I don’t know about you, but whenever I get in the mood for a good old-fashioned sermon, I amble on down to my local church. It doesn’t happen that often, I have to say, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I generally like to make up my own mind on the big issues.
That’s not really an option in CELL 8, the new title from the Swedish writing duo, Roslund & Hellström, whose THREE SECONDS was a runaway success last year. CELL 8 opens, in a section titled ‘Then’, with a man called John on Death Row. John’s friend, Marv, is about to be executed. The story then opens up into a section titled ‘Now’, in which singer called John, working on a ferry headed for Stockholm, viciously assaults a ferry passenger whom he sees sexually groping a fellow passenger.
The novel then introduces Ewert Grens, a Stockholm police detective who investigates the potentially fatal assault on the ferry passenger. It is quickly established that John Schwarz, the man responsible for assaulting the passenger, is an American living in Sweden on a false passport. It is further discovered that Schwarz is in fact John Meyer, a man who died some years previously of a heart attack while on Death Row in Ohio.
The hows and whys are explored during the rest of the novel, although plot is secondary to theme in CELL 8, which is an extreme example of a certain kind of contemporary crime fiction, wherein which a story is grafted onto the bare bones of a polemic. In essence, Roslund and Hellstrom have constructed a lecture on the evils of the death penalty, and the even worse evil of Sweden conspiring to send a murderer to Death Row, and dressed it up as a novel.
It’s a prescriptive kind of fiction, the kind beloved of a certain kind of middle-class writer and reader, and one in which no one is left in no doubt as to where the authors stand vis-à-vis the high moral ground. According to Roslund & Hellstrom, the death penalty is A Very Bad Thing, regardless of the kind of criminal sentenced to death.
It’s disappointing, for example, that the authors go out of their way to assert the innocence of John Meyer, so that the reader is never given the opportunity to question their position. CELL 8 would have been a much more interesting read, and the characters far more complex, had the Swedish police detectives found themselves in a position whereby they were resisting the extradition of a recidivist child rapist-murderer, for example. It might also have been more interesting had one of the Swedish characters broken ranks to voice an opinion other than the standard liberal line, but again, all four characters are resolute in their opposition.
In fact, there is very little conflict at play here. The authors presume that the reader is as fully supportive of a ban on the death penalty as they are, and proceed to sneer at anyone who might think otherwise. The real villain of the piece is the father of the murdered girl, Edward Finnigan, who is demonised for wanting to see the killer of his daughter put to death. So convinced are Roslund and Hellstrom of their moral position, that they go so far as to equate the Swedish authorities’ deportation of Schwarz / Meyer to Russia with sending him to Guantanamo Bay, in the same breath referencing unofficial Swedish collusion with the Nazis during WWII.
The fact that the two main characters in the novel aren’t particularly interesting doesn’t help matters much. Despite his colourful background, John Schwarz / Meyer is a very limp and passive character, who, suffering from claustrophobia, simply folds under the pressure of being consigned to a cell by the Swedes, and promptly tells them everything they need to know.
Far more important to Roslund & Hellström is the character of Ewert Grens, who leads the Swedish investigation, and is their voice of liberal reasoning. Unfortunately, Grens is the kind of detective we’ve met far too often in the crime novel. He is a loner who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and treats both his superiors and his own team with contempt. In fact, he considers virtually everyone else on the planet to be an idiot. Despite the fact that Grens is ostensibly overburdened with a workload, he is most irritable when he is interrupted from listening to his favourite music in his office, to which on occasion he can be found dancing to, alone. Grens, presumably, is intended to be a quirky, rule-breaking maverick, but he comes across as petulant, unprofessional and, given his lack of empathy for the rest of the human race bar his wife, who lives semi-comatose in a nursing home, utterly unsuited for his job. Ewert Grens is probably the least convincing character I’ve read in a novel in years.
These things might be forgivable if the plot was sufficiently interesting that characterisation isn’t an issue. Again, and while the story moves along quickly enough, it grows ever more implausible as it gains pace. Once the authors confirm that Schwarz and Meyer are the same man, they replace that mystery with a measure of narrative tension by claiming that the USA will consider it a major diplomatic incident if Sweden doesn’t hand over Schwarz / Meyer in a matter of days, as opposed to the months and even years such things take in real life.
Even if you do buy into that scenario, however, the latter stages of the novel are - literally - laughably preposterous. I won’t give away any spoilers, but had the Tooth Fairy turned up to play a part, it would be scarcely less believable.
In essence, CELL 8 is a lecture on how the world would be a much better place if only we all conformed to the authors’ principles. The novel is overly concerned with how we should live, whereas good crime fiction - or any kind of novel, for that matter - is concerned with the messiness of how we really live, for good or ill, and mostly ill.
It’s ironic, in fact, that Roslund and Hellström go out of their way to mock Edward Finnigan’s recital of the Biblical dictum of an eye for eye. It may be a liberal polemic against the death penalty, but CELL 8 is no less fuelled by an overweening sense of righteous moral certainty than the Old Testament itself. - Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.