The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag – Review
By Gail Schuster
The Wolf and the Watchman is the gripping debut novel of writer Niklas Natt och Dag, and hopefully not his last. We’ve become familiar with Scandi Noir through books and screen, with such offerings as the chilling crime novels of Jo Nesbo, compelling films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the television series The Bridge, but these are all contemporary. The Wolf and the Watchman differs in that it is a dark historical thriller in set in eighteenth-century Stockholm.
A mutilated torso is discovered in the heavily contaminated Larder lake and dragged out by Mikel Cardell, a disabled war veteran who had previously worked, as many like him, as a night watchman of the city. The case is entrusted to Cecil Winge, a former lawyer turned investigator, dying of consumption. Together they consider the evidence, searching Stockholm to discover the body’s identity in their efforts to uncover the motive and murderer.
Cardell and Winge are looking for their killer in squalid, run down Stockholm in 1793, four years after the Bastille was stormed in France and not long after the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. The self-serving, corrupt, cruel and morally bankrupt elite are nervous of revolutionaries and there are spies are everywhere. As Norlin, the police chief says to Winge, “There is discontent festering out there.”
Cruelty and brutality are constant themes, and some may find some of the descriptions too gruesome and graphic. There is the barbarism of the murder, the inhuman punishments meted out on behalf of the state, the numbing, ceaseless, unfair poverty and degradation of people’s lives, rape, theft, disease and the exploration of the most sordid aspects of Stockholm’s hidden areas.
“Kept me turning the pages”
As well as being essentially a crime novel, there is an aspect of social commentary about the times that the story is set in, including the appalling treatment of people with disabilities and behaviour towards women, the latter of which is particularly explored by the character Anna Stina. However, despite the grimness of the setting and the savageness of some of the acts there are also deeds of kindness, love, friendship and the desire to make the world a better place, the preferable human qualities which undeterred by their trials, some of the characters still manage to exhibit.
The author has a keen sense of location and history, as he lives in Stockholm with his wife and family and is a member of the oldest surviving noble family in Sweden. His family were first recorded during the thirteenth century and have played their part in Swedish history, having been culpable of the rebel Engelbrekt’s murder in 1436 and for commanding the army that lost Stockholm to the Danes in 1520 amongst other events.
The book is divided into four parts, which allows the author to introduce the two main protagonists and the crime in the first section but also give two other seemingly unrelated people, Kristofer Blix, a country boy who had served as an apprentice to a navy surgeon and Anna Stina, a poor fruit seller, their own fully developed backgrounds. However, this structure slows the pace of the narrative down, as the sections on Blix and Stina begin like two separate stories. The final part brings all the threads together, but the plot keeps twisting and turning until the very last page, even when you think there are no more surprises.
The Wolf and the Watchman is excellent, well written crime fiction, if a little difficult to read at times because of the hard hitting nature of the descriptions of life in a truly brutal period of Stockholm’s history, but despite this, it kept me turning the pages to find out who was the perpetrator and their motive.
‘The Wolf and the Watchman’ by Niklas Natt och Dag is published by John Murray, £12.99 paperback