Monday, March 4, 2019

Review of Clinch by Martin Holmen (2015, Pushkin Vertigo)

Winter, Stockholm, 1932. Ex-boxer Harry Kvist makes his living as a debt collector, recovering items not yet paid for or the outstanding balance. Violence is his preferred method of persuasion, often hitting first and asking questions after. It’s a marginal existence, but he manages to get by. As the first snow of the season falls he takes a job recovering an outstanding balance of a car sale from a man named Zetterberg. Harry leaves his mark a heap on the floor, but very much alive. The following day he’s arrested by the police for murder. A few hours later he’s released on the basis of witness testimony, though he’s still in a person of interest. A prostitute who he spoke to when he was casing Zetterberg’s apartment building can validate his alibi – that he’d left the before the time the murder was committed – but she has disappeared. Harry sets out to find her in the underbelly of the city, hooking up on the way with an ex-film star intent on slumming it with a brawler.

Harry Kvist is a perfectly cast anti-hero. A sailor turned champion boxer, turned debt collector who sometimes drinks too much to forget the death of his daughter. He has a preference for sex with men, cruising Stockholm’s parks and shady bars, but will settle for a woman. And he has no problem using violence to get answers to his questions, whether woman, child or man, often leading with his fists first and asking afterwards. And he doesn’t mind if there are a couple of collateral deaths along the way. In this opening book in a trilogy, it’s the winter of 1932, and Harry has been framed for murder, with a man he has just visited in order to collect a debt found dead shortly afterwards. Initially arrested, then freed by witness testimony though still a person of interest, Harry sets about trying to clear his name and determine who is setting him up. He goes about this task with grim bloody-mindedness, hooking up with a fading but rich ex-film star and drug addict who seems glad to be slumming it with a once-renowned boxer. With its noir-ish styling, storytelling and atmosphere, aided by the Swedish winter and the contrast of poverty and riches, Holmen charts Harry’s journey. It’s fairly grim in places, and Harry tests the limit of the ‘hero’ part of ‘anti-hero’, but it’s an engaging and compelling read that is nicely plotted. Overall, a taut slice of Swedish noir and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

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