Source: Review copy
Publication: 7th February 2019 from John Murray
The year is 1793, Stockholm. King Gustav of Sweden has been assassinated, years of foreign wars have emptied the treasuries, and the realm is governed by a self-interested elite, leaving its citizens to suffer. On the streets, malcontent and paranoia abound.
A body is found in the city’s swamp by a watchman, Mickel Cardell, and the case is handed over to investigator Cecil Winge, who is dying of consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell become embroiled in a brutal world of guttersnipes and thieves, mercenaries and madams, and one death will expose a city rotten with corruption beneath its powdered and painted veneer.
The Wolf and the Watchman depicts the capacity for cruelty in the name of survival or greed – but also the capacity for love, friendship, and the desire for a better world.
It is 1793 and over in France, the peasants are revolting. In Stockholm, unrest is fermenting. This is not surprising; the streets are full of excrement. Cruelty and debauchery abound. This is a world where thieves and brigands prosper and the only ones worse are the rich who preside over them, directing the action like puppet masters at a cruel feast.
This book does not stop short in its graphic and sometimes very hard to stomach description of the conditions on the streets, the brutality and the sheer horrendous life of the poor, the sick and the infirm. Mickel Cardell is a watchman, fit only for this lowest of jobs, clearing the streets of the worst of low- lifes and miscreants. Usually drunk, the one-armed watchman is stumbling through the streets when he fishes out a body from Lake Larder. This is a body like no other he has ever seen. Appallingly tortured, it is immediately clear that this person must have suffered terribly.
The police chief at Indebetou House assigns the case to Cecil Winge, a lawyer with a reputation for standing above corruption. But Winge is dying from consumption; this will be his last case.
Both Cardell and Winge know only too well that there will be forces at play who do not want them to succeed.
The book is in four sections. The first three tell a different story, and the fourth draws together the disparate elements into a whole.
As they begin their investigations the reader is introduced to a number of very striking characters. Kristofer Blix is a young man of pleasing disposition who has left his home in the country to go to Stockholm, with the aim of becoming a surgeon.
We meet him through the letters that he writes to his sister and learn of how he is inveigled into bad company and learns to gamble, trick and thieve with the rest of the town’s badly behaved young braggarts. It is this behaviour that will lead him down a desperate path.
Anna Stina makes the mistake of spurning a man’s affections and his revenge is to call her out as a whore. From that moment her life is doomed and she is imprisoned in a spinning workhouse where her gaoler is unremittingly sadistic and the women have little chance of ever going free.
Both Blix and Anna Stina will impact on the investigations varied out by Winge and Cardell, alongside the story of a man who must surely be the greatest villain to ever grace the pages of a book.
The relationship between Winge and Cardell grows and shapes itself into an unlikely friendship and esteem.
These two men, from very different backgrounds are the only hope for justice in an otherwise black, bleak world and it is watching that friendship and respect grow in the course of their investigation that provides a little hope for the future.
Niklas Natt och Dag has created what is undoubtedly the darkest, most gruesome book I have ever read. It is so dark that I am having difficulty deciding to recommend it. Yet the writing is excellent, the story-line exceptional and the rare moments of redemptive behaviour shine through like beacons of light in a dense fog.
He has an amazing eye for detail and his prose is cutting, his images stark and brutal. The pace of this book is slow but it pulls you in. Each character is another layer of the story. Every action has a consequence we later discover. Once you understand the story, you are sucked in and never able to let go.
Verdict. The most haunting, brutal, sadistic morality tale I have ever read. It goes onto my must read list, but be warned, this is not a book for unicorn lovers.
Niklas Natt och Dag is a member of the oldest surviving noble family in Sweden. His ancestors were responsible for the murder of the rebel Engelbrekt in 1436, commanded the army that lost Stockholm to the Danes in 1520, and were forced into exile after having demanded the abdication of Charles XIV in 1810. His surname, Natt och Dag, translates into Night and Day – the origin of this slightly unusual name is the family crest, a shield split horizontally in gold and blue.