This first instalment in a new series of Swedish detective stories is so unbothered by such bourgeois literary conventions as plot and character development as to be rather a curio in today’s publishing world. McCall Smith, like his fellow Edinburghian JK Rowling, is allowed to write whatever the heck he wants. As long as it’s basically the same as what he always writes. And what he wants to do here is turn the popular “Scandi noir” genre of crime storytelling on its head by injecting some gentleness into proceedings... It’s like AA Milne meets Karl Ove Knausgaard. McCall Smith knows how to create a world full of sweet things and emotionally true moments and in this new series of “Scandi blanc” delivers exactly what his fans will be hoping for.
But although McCall Smith clearly wants to reclaim Sweden from the overwrought angstiness of Nordic noir, his Malmö seems cardboardy compared with his Botswana or Edinburgh, and one of Varg's sidekicks, whose purpose is to irritate him for comic effect, has the uncomic effect of irritating the reader too.
Still, I want to read more about Varg, his depressed dog, and his plangent passion for a married colleague. Even if this inaugural volume was not top-drawer McCall Smith, it left me with a warm glow that lasted through several news bulletins.
McCall Smith’s humour is usually described as gentle, but readers familiar with the rhythm of his writing will find plenty here to make them snort. The loquacious junior policeman who cannot stop offering his dull opinions is an absolute gem of a creation and one who I hope reappears in subsequent books in the series. How could you not love a character who tells a long rambling story with the punchline: “That’s pericarditis for you.” For the McCall Smith first-timer, particularly one versed in the more usual type of Scandinavian crime, this novel will appear deeply odd. But readers who get the joke – and it is a good one – will be eager for the next instalment.