That umlaut over the F-bomb on the dust jacket is probably there to alert readers that the setting of Swedish author Jens Lapidus’ second crime novel is not the United States. Or perhaps it’s intended to soften the shock of NEVER FÜCK UP’s potentially offensive title. Whatever the reason, it’s a silly embellishment never used in the book itself.
Umlaut or not, Lapidus’ latest is a brutal and unrelenting look at the criminal world of contemporary Stockholm. While never less than frank and often fascinating, the author’s protracted prose style dulls the novel’s overall impact.
Translated from Swedish by Astri von Arbin Ahlander, the book follows the lives of three Stockholm residents. Mahmud, an immigrant from the Middle East, is newly released from a jail sentence and already indebted to a Turkish drug lord. Then he’s offered a job from legendary local mob boss Radovan to find a man who is suspected of skimming off Radovan’s stolen profits. Mahmud sees the job as hit ticket to freedom, but soon finds the assignment more complicated and dangerous than he ever imagined.
Meanwhile, Niklas, a former military security contractor, is living with his mother and trying to keep a low profile after a nightmarish assignment in Iraq. Then a man is found brutally murdered in the laundry room of his mother’s residential building. Not long after, Niklas discovers that an Arab girl who lives across the hall is being beaten by her boyfriend. The two events cause Niklas to take matters of justice into his own hands, using his knowledge of weapons and war craft.
Thomas, a cop with the Stockholm Police Department, is assigned to investigate the murder in Niklas’ building, and quickly finds that the evidence is being tampered. He suspects some hidden conspiracy carried out by his superiors, but his questioning only alienates him further from his police cohorts and the truth of the murder case.
Lapidus has obviously studied and is enamored of the classic American hard-boiled prose style. At his best, he creates unforgettable impressions and moments, such as the opening paragraphs where Mahmud finds his life threatened by the Turkish drug gang. The alternating chapters focusing on Mahmud and Niklas paint a depressing but realistic portrait of immigrant life in contemporary Sweden, with all its two-sided prejudice and contempt. And Thomas’ story aptly illustrates how law enforcement corruption is not unique to the Western world.
Yet far too often, Lapidus fills the near 500 pages with long, drawn-out memories and backstories, or present-day events portrayed in excruciating real-time detail. This awkward pacing works against the intended effect. The author eventually connects the lives of his three seemingly unrelated characters. Unfortunately, it takes so long that by the time the merging happens, it is subdued and lost in a swirl of sudden and new events that carry the narrative to its conclusion.
Lapidus’ view and understanding of the criminal world and his insight into character and motivation prove that he has the potential to be an international star of modern crime fiction. What’s needed is more merciless editing on his part, or that of his English translators, to maintain our interest in his characters and worldview. —Alan Cranis