Look, I know Scandinavian literature has a reputation of being dark and brooding, but I have to admit I was not ready for just how dark and brooding eighteenth-century Sweden is in Niklas Natt och Dag’s The Wolf and the Watchman. I was also not expecting how thoroughly I would be riveted by it.
Bodies turn up in the lake near Stockholm all the time, but not usually in as bad of shape as the one Watchman Mickel Cardell fishes out. The corpse’s limbs, eyes, teeth, and tongue have all been methodically removed over a period of weeks. The young man’s body is nearly naked in addition to being horribly maimed, so there’s virtually nothing to go on. The police chief calls in a favor with Cecil Winge, a razor-sharp lawyer. Cecil agrees, knowing it will be his last favor, since he’s rapidly dying of consumption. Mickel, whose wooden arm means he also knows something about amputated limbs, stays on to help investigate the case, and the two make a funny pair.
Funny but effective, even though the odds are stacked against them. Between Cecil’s intellect and Mickel’s street smarts—and predilection for brawling—they manage to identify when the body was dumped and from where, which leads them to a pleasure house for Sweden’s kinkiest. But the trail goes cold there, and between Cecil’s illness, the looming change in administration at the police station, and the revolutionary fever taking hold in late-eighteenth-century Europe, they know they’re in a race against time.
Time is used very cleverly in The Wolf and the Watchman. Murder may be the beginning of the typical mystery story, but it’s the end of the story, and we are taken back to see how different facets of that story came to be. In some ways, the first three sections of the four that make up the book feel like narratives that are interconnected but could almost exist independently. It’s a fascinating trick that feels more like an Easter-egg hunt than a gimmick, and helps us feel like we’re somehow on even footing with our oh-so-clever investigators.
But it’s actually Cecil’s dedication to truth and honesty, bent only in those rare instances when he feels deception is the surest path to the right thing, that sets him most apart both in the book and his world. It’s the reason the police chief sought out the dying man for the job, after all, and it provides readers with a little proof that the world hasn’t gone completely mad. Mickel is closer to an average person, but his sense of justice, though expressed with considerably more brute force than Cecil’s, also goes against the grain. These are two rare points of light in a world that is drawn in utter bleakness.
Sure, sewage management was still an iffy thing in the eighteenth century, but the amount of human waste here seems to be, ah, gratuitous, as do the beatings, rapes, and other assorted unpleasantries. If the makers of Dark Souls flipped through The Wolf and the Watchman, they’d say, “Eh, it’s a little dark for us.” Obviously, the victim in the lake would seem to have it the worst, but it’s not a sure win. The injuries and injustices that happen to our various characters are too numerous, and spoilery, to mention, but you’ve got to hand it to translator Ebba Segerberg for bringing all those nasty bits so vividly from Swedish to English.
Luckily, the twists and turns of the mystery are as engaging as the world they happen in is revolting, and I had to keep reading even as the events on the page begged me to look away. Every detail, no matter how grim, felt like a clue. Every character, no matter how awful, seemed like they could hold the key. There’s a real psychological push and pull between the plot and the world, and it’s effective. It’s also fascinating to see how major world events, such as the French Revolution, reverberated into events and change and disruption that doesn’t make it as frequently into the average world history textbook.
I’ll be the first to say this book isn’t for everyone, or maybe even for most people, but for those with a stomach of steel, The Wolf and the Watchman is a sharp and biting mystery.