Bo Balderson: Death and the Minister (Statsrådet och Döden, 1968)
When people talk about the classics of the Scandinavian crime genre, they tend to mean Scandinavian Noir: authors like Henning Mankell, Kerstin Ekman, Camilla Läckberg, Stieg Larsson, Carin Gerhardsen, Jo Nesbø, Arnaldur Indridason, Peter Høeg, Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö and so on.
But the "deckare" (whodunnit) has been many other things too. Few are more off-the-wall, and yet more deeply satisfying, than the eleven "Statsrådet" ("Cabinet Minister") novels of Bo Balderson, published between 1968 and 1990.
The premise sounds like a trainwreck. The investigator is not a detective but a larger-than-life, spontaneous, dubiously-competent, skin-of-his-teeth maverick of a cabinet minister, a post he's attained to largely by accident. The narrator is his brother-in-law, lecturer Vilhelm Persson, a reluctant and often aghast participant. The murder mysteries are classical Christie constructions with a limited range of suspects. The cabinet minister is also polyphiloprogenitive, and by the end of this first novel is expecting his fifteenth child. He's a kind of god, but Balderson has learnt the valuable lesson of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, that if you are going to introduce a kind of god into your story then the most acceptable way of doing it is to make them a bit of a buffoon.
If Balderson had submitted a synopsis, he'd never have got near a publisher. Instead, he submitted the completed novel, and publishing it must have been one of Bonniers' easier decisions: it was irresistible. The vocabulary is wide and idiomatic (a significant challenge to my Swedish-language skills), the book is full of political and social comedy in a somewhat Wodehousian style. But the fun doesn't detract from the meaty main course, an ingenious and very satisfying crime mystery which opens up unexpected depths of feeling and insight normally excluded from this type of book.
Many people, including perhaps the author himself, regard this debut novel as his masterpiece. On a small island in the Stockholm archipelago, one of the few summer residents, an elderly woman, is found murdered one evening. The fleeting figure of the putative murderer is witnessed by two other islanders. Most of the residents have no alibi: typical of Swedes on holiday, they are pottering singly about their cottages at this time in the evening. The blundering police investigator, desperate to make a success of his first big case, turns out to be a former pupil of lecturer Persson, a connection that's a constant embarrassment to them both. Meanwhile the national newspapers are in uproar about a cabinet minister who claims (truthfully) to have been sitting in his outside loo for an hour and a half at the time the murder took place.
We were just getting on to dessert when the door suddenly opened and a broad-shouldered stocky gentleman bustled in with a little black hold-all in his hand.
-- Might I speak to the person in charge?
He raised his voice in the way that people do when addressing a large assembly.
-- The person in charge? echoed the minister, surprised. *
-- Yes, of course, a camp or establishment has someone in charge whom one may speak to. Would that be you?
The minister explained that he wasn't "the person in charge" but just a normal husband and father who was having dinner with his family.
The man stepped back a pace. It was hard to say if he were more appalled or impressed.
-- My name is Dr Moberg. I was asked to come here to see to a patient. I was on my round of home visits at the far end of the district and that's why I've been detained until now.
The minister told him that the patient's wound had already been bandaged and that he was now quite comfortable in his own home, and Dr Moberg responded by saying what he thought of people who allowed him to set off on unnecessary journeys to remote islands. The mounting fury in his face and the way he flung his hold-all to one side suggested that expressions like "thoughtless" and "impudent" composed but a genial prelude.
To calm him down I rose and introduced the minister. Something I've observed is that it normally takes the wind out of an incensed person's sails once they realize they're face to face with a cabinet minister. Even if it's the very minister who has incensed them in the first place.
But Dr Moberg was made of sterner stuff. Informed that he was in the presence of the Home Affairs minister, he now lost all sense of restraint.
-- So it's YOU! he snarled, and the veins stood up on his neck. I've been wanting to have a word with YOU for a very long time! Do you have the least idea of the conditions your provincial doctors are expected to function in? Do you know how many hours' sleep I've managed in the past week? Or the week before that? Do you know how long it is since I last sat down to read a newspaper? Do you have the faintest notion of how many people live within my district? And what are you doing about it, you who are responsible for all this?
As if he realized it was beyond human capacity to answer all those questions he took a few swift steps up to the cabinet minister and felled him to the ground with a single, well-aimed blow.
The children helped to drag the minister to the sofa in the living-room, meanwhile uttering appreciative comments like "What a strong guy, eh?", "Right on the chin, did you see that?" and "Daddy went down like a sack!"
Once the minister was propped up on the sofa the formidable doctor stepped forward and examined him. Clearly Dr Moberg was not one to neglect a duty of care.
-- He'll come round in a few minutes. (He seemed rather to lament this fact.) Here's my card, and here's some powdered aspirin.
Then he gathered up his hold-all and departed.
The minister woke up just in time for coffee.
He wondered what had been going on. The children told him the full story, using raw and expressive language. He rubbed his chin, shifted about as if checking that no bones were broken, and said very little. But you could tell that he had plenty on his mind.
(Statsrådet och Döden, end of Chapter 14, translation by me)
I chose the above extract at random and immediately got bogged down in one of the book's tricky idioms:
-- Föreståndaren? svarade statsrådet begåvat.
"Begåvat" is the adverbial form of "begåvad" (gifted, talented), so the sentence literally means something like
"The principal?", answered the cabinet minister brightly.
But both adjective and adverb are often used sarcastically in Swedish, and in the particular context of narrative dialogue this sarcastic usage is now the predominant one. (The SAOB entry, from 1901, supplies no hint of this, but I got help from native Swedish-speakers on a translation forum.)
”Det är jag”, sa jag begåvat när hon svarade
"It's me", I said brightly (meaning lamely) when she picked up the phone.
”Jylland”, sa jag begåvat medan Tine väntade på att mitt minne skulle börja fungera igen.
"Jylland," I said brightly (meaning uncomprehendingly), while Tine waited for my memory to kick in.
Maken tittade förvirrat upp från en av alla de skrifter han omger sig med och svarade begåvat: - va?
My husband looked up confused from all the papers around him and answered brightly (meaning vacantly): "Eh?"
So what is really being conveyed in Balderson's sentence is not the brightness of the minister's response but, on the contrary, his bemusement, gawping, being all at sea.
Perhaps even those expressions don't quite capture the full flavour of the Swedish, which suggests the well-meaning but hapless efforts of someone trying to be alert and intelligent.
The novel's leading character is never given a name but is referred to throughout as "Statsrådet": The Cabinet Minister.
In Swedish this is not particularly jarring as people are often referred to by their job-titles rather than their names. (Indeed, fifty years ago this was the normal form of polite address.)
In the Swedish text "Statsrådet" is soon accepted as a familiar nickname: it acquires overtones of fondness (or sometimes exasperation).
When translating the text into English it's a constant problem that "the minister" produces just the opposite effect: it threatens to reduce intimacy, and to distance the hero from his family and surroundings.
"Bo Balderson" is a pseudonym; the true identity of the author has been jealously guarded by his or her publishers and agent for the past 48 years, and remains undisclosed.
This has proven to be excellent publicity, especially when newspaper articles have speculated that Balderson must be someone well-known, such as a senior politician or an author famous for other books. (The smart money, however, has long been on the relatively humble college lecturer Björn Sjöberg.)
A number of email interviews purporting to be with Bo Balderson have appeared over the years. I discovered this one in Svenska Magasinet, a free magazine for Swedes on the Costa Blanca, in 2008. The interviewer was Iwan Morelius, founder of DAST magazine (about Swedish crime fiction), and it was brokered via Balderson's literary agent Bengt Nordin. (Both interviewer and agent were by this time resident in Spain.)
The interview sounds convincingly genuine to me, but you never know. Some people argue that Bo Balderson was the publisher Åke Runnquist, who worked for Bonniers (with special interest in crime fiction) and who died in 1991, which would of course explain why no further novels have appeared since 1990.
IM: One final question: When will you reveal yourself? As Ingalill wisely remarked in one of her articles about you, it seems rather a shame to be unmasked only after your death. Wouldn't it be better to plan this "disclosure" in a spectacular way perhaps, something that only you can think up? Consider!
BB: I'll do it when I'm awarded the Nobel Prize. At the beginning of the ceremony, I'll be wearing my mask, but once I've been handed my prize by the King I'll take the mask off, and then everyone'll say: "But he already won the prize, several years ago!"
Online text of the interview (in Swedish):
Here's another post about a forgotten corner of the "deckare" genre: