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Like a kayaker or river rafter putting in on an unknown river, the reader of Box 21 will experience maximum excitement and tension if he or she dips their oar without much knowledge of the rocks, rapids, waterfalls, and vortexes that wait downstream. A skeletal outline of the plot: Set in contemporary Stockholm, Box 21 pits two detectives, one cynical and bitter, one idealistic and philosophical, against two plot strands that are only loosely intertwined: a death related to heroin addiction, and two deaths related to sexual slavery. In the unfolding of the plot, the reader is deeply immersed in the graphically portrayed worlds of drug addiction, and the world of kidnapping women from developing nations and inducting them into the sexual slavery of prostitution. The story is told in almost excruciatingly sharp focus, authors Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom disdain the use of the use of any literary airbrushing that might lessen the impact on the reader.
The gritty adherence to realism in this novel is not accidental. Borge Hellstrom is a recovering drug addict that has done jail time for his drug-related crimes. Currently working to rehabilitate young criminals and/or drug addicts, there is a soul-scalding immediacy to his descriptions of an addicted young man teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Anders Roslund developed the Swedish TV show Culture News. While some authors of fiction might introduce the topic of sexual slavery with overtones of salaciousness, sensationalism, or (shiver) even romance, Roslund approaches the topic with all the delicacy and subtlety of a hard swung baseball bat impacting on the body of the victim. The Roslund-Hellstrom team writes, I'm guessing, not simply to entertain, but to engage and to enrage the reader. Intentionally or not, they succeed. They have a message, and they want it heard at high volume and with clarity. We all love a book that is written well enough to make us laugh out loud, or to cry. At one point in the book, I seriously frightened my wife by leaping off the couch where I was reading and shouting "NO, God damn it!" It was the first time I've ever reacted to a book that way, and after a slightly heated reaction by my wife, a promised last time.
A centerpiece of the book, done masterfully by Roslund/Hellstrom, is ethical dilemma. No spoilers here, just a promise: Box 21 will twist your conscience into pretzels and Mobius strips. It will indirectly raise the question of whether it is appropriate to have men (as a gender) involved in the prosecution of sex crimes.
Three yellow flags: First, Jane Jakeman, in reviewing a previous Roslund/Hellstrom collaboration called The Beast, says "The reader will need a strong stomach". Heed her words. Second, either through the effects of translation, or cultural differences between Sweden and the U.S, or maybe both, the cadence of the novel takes a bit of adaptation. The sensation for me was similar to the first ten minutes of a Shakespeare play or a movie with subtitles: mild irritation, which then rapidly becomes unnoticeable. Finally, the stylistic elements of Box 21 are rough-edged, and often raw. Guernica, Picasso's painting commissioned to show the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, had similar elements. Think Stockholm instead of the Spanish town of Guernica, and sexual slavery and drug-related crime instead of civil war: the blunt and graphic images of both Guernica and Box 21 are deeply effective at achieving their goals. And both are truly art.
The hero, if there is one, is Ewert Grens, a grizzled, insufferably rude investigator of the Stockholm PD who's only tolerated because he's also the best. Twenty-five years previously, the love of his life, fellow officer Anni, received severe skull injuries while trying to apprehend the notorious thug, Jochum Lang. Anni now hangs on in a long-term care facility, and Lang is about to be released from prison. Loneliness and bitterness control Ewert's life.
Lydia Grajauskas, along with Alena Sljusareva, are two young women who've been confined, humiliated and sexually debauched for the past three years after having been lured to Sweden from Lithuania. Now, Lydia is hospitalized unconscious after being severely flogged and her arm broken by her pimp. The noise alerted the neighbors who called the police, including Grens. While recovering, Lydia vows it will not happen again; she implements an ingenious plan for vengeance.
Hilding Oldéus is a drug addict who's hit bottom. He's hospitalized after overdosing in a photo booth of the central train station, but not before selling heroin he's cut with washing detergent to the niece of his supplier. She dies, and the brutal enforcer Lang is sent to teach Oldéus a meaningful lesson.
The paths of Ewert, Hilding, Jochum and Lydia all intersect at Söder Hospital.
BOX 21 is a forceful and original psychological sortie into Stockholm's underbelly. The reader who prefers a happy ending, or at least one in which justice universally prevails, may find this atypical novel depressing. On the other hand, BOX 21 is perhaps more reflective of real life, in which wrongs are only haphazardly made right, heinous crime sometimes goes unpunished, the guilt from failed family relationships can destroy the psyche, friendship's obligations can corrupt, and life's disappointments can be as corrosive as acid.
I liked BOX 21 very much, but it wasn't - and isn't - a feel-good read.
Granted, this is a bleak novel. No one is saved in the end, no one is better for their experience. It poses many questions and offers no answers. However, like all good art, it will command your attention, extract an emotional response, and remain with you long after you read it.
Somehow, I missed the party. The book starts out by slowly and awkwardly introducing its characters who never get beyond flat and characterless. Even after 100 pages of descriptions of activities of these uninteresting people, I never really cared about them because the authors never bothered to give them any depth.
For instance, the authors introduce police officer Ewert Grens and let us know that he mourns the loss of Anni because he relives her life-changing accident over and over and over and over. But, the readers aren't given real insight into Anni and Ewert's relationship in order to grieve with him or to understand him. The closest we come to really getting to know a character is the prostitute, Lydia Grajauskas, but the authors arranged their narrative so that we don't know much about Lydia until the end of the book, and, unfortunately, by then we have lost interest.
And, the ending. So very predictable.
This book has potential - the bones are there. A better narrative and three dimensional characters could have made the book a winner.
Maybe it's the translation. Maybe not. I love a good thriller, but this book just never gripped me so that I didn't want to put it down. I cannot recommend it.
Ewert Grens, a veteran police inspector in charge of the investigation, has several other issues to deal with. Twenty-five years ago, Jochum Lang, a sadistic drug dealer and Mafia hitman, dragged Ewert's partner and lover Anni out of the back of the police van Ewert was driving, and she suffered catastrophic injuries. Lang is about to be released from prison, and Ewert still seeks vengeance against him. The two plot lines converge when Lang appears at the hospital where Lydia is recuperating. Before long, the hospital is in lockdown.
Roslund and Hellstrom humanize this drama by alternating the focus between the two stories, giving background information about all the key characters. Ewert Grens lives the life of a hermit, his only friend being fellow-officer Bengt Nordwall and his wife Lena. Lydia's friend Alena still pines for Janoz, her lover back home, and both girls are hoping to escape their bondage and return to Lithuania. Hilding Oldeus, a drug addict who was protected by Jochum Lang when he was in jail, shares the torments of addiction and its effects on his family members, becoming a focus of the novel when Lang is released from jail. Sven Sundkvist, Ewert Grens's current partner, a truly ethical man, is the conscience of the novel.
Though the novel describes the sadistic sexual practices of the prostitutes' handlers and their customers, it is otherwise a traditional mystery/thriller. The focus is on the drama and the plot, with little attention to deep themes and no suggestion that the issues at the heart of the novel are being addressed in any organized fashion by the government. The problems of witness intimidation, police corruption, and the police bending of the truth to get a conviction, standard complications of most police procedurals, appear here. The novel is sometimes marred by clichés, both in its plot and in its ponderous observations. Statements like "This must never happen again," and "Truth is the only thing people can bear to live with in the long run," state the obvious and add nothing to the drama or to any thematic development. The novel's fully described sexual crimes against minors show the authors' clear empathy with these girls, creating a novel which has the feel of a shocking, journalistic expose. Mary Whipple