Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was assassinated on 28 February 1986: a nationally traumatic crime that remains unsolved. For many Swedes, this was the date when the country was dragged blinking into the same harsh world as the rest of us, and to some degree it marked the beginning of the end of a dream – a dream of a somehow sacrosanct Sweden, above the agonies of other countries. The ramifications of the murder have indirectly fuelled much Swedish crime fiction ever since.
Using such a society-changing crime (as Leif Persson does in this first novel of a trilogy) might be regarded as an audacious strategy. Does Persson pull it off? Within a few chapters of Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, it is clear that as well as being an intricately detailed crime narrative, this is a powerful state-of-the-nation novel – though, for many, its immense rewards will be purchased at a price. This is not a novel for the casual reader.
The American crime master Joseph Wambaugh provides a jacket encomium. This is unsurprising, as Persson draws many elements from his acclaimed predecessor: a massive, caustically characterised cast, the squabbling coppers of a busy, chaotic police department. And misogyny... lashings and lashings of misogyny. But is the latter to be laid at the door of the writer? Or is it just the on-the-nail rendering of a sexist milieu that makes the Sky Sports newsroom look like a 1970s feminist rally?
Before Palme falls victim to his nameless killer, there will be other deaths in the novel. The first corpse is produced by a fall from a high-rise building. Suicide or murder? Two bloody-minded coppers are exercised by this: the old-school detective Lars Johansson, and his colleague DCI Bo Jarnebring.
But how responsibly does the author deal with the central crime? In some ways, this is the real achievement of the book. Underneath the dense layers of corruption and maladroit administration, we are given a rich and sobering picture of the Swedish psyche, which has still not come to terms with the death of a politician – and of a dream. Those who feel that crime fiction can tackle truly serious issues should pay attention to Persson's magnum opus. They may tussle with the 500-odd pages, but they will end up hungry for later volumes of this ambitious trilogy.