Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, by Leif G W Persson
I’ll confess, I’ve fallen into certain habits when it comes to crime fiction. When approaching new books, I’ve risked prejudicing my own critical faculties by looking for the same things each time; protagonist, setting, mood. And so, when something as ambitious and expansive as Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End crossed my path, I spent the first three-hundred pages floundering. Such is the risk of approaching this Swedish behemoth unprepared.
Between Summer’s Longing… first appeared in its native Sweden in 2002, and won the very highest praise from critics. Indeed, it was described by Swedish tabloid Expressen as “one of the best Swedish crime novels of all time;” a bold statement if ever there was one.
In what is surely one of the greatest understatements in the history of crime writing, the book’s tagline is The Story of a Crime. At the outset, one could be forgiven for believing that crime to centre on the person of John P. Krassner, an American student meeting his end falling from the sixteenth floor of an apartment block. Initial cursory investigations by an incompetent homicide unit suggest that Krassner’s death was self-inflicted. It falls to Superintendent Lars Johannson to investigate fully, and beneath the rock of Krassner’s death crawls a fusion of deceit, violence, politics and espionage, which stretches not just to the heart of the Swedish government, but to the soul of a nation.
Typical crime fiction disclaimers involve violent content, but Between Summer’s Longing is an entirely different beast. This is not an easy read, nor is it even a detective novel in the usual sense. Readers looking for such a thing should steer clear; read from a certain perspective, Between Summer’s Longing could appear bloated, boring and obsessed with political detail. To get the best from the book requires patience, even tenacity, concentration, and a functioning knowledge of Swedish political and social history certainly couldn’t hurt.
The book’s complexities are seemingly endless. It features a substantial cast, from which no single character stands out as an anchor. It deals with the apparatus of both overt and covert policing, and the difficulties of the relationship between those two, then adds the additional level of each’s interaction with the politicians and their advisers. To compound it all, very few characters ever express themselves explicitly. This is a book where interactions are, like the Bebelplatz memorial, carved in void. Equal importance is often placed on what is not said, for example in this exchange between Johansson and a journalist contact –
‘Are you up to something interesting?’ asked Wendell, with curiosity, because he knew from experience that Johansson usually dealt in hard goods.
‘No,’ said Johansson. ‘Just thought it might be nice to get together. It’s been a while.’
‘I understand,’ said Wendell cryptically. ‘We’ll discuss it when we meet.’
I doubt that, thought Johansson, but didn’t say it out loud.
This is typical of the dialogue in the book. At risk of descending into pretentiousness, reading Between Summer’s Longing is akin to being a freed prisoner in Plato’s cave. The shadows, or the actual events depicted in the early stages of the book, are a series of scenes involving infighting between bureaucrats, police officers denigrating social democracy, voicing numerous forms of prejudice and generally demonstrating their incompetence and indifference. The things that cast the shadows, the real meat of the book is a discourse on Sweden’s national identity, its relationship with the rest of the world, its values, and its ruling class, ridden as it is with opportunism and prejudice. Between Summer’s Longing is a book that gets right to the heart of the darkness within Swedish society, both in reality and in crime fiction.
Overall, while it places colossal demands on the reader, this is a book breathtaking in scope and majestic in execution. Sublime though the best of Anglo-Saxon crime writers are, I am unable to name a single one currently writing capable of filling the vast canvas set out by Between Summer’s Longing. What’s more, this is the first of a trilogy, and while I am loath to make the almost obligatory comparison with the author of that most famous trio of vast Swedish crime tales, we may, at long last, have an English translation capable of knocking him off his perch.