The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf: A Detective Varg Novel (4)

The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf: A Detective Varg Novel (4)

by Alexander McCall Smith
The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf: A Detective Varg Novel (4)

The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf: A Detective Varg Novel (4)

by Alexander McCall Smith


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In the hilarious new novel in the best-selling Detective Varg series, Ulf Varg will need to resolve both a sensitive crime and his own delicate dilemma in the hopes of preserving the peace.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes is downsizing in light of a recent downturn of sensitive crime, and staff members are wondering who among them will be transferred elsewhere. As the bickering between colleagues intensifies, Ulf tries his best to stay above the fray. But when Anna, a longtime friend and coworker, appears to blame him for an old case that went sideways, it seems she may be putting her own job prospects above their friendship.

In the midst of all this, Ulf embarks on an important inquiry: a man's cabin has mysteriously disappeared and Ulf is tasked with finding out what happened. How exactly does one steal a house? And, more to the point, how does one track down a stolen house? Meanwhile, a promising veterinary treatment for deafness in dogs has been announced, and Ulf’s dog, Martin, might be the perfect patient.

This latest novel is another masterful, farcical installment in the series that defines the genre that Alexander McCall Smith is singlehandedly championing: Scandi blanc.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593700839
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/29/2023
Series: Detective Varg Series , #4
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 97,446
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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.


Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of Birth:

August 24, 1948

Place of Birth:


Read an Excerpt


The invitation came in the form of a letter delivered to Ulf Varg, senior detective in Malmö’s Department of Sensitive Crimes, driver of a classic silver Saab, and owner of a hearing-impaired dog known as Martin. It arrived with one other letter, an unsolic­ited offer from a local building company to renew his windows and, in their words, Do away with chilly draughts forever with our one-hundred-year guarantee. That was absurd, thought Ulf, and smiled at the very thought. How could any firm seriously offer a century’s guarantee in a world as uncertain, and as tempo­rary, as ours? Not only would the customer be long gone by the time the guarantee expired, but the firm itself would doubtless have ceased trading. Nothing lasts forever, Ulf reminded himself: everything we see around us, people, buildings, roads, even Swe­den itself would in due course disappear, leaving only traces to puzzle future archaeologists, if there were to be any. Sweden . . . We thought of our countries as permanent, but they were not. What­ever happened to Tanganyika? Countries and civilisations waxed and waned; populations moved or died out; empires crumbled, their throne rooms deserted, their grumbling legions evaporated. Would people still speak Swedish in two or three hundred years?
No, the guarantee made no sense, other than as a cheap boast of the sort that some manufacturers might make about their over-hyped products. Ulf had recently fallen for one of these when he purchased a toothbrush which it was claimed had the effect of lifting plaque through the action of the rare and special material of which the bristles were made. It was not clear to him how this worked, and he regretted the purchase almost immediately, especially as it cost four times what a normal toothbrush cost. He would feel the same, he imagined, about new windows, even those with a one-hundred-year guarantee.
He tossed the building company’s letter into the bin. But then he reminded himself that the builders, a father-and-son team, were no more than doing their job, trying to make a living in a hard world, and he mentally apologised to them. He was sorry, but new windows were not a priority for him right at the moment.
He retrieved the letter from the bin. It had been printed on cheap paper, but care had been taken with the design. At its head, underneath the name of the company, Northern Windows, was a photograph of the proprietor and his son. Their names were printed in italics: Mikael and Loke. Mikael was the father, who looked somewhere in his forties—although Ulf always found it difficult to estimate ages with any accuracy—and Loke was the son, who appeared to be in his early twenties, if that. Mikael, the text then explained, had worked abroad on construction before returning to Sweden to set up his own company. Loke had served an apprenticeship with a firm in Stockholm and, on its comple­tion, had joined his father in the window business. Loke was a keen ice-hockey player, it was revealed, a sport in which his father had once been an amateur coach. Then the text turned to win­dows and the need to replace them from time to time. No window lasts forever, the letter warned. That could be a recurring line in a poem, Ulf thought: no window lasts forever.

Ulf smiled. If no window lasted forever, was it wise to offer a one-hundred-year guarantee? He looked at the photograph once again. These two men were honest. He had been a detec­tive long enough to develop that sixth sense that only long expe­rience with erring humanity could engender: that instinct that told one when people were honest and when they were not. Care had to be taken about judging on facial appearance, but it was one of the factors that could be taken into account. Faces revealed internal processes—of course they did. We talked about looks of anguish, or haunted looks, or looks of regret. These all pointed to emotional states within. And so it was with honesty: the anxiety brought about by dissemblance could easily be translated into a small furrow here, a shifting of the gaze there. You just had to be ready to spot the signs.
Ulf thought: I never have to solicit business. I sit at my desk and my work comes to me. These two have to go out, like fisher­men casting their nets upon the water, and hope that they attract clients. They can never be sure that anybody will respond, and it is easy to see how that might lead to desperation and the offering of one-hundred-year guarantees. That was entirely understandable.
He folded the letter before slipping it into the drawer in which he kept odds and ends for which he had no other particular place. Some of his windows did need attention, now that he came to think of it, and he remembered that a year or two ago he had even bought sandpaper and a tin of white paint to do something about it himself. But it had gone no further than that, and he had forgotten about it. His own handiwork, of course, would never be guaranteed for a year, let alone a century. Perhaps he would get in touch with Northern Windows and ask them to take a look.
He examined the second envelope. His name and address had been handwritten, which intrigued him. Physical letters were rare enough in an age of electronic communication, and had largely disappeared, just as physical banknotes had done in Sweden. Letters had become special, and one with a personal aspect to it would always be more interesting than the dull missives of officialdom—tax demands, insurance premium reminders, and so on.
He slit open the envelope and extracted the letter within. “Dear Ulf,” he read, “It’s over twenty years now since that day when we walked out of the Gymnasium on our last day of school. Remem­ber? And since then a lot has happened in our lives. But now a few of us—Per and Margarita, as well as myself—have decided to organise a class reunion. It won’t be anything big—just a lunch. We are hoping to invite the current principal to come and speak to us about the plans that the school has for the future. It’s much bigger now and I think it’s doing well. The invitation is attached and gives the details. Please let me know if you can make it—we hope you can! Best regards, Harald (Olavson).” There was a brief postscript written in a different-coloured ink. “PS I went on to work in aviation: a landing-gear company. It pays the rent and is reasonably secure, which is all one can ask for, really. I heard that you became some sort of detective. Selective Crimes, Per said. Maybe you’ll explain when we meet.”
Ulf looked out of the window. Harald Olavson. Of course. He saw him now, on the racing bike that he sometimes rode to school. He was remarkably thin—one of those people who seemed to carry not an ounce of spare flesh—and even the skin on his face seemed to be pulled tight, like parchment. That must have been because there was no subcutaneous fat. People said that if Harald stood side on to you, you might easily just not see him, he was so thin and insubstantial. And then Per, who had an extraordinary memory for facts and figures. They called him Guinness, after the Guinness Book of Records. And Margarita, whose ambition it had been to go to medical school and become a doctor. She had suc­ceeded at that, Ulf remembered, and become an army doctor. He had seen her photograph in the paper, taken when she was serv­ing with a Swedish peacekeeping force in Mali. He would be inter­ested in asking her about that, and could do so at the reunion, he thought. He would certainly want to attend, even though the date conflicted with an arrangement he had made with Juni, the veterinary receptionist he was now seeing. He had offered to take her to a jazz concert at which a well-known saxophonist would be performing, a player considered to be one of the best alto saxophonists in Europe.
She had been lukewarm about going—she had never liked saxophones, she said—and would probably be relieved when he suggested a change of plan. He had been surprised by her distaste for the saxophone: How could anybody dislike an instrument that Rossini, no less, had said produced the most beautiful of all sounds? Or not be interested in the invention of a man called Adolf Sax, who devised elaborate keywork that would have given rise to envy in the heart of even the most accomplished of plumb­ers? He would work on that. The saxophone was so versatile an instrument, and Ulf thought that he might introduce Juni to its full range, including its repertoire of early music. It was wrong to think—as he felt she did—that the sax was only about jazz.
He pulled out his phone and began to write an email. Harald had given his address, and Ulf now typed his response. He would love to come to the reunion, he said. And yes, he would bring somebody with him. He then pointed out, tactfully, that it was the Department of Sensitive Crimes, not Selective Crimes. It was not a big thing, of course, but one might as well get it right. He sent the message, and put his phone back in his pocket. It was time to go to work. Selective Crimes . . . really! What did people think he did? Chose what to investigate and what to ignore? He paused. That was the way things had gone. Perhaps people thought that because the police ignored so many minor matters these days. Per­haps Selective Crimes was not an entirely inaccurate name after all. Ulf smiled. The Department of Seductive Crimes (crimes that appealed in some way)? The Department of Speluncean Crimes (crimes committed in caves)? There were numerous possibilities, should the department wish to rebrand itself, as had occasionally been suggested by the Commissioner himself, an incorrigible enthusiast for renaming and restructuring things, other than his own department, of course. The Department of Sensitive Crimes had escaped such attentions because of a precautionary memo that Ulf himself had drafted and circulated. This had argued that any interference with the department would be seen as insensitive in the current climate, and should therefore be avoided sine die. He had been proud of the inclusion of that Latin iteration of indefinitely. He knew that nobody in the wider police force would know what it meant, but that obscurity would add authority and his proposal would go unchallenged. That was exactly what had happened, and nothing had been done. His colleague Blomquist, though, had looked up the expression, and over the weeks that followed Ulf had heard him using it several times with real con­fidence, on one occasion glancing at Ulf as he uttered it, as if expecting approbation.
“Quite so, Blomquist,” Ulf had said.
Three months later, at a ceremony marking the graduation of the latest cohort of police recruits, the Commissioner himself had said sine die in his speech—in an incorrect context, but Ulf had nonetheless warmed to him, because a solecism was a sign of humanity, and there was something reassuring about the stum­bling of a great personage.

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