Put aside quite a few hours of your life when you start THREE SECONDS, an addictive thriller that has deservedly won Sweden's main crime fiction award. The novel is a meaty tome about a man who is an informer for the police force. He's infiltrated the main Polish drug-dealing organisation, being trusted by them with the Swedish side of their operation. These drug lords are never satisfied, though, so as the novel opens they are jolly keen to take over a big slice of the market, that of the prisons. The undercover man, therefore, sets himself up to be jailed on a manufactured charge, so he can take over the business from the Greeks who currently run the prison distribution system. In the process, he will find out more about who runs the shady Polish cartel for his true employers.
So far so cliched, one might think. Actually not: the book rises above this somewhat predictable plot by its strange mixture of adrenalin-fuelled action; the magnetically depressive wreck of a policeman; and by its attention to many fascinating if horrible details of how drug smuggling and dealing is carried out, how the prison is infiltrated, how the informer plans to escape, and so on. An added impetus for the reader is that everything is always going wrong, so one never knows what's going to happen next.
Ewert Grens is the 59-year-old cop who, at the start of the book, is assigned a murder at a house in downtown Stockholm. He and his colleagues work out from their forensic analysis that the murder is a drug deal gone wrong, and that undercover police are involved. Their investigation then gets stuck, and is eventually downgraded by the magistrate who is no friend of Grens. Personally, I find Grens very hard to like because of the events described in the previous novel in this series, THE VAULT (aka BOX 21), in which the perpetrators of a ghastly criminal network escape notice because of the way the police protect their own. THREE SECONDS, however, does not refer to these events but rather treats Grens's current investigation as a "standalone" case. If one can ignore the previous novel, therefore, Grens is an investigator who is a recognised crime-fiction staple, and very easy to identify with. He's the most enduringly depressed character I have encountered in crime fiction, still getting over a tragic situation concerning his professional and personal partner, Anni, and this dominates his attitudes in this novel. How he comes to terms with the 25-year-old tragedy in which he's stuck is a moving subplot.
Mainly, though, the book has two elements. In one, it is a great thriller whose pace never lets up, particularly in the second half. It is full of the sort of detail that made Stieg Larsson so popular, for example the scenes in the library and the way in which the police informer tries to anticipate anything and everything that might transpire once he is incarcerated and can't control events. The other main element in the book, again with echoes of Larsson, is the political corruption of the national police force in Sweden and the ministry of justice responsible for its oversight. The authors are clearly on the campaign trail here, and occasionally their convictions overwhelm the plot. But the two elements of the novel combine to make a heady mix that is very exciting to read.
The book is written in a strange, constantly shifting manner that must have been quite a challenge to the translator, the excellent Kari Dickson. Some passages are written in standard paragraphs and descriptive style, whereas others are written in very staccato fashion, with or without speech quotes, short paragraphs (sometimes not even full sentences) and "asides" in italics. The overall impression is a jagged edginess, which matches perfectly the paranoid world within the pages.