It’s early to be pegging the year’s best books, but “The Wolf and the Watchman,” Niklas Natt och Dag’s stunning debut, is sure to be one of them. A longtime cultural columnist and blogger for Swedish magazines, Natt och Dag brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this feverishly dark historical thriller, first of a trilogy and published in more than 30 countries. Even readers inured to grim depictions of Sweden in the work of writers such as Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson may be taken aback by Natt och Dag’s 1793 Stockholm, a hellish place that seems mired in the Middle Ages, despite the gradual encroachment of Enlightenment ideas.
The watchman of the title, Mickel Cardell, is one of the ragtag crew employed by the city’s police force to arrest vagrants, prostitutes, orphans and others who struggle to survive in Stockholm’s cesspit streets. A veteran who lost his left arm during Sweden’s ill-fated war with Russia, Cardell works at a beer cellar, where he keeps order with a carved wooden prosthetic — a formidable weapon for dealing with truculent customers. Very early one morning, he’s awakened from a drunken stupor by two children who have found a body in a nearby lake that’s little more than an open sewer.
“The waves lap against the shore, churning up a pale yellow froth. Something rotten — a dark lump — is floating a few meters out. Cardell’s first thought is that it cannot possibly be a human being.”
But it is, or was, a human being, so horrifically mutilated that it causes the hardened Cardell to experience a panic attack. The corpse is brought to the attention of Cecil Winge, a young lawyer turned investigator who works with Stockholm’s police chief, Johan Gustaf Norlin. Set during a period of political and social unrest, with rumors of the French Revolution muttered in the alleys, corruption is rampant among the Stockholm police. In the shadows of this chaos, Norlin and Winge, two righteous men, know their days with the force are numbered, especially Winge’s. In the last stages of consumption, with only weeks to live, Winge has nothing to lose by joining forces with Cardell to uncover the identity of the unknown man, whom they name Karl Johan, and his murderer.
“So this man has had his arms and legs shorn away in turn,” Winge calmly observes to Cardell, before noting even more disturbing details.
Yet even more nightmarish are the descriptions of everyday life in a society where numbing poverty is ubiquitous. Naive farm boys who come to Stockholm fall into paralyzing debt, with dire consequences. Crowds gather to cheer an executioner, himself a condemned man so drunk it takes minutes for him to cleave his victim’s head from his body. Those soldiers who survive attack by Russian warships subsequently die of typhus by the hundreds. Female victims of sexual assault are thrown into workhouses indistinguishable from prisons, where they are tortured. Most sinister of all is the Eumenides, a secret charitable order made up of the city’s wealthiest men that supports the workhouses, which takes its name from Greek myth. The Eumenides, “the Kindly Ones,” are also the ravening Furies.
“The Wolf and the Watchman” is exceedingly grim and often grisly, but, in the elegant translation by Ebba Segerberg, it’s never lurid. Natt och Dag has spoken of his admiration for Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Like Eco’s novel, “The Wolf and the Watchman” is a cerebral, immersive page-turner whose detective is a rationalist trapped in a world ruled by superstition, fear, and men whose humanity has been debased and erased as surely as Karl Johan’s.
“What kind of wolf are you, then, Mr. Winge?” asks a man under interrogation. “A good wolf? A skilled hunter?” Winge replies, “No wolf at all, I’m afraid. What I do, I do not undertake in order to satisfy my bloodlust.”
Yet even a righteous man may fall prey to his darker impulses. Winge’s ongoing struggle to maintain a precarious balance between justice and vengeance, as well as his own life and imminent death, gives “The Wolf and the Watchman” a moral heft reminiscent of works by Graham Greene.
Natt och Dag takes some narrative risks. Divided into four parts, the book focuses on Winge and Cardell’s investigation in its first and final sections, with Winge himself growing sicker and more corpselike every day. The middle two sections jump back to the previous spring and summer: Each follows a different character whose connections to victim and killer are only gradually and chillingly revealed. It’s a strategy with an impressive payoff, as scenes that initially seemed to serve as stylistic or historical flourishes instead prove crucial to the plot, fitting together as precisely as the gears of the pocket watch Winge obsessively takes apart and puts back together.
“The Wolf and the Watchman” makes sly use of the conventions of the modern police procedural: the coolly clinical investigator and his brawling sidekick; the furtive dance between corrupt police commissioners and their politician puppet-masters; even the coffee-swilling Stockholm policemen who avidly avail themselves of the still-novel beverage. The last 50 pages provide plenty of twists to satisfy thrill-starved readers, but it’s the final haunting sentence that raises gooseflesh and leaves one reaching to turn up the light.
Elizabeth Hand’s novel “Curious Toys” will be published this fall.
By Niklas Natt och Dag
Atria. 373 pp. $27
Originally published at WashingtonPost.com.