Book Review: Box 21

Box 21: A Novel by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $26, 9780374282950/0374282951, October 13, 2009)
Although the many fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell's Wallander series have become familiar with the bleak tone that suffuses Swedish crime writing, Box 21, a taut and twisty thriller from the bestselling Swedish crime-writing team of Roslund and Hellström, takes psychological darkness to a new level. Full of abrupt turns and ratcheting suspense, Box 21 grabs the reader from the first page and refuses to let go.
Many characters and plotlines are woven into this complex and superbly crafted novel, yet the connections are made seamlessly and credibly. Among the major players: Lydia Grajauskas, a Lithuanian girl lured into sex slavery by a vicious pimp; Ewert Grens, a hard-bitten detective bent on punishing mobster Jochum Lang for a crime that left Grens's wife brain-damaged 25 years earlier; Bengt Nordwall, who serves as Grens's mentor and de facto Jiminy Cricket; and Hilding Oldeus, a desperate junkie who makes the grave mistake of selling tainted speed to a relative of Lang's mob boss. All of these characters converge at Söder Hospital, where Grens has been called to investigate the near-death beating of Lydia at the hands of her pimp, and Oldeus (chased by a murderous Lang) is recovering from his latest overdose. In one of the novel's many twists, the still-bleeding Lydia takes several hostages in the hospital's morgue and threatens to kill them all unless she is granted a private audience with Bengt Nordwall.
Part of the brilliance of this novel is that by this point, only halfway through, it seems impossible that the story has anywhere left to go; yet within a few pages it becomes obvious that there are many more layers to each character and each subplot. The ensuing chapters zigzag through past and present, expertly building suspense while never sacrificing nuance or detail. And while the plot settles into something resembling a straight line in the novel's last third, the ending is a bona fide shocker.
While dwelling almost exclusively on the grimmer aspects of human nature (those seeking puppies and love stories will be sorely disappointed), Box 21 nevertheless offers a remarkable view of addiction, victimization and the corrosive desire for revenge. Its characters are flawed and often in extremis, but they are always compelling and completely authentic. Taken together, these characters, the expertly crafted plot and that brooding Scandinavian mood add up to one of the best thrillers of this--or any--season.--Debra Ginsberg
Shelf Talker: A dark, complex and brilliant crime thriller from the bestselling Swedish writing team of Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström.

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