Unrelenting Tension Reels the Reader In

10:43 PM 16 JUNE 2019

Excellent novels coming out of Scandinavia continue to enjoy international popularity at the moment and this terrific debut by Joakim Zander (2013) is further testament as to why. An unashamed spy thriller, “The Swimmer” exploits for the reader a dynamic plot, which links strong characters across a complex web of time and place, grappling with circumstances typically not of their making. Certainly there are echoes of the ‘Nordic noir’, particularly when a key character (Klara Walldéen) heads home to St. Anna’s Outer Archipelago in Northern Sweden, but the tale spins effortlessly between contemporary Europe and the USA, taking in historical, interlinked events in Afghanistan, Syria and Kurdistan along the way. Clearly the author has utilised his experience as a former lawyer working in the European Union to create vividly convincing scenes within the corridors of power in Brussels, where the reader finds Klara employed as assistant to an ambitious MEP. However, the involvement of a lobbyist and unidentified security services develops a wonderfully clandestine backdrop where ‘the truth’ is continuously manipulated to maintain a plausible public narrative. Indeed it is the grinding of tectonic political forces, which threaten to engulf relatively powerless individuals and discard them as tolerable collateral damage.


Unknown to her, Klara’s childhood spent in happy, obscure isolation with her grandparents was intended to shield her from the loss of her Swedish mother and the absence of her anonymous American father. Moreover, it was calculated to put her beyond the reach of those with a vested interest in silencing witnesses to war-time atrocities. But, after completing her studies abroad at the LSE, as Klara starts out on a promising career, new and present dangers begin to surface and an unseen guardian begins to stir. Aside from the thrilling action and the growing body count, the book offers an interesting take on Klara’s past and present relationships, some apparently disposable, others intense and enduring and the testing of those ties amid life-threatening chaos.


The swimmer has lapsed into an uneasy retirement and sought to protect his daughter’s life chances from the taint of his secretive past. The fervent desire of forces wanting to shine a light on the barbarous activities committed in war must overcome those equally intent on burying the past, to maintain the current fragile peace, albeit perpetrators walk free. For those caught up in the ongoing aftermath, is it better to occupy the moral high ground, or to fashion a means to survive?


Joakim Zander has created a compelling book, threaded with tough female characters, hardened by life in the far north and an unexpected challenge for the macho professional groundlings. The author also poses subtle moral dilemmas, which permeate the book. However, though the twisting plot deliberately frays the nerves, it also delivers a satisfying denouement and a thoughtful afterburn, which is so often the hallmark of an exceptional read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Shades of Nordic Noir

8:34 PM 20 JULY 2018

The books comprising the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ have achieved, albeit posthumously, almost legendary status for Stieg Larsson. Having previously delivered the manuscripts to his Swedish publisher, tragically the author died of a heart attack in 2004, aged just 50 and consequently he never witnessed the international plaudits, which were eventually to greet this exceptional work. I read the series a number of years ago, but I wanted to revisit them before reviewing and I was curious to see if my original impressions remained. Clearly, international sales of the books, reported to be of the order of 80 million copies worldwide, is quite a phenomenon. But what is it that continues to strike such a chord with the readers of popular crime fiction?


Powerful yet shocking, violent yet touching, this novel is at its heart a thriller, which contrasts the most depraved, base examples of humanity with the most outwardly unassuming characters. Yet, in investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and security analyst Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has created main characters who are clearly flawed, but retain a complexity and depth, which is truly absorbing, thrown together as they are, to combat low points in their respective lives and the situational challenges that follow.


At the opening of the book, Blomkvist has just been found guilty of libel against financier, Hans-Erik Wennerstrȍm and is faced with three months in prison as well as a sizeable fine. Salander, a very different kind of investigator, is commissioned by her sometime employer to generate a report on Blomkvist and is intrigued that for such a careful reporter, he appears not to have contested the case. The author cleverly uses the report to inform the reader about Blomkvist and the thoughts of Salander’s boss at Milton Security (CEO, Dragan Armansky) to sketch out an early impression of her. Both are mavericks, with quite contrasting personalities, but as the plot unfolds they are bound inextricably together. Salander has experienced a troubled young life and might be considered a victim, but for her capacity for violent retribution. Brilliant, but emotionally cold, Salander lacks the capacity for empathy, but is drawn towards Blomkvist’s open warmth, humour and laid back attitude. What they share is an insatiable appetite for answers and the need for justice to be served, though Salander is quite bemused by Blomkvist’s attachment to the rule of law.


The ‘Millennium’ of the title is a magazine and Blomkvist’s enforced sabbatical enables him to take up a freelance assignment, for ex-industrialist Henrik Vanger. Ostensibly tasked with writing a biography of the Vanger family, Henrik though is obsessed with identifying the murderer of his great niece and favourite (Harriet Vanger) and persuades Blomkvist to mount an investigation for which he is prepared to pay handsomely and on completion, the prospect of some useful information about Blomkvist’s nemesis – Wennerstrȍm. The investigation centre’s on events which took place forty years earlier on the island of Hedestad, owned by the Vanger family and where generations continue to live in splendid isolation. In that sense there are echoes of an Agatha Christie whodunit, with a limited cast of suspects, but getting to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is deliciously convoluted. Moreover, the nature of the comeuppance doled out to a series of villains is supremely satisfying.


Curiously this first book in the trilogy introduces the key protagonists and can stand alone as a novel, with a discrete storyline. Books 2 and 3 feels like a further, longer story, dissected into two just to make the volumes manageable, but developing the characters in all their dysfunctional glory. In any event, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ remains a ground-breaking book, which helped herald the contemporary genre of Nordic noir and propel it into the spotlight of popular literary culture. For me, it is understandably vaunted as a ‘modern classic’, not to everyone’s taste, but quite a ride.

Rating: 4 out of 5.