Rating: 4 Stars
After reading much history and politics as I try to adjust myself to the era of Trump, I decided to go for some brain bleach and read something lighter.
Clinch was set in Stockholm in the year 1932. On the surface, this would not seem to be an interesting time or place (well other than yet another crime novel set in Scandinavia, for such a peaceful place it does seem to have more than its share of serial and horribly violent literary murders).
However, if you think that, you do not know about…The Match King! I read about Ivar Kreuger many years ago. It’s actually a fascinating story. A man builds a huge empire by trying to monopolize the production of the world’s matches. Yes, those things you pull out of a box and strike to light a cigarette.
In fact, at one point, he came close to achieving his dreams. At his peak, he was producing somewhere around three quarters of the world’s matches. All of this is well and good, but the way that he formed his monopoly was slightly suspicious. He agreed to make huge loans to countries for the monopoly rights. As you can imagine, these are large loans (this is post WWI where the world is still struggling to right itself). In most cases, he would sign the agreement to furnish the funds with no idea of how he was actually going to procure the funds. In the process of building up his huge empire, banks to some extent trusted him, and at least in the beginning, were willing to provide him the money to make the loans.
However, as is most pseudo-ponzi schemes, there comes a point where the straw breaks the camel’s back. There came a point where he could not come up with the funds to make the loans, and in rather quick order, all of his financial machinations collapsed. In March of 1932, he killed himself (or was possibly murdered if your mind wanders towards conspiracy theories).
His death and resulting collapse of his finances had a serious impact upon the Swedish economy, which was already suffering from the Great Depression.
It is in this setting that this story takes place. Sorry for the aside, but I find the concept of someone trying to monopolize the world’s match supply, almost succeeding, failing, and almost destroying a nation’s economy, fascinating.
Not only are there explicit references to Kreuger, but matches play a prominent part of the narrative. People are always striking matches to light cigarettes, cigars, or fireplaces. There are comments about matches once being plentiful but now are increasingly scarce. Matches are so important to everyday life during this time that you begin to see how a world-wide monopoly on matches could have been a lucrative dream to pursue.
Harry Kvist is a washed up boxer that is now a cross between a private investigator, an enforcer, and a repo-man (usually of bikes). He’s pretty small time but just manages to make enough to stay afloat.
He threatens a man to make him pay an outstanding debt. That man later dies. Suspicious is naturally focused upon Kvist. He decides to use his investigative skills to clear his name.
That’s the basic plot.
One of the main characters of Clinch is the city of Stockholm itself. It is set in winter. The weather is frigid. Every trip outside is bone chilling. It snows heavily and the roads are covered in ice, making any driving an adventure.
At the same time of this freezing cold is the desperate poverty of the Swedish people. This is an unvarnished view of this reality. There are drunks. There are worn-out prostitutes. There are brutal organized crime bosses. There are shady doorman. There are the nearly homeless fighting to protect what little they have. There are soup lines. Kvist at times becomes infested with both lice and with crabs. There is enough detail in these pages that indicate that the author conducted extensive research into this time and place. As a history geek, he definitely pulled me into the milieu of depression era Sweden.
Kvist is an interesting character. To a large extent he’s a cypher. He apparently is married and has a child, both of whom have gone off to America and that he has lost contact with. He was never defeated as a boxer. Apparently he came close to a title shot but some vaguely hinted scandal derailed it.
He’s bisexual with a bias towards men. This brings up another dark theme running through this novel. 1932 is also marking the rise of Nazism. There are several references to swastikas. Gay acts are illegal and he’s been arrested a couple of times for it. Clearly the skies are beginning to darken with totalitarianism.
As his investigation continues, he stumbles upon a very wealthy family. By the end, he’s realized, much like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, that behind the trappings of great wealth lies even greater depravity.
All in all, a satisfying crime noir. It is part one of a trilogy. It’ll be interesting to see how his dark themes of economic depression and the rise of totalitarianism continues to impact Kvist and his city of Stockholm.