There is nothing as satisfying as a Swedish noir on a cold winter’s night. I had hoped that Leif G.W. Persson’s first installment of his Evert Backstrom series, LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDERS would meet that need. After reading one of Persson’s earlier works and being quite satisfied, the current instance produced nothing but disappointment. Persson, the winner of numerous crime writer’s awards begins the novel with a phone call to the Vaxjo Police Authority located in southern Sweden which would lead to a flat in town that contained a scene reflecting the rape and beating of a female victim. Immediately it became obvious that a murder had taken place and that the victim was Linda Wallin, a soon to be twenty-one year old who was due to start her third term of the police course in Vaxjo.
At issue was the fact that Wallin had been involved with another police trainee, Erik Roland Lofgren. Since Lofgren was black, the racist element in Vaxjo enjoyed writing nasty editorials in the newspapers. His race also figured in DNA testing when the perpetrator’s analysis pointed to a non-Nordic type. The question was who then was responsible for the murder?
Persson does a reasonable job developing his story line – but he draws out his work to the point that the reader can become confused by what is presented. The local police force is supplemented by members of the National Crime Force sent from Stockholm in the persons of Detective Superintendent Evert Backstrom and his investigative unit. Persson describes Backstrom as “short, fat, primitive, but when necessary he could be both sly and slow to forget things. He regarded himself as a wise man in the prime of life, an unfettered free spirit who preferred the quiet life of the city, and since a number of sufficient appetizing scantily clad ladies seemed to share the same view, he had no reason at all for complaint.”
Persson uses Backstrom as a vehicle to express his opinions about police work, journalism, and society in general. If one could imagine a cartoon character with the bubble above his head rendering expressive thoughts to himself then you have our protagonist. Backstrom’s thoughts and commentary are racist, anti-gay, and misogynistic. Despite his negative personality traits, he is an excellent investigator despite what some would describe as an unorthodox approach to crime solving.
The use of Backstrom as the lead character detracts from Persson’s writing and plot development. It is clear he is not the warm fuzzy type, but he drives his unit to solve the murder which is negatively affected by his colleague’s low opinion of him as a person. The only member of his team that he can stand to be with who he might call a friend is Deputy Inspector Jan Rogersson, an old colleague from the violent crimes division in Stockholm. Detectives like Erik Knutsson and Peter Theron are too often the victims of his nasty commentary. Other characters who play significant roles are Lilian Olsson a psychoanalyst attached to the Vaxjo Police Department, a woman Backstrom despises; Detective Superintendent Jan Lewin who is an excellent investigator; his civilian assistant Eva Svanstrom; Lars Martin Johansson, head of Operational Security who despised Backstrom; Detective Superintendent Bengt Olsson in charge of the investigation; Bengt Karlsson, a former abuser who now was a member of the Växjö Men Against Violence to Women Committee; Bengt Olsson, another Deputy Superintendent; and Bengt Mansson believed to be the killer. This leads to repeated comments that there are too many Bengt’s involved in the story by other characters!
Persson’s novel, is in part an ode to good old fashioned police work. Backstrom’s commentary about computers and other technology employed in scientific police work is not useful nor is his repeated need to drink beer. It seems that in every scene he longs for a “lager” and can’t seem to get along without one. Backstrom’s remarks about “poofs,” dykes, tits, queers etc. gets old after a while. If they had been used sparingly perhaps it would be acceptable, but it is a constant barrage. If you like this type of character then Persson has created the perfect one. It is a shame because Backstrom as a character has potential because of his quick wit and policing skills and had Persson employed him differently it would have made for a better story.
Perhaps the best part of the book involves the post-investigative dive into the murderer’s background and the events leading to the crime. The questioning of the accused by Anna Holt of the National Crime Unit of the victim is incisive and brilliant as she led the murderer down a path that reinforced his guilt even though he refused to accept that he had perpetrated the crime. Persson’s focus on cognitive interviewing is important to the structure of the culminating investigation and provide important insights into how police solve crimes gaining the cooperation of the accused.
Persson does make a number of important points concerning police work and investigative journalism throughout the novel. First, his description of the dysfunctional relationship between National and local police cooperation or “hillbilly cops” and “city police” only hurts the investigative process. Second, the tabloid approach by the press only hinders investigations, hurts the victim’s family, and makes police work that much more difficult.
As to whether I will read another of Persson’s novels – the jury is still out. Perhaps I will give him another chance, but if I do I hope Mr. Backstrom’s character has undergone a great deal of therapy. At the outset I had hoped for a novel on par with Henning Mankell, but the one I read does not measure up to the late Swedish mystery writer’s work.