An all-too-realistic thriller with a protagonist who, while not likeable, is attractive and compelling.
Slugger is the third of Martin Holmén’s novels that feature Harry Kvist, though it can be enjoyed without reference to Clinch and Down for the Count, the two previous thrillers in the trilogy. Kvist is now 39 and his time in prison – and the wounds from many a fight – have left their mark. He is an alcoholic and a chain-smoker of cigars, and a known homosexual during a time when that is considered a despicable crime. He inhabits Stockholm’s underworld, which by his account makes Chicago in the 20s look tame in comparison.
Slugger is set in 1936 during an oppressive heatwave. Sweden is ready to send its team to the Berlin Summer Olympics. Antisemitism has started to take hold as the Nazis are beginning to make their presence felt. In spite of this, German Jews are escaping to Sweden in increasing numbers.
But Kvist is not interested in politics. He is devastated by the murder of his friend, a kindly priest known to include humour and compassion in his sermons. The corrupt police are not looking for the killer, however, so Kvist decides to take justice into his own hands.
Kvist is a complex character and an astute narrator: ‘In the flower bed a peacock butterfly is cavorting in the honeysuckle; down at Stadsgård wharf the steam-winches are puffing in the heat. Sweat streams from my forehead, finds channels in the scars on my face and flows down my cheeks.’ Kvist is loyal to his friends, and caring and gentle with his dog. But he is also ready to use his fists at the slightest provocation – as willing to kill or maim an opponent as he is determined to avoid injury to any innocent third parties.
What Holmén has achieved with Slugger is an all-too-realistic thriller featuring episodes so horrible that the reader is torn between closing the book in revulsion or eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next. And in Kvist, Holmén has created a character who, if not exactly likeable, is a character readers will find attractive and compelling. In a strange way Kvist is a good man who does very evil things, perhaps with little choice.
‘What the fuck choice do people born into poverty have? What obligation do us poor bastards have to follow the law? We are stamped down by the educated class, morality is imposed on us and the only thing the damned police are good for is hounding the weak and protecting the rich. And how the hell is a man supposed to get a real job to support himself honestly when his record is blemished by prison sentences?’
Holmén doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, nor should they be expected from a novel written to thrill and entertain. In that latter respect it ticks all the boxes; Slugger is a brilliant and disturbing read. That the story is set against an historically accurate background and raises a number of important issues is a plus.
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
Slugger by Martin Holmén
Publisher: Echo Publishing
Release Date: 6 May 2019