Winner of the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers 2009 award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year, Three Seconds is a not at all fast-paced, sometimes annoyingly over-written, yet engaging thriller mixing mafia drug trafficking with police corruption into an explosive concoction. The back cover claims that this new book by the unusual duo, Roslund (journalist) and Hellström (Ex-con), is from the “masters of Swedish crime literature who paved the way for Stieg Larsson.” Whether this proclaimed lineage or the American readership’s apparently insatiable appetite for Swedish crime stories can explain it, the near 500-page book nonetheless clocked in this week at number 8 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.
Piet Hoffman, a former criminal working undercover for the Swedish police under the code name “Paula,” is about to undertake his most dangerous assignment: return to prison to corner the prison amphetamine trade for the Polish mafia, while secretly operating a police-approved ploy to crush the mafia’s operation. His Swedish police handler, Erik Wilson, knows how risky the operation will be, but has every confidence his informant will succeed. “He’d never had anyone like Paula before, someone who was so sharp, alert, cool … Paula was better than all the others put together, too good to be a criminal.” (p. 23) Besides, Wilson has some responsibility for what happened, doesn’t he?
What happened was murder and Hoffman had been at the scene of the crime, unable (and unwilling) to stop it.
The day before, Hoffman called Wilson, asking for cover. An unexpected delivery of drugs is about to arrive. The chance they’d been waiting for. On a field trip to the U.S. to study new methods of covert operations, Wilson is unable to provide backup. “Get out,” he tells Hoffman. Too late, Hoffman says. Not to go along with the deal would risk blowing his cover; he’ll “go it alone.” (p. 10) But the deal goes bust when the buyer turns out to be an undercover informant himself and Hoffman can’t stop his Polish colleagues from killing the man without getting killed himself. At least he calls the police, anonymously. “A dead man. Vastmannagatan 79. Fourth floor.”
Enter Ewert Grens, an old-fashioned detective with his own troubled past, in mourning for his deceased wife, who had spent many years in an assisted living home incapacitated (we later learn) by an accident Grens himself caused. With the tenacity of a pit bull hanging onto its prey, Grens follows the few clues he uncovers at the crime scene until they begin to lead him close to Hoffman. But Wilson has Hoffman’s back. Working at the highest levels of the Swedish police force, and with the complicity of both a government ministry and the prison authorities, he arranges ways to keep Grens off Hoffman’s track. Simultaneously he fabricates an even darker criminal profile that will land Hoffman in Aspsås maximum-security prison to carry out his double-crossing-the-mafia plan.
Maybe Piet/Paula is too good to be a criminal. At least, he wants to think so. He’s a family man with a wife and two sons, who know nothing about what he really does for a living. His company, Hoffman Security AB, is a cover for Polish mafia-led drug-running. But it’s also a cover for his real employers—the Swedish police at the highest level—to infiltrate the mafia with the intent to undermine its power. So what if everyone has to commit a few crimes along the way, including throwing off the investigation of the murder. The ends justify the means. Or so just about everyone in this novel seems to believe.
But the lying seems to be getting to Hoffman. And so does the murder. (Well, not the murder exactly, but the risk of life imprisonment it carries if he’s caught.) It’s as if he’s become like all the other criminals he met in prison ten years earlier: people with “made up morals….There was nothing left of him that he could like.” (p. 96). The “family man” isn’t stopped by his devotion from dropping his feverish young children off at the childcare center, drugged with enough medication so the fever subsides enough for them not to appear sick. Daddy even takes them along with him, leaving them in the back of his car unattended while he completes preparations and drug deals in the few hours left before he allows himself to be arrested again.
If it isn’t his conscience that motivates Hoffman to take this one last gig, no matter how risky, or illegal, is it his hope that, if he succeeds, maybe he’ll be able to get out of the game and get on with his more “normal,” middle class life? Except, as the twisting and turning plot suggests, the Paula side of Piet seems to like the thrill of the game a little too much.
And so do the authors. The story takes a little too detail-laden description-filled journey to arrive at the plot point where things really start happening. Along the way, a few frustrating shifts of narrative point-of-view are more distracting than illuminating about character. And, although no surprise, given the usual tone of this genre, the women in the story are a little too thinly drawn to be memorable. But then, it would take a certain kind of woman to be able to stand up to the likes of Lisbeth Salander.