A credible crime caper

The Swedish team of Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström. The world they create is harsh but believable, not outlandish.
The Swedish team of Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström. The world they create is harsh but believable, not outlandish.
Posted: April 10, 2011

By Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

Translated by Kari Dickson

Silver Oak. 489 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Richard Lindsey

Scandinavia now produces writers of thrillers and mysteries the way the Dominican Republic produces shortstops. In fact, good crime fiction has been coming out of Scandinavia for quite a while, as those who recall the Martin Beck series written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö can attest. Three Seconds, by Swedish journalist Anders Roslund and ex-criminal Börge Hellström, continues that tradition.

The book starts fast. Almost immediately, we land in the middle of a drug deal at a pleasant Stockholm address, Västmannagatan 79, where Piet Hoffman, who works for the Polish mafia, is simultaneously overseeing the unpleasant unloading of a drug mule and the sale of amphetamines to a new buyer.

The deal goes bad when Hoffman discovers that the buyer works for the police and then fails to stop his mafia associates from killing the buyer on the spot.

Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens, last seen in the previous Roslund/Hellström novel, Box 21, is assigned to the killing.

Grens and his team are unaware that Hoffman himself works for the police. A minor criminal, Hoffman was recruited as an informant years ago and given an artificially pumped-up record to enhance his criminal bona fides. His assignment has been to infiltrate the Polish mafia, now planning to take over the supply of amphetamines to Sweden's prisons.

The criminal-informant program that employs Hoffman is a secret and arguably criminal endeavor, run by a handful of people in Swedish law enforcement. Grens and his team know nothing about it, even though a colleague, Erik Wilson, is Hoffman's handler.

As Grens' investigation progresses, it draws closer to finding out about the hidden program. This alarms the powerful people who control the program and leads them to take the cynical steps that drive the rest of the book.

Although Grens is an interesting character, of whom I hope to see more, Hoffman is really the key to Three Seconds. Since his recruitment, Hoffman has built an enviable life. He owns a flourishing security company (actually a front for the Polish mafia), he's married to Zofia, whom he loves dearly, and he has two small children, Hugo and Rasmus.

Hoffman has been trying to live a better life, and he's dedicated to his job and even more to his family. But he's under great stress as he tries to balance his domestic life against - and protect it from - the dueling demands of his mafia employers and his police handlers.

Hoffman allows himself to be imprisoned, for reasons that suit the interests of both the Polish mafia (or so the mafia believes) and the criminal-informant program. But the plans of both organizations are frustrated. Hoffman becomes the target of both parties' hostility and must make a new plan on his own, with results that neither anticipates (and that, to avoid spoiling the plot, I won't describe further).

For me, the middle section of the book, which covers Hoffman's prison stay, side by side with Grens' ongoing investigation, is the best part. The tension, high to begin with, is ratcheted up further. Hoffman shows considerable cleverness and resourcefulness, but it is by no means clear that these things will be enough to save him from the forces that want him dead.

The book's final section drops off a bit, perhaps because Hoffman's presence is missed. Still, the conclusion is satisfying.

As stylists, Roslund and Hellström are unremarkable. Their prose is usually serviceable, but at times blunt and graceless, and often repetitive. Nevertheless, their writing generally works, for two reasons.

First, it effectively conveys the feel of their world, harsh but believable, lacking the outlandishly perverted serial killers, improbably intuitive crime-solvers, and fiendishly brilliant super-villains so common in genre fiction. In the Roslund/Hellström world, people may be smart or stupid, criminal or law-abiding, violent or peaceable, but rarely in a way that strains our belief.

Second, Roslund and Hellström are good at details that buttress the realism of the setting. One example is a sequence describing the use of tulips in drug smuggling. Unexpected and very clever - but, again, not unbelievably so.

There's a strong strain of social criticism in Three Seconds. As Roslund and Hellström say in an epilogue, they're resolved "to differentiate between bad people and bad actions." This involves looking at the actions of both criminals and law enforcement with understanding, but without illusions. Although the authors do not equate the two or make excuses for major crime, they clearly also regard the covert intelligence program described in the novel as a bad action, in that it "unravels the legal security that others take for granted in a democracy." They also have some stinging comments on drug policy in Swedish prisons.

Three Seconds suggests that Roslund and Hellström may be among our best current chroniclers of, as they put it, "the extraordinary gray zone that unites police and criminals." I look forward to seeing where they go next.

Richard Lindsey is an editor and musician from Westchester County, New York.

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