#50 Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective

Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (Den döende detektiven), trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Doubleday, 2016 [2010]). 5 stars


Opening line: Karlbergsvägen 66 in Stockholm is the location of Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden.

Leif G.W Persson is a writer at the absolute top of his game. The Dying Detective is the seventh of his novels to appear in English, and is a gripping, absorbing, beautifully plotted read. Not only does it succeed brilliantly on its own terms, but deftly extends the universe of his previous novels, and, like another of his novels, Linda, pays homage to a giant of the crime genre in a truly inventive way.

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Readers of earlier Persson novels will remember Johansson as a brilliant investigator with an uncanny ability to ‘see around corners’. Now we find him frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery – a sobering depiction of the aftermath of a stroke – and drawn into the investigation of a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he has assembled a rag-tag team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

From the very beginning, the novel adds an extra level of complexity to the investigation of Yasmine’s case: the challenge for Johansson is not simply identifying the perpetrator, but figuring out what to do if he finds him, for a new statute of limitations means that the killer can’t legally be held to account for his crime. And this is where Persson’s literary homage comes in. Around two-thirds of the way through the novel, Johansson is shown praising Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and his Hangman), originally published in 1950. He states that a good book ‘can give you something to think about, and if it’s really good then reading it can even make you a better person. I’ve read this one several times’.


In The Judge and his Hangman, Inspector Bärlach, who is in poor health and at the end of his career, does battle with an old adversary, a man who delights in committing crimes in such a way that the legal system can’t touch him. Bärlach is desperate to bring him to justice, but knows that he’ll have to act unlawfully to do so – a terrible dilemma for a policeman who has upheld the rule of law all his life. The novel stresses the illegality of Old Testament justice, but also the terrible moral consequences of such action for the self-appointed ‘judge’ or ‘hangman’. And that’s not all. A later Dürrenmatt novel, Das Versprechen (The Pledge, 1958), features a policeman who becomes obsessed with the unsolved murder of a young girl, and whose desperate need for justice leads him to act unethically. This clever ‘intertextuality’ is carried off by Persson with a light, expert touch. It’s like watching a jazz musician improvising brilliantly with the main melody of a song.

What a smart and versatile writer Persson is. He pulls off the big ‘state of the nation’ novels (his ‘Story of a Crime’ series) or the more intimate police investigation (Linda, As in the Linda Murder) with ease, creating an expansive universe in which characters move freely from one novel to another. Regular readers will undoubtedly feel rewarded by the appearance of many old friends in The Dying Detective, from Bo Jarnebring and Lisa Mattei to the shortsighted pathologist who bids good morning to the yukka plant in reception. A special word of praise, too, for long-time Persson translator Neil Smith, who does such an excellent job of capturing the author’s voice, and in particular his wry, often black humour.

The Dying Detective has been submitted for the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. It sets a very high bar!

You can see a list of Petrona Award eligibles over at Euro Crime.


21 thoughts on “#50 Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective

  1. I’m not surprised you enjoyed this so well, Mrs. P, although of course, I’m glad you did. He is definitely superbly talented. I really must spotlight one of his novels some time. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Brilliant review Mrs P, I think it’s his best book to date. Re dying detectives did you see last weeks Beck, must say it was a shock, even more so to see it’s still on tonight. The question is where in th series is it! Last weeks was part of the first ever batch on 4, none of the preceding episodes were, curious!.

    • I was thinking of your recommendation and comments as I read it, Brian. What a feast it is. There aren’t many writers who can deliver so much reading pleasure. And even though it was very long (as per usual), it didn’t feel like a single thing should have been trimmed. A fantastic storyteller who keeps you with him all the way.

      I’d like to see him write a novel starring Lisa Mattei. Love her character.

    • On Beck: I haven’t actually watched all the episodes, but heard about the big ‘event’. Not quite sure how the series would do without that central figure. The balance doesn’t feel quite right.

      Annoying the way that the episodes have been skipping about, but let’s hope they have the good sense to proceed chronologically now!

      • I must be missing something….I found the writing repetive…wife, home, Tilda, Max….then we learn more about Max….back to investigation.
        I know my opinion is not worth a hill of beans when it comes to CF. I’ve read just a few books.
        Still when I think about Pierre Lemaitre (nail biting investigation….) and Gaston Leroux’ ‘Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune’
        …what a puzzle, Persson does not even come close to thes iconic CF writers. Not to fear….I ‘ll start the next book on the Petrona’s short list 2107. I will find one I like! 🙂

      • Hello Nancy – thanks for your comment. Your opinion most definitely is worth a hill of beans!

        I often think these things are mainly a matter of style – that different readers simply have affinities with different types of crime fiction. I can think of some very well-known bestselling authors that I just can’t get on with for one reason or another. C’est la vie.

        But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you find something you love on the list!

      • Starting The Wednesday Club (K. Westö)…today. I want to try to read all the books you mentioned in your last post, short list Petrona. I want to find some differences in style.

  3. I pre-ordered this book on Kindle and I thought it was brilliant although I was unaware of the Durrenmatt link. I have read both the Persson series, The Story of a Crime which I think is the better of the two, and the Backstrom trilogy, and think that Persson is one of the foremost of the Swedish writers. The Story of a Crime has been filmed in two episodes but is unfortunately not available on DVDs that will play on the British system. BBC4 please note! As for Beck I will be interested to see what they make of the final (?) three episodes without Persbrandt, aka Gunvald.

    • Thanks, JanH – glad to hear you loved the book too. I didn’t realise that ‘The Story of a Crime’ had been filmed. Yes, big hint to BBC4. Hope they pull the adaptation off in the style it deserves!

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