Free Falling, As If in a Dream

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 twenty-eight years ago this month, 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.