and partly because we are dealing with the lives of these people as much as the deaths of the victims. The main narrative drives comes from two neatly parallel stories: Sebastian is actually the father of his colleague Vanja, something she doesn’t know, and she is off to the US and an FBI training course. Meanwhile, an Afghan refugee has contacted Swedish television’s investigative unit, still looking for her husband who disappeared years ago, leaving her and their two sons without a word. But although the reader knows there has been an assassination-style killing in the mountains, that investigation seems to be going nowhere.

It seemed as if this novel was very self-referential. There are the crummy meal details, like in Larsson. Bergman has lost his wife and daughter in the tsunami, which reminded me of Johanna Sallstrom the actress who played Linda Wallander in the TV series, who lost her own daughter and later killed herself. Co-writer Hjorth did some Wallander screenplays. And of course Lassgard played Wallander: some people prefer his somewhat grumpier Wallander to Krister Hendriksson’s more sparkling version (no one I’d trust seems to prefer Branagh) and it occurred to me that there is a certain brilliance at work not only in Bergman, but in the team.

Because most Swedish series are big on teamwork, going back to Martin Beck and his Swedish version of the 87th precinct. The working together is generally rational and practical, as Swedes think they should be, and their relations may be problematic, but they are problems that everyone cooperates to resolves. But Bergman is no Beck or Wallander. He is a profiler, supremely empathetic, which makes him an effective, if heartless womanizer, but he’s also conniving and nearly sociopathic. Within his group we have naked ambition, suspicion, and in Ursula a sort of female Bergman who has left her marriage and now wants a break from her lover, Torkel, the one character who would seem to fit the classic Swedish template and seems overwhelmed as a result. It’s as if Hjorth and Rosenfeldt are deconstructing the basic structure of what has become known, for marketing purposes, as Nordic noir, and perhaps inserted a little psychological noir into the mix. And it’s not just the Riksmord squad; we see similar signs of maladjustment in the media and in the immigrants—perhaps it is that the strictures that held Swedish society together are indeed falling apart, and it’s affecting the Swedes most of all.

This is fascinating, but nevertheless I was getting bored; when on p.337 a chapter began ‘When the team gathered on Monday morning, they quickly established that nothing much had happened’ I formulated the theory above and went and retrieved the book at the bottom of the wall against which I had thrown it. Only to discover a few pages later a hole in the plot. It’s not serious, it seems to exist merely to facilitate some information about the villains of the piece, but (without giving away a spoiler) it refers to a DNA test which we have never learned was ordered, because why would they check bodies we did learn could not have been those found?

But at that point, it was like firing a starter’s pistol, and we get to the real story very quickly and from there it moves. Like many Swedish works (and indeed Icelandic) we learn there are outside forces at work, and these are presented in a chilling fashion. It builds to a car-chase kind of climax of the kind which suits TV adaptations, and perhaps that is where the problem with the novel lies: it is as if the description which needs to be added to fill in the characters just isn’t enough, challenging to the genre as it is. The core story is waiting to get out and be filmed in 90 minutes. Having said all that—there is an epilogue which sets us up for the next 90 minutes, and honestly, I can’t wait.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (Fjallgraven) by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt

Century Penguin £16.99 ISBN 9781780894584

Note: This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)

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