Sunday, June 28, 2020
Alexander McCall Smith The Talented Mr. Varg
McCall Smith, Alexander The Talented Mr. Varg
Alexander McCall Smith’s high volume of work often makes me think of frothy foam on the top of a cappuccino. There is flavor there, but you need to dive beneath the foam to find the real essence of the drink. McCall Smith is the ultimate cultural chameleon and most impressively seems to be as much at home writing about southern Sweden as he is about Edinburgh or the African veldt.
I quickly discovered that the Varg books have been dubbed “Scand-blanc” because they take the dark and violent novels of Henning Mankell, creator of Wallander or Stieg Larsson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and turns them on their head. Detective Ulf Varg is a man , to keep the metaphor going, who seems to be measuring out his life in coffee spoons. He is a Swedish policeman who works in a unit called the Department of Sensitive Crimes. The paradox is that the team concentrates on things that are so tiny, so problematic, or so lacking in sensitivity that they appear to have no reason to be investigated at all.
The personnel in the station appear to be castoffs who have been found to be lacking real police chops. They spend most of their time navigating a bureaucracy devoted to obscuring procedures and creating endless reports. In one recurring episode they receive a directive to only order needed supplies by number. However, no numbers are included to attach to the supplies requested. Further pleas allow them to discover that the number list is only available to people above their pay scale. In that sense the office also seems to resemble the so called “Peculiar Crimes” unit created by mystery writer Christopher Fowler. In his books Detectives Bryant and May are packed full of amusing British eccentricities. In the Varg series the hero is just a guy who is dull and normal to the point of boredom.
We finally arrive at the unassuming plot. Like the man and the department he works for, it is wispy almost to the point of non-existence. A benevolent author who is trying to maintain an alternate personality for the public may be the victim of blackmail. Anne, one of Ulf Varg’s co-workers is a woman he has always had a secret crush on and she brings a personal problem to her superior. She thinks her husband is having an affair and wants Ulf to investigate if it is true. Ulf determines that her husband had had an affair but it has now ended. Therefore he can honestly answer Anne’s question by saying that her husband isn’t having an affair. If it doesn’t sound like much, it isn’t.
Life in flat and relaxed Malmo goes on. Not much happens, nobody much cares, tomorrow is another day. Yet there is so much pleasantly droll wordplay going on that the book remains a good natured and interesting read. Call it an anecdote if you will to all the blood, guts, and sex detective novels of the past. The crimes turn out to be semi-real and the cases get solved by twisting the law a bit to allow for second chances or forgiveness.
To top it off we hear about political parties like the “Moderate Extremists” and the “Left Centrists.” I shall leave you with this bit of the book’s wisdom from below the cappuccino’s foam . So says Detective Ulf Varg, “Everybody’s under pressure to do something these days. If you don’t do something you’ll be accused of doing nothing.”