‘I have seen the world now, Mr Winge. Humans are lying vermin, a pack of bloodthirsty wolves who want nothing more than to tear each other to pieces in their struggle for power.’

The Wolf and the Watchman is an intelligent historical mystery in the vein of The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco or, perhaps even more so, A Critique of Criminal Reason – Michael Gregorio. A murder mystery that has a last revelation on the very last page. Stylishly written and utterly gripping, this is the opener for a trilogy, it’s an accomplished debut and I am already looking forward to the second instalment.

I like historical crime novels that have intellectual heft, not just a sense of time and place from the people and the streets (that’s a given). I’m looking for insight into the philosophical and political background to the story as well. I want that to be a significant factor in the murder and investigation as it is here. I want the murder to be specific to the setting, in this case Stockholm 1793, throwing a light on the life of the age. This is a tale of political paranoia and harsh times, poverty and disease a battered city. The Wolf and the Watchman is a sharp intriguing mystery, a novel that feels true to its time. For Natt och Dag, the grisly murder is a way of exploring this dark period of Swedish history and the growth of the enlightenment (the resistance of the monarchy, the bankrupt state and the nobility to change, maybe some of Natt och Day’s own distant relatives among them). The conflict between superstition, religion, autocracy on the one hand and scientific discovery and new philosophical ideas on the other. Following the murder of the king in 1791 the ruling class sought spies everywhere, the French Revolution hardened their attitude to the poor. The Wolf and the Watchman is set in a volatile time, a time to repression, a perfect age for a noirish, gothic murder mystery.

Prologue: Mickel Cardell is floating in the water, he just about manages to save himself but he can do nothing for his friend Johan Hjelm.

Three years later: Cardell, now a watchman in Stockholm, is slumped over a table at the Cellar Hamburg, one of the few customers not tossed onto the street. Two guttersnipes disturb him, they have found a dead body in the Larder Lake. The war veteran is reluctant to move but the girl is insistent, it’s probably scraps dumped by the butchers but she says she saw a human face. Eventually, Cardell stirs. They reach the lake, Cardell is reluctant to wade in, it brings back memories of Svensksund; a lost friend, a lost arm. He reaches the carcass, rolls it, a torso, no eyes, but human. He orders the children to fetch the Blue coats.

Cecil Winge begins to dismantle the watch, for a few hours he is absorbed in his work, shutting out the world. Winge rents a room from ropemaker Olof Roselius, a righteous man. Roselius tries again to get Winge to return to his wife, she is heavily pregnant, it is just not right for a man to leave a woman so. Clearly Winge is pained but shows no sign of weakening in his decision. Roselius is mystified that the man, a rational scientific man, can’t see that even if his motives were good, the effects of his decision are bad. Winge is a frail man, not yet thirty.

A boy is sent for Winge, his presence is required by the police chief, Johan Gustav Norlin. The corpse found in the Larder on the southern Isle is ready for examination at the Maria church. They are hunting ‘a monster in human guise’. At the church Winge meets Cardell, the watchman is intrigued by the macabre nature of the crime. The two men are wary of each other, Cardell surprised by the cold nature of Winge. Winge suggests Cardell, an amputee, take a look at the joint of the severed leg he realised the wound has healed. All four limbs have been removed over three months before death and allowed to heal. Death would have been a mercy for the man. Winge has demonstrated that Cardell knowledge of the sea and war give him an insight into the condition of the corpse and how long it’s been in the water. Winge asks Cardell to join him in the Investigation.

Winge reports to Norlin, who may be about to lose his job. Since Baron Reuterholm has assumed the role of guardian to the thirteen-year-old crown prince he has imposed a despotic rule. The nobles are running scared since the French Revolution but Norlin is not convinced that there are traitors behind every door.

Cardell finds out that Winge has a beautiful wife, and may be dying of consumption, trying to spare her the pain. The two men will have to tread carefully, be aware of the state breathing down their necks if they are to catch a diabolical killer.

‘It has always been my ambition to understand the crimes that come under my scrutiny. What I have heard since our last meeting makes me think that I now understand you more clearly . . .’

Winge is a rational man, the court may be satisfied when the criminal is caught but he wants to understand the criminal.

Natt och Dag is a stylish writer, his prose seems to capture the time, his novel is deeply researched and wears it lightly. Occasionally he drops in fascinating details that add colour to the story. The Cellar Hamburg is the last stop for the condemned on the way to the gallows, the glass used inscribed with their name and the date of execution, then made available to punters for a fee, of course.

Niklas Natt och Dag is a member of the oldest surviving noble family in Sweden dating back to 1280 and the name means night and day. Interesting but not particularly relevant to his skills as a writer which are considerable.

Translated from the Swedish novel 1793 by Ebba Segerberg. A second, 1794, has just been published in Sweden.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag
John Murray 9781473682146 pbk Oct 2019