In the Swedish criminal justice system, certain cases are considered especially strange and difficult, in Malmö, the dedicated detectives who investigate these crimes are members of an elite squad known as the Sensitive Crimes Division.
These are their stories.
The first case: the small matter of a man stabbed in the back of the knee. Who would perpetrate such a crime and why? Next: a young woman's imaginary boyfriend goes missing. But how on earth do you search for someone who doesn't exist? And in the final investigation: eerie secrets that are revealed under a full moon may not seem so supernatural in the light of day. No case is too unusual, too complicated, or too, well insignificant for this squad to solve.
The team: Ulf “the Wolf” Varg, the top dog, thoughtful and diligent; Anna Bengsdotter, who's in love with Varg's car (and possibly Varg too); Carl Holgersson, who likes nothing more than filling out paperwork; and Erik Nykvist, who is deeply committed to fly fishing.
With the help of a rather verbose local police officer, this crack team gets to the bottom of cases other detectives can't or won't bother to handle. Equal parts hilarious and heartening, The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a tour de farce from a true master.
About the Author
ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels and of a number of other series and stand-alone books. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and have been best sellers throughout the world. He lives in Scotland.
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
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“Søren,” said Dr. Svensson, gravely, but with a smile behind his horn-rimmed glasses; and then waited for the response. There would be an answer to this one- word sentence, but he would have to wait to see what it was.
Ulf Varg, born in Malmö, Sweden, the son of Ture and Liv Varg, only too briefly married, now single again; thirty-eight, and therefore fast approaching what he thought of as a watershed—“After forty, Ulf,” said his friend Lars, “where does one go?”—that same Ulf Varg raised his eyes to the ceiling when his therapist said, “Søren.” And then Ulf himself, almost without thinking, replied: “Søren?”
The therapist, kind Dr. Svensson, as so many of his patients described him, shook his head. He knew that a therapist should not shake his head, and he had tried to stop himself from doing it too often, but it happened automatically, in the same way as we make so many gestures without really thinking about them—twitches, sniffs, movements of the eyebrow, the folding and unfolding of legs. Although many of these acts are meaningless, mere concomitants of being alive, shaking one’s head implies disapprobation. And kind Dr. Svensson did not disapprove. He understood, which is quite different from disapproving.
But now he disapproved, and he shook his head before he reminded himself not to disapprove, and not to shake his head. “Are you asking me or telling me?” he said. “Because you shouldn’t be asking, you know. The whole point of free association, Mr. Varg, is to bring to the surface—to outward expression—the things that are below the surface.”
To bring to the surface the things that are below the surface . . . Ulf liked that. That, he thought, is what I do every time I go into the office. I get out of bed in the morning to bring to the surface the things that are below the surface. If I had a mission statement, then I suppose that is more or less what it would be. It would be far better than the one foisted on his department by Headquarters: We serve the public. How bland, how anodyne that was—like all the communications they received from Headquarters. Those grey men and women with their talk of targets and sensitivity and more or less everything except the one thing that mattered: finding those who broke the law.
Ulf let his gaze fall from the ceiling. Now he was staring at the carpet, and at Dr. Svensson’s brown suede shoes. They were brogues, with that curious holed pattern that somebody had once explained to him was all to do with letting the shoes breathe, and was not just a matter of English aesthetics. They were expensive, he imagined. When he first saw them, he had decided that they were English shoes, because they had that look about them, and that was precisely the sort of thing that a good detective noticed. Italian shoes were thinner, and more elegant, presumably because the Italians had thinner, more elegant feet than the English. The Dutch, of course, had even bigger feet than the English; Dutchmen, Ulf reflected, were tall, big- boned people. They were large—which was odd, in a way, because Holland was such a small country . . . and so prone to flooding, as that story he had been read as a child made so clear—the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke . . .
“Mr. Varg?” There was a slight note of impatience in Dr. Svensson’s tone. It was all very well for patients to go off into some reverie of their own, but the whole point of these sessions was to disclose, not conceal, and they should articulate what they were thinking, rather than just think it.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Svensson. I was thinking.”
“Ah!” said the therapist. “That’s precisely what you’re meant to do, you know. Thinking precedes verbalisation, and verbalisation precedes resolution. And much as I approve of that, what we’re trying to do here is to find out what you think without thinking. In other words, we want to find out what’s going on in your mind. Because that’s what—”
Ulf nodded. “Yes, I know. I understand. I just said Søren because I wasn’t quite sure what you meant. I wanted to be sure.”
“I meant Søren. The name. Søren.”
Ulf thought. Søren triggered nothing. Had Dr. Svensson said Harald, or Per, he would have been able to respond bully or teeth because that was what he thought of. They had been boys in his class, so had Dr. Svensson said Harald, he might have replied bully, because that was what Harald was. And if he had said Per, he would have replied teeth, because Per had a gap in his front teeth that his parents were too poor to have attended to by an orthodontist.
Then it came to him, quite suddenly, and he replied, “Kierkegaard.”
This seemed to please Dr. Svensson. “Kierkegaard?” the therapist repeated.
“Yes, Søren Kierkegaard.”
Dr. Svensson smiled. It was almost time to bring the session to a close, and he liked to end on a thoughtful note. “Would you mind my asking, why Kierkegaard? Have you read him?”
Ulf replied that he had.
“I’m impressed,” said Dr. Svensson. “One doesn’t imagine that a . . .” He stopped.
Ulf looked at him expectantly.
Dr. Svensson tried to cover his embarrassment, but failed. “I didn’t mean, well, I didn’t mean it to sound like that.”
“Your unconscious?” said Ulf mildly. “Your unconscious mind speaking.”
The therapist smiled. “What I was going to say—but stopped myself just in time—was that I didn’t expect a policeman to have read Kierkegaard. I know that there’s no earthly reason why a policeman should not read Kierkegaard, but it is unusual, would you not agree?”
“I’m actually a detective.”
Dr. Svensson was again embarrassed. “Of course you are.”
“Although detectives are policemen in essence.”
Dr. Svensson nodded. “As are judges and public health officials and politicians too, I suppose. Anybody who tells us how to behave is a policeman in a sense.”
“But not therapists?”
Dr. Svensson laughed. “A therapist shouldn’t tell you how to behave. A therapist should help you to see why you do what you do, and should help you to stop doing it—if that’s what you want. So, no, a therapist is certainly not a policeman.” He paused. “But why Kierkegaard? What appeals to you about Kierkegaard?”
“I didn’t say he appealed. I said I had read him. That’s not the same thing as saying he appealed.”
Dr. Svensson glanced at his watch again. “I think perhaps we should leave it at that,” he said. “We’ve covered a fair amount of ground today.”
Ulf rose to his feet.
“Now what?” asked Dr. Svensson.
“Now what, what?”
“I was wondering what you were going to do next. You see, my patients come into this room, they talk—or, rather, we talk—and then they go out into the world and continue with their lives. And I remain here and think—not always, but sometimes—I think: What are they going outside to do? Do they go back to their houses and sit in a chair? Do they go into some office somewhere and move pieces of paper from one side of the desk to another? Or stare at a screen again until it’s time to go home to a house where the children are all staring at screens? Is that what they do? Is that why they bother?”
Ulf hesitated. “Those are very profound questions. Very. But since you ask, I can tell you that I’m going back to my office. I shall sit at my desk and write a report on a case that we have just closed.”
“You close cases,” muttered Dr. Svensson. “Mine remain open. They are unresolved, for the most part.”
“Yes, we close cases. We’re under great pressure to close cases.”
Dr. Svensson sighed. “How fortunate.” He moved to the window. I look out of the window, he thought. The patients go off to do significant things, such as closing cases, and I look out of my window. Then he said, “I don’t suppose you could tell me what this case involved.”
“I can’t give you names, or other details,” replied Ulf. “But I can tell you it involved the infliction of a very unusual injury.”
Dr. Svensson turned round to face his patient.
“To the back of somebody’s knee,” said Ulf.
“How strange. To the back of the knee?”
“Yes,” said Ulf. “But I can’t really say much more than that.”
Ulf frowned. “That I should not explain further? Is that odd?”
“No, that somebody should injure another person in the back of the knee. Of course, the choice of a target is hardly random. We injure what we love, what we desire, every bit as much as that which we hate. But it is odd, isn’t it? The back of a knee . . . ”
Ulf began to walk towards the door. “You’d be very surprised, Dr. Svensson, at how odd people can be. Yes, even in your profession—where you hear all sorts of dark secrets from your patients, day in, day out. Even then. You’d be surprised.”
“Yes,” said Ulf. “If you stood in my shoes for a few days, your jaw would hit the table in astonishment. Regularly.”
Dr. Svensson smiled. “Well, well.” His smile faded. The jaw. Freud, he remembered, died of a disease that affected his jaw. Alone in London, with enemies circling, that illuminating intelligence, liberating in its perspicacity, flickered and died, leaving us to face the darkness and the creatures that inhabited it.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Department of Sensitive Crimes, the first “Detective Varg Novel,” Alexander McCall Smith’s newest series.
1. How is the “Detective Varg” series different from Alexander McCall Smith’s other series?
2. What do you think of the character of Ulf Varg? Compare him to Precious Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie. What are there similarities and differences amongst them?
3. Consider the setting of Malmö, Sweden. How is this important to the plot and the timbre of the novel?
4. The Department of Sensitive Crimes has been called “Scandi-Lite.” Is this a fitting description?
5. Do you think Alexander McCall Smith is better at writing male or female characters? Explain.
6. The police force considers the cases assigned to Varg’s team “sensitive crimes.” How would you characterize them?
7. How does Detective Varg define “being Swedish?”
8. Which is your favorite character on Varg’s team? Why?
9. Discuss the relationship between Varg and Anna. What do you foresee happening in their future?
10. What did you think of the case of Malte Gustafsson? Was the perpetrator hard to find? How was Hampus as pitiable as the man he stabbed? Why was he prosecuted anyway? What was Varg’s interest in Hampus and his future problems?
11. Describe the way Varg deals with the colonel's plans for Hampus? Is this very "Swedish?"
12. What was Bim’s initial “crime?” What did her friend Signe lead the police to think happened? What did her mother think?
13. What happened further to Signe to reignite suspicion of Bim? What was Bim actually guilty of? What was Signe guilty of? Are you satisfied with the outcome of that investigation?
14. How does the enquiry into Commissioner Ahlbörg’s cousin’s spa conclude? Are the assumptions made by Varg (and Blomquist) fair?
15. Which of the three cases did you like the best? Why?
16. Varg’s investigative method is “to allow his own sense of what was happening to develop” (p. 194). Does experienced detective work solve these cases? Or is it a series of coincidences noted by an observant person? Are they the same?
17. What do you think of Blomquist? What purpose does the character serve for the author? Were you surprised by the commissioner’s decision on his behalf?
18. Why do you think Detective Varg sees a psychotherapist?
19. When Ulf expresses a desire for a simpler life, Dr. Svensson tells him, “You need the occasions of good, as we all do—even if we don’t have a name for them” (p. 225). How does the detective’s job help him see (and accomplish) “occasions of good” in the world?
20. Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific writer. What situations/relationships would you like to see develop in the future for the Department of Sensitive Crimes and its characters?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I chuckled all the way through this inventive story - always good to have a laugh or two, even if the wistful feelings of the protagonists sincerely reflect our own nobler human instincts.
Look forward to more of Ulf Varg.
The Department of Sensitive Crimes is the first full-length novel in the Detective Varg series by popular British author, Alexander McCall-Smith. And he’s having a lend of us, the reader. If that’s not obvious from the title and the characters, then the cases they deal with should confirm it. Those characters, though, do give him enormous scope for insightful observations and wise words. The DoSC consists of Carl (incredibly conscientious), Erik (obsessed by fishing), Ulf (kind and sensitive and in impossible love with his married colleague), Anna. The annoyingly enthusiastic but less than competent Officer Blomquist also lends a hand. And let’s not forget Martin, Ulf’s deaf, depressed, lip-reading dog, Mrs Hogfors, his neighbour and Dr Svensson, his therapist. The cases, passed on from Malmö’s Criminal Investigation Authority because they are slightly unusual, are also a rich source of material for philosophical discussion: an unwitnessed stabbing in the back of a knee; a missing boyfriend who’s imaginary; and a possible werewolf. As Ulf and his team carry out their investigations, they are extremely prone to heading off on (often amusing) tangents during questioning. All are successfully resolved, but not without much deep discussion of the behaviours encountered. McCall Smith’s characters discuss, debate and ponder topics as diverse as imaginary friends, politically correct terminology for small people, the canine environmental footprint, osmotic knowledge, vegan objection to pets and whether the obsessed can be happy. When Ulf muses on gentlemanly behaviour, it’s very pertinent to the current “me too” cases: “...although he knew that nobody talked about being a gentleman any more, the concept still existed somewhere under the burden of the new language of relationships, the language that stressed self-determination and personal space. That was not all that different from the code of gentlemanly conduct that had previously prevented men from inappropriate conduct in their relations with women. The things that men were now supposed not to do were precisely the things that gentlemen were not meant to do anyway - so what was the difference? Were we simply becoming old-fashioned again, as societies tended to do when they saw the consequences of tearing up the behavioural rule book?” While it sounds like a crime novel, McCall Smith describes it as Scandi Blanc (as opposed to Scandi Noir) and anyone who is reading his work for the crime aspect has the wrong end of the stick: McCall Smith’s crime books are an exercise in examining human behaviour and the gentle philosophy which that inspires. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
The Department of Sensitive Crimes had everything I expect from an Alexander McCall Smith book: Quirky characters, ridiculous situations, lovable characters, good natured humour, a few life lessons and a lot of heart. The story was utterly charming. The several cases that the Department examined were unusual and were all solved in the course of this book. I’m not sure if this will be a series or not but it probably should be. There are no cliff-hangers and everything felt complete but I can’t help but hope there are more sensitive crimes to be investigated in the future. This isn’t an action packed story by any means. It is more about the relationships and thoughts of the characters. There is a lot of talking, mostly about nothing. In that respect it reminded me of Seinfeld which is often referred to as a show about nothing in particular. The characters are what are important and the plot is just a vehicle to let them shine. That isn’t to say that the story wasn’t compelling, because I found it engaging, but don’t expect shootouts or dead bodies. There is one werewolf chase in the dark but for the most part this is a quiet type of book. It’s also a feel good book that will leave you with restored faith in humanity. This author never lets me down when I need a positive to counteract all the negative in life. This is the definition of cozy and I’m ready to curl up with more! Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and Knopf Canada for providing an Electronic Advance Reader Copy via NetGalley for review.