01 January 2001

Two Soldiers - Roslund & Hellström

Two SoldiersIt’s become a bit of a cliché to say that a lot of Scandi Crime is preoccupied with the effects of unlawful acts on the community, but Roslund and Hellstrom’s novel Two Soldiers is just that. It’s a blistering attack on the way a whole generation of young men detach themselves from society to community to become sociopathic gang-members.

I say, the blurb has just carjacked your Mercedes:

José Pereira heads the police’s Organized Crime and Gang Section in Råby, a southern suburb of Stockholm. Here, juvenile gang crime is a rapidly growing and all-too-real problem.

Blood brothers Leon and Gabriel have spent their young lives establishing a formidable criminal enterprise - known as the Råby Warriors - which is now poised to secure domination in the area.

DCI Ewert Grens is investigating a recent prison break from a maximum-security facility: an incident that is linked to the Råby Warriors - a group Grens knows more about than he first admits.

All four men are on a collision course: heading toward an explosive convergence, and a revelation powerful enough to tear each of them apart.

Two Soldiers is about a pair of 18-year-old gang members, Leon and Gabriel, who are obsessed with getting their gang - which they have lovingly rebranded the Ghetto Soldiers - to the top of the organized crime most-wanted list. That’s it, that’s all they want. They want to be the most ruthless and feral gang in Råby. They want their photos to take pride of place at the top of Pereira’s wall of notorious gang member mugshots. This nihilistic and destructive challenge is the height of their ambition, and they’ll stop at nothing to get there.

The whole of the first section of the book is written with a furious and savage intensity. The visceral emotions Gabriel and Leon feel, their sense of abandonment and rage, is hidden beneath ice-cold prose. This first section is tightly-plotted – the whole book is a masterclass in plotting, actually, as Leon and Gabriel coolly put into motion a plan that will shake Swedish society to the core – and it’s graphic and brutal and harrowing, and pounds along with a dead-behind-the-eyes predatory lope.

At this point you’re gripped, but you’re desperate to find a way to engage – because these lads are the last people you want to be hanging around with, to be honest. Because they don’t give a shit about anything except belonging to their gang, the Ghetto Soldiers, and controlling everything around them – and then bringing the whole lot down. This is a gang that sets fire to cars and bins in their complex of tower blocks once, twice, three times a day. As Michael Caine says in that movie, some men just want to watch the world burn.

And then just as you’ve had enough of being inside their heads, along comes Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom’s familiar protagonist Ewart Grens. Grens is the moral compass of the book. Trouble is, his compass needle spins every which way. Grens is all kinds of fucked-up.

Grens’ torturous backstory remains a bit of a mystery if you haven’t read their previous novels Cell 8 or Three Seconds – but you don’t care! Because he’s angry and bitter and emotional - he’s the kind of man who could start an argument in an empty room - and a hugely moral person who seems to take murderous crime utterly personally. He charges about bullying everyone around them to get their jobs done yesterday.

And you’re so grateful that he’s around – and that he feels so much – that you just want to climb into his arms and let him carry you around for a bit. Because you feel secure with him, he makes you feel safe as you walk in his slipstream. You’re so happy that there are people out there like him who feel too much rather than nothing at all. His volcanic emotions are in stark contrast to the terse, inhuman hatred of those psychopathic little boys - even if a tiny little possibility, just a teeny-weeny bit, of redemption reveals itself for one of them.

The book is a call to arms for society to get its shit together and fast, or face losing a whole generation to guns and drugs and violence and apathy. Two Soldiers is very bold and very scary, and it’s absolutely not going to be to everybody’s taste. It’s not a book to delight in, exactly. It’s a book to – what’s the word? - to appreciate.

But, look. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

Here it is:

Lots of words.

Look at that. That paperback is 668-pages thick.

Unless your name is Charles Dickens it’s my humble opinion that you have no business writing a book that long. Just because there are two of you writing it doesn’t mean you have to write a book each and then stick them together.

As a result, sadly, what is often a scintillating and gripping read becomes a bit of a slog. Two Soldiers just never seems to end. There’s a lot of stylistic repetition, and some subplots that could easily be discarded. We all like a good read, but you can have too much of a good thing, and the experience threatens to become like chewing your way through a juicy but gristly steak. I hope Roslund and Hellstrom perhaps reign in their enthusiasm a little the next time round.

So, Two Soldiers is a bit of a rollercoaster. It has its ups and its down, certainly, but it’s written with undeniable passion, a kind of angry bewilderment that such gangs should exist at all, that so many children are so starved of socialisation that they yearn to become criminalised, and feel absolutely nothing for anybody or anything outside their gang. The Ghetto Soldiers are an anarchic army at war with the rest of us.

You know Roslund and Hellstrom care – one is a journalist and the other is an expert on the Swedish correctional system – because the book has a furious intensity that almost, but not quite, takes you comfortably over the line to the finish. This is most-definitely crime fiction with something to say.

So, look, thanks to Quercus for the review copy. I’ve always been utterly fascinated by the way two writers accomplish that extraordinary mind-meld to write a single book - and later in the week I’m delighted to say that Anders Roslund - in a Guest Post, no less! - talks about how he and Borge Hellstrom work together.