Worth the Wait

Worth the Wait

Jefferson Chasefinishes his look at Swedish crime fiction.

Whisky & Culture | 28 Oct 2011 | Issue 99 | By Jefferson Chase

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I’m concluding my tour of Scandinavian crime fiction with a look at a novel that should never have taken as long to get into English as it did. Klas Östergren’s Gentlemen was published in Sweden in the early 1980s, but it took all the way until 2007 for an English translation to appear. The book was worth the wait. Östergren is like a mad marriage of Thomas Mann, Raymond Chandler and Truman Capote.

The narrator is an impoverished bohemian writer with the same name as the author, and his life takes a turn for the weird when he meets a chap named Henry Morgan:

Henry selected a key and opened a door in the foyer. Then he disappeared behind a curtain and silence descended. The light went out, and I fumbled my way to the switch…Finally I heard a couple of doors opening and shutting behind the curtain and out stepped Henry Morgan with a half bottle full of Doctors whisky.

“It’s nice when people trust you,” he muttered with satisfaction and opened the doors to the lift. “Just don’t ask any questions.”

The two soon become flatmates and friends, although the narrator is never sure what’s true and what’s not about his new buddy.

Henry’s backstory, if genuine, is impressive. A gifted boxer and skilled jazz pianist, he begins an affair with the lover of a major industrialist, joins the army to distance himself from the destructive relationship, then defects and flits around Europe, including England:

He spent a year over there, and I have no intention of recounting all the football matches Bobby Charlton played that he saw, or all the solitary walks he took along the Thames as the fog swept its barges across the water…and he slipped into pubs to warm up with a Guinness and a whisky.

The time is the swinging Sixties, and Henry, despite the tragedy past and present in his life, is intent on enjoying them.
To the narrator’s surprise, the outgoing bon vivant Henry has a brother, a taciturn poet and chess prodigy named Leo, who turns up one day after being released from a lunatic asylum. What drove him mad was a temporary job he took as an investigative journalist:

Leo was shaking with fever and sleepless nights. He took a swallow of his whisky and smoked a cigarette. Absentmindedly he leafed through a couple of back issues of Blixt, presumably trying to transform his own sensational material into future headlines…But they probably weren’t very good ones.

Amazingly, the explosive story Leo is researching is related to Henry’s own life story, although neither realises this until it’s too late.

Henry and Leo are as vividly depicted as any pair of brothers in crime fiction, or any fiction for that matter. On the other hand, the fact that we only see them through the narrator’s eyes and are confronted with the transparent pretense that he is identical with the author Klas Östergren, cause us to question every word.

Crime fiction is often a business of cat-and-mouse between author and reader. And Gentleman is a unique take on this time-tested and very enjoyable game that came better late than never.
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