The Andalucian Friend

By ALEXANDER SÖDERBERG; translated by NEIL SMITH

At first glance, Alexander Söderberg’s The Andalucian Friend seems to be the latest in a long line of hefty Scandinavian thrillers that make the works of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, their predecessors, look like slim novellas. But Söderberg’s debut stands apart, in many ways, from its compatriots. Certainly, there is a convoluted plot that intersects with a second convoluted plot. There are explosions and car chases; there is murder and dismemberment. We expect as much when the action revolves around organized crime and the cast of characters is divided into “The Swedes,” “The Russians,” “The Spaniards,” “The Germans.” Yet Söderberg never (well, rarely) allows this engine to overheat. A graceful, economical writer with a keen eye for detail and an even keener ear for dialogue, he fixes his attention, above all, on characters who are immediately intriguing and who acquire greater depth when their lives intersect. Even minor characters — even loathsome characters.
 
“The car radio was playing southern German Europop…. Leszek picked up words like “mountaintop,” “family ties,” and “edelweiss. There was something sick about this country that he could never quite put his finger on.… He looked down at his hands, they were dirty. Installing the bomb had been a messy job.” On a summer morning, in a fashionable Munich suburb, an assassin waits. Within a few seconds, he watches the wrong person, not his target, sliding into a BMW, turning the ignition key and detonating his bomb. A casualty of war, it turns out, between the Spanish Guzmans and the German Hankes, crime families contesting a drug-smuggling route from Paraguay. The bombing, aimed at Christian Hanke, is payback for an attack on Hector Guzman, but the respective patriarchs ordering these retaliations are not thugs. They are businessmen, tended by secretaries and advised by attorneys, making executive decisions about expansion, diversification, and, when necessary, killing. As another Hanke assassin observes, “…things like right and wrong didn’t actually exist in this world…. All that did exist were consequences.”  

Clear lines don’t exist either, certainly not between Stockholm’s cops and criminals. National Crime officer Gunilla Strandberg, for example, who “…behaved maturely, like someone who had learned that things could go wrong just because they happened too fast,” turns into one of the novel’s biggest surprises, while Lars Vinge, her new police recruit, is a repellent misfit who nonetheless picks apart one of the plot’s most tangled strands. Söderberg takes his time with these and other revelations, yet he never allows the steadily accelerating pace of his cleverly interlocking narrative to stall. From the moment that Hector Guzman, recovering in hospital, notices Sophie Brinkmann, a widowed nurse, who is then recruited by Gunilla Strandberg, tension permeates each encounter and every scene. Meeting with one of the Guzman’s main suppliers, for example, Hector observes, “Alfonse was well dressed and polite…but behind that Hector could see madness. He could see madness in someone from a mile away.”

Not that sane means innocent in this lethal world. “He found the little broken needle, and pulled it out with his thumb and forefinger, like he was pulling a splinter out of a child’s foot on a summer’s day,” Söderberg writes of one killer, sane and officially sanctioned, removing the syringe tip from his dead victim’s foot. And “innocent” does not mean “safe.” “It felt like a different season,” Sophie notices as she returns to her own house, but to a different life, “a season when darkness came earlier.” 

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