I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press. This was published in 2015 in the original Swedish and this English version has been translated by Henning Koch.
Harry Kvist is an former boxer who lives in the decrepit, dirty and seedy city of Stockholm in the 1930’s. The city is full of tramps, prostitutes, and bootleggers as well as poor and destitute citizens who have been affected by the economic collapse of this decade. Kvist himself leads a hard life by serving as a collector of debts to those who have defaulted on payments. His specialty is repossessing bicycles which is easy money for him. When the novel begins Kvist is collecting on a debt from a man named Zetterberg who owes a few thousand kronor. Kvist scares Zetterberg by giving him a good beating that is not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him with a few scars as a “reminder” to pay the money he owes. When Zetterberg is found dead the next day, Kvist is the prime suspect and he is immediately picked up by the police.
Kvist spends a few rough nights in a disgusting jail cell covered in urine and lice. He is given a working over by the detectives and after they don’t get any information out of him he is released. He spends the next few days hunting downs leads about Zetterberg’s murder and trying to find a prostitute named Sonja who is the only person who can provide him with an alibi for the time of the murder. Kvist’s detective work takes him to bars, gangster hideouts, slums and brothels. The best part of the book is the author’s ability to fully capture the squalid, dingy and oftentimes dangerous city. The streets are an interesting mix of pre-industrial Europe and the slow progress towards modernization. Horse carts still plow the streets and deliver coal, but cars are also driven through the crowded and dirty city.
The plot about the murder is slow to advance throughout the course of the book. However, Kvist’s contact with the seedy underbelly of the city make for some thrilling scenes. His always has a desire to use his boxing skills and he gets into several fist fights with other gritty characters. He is also shot at and chased after and there is rarely a dull moment in Kvist’s life. But even though there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the book, Kvist is not a murderer or a psychopath. He can be sensitive to the needs of others, especially women who are in a tough spot or emotionally distraught. He is even nice to animals and feeds the starving strays on the streets of Stockholm. All of these details give us a multi-dimensional character with whom, even when he is violent, we can sympathize.
Kvist’s sexuality and his experimentation with both males and females gives the book an added layer of interest and sophistication. Kvist has several encounters with different men at the beginning of the book which is very dangerous for him since any type of homosexual act is illegal at the time. But Kvist’s sexual preferences are not an “either, or” choice. He also hints at the fact that he has a daughter and makes comments about the type of woman that attracts him. He spends quite a bit of time in the second part of the book sleeping with an actress who was trying to contract him for his collection serves. The exploration of his sexuality, which is not usually done in Noir fiction, adds another brilliant dimension to his character.
I am excited that this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy about Harry Kvist and I am eager to read the next two installments which are coming out in the next year. This is noir writing as its best and you won’t want to give this book a miss if you are a fan of this genre.
About the Author:
Martin Holmén is a Swedish writer based in Stockholm. He was orn in 1974. He teaches History, Swedish and History of Culture and Ideas at an upper secondary school in Stockholm two days a week. He is the author of the Harry Kvist trilogy.