MISTERIOSO is an exceptional book. It follows the rules that define a police procedural by following a case from the commission of a crime to the end of police involvement. The judicial system is not an arm of the police; Dahl ends the story where it must end by the definition of a procedural. The author fills every page with characters that are fully drawn and information that moves the story along at a pace that may be slow for some readers but at a pace consistent with the story – it is two months from crime to arrest. That bit of realism adds to the authenticity of the story. Real police work is 5% heart-pounding action and 95% boring slog through interviews that lead nowhere and paperwork that grows exponentially.
The book opens with a bank robbery. It moves immediately to a hostage situation at an immigration center. “A Kosovar Albanian. His family has been here a long time, and now they have been sucked into the general wave of deportation. They thought everything was fine and were just waiting for their citizenship. Then all of a sudden they were informed of the opposite. I assume that’s when things went wrong.” Dritero Frakulla has played by Sweden’s rules, committed to keeping his family safe from the murderous insanity that is Kosovo, but the rules have changed suddenly and he is up against a wall, literally and figuratively.
Detective Paul Hjelm disobeys all the rules he was taught in training and goes in alone to resolve the situation. He shoots the suspect in the shoulder, a serious infraction. Not only does he go into the immigration without backup, he does not shoot to kill. Hjelm’s interview with Internal Affairs is a masterpiece of irony. Because he did everything right, he did everything wrong. Called into his supervisor’s office, Hjelm is convinced he is going to be fired. Instead he finds himself assigned to an elite unit that is being created to solve the deaths of some of the most important business leaders in Sweden. There is a serial killer who leaves a distinct signature: two bullets to the heads of the victims, after which he removes the bullets from the wall. The killing and the clean-up are accompanied by a tape of Misterioso, a rare recording by jazz legend Thelonius Monk.
The group of six detectives, officially called A-Unit and unofficially referred to by the detectives as Supreme Central Command, includes Jorge Chavez, a man whose family had come to Sweden from South America many years before. Chavez is known as a “blackhead”, a person unlike the light-skinned, blond prototype Swede. Despite his inclusion in this elite unit neither he nor his associates are fully convinced he belongs.
The author has a dry wit. He establishes the xenophobia of the Swedes against the reality of the new Sweden. Chavez and Hjelm are assigned as partners; they are given a room that is only big enough for two desks, pushed together, to share as an office. Chavez decides to clear the air. “Now I get it,”…You’re the one who wants to change officemates. Get away from the Sundsvall blackhead with the big mouth.” “Better a Sundsvall blackhead with a big mouth than a world-famous blackhead exterminator,” said Hjelm….”Just one question,” said Chavez….”Would you have gone in if the guy was Swedish?” “He is Swedish,” said Hjelm. For a moment neither of them spoke. “So should we get to work?” Chavez slapped the file folder against the desktop…. “Let’s roll,’ he said, and then raised his index finger. “And, hey -” “Let’s be careful out there,” they both said foolishly, in unison. “Our age is showing,” said Chavez, looking shamelessly young.”
Readers who remember that exchange from HILL STREET BLUES, the police series that ran on NBC between 1981 and 1987, get a dose of perspective from the author. Published in Sweden in 1999, the story is set in the mid-1990’s, only a few years after Sweden suffered a trauma from which it has yet to recover. On February 28, 1986, Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated as he and his wife walked home from a movie. Not expecting to leave his home that evening, Palme had dismissed his bodyguards. The social atmosphere and culture of Sweden fostered the belief that a political leader, even the prime minister, had nothing to fear from fellow countrymen. As can best be determined from the investigation, the decision to attend the movie had been made that afternoon by Lizbet Palme and their son. They met their son and daughter-in-law at the movie theatre. Going to and from the theatre, the Palmes walked and used public transportation. It was as they were heading to a subway station that Palme was shot in the back at close range. Mrs. Palme was wounded but not seriously. Palme was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital. The crime remains unsolved and Sweden lost its innocence.
Xenophobia did not begin with the Palme assassination. Nothing suggests that the assassin was an immigrant but the paranoia about strangers entering their society grew more intense after Palme’s death. The fear of strangers and the fear that their culture is under attack are the themes that run through the story.
Paul Hjelm is the central character of the story but Dahl also created a fully detailed team of which Hjelm is a part. All of the characters have traits or talents that keep the secondary group from disappearing. One will not forget the man built like a bear who has an exceptional singing voice. No one will forget Hultin, the leader of the unit, whose default tactic with suspects is a force 10 headbutt. “From their front row seats, Norlander and Soderstedt witnessed something that would make Hjelm and Chavez jealous for the rest of their lives…. A genuine Hultin eyebrow-splitting headbutt.”
Kerstin, one of the police officers, explains the title. “Misterioso….It’s a play on words…There’s an inaudible mist in the title. Behind the mystery, the misterium, there’s a mist. When you say the word, you don’t hear the mist. It’s hidden by the more pronounced mystery. And yet its there and has an effect. It’s in the tune, too. The mystery is immediately apparent, intangible. of course, and yet physically manifest. The mist inside is harder to distinguish but its there in the mist that we go astray.” Dahl writes that it is part of the Swedish psyche to believe that everything will stay the same. Nothing is more terrifying than getting lost in the mist, losing sight of the expected.
It can be sincerely hoped that it will not take twelve years to get the second book in the series into the hands, and under the eyes, of those who read in English.