Cannonball! I think I was only able to finish this novel, which really is extraordinary, by cheating on it with The House in the Cerulean Sea. I tend to be “monolibrous” — I word I am coining to mean one who does not start a new novel until having finished the one they’re already reading. The Wolf and the Watchman was so intense, and so gritty and disturbing, that I had to take breaks from it. It is to the credit of Swedish author Niklas Natt och Dag that, despite the cringy subject matter, I could not abandon this story. It is historical fiction and murder mystery, full of filth and depravity. It is one of the most interesting stories I’ve read this year and it taught me quite a lot about 18th century Sweden.
The novel is divided into four parts, and part one is where Natt och Dag gets you. It’s Stockholm, 1793, and one of the city watchmen Mickel Cardell drags a body out of its filthy, sewage choked waters. Cardell, a veteran of the Swedish navy who lost an arm and a friend in a stupid war, is fond of drink but sober enough to get the job done. The body of the young man is missing all of its limbs, its eyes and its tongue. Next day, at the grave digger’s house where the body is kept, Cardell meets Cecil Winge, one of the sharpest investigators/lawyers in Stockholm. Winge is only about 30 but has a reputation for being thorough and eminently rational in his work; in his trials the accused always get their say, all the facts are laid on the table. Winge and Cardell want to uncover the identity of this victim as well as the perpetrator of the crime, but two formidable obstacles stand in their way. One is that the chief of police, friendly to Winge, is about to be replaced with a corrupt man who will certainly end the investigation. The other is that Winge is dying from consumption. Winge and Cardell work with the few clues they have to try to figure out where this young man came from and who could have committed such atrocities to the body, apparently over a long period of time, before disposing of it. They take the reader through the filthy, seedy streets and back alleys of Stockholm, as well as the dens of iniquity frequented by wealthy and powerful men.
Part two is where I thought I was going to lose my lunch. In this section, Natt och Dag changes gears and introduces a new character, Kristofer Blix, and through him we see a different Stockholm. Blix is young and handsome but lacks money. He, too, is a war veteran, and like many other young men in the city, he spends his time trying to make money quickly through gambling. Unfortunatley, Blix spends beyond his means and often must hide from debtors. Nonetheless, he remains an optimistic young man with friends and the belief that his life is about to change for the better once he makes a windfall in a “sure thing.” Obviously, this is not going to go as Blix planned, and in this section we learn more about “who” dunnit and a WHOLE LOT about the how. It is horrifying but learning about the treatment of debtors and the means by which plenty of poor young people could essentially become enslaved was fascinating.
Part three introduces yet another new character who seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the narrative, but, of course, does in the end. Anna Stina Knapp is a poor teenager who, after the death of her mother (her only family) finds herself at the mercy of unscrupulous men. In this section Natt och Dag shows the reader the fate of poor women, a fate which involves, unsurprisingly, rape and incarceration for “crimes” that they may or may not have committed. Through Anna Stina we see the abuse of women in a forced labor facility, the injustices visited upon them, and the resourcefulness of Anna Stina.
Part four is where all of the information from the previous three sections comes together, and Cardell and Winge must work against the clock and Winge’s declining health to apprehend the perpetrator and ensure that justice is served. There is plenty more cringy information in this part, as well as connecting the dots between characters, corrupt government officials, and international developments. I must admit that even though I have a background in European history, I knew next to nothing about what was going on in Sweden in the 18th century (or any other century). The history part of this novel is first rate but the overall mystery is also outstanding. If you can handle graphic descriptions of violence, I think you will find this story worth your time. Apparently, it is part of a series, with the next two volumes covering 1794 and 1795. I might have to keep going, but only if I have a side novel to help me along.