Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
There are few absolute requirements in suspense literature. One of them is a need for credibility, or a crime story can unintentionally turn into Twin Peaks. This is not a concern for Thomas Bodström, who is very well qualified to write about the inner workings of the Swedish government, having himself served as Minister of Justice between 2002 and 2006. Sure enough, the main strength of Populisten (The Populist) is its sharp scenes lifted from the lives of politicians. Bodström has an acute understanding of the war of attrition fought between politicians and the media.
Besides, it is interesting to see just how terrified politicians are of being caught out by the media. Bodström is excellent when he confines himself to the apparatus of government. His insights can be enlightening, particularly in his asides about secret intelligence and the ‘war on terror’. If he occasionally gets a little clunky when describing family relationships in the ministerial home, it is excusable: considering his demanding career, the author has probably had to do more research on family life than on the practice of governance in Sweden.
Populisten is not really a crime story; it falls more within the school of thriller writing, as in Frederick Forsyth or Ed McBain. Thriller writing is a haughtier trade than crime writing and likes to dwell among the high and mighty rather than in the street. Bodström successfully pitches his novel as a thriller while running, in the background, a crime story that is released in the end like a rabid dog to add to the sense of danger. This is another undeniable attribute of a good suspense writer: the ability to take the plot through the looking-glass and back to unsettle the reader. Bodström is skilled at this. Without giving the story away, one can reveal that Populisten is the tale of a hacker capable of bringing down a government. Readers are spared the procedural intricacies of a crime investigation and the interventions of prosecutors or pathologists but not all stereotypical crime fare: a drug addict murdered by being pushed in front of a subway train; an allegedly wife-beating priest; a heavy-handed policeman too fond of his baton; a climax that relies on the device of imminent violent death for the protagonist; the ‘twist’ of innocent parties turning malevolent in the blink of an eye. Once every storyline is unravelled, the plot seems more unlikely than Apocalypse next Thursday.
But all these things can be forgiven, and are forgiven, because Populisten is a well-phrased novel offering interesting political insights as it follows the doings of a barrister, a frontline politician, a police constable and a teenage girl. The writing is unpretentious and crisp. It’s a sobering good read and more enjoyable than most television – although this is probably where we will see it next.