THE DYING DETECTIVE by Leif GW Persson
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; 4/17/18
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: a masterful, methodical police procedural
With all the brand-new (and very enticing!) books releasing every week, it can feel really hard to make time to catch up on the slightly older books you may have missed when they first came out—but today’s post is evidence that pressing pause on the new releases can be such a rewarding exercise. THE DYING DETECTIVE by Leif GW Persson released in hardcover in the spring of 2017… and who knows how I missed out on reading it then, but I’m so glad it caught my eye in paperback. This masterful police procedural is a worthy addition to every Nordic Noir reader’s personal library, but don’t just take my word for it: this book has been the recipient of a stunning number of crime writing awards, including the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger Award, The Glass Key Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel, The Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award, and a whole lot more—and it’s every bit deserving of this extensive critical acclaim. Persson’s layered, methodical crime novel recalls the best of classic crime fiction. There aren’t any bells or whistles here, just solid, meticulous crime solving at the hands of a brilliant police officer. But lest readers feel lulled into a sense of familiarity with this book’s standard procedural plot, Persson injects his story with an urgent dose of humanity: perhaps even more alarming than the brutal crime central to this book is our protagonist's confrontation with his own mortality. THE DYING DETECTIVE will be an instant-favorite for fans of the slow-burning yet irresistibly immersive crime novel.
After suffering a stroke, retired detective Lars Martin Johansson finds himself in the hospital. To save himself from idleness and despair, the legendary investigator turns to an unsolved murder case from years before. The victim: an innocent nine-year-old girl.
With the help of various associates and assistants, Johansson launches an informal investigation from his hospital bed. Racing against time, he uncovers a web of connections that links sex tourism to a dead opera singer and a self-made millionaire. But as Johansson draws closer to solving the crime, he finds that he will have to confront not just a mystery but his own mortality.
There is so much to be said for a story that can hold its own - and its reader’s attention - without flash or shock value. I love a good jaw-dropping suspense story as much as the next reader, but at the end of the day, I always come back to crime novels like THE DYING DETECTIVE: stories that rely on rich character development and meticulous plotting over in-your-face (and sometimes truly unbelievable) shocks. It’s these stories that get under my skin most of all, and it’s these stories I rely on when I’m looking for a crime novel that will outlast changes in trends and changes in my mood. If you agree with me on this point, you’re bound to love just about every facet of Persson’s masterful mystery. THE DYING DETECTIVE is every bit a police procedural, and a really excellent one at that—the entirety of this story centers around a retired detective puzzling together the solution to a cold case that his colleagues were never able to solve. There are heart-tugging moments of emotion and chilling reveals, to be sure, but where THE DYING DETECTIVE shines perhaps most of all is in the quiet precision with which Persson weaves together its central mystery—and, even more impressive, he does it through the lens of an investigator who is close to bedridden for the duration of the novel. Main character Lars Martin Johansson may have a reputation as a man who is so shrewd and intelligent that he can “see around corners”, but author Persson must come in a close second - the ease with which he crafts this layered and far-reaching mystery is simply a joy to read.
So who exactly is Lars Martin, and what makes his character such a compelling one? When readers meet Lars Martin, the retired detective is stopping at his favorite hot dog stand when the course of his life is altered forever, and he suffers a stroke. Persson makes a bold choice here: our protagonist is taken out of action in the traditional sense right from the get-go. We never see Lars Martin in his glory days, chasing down criminals in his city—we meet him on the lowest day of his life, a day when he finds himself hospitalized and forced into a totally new (and much more stationary) lifestyle. It’s a bold choice from a practical perspective, too—how can a writer make a 400-plus page book immersive and energetic when its protagonist is largely bedridden? This is exactly where Persson’s strength of storytelling shines. While in the hospital, Lars Martin meets a doctor with a personal connection to a horrific unsolved crime: the rape and murder of a young girl, a crime committed years prior that has stumped police ever since. Knowing of Lars Martin’s legendary reputation as an investigator, the doctor takes her new patient into confidence and asks if he might be willing to look into the case for her. For Lars Martin, this opportunity presents itself as something of a lifeline—a connection to his former self, something to keep him occupied and moving forward as he recovers from his brush with death. What follows from there is a precise and layered unraveling of the story’s central mystery, one that manages to be just as engaging and driving from Lars Martin’s hospital bed as it would have been had he been chasing down killers on the streets of Stockholm.
Lars Martin’s hospitalization doesn’t simply provide a unique backdrop against which Persson lays out his central mystery—it also gives THE DYING DETECTIVE a uniquely contemplative undercurrent. THE DYING DETECTIVE is as much a masterful crime novel as it is a reckoning with mortality. What is left of us when we find our faculties impaired, leaving us unable to fulfill the roles that have previously defined our identities? For Lars Martin, his stroke is a point of no return: a moment after which he will never be able to regain quite the same the mental clarity (not to mention the dexterity and ease of movement) that he relied on at work, and which defined his status as a legendary police officer. Readers witness Lars Martin’s own grappling with his new self, and we also witness the very poignant moments in which Lars Martin’s loved ones contend with his new identity, too. This undercurrent injects THE DYING DETECTIVE with an urgency that has nothing to do with the solution of its central mystery (though that urgency is very real, too). There is so much humanity in the quiet moments of this book; readers will be hard-pressed not to find themselves deeply invested in Lars Martin's recovery, and in all the little moments that delineate that fault line between his two selves, past and present.
It’s also worth noting that, despite the very dark crime that Lars Martin sets out to solve, THE DYING DETECTIVE is not gratuitously violent. The book does center around an unsolved crime against a child - something to be aware of, to be sure - but Persson never takes readers into the exact moment that crime was committed. Instead, we learn about the crime and its perpetrator through the lens of the investigation that our protagonist undertakes. That's a big difference, and it means THE DYING DETECTIVE can center around a really stomach-turning crime without seeming exploitative. For a Scandinavian crime novel, THE DYING DETECTIVE is actually quite tame when it comes to its level of violence - a quality that I didn’t mind one bit, given that the crime that is central to the story is disturbing enough as it is, even with the distance Persson grants his readers from it.
THE DYING DETECTIVE is a perfect example of the perennial appeal of a really great police procedural. When you can write a police investigation with the precision and heart that Persson does here, there’s just no need for the bells and whistles - the story can stand on its own two feet, just as it is. Highly recommended for fans of Scandinavian crime fiction and classic police procedurals.
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; Reprint edition (April 17, 2018)
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