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Monday, 20 May 2013

Book review: Easy Money, Jens Lapidus (2011)

Published in Swedish originally in 2000, this book is a bit different from other cold-climate crime thrillers in that the author is a lawyer, which probably accounts for the lag between its original issue and this excellent translation: there was no ready market for it. But it also accounts for how realistic the characters and the plotting seem to be. There are three main characters: a young student, JW, aspires to fit in with the slick, high-living brat pack and sees dealing in cocaine as his "in" to material success; a drug dealer, Jorge, who is originally from Chile, wants revenge on the men who beat him up after his escape from prison; and Mrado, a brutal stand-over man from Serbia, wants more access to the daughter from his failed marriage.

These men personify intellectual and cultural poverty. Their quotidian resorts are either the local gym, porn, or drugs. There are few books on the shelves in their homes and when they talk about things like design or art it is in reference to clothes or cars. In this impoverished world of money, expensive cars, high fashion, one-night stands, brutalising prostitution and wads of dirty cash the three men thrive and plot their revenges and their dreams. An added complication is that JW's sister Camilla, who had moved to Stockholm some years earlier from the country village their family lived in, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The police failed to discover what happened to her. Eager to discover this, JW does some amateur sleuthing on the side. JW also pairs up with a local beauty, Sophie, who makes the odd appearance; despite her routine preference from blow, Sophie adds a touch of humanity to this cold and unpleasant world, but the secrets in JW's world have a chilling effect on their relationship.

The action takes place largely set in the tony parts of Stockholm, a city that acts as a magnet for the people who inhabit the book. Stockholm promises quick wealth. The book is full of the dynamics of change: the "Yugo mafia" made up of men who had immigrated to Sweden following the end of hostilities in their homeland that had been sparked by the dissolution of Soviet hegemony; Jorge part of a global South American diaspora; and JW part of the internal Swedish migratory influx to the big city from the countryside. Change is also an idea inherent in the book's main theme: money. How to get it, how to keep it, how to launder it, how to enjoy it (or, more accurately, how to spend it).

Despite his tiresome penchant for the same kinds of vapid diversions as the book's less attractive characters, JW adds some lightness to things. His scheme to launder money through front companies backed by companies he sets up in the Isle of Man has an intelligence about it that both appeals to the other men he associates with, and sits outside their orbit because it represents a knowingness their lack of education denies them. If we care about any of these characters, it is JW who qualifies for our regard; Jorge is just a common criminal and Mrado is an ugly thug. Nevertheless, Lapidus zeroes in on the personalities of all his characters with intelligence and aplomb, and so the book gives us access to feelings that normally lie outside our common experience. Because of this, the book is thematically rich.

It is also stylistically interesting. Lapidus uses a lot of very short sentences, almost scraps of Modernist poetry, to convey his message. This may be a sign of the author's lack of confidence in his ability to create strong and purposeful prose, but it doesn't matter. The language is also highly demotic and speech-based; the reader inhabits the characters' thoughts for much of the book, which lends an added genuineness to the author's style.

I found this book extraordinarily compelling and thought that it stands a notch above other Nordic crime novels that I have read, apart from the brilliant Millennium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson, which still sits in a class entirely of its own, in my mind. What Lapidus, the lawyer-turned-novelist, has achieved is to generate in this book a striking depth of conception and an originality of plot and character that makes Easy Money a real page-turner. I can't recommend this book too highly.

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