Thanks to Steig Larsson, the Swedish crime novel is in vogue these days. My local Barnes & Noble recently had a display of Henning Mankell works and Three Seconds is a popular library pick. Deservedly so. Not only is Three Seconds a barn-burner with gripping action sequences, it also is a rich story that deals with weighty topics like identity and grief.
Three Seconds is largely the story of Piet Hoffman, a police informant who served time in prison on a drug charge. He is deep undercover in the Polish drug trade in Sweden. He keeps this a secret from his wife and two boys, aged 5 and 3. These two worlds collide when another police informant is murdered on Hoffman’s watch during a drug sale. Hoffman needs his handler and the Swedish police to cover up his involvement in the murder lest the sting, which is reaching a critical stage, be blown.
Threatening to gum up the works is the chief inspector assigned to the murder, Ewert Grens. He is still coping with the grief and guilt over the death of his wife, which he is responsible for. He is a dogged investigator gnawing on the case like a dog chews a bone. He persists to the breaking point, and of course, bulls his way to the truth, which runs to the highest levels of the Swedish justice system and goes well beyond the Hoffman case.
The most thrilling moments of the story are set in the maximum security prison that Hoffman infiltrates in order to take over the drug trade there. This is to be the capstone of the case against the mafia. Provided that Grens will let things rest.
Hoffman and Grens are flawed yet compelling characters. Hoffman is a former drug addict who plays his role as the informant too well. He is ruthless, cunning, and brutal. Offsetting this are tender moments with his family. He struggles mightily with this dichotomy, and his role as an informant seeps into his personal life. He wishes to tell his wife, which he eventually must do before he’s arrested to get into the prison, but is afraid of the consequences. He rightfully believes he is betraying his family. He wonders who and what he is. His anxiety rises and rises until it reaches fever pitch.
Grens is obsessed with his grief and guilt over his wife’s death. He spends time at the nursing home where she resided comatose until she died. He’s afraid to visit her grave, which he’s never done, and couldn’t even attend her funeral. He sleeps on his office floor. He’s gruff towards his colleagues and subordinates. Yet, he is likable, largely because we sympathize with him and feel the righteousness of his persistent investigation. We also respect his persistence and grow to like him as he begins to take steps to overcome his grief. Both he and Hoffman are deeply etched and sympathetic characters.
Three Seconds also poses the question of who’s right: the officials who cover up the crimes committed during their investigations of the trades they are seeking to bust or the Grens of the world who seek to expose these crimes. I won’t tell you which side the book comes down on. Suffice it to say that Three Seconds is a nuanced thriller that works on all levels, written by two people who know their stuff: a journalist and former drug addict. It’s a worthy counterpart to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.