Three Seconds: Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

This stellar novel, winner of the 2009 Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, made me think of an anecdote a publisher sales rep who visits Readings regularly always seems to tell us when he has a new work by the British crime writer Martina Cole to subscribe. “You know she is the most borrowed author in the UK prison library system, don’t you?!”

This Swedish writing duo, one an ex-crim, the other an ex-crime reporter, are I’m sure the most widely-read authors amongst the incarcerated of Sweden (and their jailors!), and it’s not hard to see why, nor the undoubted universal application of their insights. Their book brims with an (almost scary!) authenticity concerning the aims and methods of organized crime (the drug trade in particular), and its near-legitimacy as an everyday business in the modern ‘liberal’ state. That it is sustained in part because law enforcement are on the lookout for ‘bigger fish’ at the top of these crime syndicates, which thus allows quite serious crime to continue to flourish, fuels the moral passion evident in this book.

At the heart of Three Seconds is the character of the informer - here, ex-crim Piet Hoffmann, groomed over many years to infiltrate ever deeper into the world of organised crime, is working for a Polish mafia outfit who aim to expand their standard drug-running into Sweden into drug distribution across the entire Swedish prison system. The intelligence and thoroughness required of a high-level informer to stay ‘in character’, the extreme danger, the moral dilemmas, and the immense strain it puts on ‘normal’ family life, are all depicted remarkably convincingly here.

Inevitably this novel might be compared to the Larsson trilogy for readers who now have a taste for Scandinavian crime fiction, but I’m sure the comparison isn’t misplaced: a riveting plot, a strong suit of characters, and a trenchant social critique of the accomodations ‘justice’ makes with crime - I reckon Stieg, lover of crime fiction that he was (and someone to be sure with an eye for injustice!), would, like me, consider Three Seconds a truly superior work.

Oh, and prison library books happen to be a crucial plot strand, incidentally!