Free Falling As If in a Dream concludes Leif GW Persson's trilogy of novels based on the assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, a crime that has never been solved. The book follows Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End and Another Time, Another Life; taken together, the three volumes span more than thirty years and run to over 1,500 pages. I must tell you straight off that the present novel cannot be appreciated at all without having read the previous two; on the other hand, each of those can be read on its own or in any order, and with the greatest of pleasure. Each of the first two revolves around crimes seemingly separate from the assassination, and in both cases the plots enter deeply into the nature of Swedish society going back to the 1970s: its vexed politics and the presence of ultra-nationalists, old Nazi supporters and their neo-Nazi spawn, of violent left-wing radicals, CIA operatives, suspected Soviet sympathizers, devious business-government dealmakers, and the country's police and security forces the last two compromised, dysfunctional, ever proliferating.
Character rich, mordantly witty, and cunningly plotted, the first two novels are superb, but it is only when you come to this, the concluding volume, that you see what a brilliantly intricate contrivance the entire work is. The many characters' seemingly inconsequential actions and crisscrossing lives, laid down in advance, are pulled together in these pages as ingeniously and with as much finesse as the last step in erecting a ship in a bottle.
Though its predecessors zip back and forth in time, the present novel is set entirely in 2007, the past existing only in the shape of police files and testimony concerning earlier events. An old friend of ours, Lars Martin Johansson, a "Norrlander," a gourmand, and a man so canny that it is said that he can "see around corners," is the chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He is thinking about retiring but has decided to give the Palme case one more shot before calling it a day. That investigation was bungled from the start in practically every way, and the crime's unsolved status is an unhealed national wound. More to the point, from his view at least, it is a continuing embarrassment to the police. Lending urgency to the situation is that fact that the twenty-five- year statute of limitations on murder will run out in four years, leaving the culprit, were he ever to be identified and caught, unpunished. (That limit was abolished in 2010 but that's irrelevant to the novel, which was first published in Sweden in 2007.)
To this end, Johansson puts together a team of four, two women and two men They will comb through the mountain of files and binders that have accumulated over the last twenty-one years, bringing "fresh eyes" to the hideous scramble of scene-of-crime tech reports; witness and possible- witness statements; phone tips; perpetrator profiles; crime, accident, and suicide reports; hotel registrations; parking tickets; and sheaves of analysis. Here I will say that I began to wish that more of this file combing, collating, and measuring of distances and angles could have been done outside the pages I was reading, which often resembled nothing so much as records-management and time-motion case studies.
Still, making up for all the office work and finicky analysis is not only the meticulous (and fictional) unraveling of the mystery of Palme's assassination but also the presence of characters from the previous volumes. One of the pleasures of reading a series is following people from volume to volume, at least until the author's invention runs out, and as this one extends to only three installments, its main actors have not yet become tiresome. Especially welcome here is the return of familiar police miscreants, timeservers, and incompetents, among them the wonderfully appalling Chief Inspector Evert Bäckström. Glutton, misogynist, pilferer, slob, Bäckström is the brightest of sparks in his own estimation and once again winkles out the existence of depraved sexual appetites behind a crime, this time the murder of Palme. As usual, he is completely wrong, but Persson, with characteristic drollery, has this unsavory oaf actually coming up with the clue that sets the whole plot rolling toward denouement.
Many upright characters from the past also appear, still upright, as do characters about whom we never really knew what to think; most significantly, the enigmatic, now retired Chief Inspector Persson. Still slippery and seemingly all-knowing, he is in what I take to be another good joke more on top of the case than anyone except the real Persson, the author whose creation he is. Despite the longueurs in this volume, it makes a satisfying conclusion to an extraordinarily complex and rewarding trilogy, an enormous fictional dossier, brilliantly one of a kind.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
Read an Excerpt
Eight weeks earlier, Wednesday, August 15. Headquarters of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation on Kungsholmen in Stockholm
“Olof Palme,” said the chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Lars Martin Johansson. “Are you familiar with that name, ladies and gentlemen?”
For some reason he seemed almost joyful as he said it. Just back from vacation with a becoming suntan, red suspenders, and linen shirt with no tie as a lighthearted signal of the transition from relaxation to responsibility. He leaned forward in his seat at the short end of the conference table, letting his gaze wander across the four others gathered around the same table.
The joy seemed to be his alone. Doubtful looks were exchanged among three of the four—Police Superintendent Anna Holt, Detective Chief Inspector Jan Lewin, and Detective Chief Inspector Lisa Mattei—while the fourth in the group, Chief Inspector Yngve Flykt, who was head of the Palme group, seemed if anything embarrassed by the question and tried to compensate by looking politely preoccupied.
“Olof Palme,” Johansson repeated, his voice now sounding more urgent. “Does that ring any bells?”
The one who finally answered was Lisa Mattei, the youngest of the group, but long accustomed to the role of best in class. First she glanced at the head of the Palme investigation, who only nodded and looked tired, then she looked down at her notepad, which incidentally was free of any notes or the doodling with which she usually filled it, whatever was being discussed. Then in two sentences she summarized Olof Palme’s political career, and in four sentences his end.
“Olof Palme,” said Mattei. “Social Democrat and Sweden’s most well-known politician during the postwar period. Prime minister for two terms, from 1969 to 1976 and from 1982 to 1986. Was murdered at the intersection of Sveavägen and Tunnelgatan in central Stockholm twenty-one years, five months, and fourteen days ago. It was Friday the twenty-eighth of February 1986, twenty minutes past eleven. He was shot from behind with one shot and appears to have died almost immediately. I was eleven years old when it happened, so I’m afraid I don’t have much more to contribute,” Mattei concluded.
“Don’t say that,” said Johansson with a Norrland drawl. “Our victim was the prime minister and a fine fellow, and how common is this kind of crime victim at this sort of place? True, I’m only the head of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, but I’m also an orderly person and extremely allergic to unsolved cases,” he continued. “I take them personally, if you’re wondering why you’re here.”
No one had wondered about that. No one seemed particularly enthusiastic either. Regardless, the whole thing started as it almost always does, with a few police officers sitting around a table, talking about a case. No flashing lights, no sirens, and definitely no drawn service revolvers. Although when the crime happened, over twenty years ago, it had started with flashing lights, sirens, and drawn service revolvers. Nothing had helped. The case had ended badly.
Johansson elaborated on his ideas about what ought to be done, the motive for doing it, and how it should all be arranged in practical terms. As so often before, he also relied on his personal experience without the slightest trace of either genuine or false modesty.
“In my personal experience, when a case has come to a standstill so to speak, it’s often worth calling in some new folks who can look at the case with fresh eyes. It’s easy to overlook things,” said Johansson.
“I hear you,” Anna Holt answered, sounding more sarcastic than she intended. “But if you’ll excuse—”
“Sure,” Johansson interrupted. “Just let me finish my sentence first.”
“I’m listening,” said Holt. I never learn, she thought.
“When you’re starting to get up in years like me, unfortunately the risk increases that you don’t remember what you meant to say, if you get interrupted, that is,” Johansson explained. “Where was I now?” he continued.
“How you intended to organize the whole thing, boss,” Mattei interjected. “Our investigation, that is,” she clarified.
“Thanks, Lisa,” said Johansson. “Thanks for helping an old man.”
How does he do it? thought Holt. Even with Lisa of all people?
According to Johansson it was not a question of forming a new Palme investigation, and the investigators who were already in the Palme group—several of whom had spent almost their entire active time as detectives there—would of course retain sole responsibility.
“So I want to make that clear from the start, Yngve,” said Johansson, nodding at the head of the Palme group, who still seemed more worried than relieved.
“No way,” said Johansson. “You can forget any such ideas. I’ve imagined something a lot simpler and more informal. What I want simply is a second opinion. Not a new investigation. Just a second opinion from a few wise officers who can look at the case with fresh eyes.
“I want you to go through the investigation,” he continued. “Is there anything we haven’t done that we should have done? Is there anything in the material itself that we’ve missed and that’s worth looking into? That can still be looked into? If so, I want to know about it, and it’s no more difficult than that.”
Regardless of his hopes on the last point, the following hour was devoted to discussing objections from three of the four others in the room. The only one who didn’t say anything was Lisa Mattei, but when their meeting was over, her notepad was as full of scribbling as always. Partly with what her colleagues had said. Partly with her usual doodling regardless of what was being said.
First up was Chief Inspector Jan Lewin, who after some introductory, cautious throat clearing quickly zeroed in on Johansson’s fundamental motive, namely the need for fresh eyes. The idea as such was excellent. He himself had advocated it often enough. Not least during his time as head of the group that dealt with so-called cold cases. But for that very reason he thought he was particularly poorly suited for this case.
During the initial year of the investigation—while Lewin was working at the homicide squad in Stockholm—he had primary responsibility for the collection of significant portions of the material evidence. Not until the investigation was taken over by the national bureau did he return to his old assignment at the homicide squad in Stockholm. Several years later he moved over to the national bureau, and once there he had also helped on the Palme investigation for a few brief periods with the registration and review of new leads that had come in.
“I don’t know if you remember, boss, but the investigation leader, Hans Holmér, the police chief in Stockholm at that time, collected large quantities of information that perhaps didn’t have anything directly to do with the murder itself but might prove to be of value.” Lewin nodded at Lisa Mattei, who had been only a little girl in those days.
“I remember the police chief at that time,” said Johansson. Of unblessed memory, he thought. “Though most of what he found I’ve managed to repress. What was it that landed on your desk, Lewin?”
At best, quite a bit of questionable value, according to Lewin.
“All hotel registrations in the Stockholm area around the time of the murder. All arrivals into and departures from the country that could be substantiated with the usual passport and border checks, all parking violations in greater Stockholm around the time of the crime, all speeding violations and other traffic offenses in the whole country the day of the murder, the day before and the day after, all other crimes and arrests in the Stockholm area at the time of the crime. We took in everything from drunkenness and domestic disturbances to all ordinary crimes reported during the twenty-four-hour period in question. We also collected accident reports. Plus all suicides and strange causes of death that happened both before and after the murder. I know when I left the investigation they were still working on that part. As you know, it added up to quite a bit. Hundreds of pounds of paper, thousands of pages actually, and I’m only talking about what came in during my time.”
“The broad, unbiased effort,” Johansson observed.
“Yes, that’s what it’s called,” said Lewin. “Sometimes it works, but this time almost all of it remained unprocessed. There simply wasn’t time to do anything. I sat and skimmed through what came in, and I had my hands full just with what first jumped out at me. Ninety percent of the paperwork was basically put right back in the boxes where it had been from the start.”
“Give me some examples,” said Johansson. “What things jumped out at you, Lewin?”
“I remember four different suicides,” said Lewin. “The first took place only a few hours after the murder of the prime minister. I remember it in detail, because when I got the papers on my desk I actually felt some of those old vibrations you feel when things are starting to heat up.” Lewin shook his head thoughtfully.
“The man who committed suicide had hung himself in the rec room of his house. A guard who took early retirement who lived on Ekerö a few miles outside Stockholm. He was the neighbor of a police officer, so I got the tip through him. He also had a license for a handgun, to top it off a revolver that might very well have matched what we knew about the murder weapon at that time. He was generally considered strange by those who knew him. Antisocial, divorced for several years, problems with alcohol, the usual stuff. In brief, he seemed pretty good, but he had an alibi for the evening of the murder. For one thing, he’d quarreled with some neighbors who were out with their dog at about ten o’clock. Then he called his ex-wife from his home phone, a total of three times if I remember correctly, and carried on with her about the same time as Palme was shot. I had no problem ruling him out. We found his revolver in the house search. It was test fired, even though we already knew it was the wrong caliber.”
“And the others?” Johansson was looking almost greedily at his colleague.
“No,” said Lewin, “at the risk of disappointing you, and I was pretty careful about these cases. I remember when the media started making a row about the so-called police track, that it was some of our fellow officers who murdered Palme, I went into the material on my own and checked for that specifically—all the parking violations and other traffic offenses where the vehicle or the perpetrator could be connected to our colleagues, whether or not they were on duty.”
“But that didn’t produce anything either,” said Johansson.
“No,” said Lewin. “Other than some pretty imaginative explanations of why a particular officer shouldn’t have to pay his parking tickets or why his car ended up in such a strange place.”
“Exactly,” said Johansson. “The same old women problems if you ask me. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be interesting for you to take another look at your old boxes? Now when you’ve got some perspective, I mean. I can’t help sensing that you don’t seem completely uncomfortable with the job. And you could take a look at all the rest, once you’re at it anyway, I mean.”
“With some reservations about fresh eyes,” said Lewin, sounding more positive than he intended. “Well, maybe so. The basic idea is good enough.”