To say that publishers are falling over themselves to find the next Stieg Larsson is something of an understatement; a headlong, frenzied dash might be a more apposite description. Of course, successors to the late Swedish thriller king (who continues to break sales records) are named by the hour. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Holy Grail were to be discovered by the publishers who launched Stieg so successfully in the UK: Quercus/MacLehose Press? The company's hopes are pinned to an ill-assorted duo who have already enjoyed massive success in Sweden: one is a journalist and criminologist, the other a reformed ex-criminal. But just how good is Three Seconds, the heavily-touted new book from the pair who go by their surnames, Roslund and Hellström?
Borge Hellström – whose criminal activities are firmly in his past – is an immensely winning, wryly humorous bear of a man, perhaps Lennon to Anders Roslund's McCartney. The latter is an award-winning journalist who shares his partner's sardonic qualities. A few days after the Swedish far right's electoral success, Roslund was asked when the country became the broken society that Larsson depicts. "Last week at the elections," he replied drily.
Three Seconds (translated by Kari Dickson) invites comparison with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is the same obsessive detail, the same corruption of the authorities, and even Larsson's tactic of the slow introductory chapters that suddenly shift into a higher gear.
But Roslund and Hellström are very much their own men. A murder in Stockholm appears to be the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone sour. Ace undercover man Piet Hoffmann has to infiltrate the Polish mafia's drug set-up in a maximum security prison, but finds himself linked to the killing of another operative posing as a dealer.
The first third of the book may be andante but thereafter, the tempo is firmly allegro. R & H have even managed to freight in some cogent aperçus about the nature of identity amid the clammy suspense. Three Seconds is no dumbed-down blockbuster.
So are Roslund and Hellström the new Stieg Larsson? Or has Jo Nesbø already bagged the late writer's crown? It should not matter who is at the top of the Scandinavian crime-fiction tree to anyone except the bean counters at the publishers.