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THE TUNNEL by Carl-Johan Vallgren: Book Review

Of course I’d read Scandinavian mysteries before I taught a class on this topic last fall, and I thought I was very familiar with crime stories in the Nordic countries.  But then, reading novel after novel that went ever deeper inside the “dark side” of these nations made me rethink the stereotype of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark being populated by healthy, outdoor-loving, and liberal/socialist people who were among the happiest in the world.

Now comes another black, bleak look into the underside of Stockholm, with the drug and sex trades combining for the worst possible reasons and achieving the worst possible outcome.

The Tunnel is the second mystery to feature Danny Katz, one of the one-quarter of one percent of the Jewish population in Sweden.  Always an outlier, Danny survives by using his phenomenal ability with language sand computers and his quick fists to make a place for himself in that society.  Having lived through a difficult childhood, which included being placed in a foster home situation, he fell victim to drugs and spent years on the streets of Stockholm.

As the book begins Danny has been clean for ten years, although it is a daily struggle to resist the lure of heroin.  One of the very few friends he has kept in touch with through the years is a Swedish-born ethnic Finn named Jorma.  Jorma had a difficult life also, but he too has turned himself around and recently has been living a crime-free life.

However, he has just been approached to take part in a very lucrative armored car robbery, and the temptation is too much for him to resist.  When Jorma asks himself why he is willing to do this, his only answer is that his life has become boring, that he needs the excitement and rush of crime to feel alive.

In the meantime, Katz has reconnected with another person from his past.  He knows Ramón “from before,” he tells Ramón’s druggie girlfriend when she opens the door to their apartment.  “From before” is when both men were drug users, and at that time Ramón saved Katz from an overdose.

Now Ramón tells Katz that he and his girlfriend Jenny have come into big money and a large amount of heroin, and he wonders if Danny wants to become a partner in their business.  The latter declines but leaves the apartment with several packages of heroin that Ramón insists he take to “share with friends,” if he’d like.  And, he assures Danny, “Anyone who uses this will definitely be back to buy more.”

This book is almost unrelentingly depressing.  Drugs, sexual exploitation, and violence are on virtually every page, and the difficulties of leaving behind one’s traumatic early years are all too clear.  So, you may ask, why am I blogging about The Tunnel?  Simply because it’s a beautifully written book that looks into the above-mentioned problems as well as the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Sweden.  It’s a difficult read but a worthwhile one.  And the novel’s last sentence is one of the saddest I’ve read in a long time.

Carl-Johan Vallgren is a novelist, musician, and singer.  His The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot was awarded the August Prize in 2002 for the best Swedish novel that year.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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