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THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN
by Nilklas Natt Och Dag and Ebba Segerberg, tran.
Atria Books, March 2019
384 pages
$28.00
ISBN: 1501196774


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Niklas Natt Och Dag's debut novel, THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN, is gruesome and riveting. It is also a brilliant depiction of life in late 18th century Stockholm, the historical detail authentic and yet subtle enough not to distract from the suspense of the plot. Revolving as it does around the grisly discovery of a corpse whose limbs, eyes and tongue have been removed well before death, this book is not for the faint of heart.

The criminal investigators are an unlikely pair: a lawyer dying of consumption and a war veteran who lost an arm in combat, now holds the dubious title of watchman, and is a violent alcoholic. Together they set out on a dangerous path to learn the identities of corpse and murderer. They quickly discover that many do not want that, or any other, truth revealed.

Two other characters feature prominently: a young wastrel whose attempts to swindle men of means leads to horrifying consequences, and a working-class girl who is thrown into a workhouse after being unjustly accused of prostitution.

Exploring the backgrounds and plights of these characters, the author shines a spotlight on the era's social conditions: the class inequality, corrupt justice system, brutal prisons and abject poverty of those at the bottom. There is nothing romantic or sentimental about life in this period. The hardships are extreme, as are their impact on the minds and souls of the populace.

Parts of the book are hard to read without cringing or even gagging, but ultimately it is both a page-turner and a fascinating psychological exploration of what drives a human being to commit unthinkable acts. The characters who are investigating must force themselves to continue probing into this hideous crime. While they could not be more different in upbringing, class and experience, their relationship becomes close.

Like many contemporary Scandinavian authors, Natt Och Dag plunges the reader into an often terrifying and icy world, and makes little effort to alleviate its inherent darkness. But for all the inhumanity and sense of inevitable doom that pervades the story, in the end the reader feels not despairing but hopeful that men exist who will insist on uncovering even the darkest of crimes, that even the most impoverished among us are capable of courage and compassion.

THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN is not exactly a rollicking good read; it has too much substance to qualify as such. It is an engrossing, haunting tale, with unexpected twists and turns, and a highly satisfactory ending. Keep your eyes peeled for future works by this author.

Meg Westley is a writer and retired educator living in Stratford, Ontario.

Reviewed by Meg Westley, July 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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