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Ondskans pris Set Mattson, Ondskans pris (The Price of Evil)

Historiska Media,  2012.

Reviewed by Stephen Dawson in SBR 2012:2

Review Section: Adult Fiction

Many thrillers have been written by Scandinavian authors in recent years: Ondskans Pris, Set Mattsson’s first novel, is another one but with a difference – it is not just a gripping and well-written story, but also of great historical interest.

Although Set Mattson’s career does not suggest that he is a born writer, the novel by the ex-cook, ex-intensive care nurse and journalist has been taking shape over many years. His research into the immediate post-WW2 period has been thorough. He has talked to elderly men who were young policemen at the time, read extensive police reports about contemporary crimes, and researched and written some thirty or so articles about the war and its immediate consequences.

The story takes place between May 1945 and December 1946 in Malmö, which was being flooded with refugees in the aftermath of the Nazi era, many coming directly from concentration and extermination camps. Parts of the book are disturbing because of subject matter, with its Holocaust backdrop. In the end, however, I think it is no more upsetting than many other recent thrillers; besides, it is a well-written and exciting story.

We follow the progress of three Polish refugees after the murder of a fourth on her arrival at the temporary reception centre set up in Malmö castle. The detective officer, Palm, tries to establish the motive for the crime and the identity of the perpetrator amidst the shifting tide of refugees, who are unable or unwilling to provide any clues; he also has to cope with his problematic personal life.

Alongside the main storyline concerning the fate of the four refugees, which is of course particular to the period, are all the other day-to-day crimes of a city like Malmö; types of crime that are still widely reported every day in national and local newspapers, and not just in Sweden. At the time, the routine work of the criminal police with its run of cases involving paedophilia, rape and racial hatred is suddenly vastly increased, as they take on the task of documenting the arriving refugees.

In one way this is a detective story and, as one would expect, the mystery remains unresolved almost until the end. In another way, though, it is unconventional – the detective does not solve the puzzle, and the historical setting of the story is as important as the investigative aspect of it. The aftermath of the Holocaust is a vital part of the story, but so is a Sweden that is trying to find its direction after the war and the horrific events in Europe, during which the nation stood on the sidelines.

In the end, Palm has to resolve an internal struggle – should he resign when he is ordered by his bosses to hide the truth when it finally emerges? If he does so he will be morally justified but he will lose the job that is probably the most important part of his life. On the other hand, should he bow to the pressure put upon him, and allow the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth to be swept under the carpet? And should the truths and the tragedies of the refugee victims, largely brought about by the psychological trauma caused by their lives in the Nazi camps, be thus treated as insignificant and so remain untold? Is it stretching the analogy too far to see here another comment on Sweden’s role during the war and the Holocaust?

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