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Skalpelldansen Jenny Milewski, Skalpelldansen (Dance of the Scalpel)

Telegram Bokförlag,  2012.

Reviewed by Anna Holmwood in SBR 2014:2

Review Section: Fiction

Jonas Lerman is sitting down to write his fourth Carl Cederfeldt novel. The series, which follows the surgeon-turned brutal-murderer who has been torturing young girls fished from Sweden’s pristine streets, has made Jonas the latest superstar crime writer since his first book, Dance of the Scalpel, was released. But, four months behind on his latest deadline, why won’t the words come? He’s never had this problem before and his publisher is getting anxious. The stories, the images, they’ve always come as if unasked for, as if he were possessed. Now, every page is a struggle.

Desperate for a solution, Jonas visits a  new-age therapist and ‘creativity coach’. Maybe the problem is that he is revolted by the violence of his own stories? Perhaps his subconscious is telling him he no longer wants to describe such disturbing scenes of suffering? 

Except it’s more complicated than that. Because life is starting to mirror his art. Scenes from his novels, including those he is just writing and has yet to show anyone else, are being played out around him. First, Carl Cederfeldt’s black Hummer nearly runs him over in central Stockholm. Then a murder takes place, the details of which are frighteningly familiar. Friends and acquaintances start to report seeing him in places and in circumstances of which he has no memory. Is he going mad? Or worse, are his nightly writing sessions in fact memories of terrible crimes he has himself committed? What is the link between his writing and a secret that his parents have been keeping all these years? Jonas Lerman is haunted by the power of his own imagination, and is increasingly unable to determine the line between reality and the life he is creating on the page.

It has become a cliché of the recent Scandi crime wave to muse on the reasons for the genre’s popularity, especially in such seemingly peaceful and prosperous societies. Perhaps it is precisely the safety and comfort of everyday life that enables a writer to concoct such horrific scenes? That is the driving idea behind this novel. As life around him becomes ever more bloody and shocking, Jonas Lerman is faced with the question: what motivates him in his writing? Why choose such violence and darkness? Does this point to some deeper psychological drive within us humans and show us that we should be thankful if it is only expressed in the pages of a novel?

Milewski’s debut is a witty and knowing contribution to the wider debate around Scandi crime, rather than to the genre itself. The book’s biggest weakness is in the graphic depictions of murder and torture. The extracts taken from the novel within the novel, Lerman’s debut Dance of the Scalpel, are at times wooden, and without the hook of characterisation, the plot feels prosaic. While cruelty is arguably essential for the purposes of plot, it is tempting to muse on how the novel might improve if Milewski allowed us to imagine Lerman’s writing rather than presenting supposed excerpts from it. 

Indeed, Milewski’s strength is in fusing the crime genre with the newest trend in Swedish literature, the quirky humour of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove or Jonas Jonasson’s global bestseller The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Jonas Lerman’s encounters with the Swedish media are amusing and sharply observed, as he is bombarded with questions that are as facetious as they are pretentious. Milewski has kept the sharp social observation that has made Scandi crime writing so compelling, while having fun with the meta-narrative possibilities of her plot. The violence of the crime genre as fiction created by a collective social unconscious is contrasted with the myths of individual authorial creation and the creative process. But ultimately this is a novel that plays with the genre that has brought Swedish writing international attention, with the crime writer as protagonist, perpetrator and potential victim.

Other reviews by Anna Holmwood

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