By Anders Roslund
and Börge Hellström
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
400 pp. $26 nolead ends
Reviewed by John Timpane
Dark, often crushingly grim,
introduces us to a world of characters who hate what they do for a living. I count at least two police detectives, one junkie, one doctor, a welter of crooks, and at least one social servant who see the veneer peel off their careers, revealing the shabby, agonized self-deception beneath.
Heroes and heroines are here, to be sure, and in the end the book is a celebration of love. But Box 21 teaches a hard truth, forces us to admire people we cannot like, to see when we'd rather turn away. It holds us still and makes us look.
Look at what? At the cancer of sex slavery, woven deeply into the intricate interdependence of the modern democratic state: The courts, law enforcement, social services, and stubbornly persistent, backward attitudes collude to let it go on. As Box 21 shows, the men and women who run this underground horror are small-timers, a seedy and second-rate demimonde of pikers and meatheads who, nevertheless, are able, thanks to the bottomless drives of men with cash, to engineer a trade in helpless human flesh.
The setting of this novel - which on its own terms is superb - is Stockholm, the dark Stockholm gaining rapid fame in the United States thanks to the recent wave of "Nordic noir," top-rate mysteries, detective stories and crime novels from Scandinavia. Chief among these are the "Millennium" novels of Stieg Larsson and the Wallander tales of Henning Mankell. What these works have in common is how the light abides with the darkness. All take dry-eyed looks at contemporary life in the bureaucratic state, its existential drabness and isolation - and yet all believe in love.
Box 21 has light and darkness most intense. It is written by journalist and culture critic Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, who, we are told, is "an ex-criminal who helps to rehabilitate young offenders and drug addicts." Perhaps Hellström is responsible for this novel's harsh, utterly real scenes of mid-city brothels, train stations, junkie assignations, crime scenes, hospital wards, and police headquarters. Perhaps it's Roslund who knows the ins and outs of the justice system and crime law so well. Whoever does whatever, the combination has produced a novel - and, more important, a story - that cannot be ignored.
Its central figure is Lydia Grajauskas, a young Lithuanian woman from the port town of Klaipeda, a ferry ride across the Baltic from Stockholm. She and another woman, Alena Sljusareva, are lured by tales of freedom and good pay to accompany two men across the sea to Sweden - and on the ride over they are brutalized and terrified into submission. Both evolve ways of enduring and surviving their unthinkable slavery. Even as we see them perform revolting acts for their clients, we feel they have preserved an indomitable sense of self, each in her own way.
The difference between them is that while Alena wishes only to escape, Lydia wants to settle scores. Her method will involve Söder Hospital and the Stockholm County Police Department.
There, we meet Ewert Grens, longtime chief officer, a man whose great love was rendered a vegetable in a chase many years ago. Grens sleeps in his office, lives alone, listens to sickly '60s pop: He has no life and knows it, hates himself and that life quite consciously, and hungers for revenge, much in parallel with Lydia.
Grens' sidekick, Sven Sundkvist, both admires and is repelled by his boss. He's also tortured, terribly so, by the evil he sees on the job. Yet, like Grens, he forces himself to achieve and to overcome. (Sundkvist, whose aching conscience is one of the best things in the book, is also its one flaw: He gets too directly preachy about the ravages of shame.)
When a break comes in a murder case, Grens sees an opportunity to avenge the loss of the woman he loved. His quest for revenge will bring him and others up against the law itself. At the same time, he and his office face a second case, that of Lydia, which blows the lid off a sex-slavery ring - and sends Sundkvist to Lithuania to trace its roots.
"For a moment, at least, not everything seemed hopeless." Those are the thoughts of one sensitive character when she sees fleeting signs of these people's humanity. If the world of Box 21 held no love, one would rather shoot oneself than read it. But that's the point: Almost all its characters love, and love fiercely. Love will lead them to endure - and also to cheat, and also to kill, and also to enslave. Men and women, husbands and wives; men who are friends and women who are friends - all are portrayed with tenderness.
This refuge, however, can also destroy and distort. The sickest distortion of all - the sex trade - challenges the drab people in this drab world. Physical objects - a videotape, an old cassette, a photo on a desk, a diary, a storage locker in a train station - come to symbolize entire lives. Roslund and Hellström play out the tale in taut, short scenes, meting out revelations and shocks in sure, knowing fashion, ending with the shock that all but undoes the rest.
Like its Nordic noir fellows, Box 21 is profound, with much to show, much to say, much to set in play, on the human condition. It's a novel with a heart, even if it's a hardened heart.