The recent uptick in the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction in the US is undeniably a good thing—books in translation don't typically do well here, and anything that combats our general drift toward toward global provincialism has to be a good thing. That being said, I found it hard to stomach the rape-y, CSI: Scandinavia vibe of the genre's breakout hit, Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (The original Swedish title—Men Who Hate Women—didn't endear it either. Larsson's apparently good intentions notwithstanding, men who hate women have not traditionally lacked for media exposure.)
So when picking out another Swedish crime novel, I made sure to aim for something more political than prurient. Arne Dahl's Misterioso is an endearingly dour procedural about an elite team of police officers tasked with solving a high-profile string of murders: Someone is offing prominent and apparently unconnected Swedish businessmen. The book's title, Misterioso, refers to the piece of music—a rare track from Thelonious Monk—that the killer plays before placing two precise bullets in the brains of his victims.
Brought on to join the team is Detective Paul Hjelm, a reserved, conflicted cop who spends much of the novel looking angstfully into his own heart and finding nothing there. (This existential brooding is very much part of the novel's charm.)
As Hjelm and his team of detectives chase down any lead they can find—from gay pedophiles to the local country club—author Dahl takes an opportunity to wryly remind the reader that the detective novel, like the world, has changed over the years. "The fraternal order, a fine old classic straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, had gone up in smoke—that type of puzzle intrigue belonged irrevocably to the past—and instead they had landed squarely in the present day: postindustrial capitalism, Eastern European mafia, and the collapse of Sweden's financial regulatory system in the 1990s." Racism and xenophobia, too, are underlying concerns, as Sweden's native-born citizens struggle to deal with an influx of refugees.
More John le Carré than Stieg Larsson, most of the fun of Misterioso comes from the follow-the-power, follow-the-money games played by Hjelm and his associates. And while Dahl clearly sees detective fiction as having the ability to tackle hardhitting issues of the day, the mystery's solution isn't lacking in good old-fashioned puzzle intrigue, either.