THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN, by Niklas Natt och Dag, translated by Ebba Segerberg. Atria Books, 373 pp., $28.
The first thing to know about Niklas Natt och Dag’s debut crime novel is that to read it you need a strong stomach. The ability to endure fictional violence worse than your basic “Game of Thrones” beheading is not only useful but required. “The Wolf and the Watchman” is gruesome and chilling, soaked in blood, bile and depravity; its craven, opportunistic monsters all the more monstrous for being human.
Natt och Dag — whose name, according to the book jacket, translates as the improbable but rather musical “Night and Day” — imagines an 18th-century Stockholm reeking of effluent and disease, stoked by rape, murder, low cunning and political intrigue. This is as dark as Swedish noir gets. But if the author pummels us with hideous visions of squalor — how many mountains of heaping excrement must one reader climb? — he also offers a tantalizing mystery, a foreboding, claustrophobic sense of place and a pair of unforgettable investigators.
The story begins when two street urchins burst into a bar with news that there’s a body in the lake. Enlisted to investigate is reluctant and hung over watchman Mickel Cardell, a one-armed former sailor and current alcoholic.
In a mood as foul as the lake itself, Cardell drags himself to the shore of the Larder, ripe with bloated animal carcasses. There he finds what’s left of the victim. The body is "missing both arms and both legs, all severed as close to the body as the unimpeded work of knife and saw have found it possible to achieve. The face is also missing eyes; the eyeballs have been removed from their sockets.” The tongue is gone, too. If this description makes you want to stop reading, you probably should. Forge onward, and you’re going to learn a lot more about how this butchery was accomplished.
Called by the police chief to find the killer is lawyer Cecil Winge, who no longer practices his trade because he’s slowly, bloodily, dying of consumption. The cerebral Winge and the brutish Cardell make an odd couple, but they’re both partial to the notion of justice. They’re racing the clock in more ways than one: Winge may not live long enough to complete the task.
Also playing a role in solving the puzzle are Kristofer Blix, a young gambler whose actions lead him to disaster, and Anna, a determined orphan whose plan to escape the workhouse is one of the most compelling parts of the novel.
But the resolute Winge — intelligent, scrupulous, honest — remains the moral heart of “The Wolf and the Watchman.” He wishes for a world that functions as precisely as his watch, but Natt och Dag isn’t content to paint him as simply heroic. Winge contends with demons, too.
“You can’t fool me! You are indeed a wolf after all,” one character tells him. “No one can run with the wolf pack without accepting its terms. You have both the fangs and the glint of the predator in your eye. You deny your blood thirst but it rises around you like a stench. One day your teeth will be stained red and then you’ll know with certainty how right I was. Your bite will be deep.”
Natt och Dag is fond of this sort of overblown speech, but there’s no arguing the truth of the insight. Despite his virtues, Winge is not above the petty and the personal. That’s what “The Wolf and the Watchman” reminds us: Even the best of us are capable of being wolves.