The pre-publication lead-up to THREE SECONDS by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström has been careful to note that the book is the winner of the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers' 2009 award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, previously won by both Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. The fifth installment in a series featuring Detective Inspector Ewert Grens follows BOX 21 and is only the second to be released in the United States. Thus far, the publishing has been out of chronology, so THREE SECONDS references events --- tragic and otherwise --- that have gone before. It can be read and enjoyed in its entirety without familiarity to prior volumes, but I assure you that you will want to catch up on those previous titles as they become available here.
The writing team of Roslund and Hellström is one that is made in heaven. Roslund is a respected journalist who has worked as a news and culture reporter, while Hellström is regarded as an expert on crime and the Swedish correctional system as the result of his intimate and extensive knowledge of same. The duo is quite sure-footed throughout THREE SECONDS, so they are not in any particular hurry to set things up in the opening pages. The first few chapters is like wading into a body of water reputed to be dangerous, and feeling a gentle tug around the ankles that turns into an irresistible undertow before one is fully aware of it. About a fifth of the way through, the chute opens, and the reader slip-slides into a maelstrom that turns this way and that, with the characters partaking in a deadly game that is part Russian Roulette and part chess.
The initial focus of THREE SECONDS is not so much the deeply troubled Grens (though he is certainly present) but rather an ex-convict named Piet Hoffman. A two-bit criminal who has turned his life around, Hoffman leads a double life, sharing a home with a wife and two sons whom he loves and adores while at the same time working in a deadly undercover capacity for the Swedish police. He has been tasked with infiltrating the Polish mafia, a soulless organization that wants to acquire control of the lucrative and illegal drug distribution within the Swedish prison system. His handlers have a daring plan: create a false record for him --- one that reflects a far more dangerous and murderous personality than he possesses --- arrest him, place him in Sweden’s most dangerous prison, and take over the drug trade. The result will create a trail right back to the drug kingpins, which will lead to their arrest and conviction.
But things start to go wrong even before Hoffman’s staged arrest. A drug deal that takes place in his presence results in a murder. Grens, dogged and tenacious as ever, is tasked with the investigation. Still haunted by an incident that has plagued him for over three decades, Grens focuses his attention on the case with a laser-like intensity, unaware that the enigmatic and slender clues that are turning up lead directly to an operation that his superior and colleague down the hall are carefully constructing. Hoffman has plans of his own. While not the psychopathic personality that his carefully reconstructed record portrays him to be, he is nonetheless an extremely careful, brilliant and dangerous man. When the plans of his controllers in the Swedish police go awry once he’s imprisoned, he becomes expendable in their eyes. And Grens can become either Hoffman’s savior or his executioner.
THREE SECONDS is challenging, exciting and haunting. Even if you see the (multiple) ending(s) coming, you will be amazed by how Roslund and Hellström pull things off. It is more than worth the night of sleep you’ll sacrifice at its altar. Strongly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 14, 2011