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Populisten Thomas Bodström, Populisten (The Populist)

Norstedts,  2013.

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. 

Other reviews by Henning Koch

Other reviews in SBR 2014:1

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