With the huge popular success of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, a search for a successor from up North is not surprising. That what that search came up with is Jens Lapidus’ Easy Money is not only surprising, it is nearly incomprehensible. Lapidus, supposedly “one of Sweden’s most successful criminal defense lawyer[s],” has put together a novel that aims at grit, but doesn’t come close to the target. Characters are both unlikeable and unbelievable. The narrative is slow and often gets lost in meaningless detail. Dialogue is as often clunky as it is lively. Indeed the prose, as translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander is all over the place—everything from invented slang and sophomoric word play to verbose exposition and awkward phrasing.
The story focuses on the Stockholm underworld, presumably an area of expertise for one of Sweden’s most successful lawyer[s]. Unfortunately, while Lapidus may know what he is talking about, that knowledge never comes across in with any sense of drama. The story switches back and forth between three central figures. Jorge is a jailed Chilean drug dealer plotting escape and revenge on those who ratted on him. JW is a young Swedish student just up from the country intent on worming his way into the equivalent of the Stockholm jet set. Mrado is a body building enforcer for the Yugoslavian mob. Lapidus follows each of these men as their lives become entwined over drugs, money laundering and mob politics. There is material here for an effective narrative, if only Lapidus could pull it off. Trouble is he can’t.
Take JW for example. In the course of a few months he turns from a student hustling as a gypsy cab driver to make enough to keep up appearances with his ‘boyz,’ into a financial wizard who has mastered all the ins and outs of laundering ill gotten gains. In this role he is important enough to fly off to London to give his bosses financial advice. He has an older sister who has disappeared; sporadically he makes almost casual attempts to find out what happened to her, but he is more interested in luxury brand clothes and leggy young women in designer jeans. He is a character who never really comes to life on the page.
The same is true of Jorge and Mrado. Jorge, supposedly a street smart veteran, out for revenge doesn’t seem to understand his situation until very late in the novel, and the wily mob bosses don’t seem to have much of an insight about what he is doing right under their noses. Mrado is vicious, but supposedly adheres to some code of Serbian honor when it comes to his countrymen even when he is in fear for his life. None of the three major characters gives the reader much to root for. This is a novel without any good guys—there are bad, worse, and worst. Take your choice. The idea of the villain hero is not especially new. Lapidus, however, hasn’t managed to create any Tony Soprano.
Easy Money, it turns out has been made into a 2010 Swedish movie, which has played in the U.S. earlier this year. Perhaps the film’s best claim for attention is Joel Kinnaman, he of The Killing. who plays JW. Although given the scruffy character he played there, he seems miscast as the carefully styled social climber described in the book. Check out the trailer. Who knows, perhaps in the hands of a good director something decent can be made from the material.