‘Anger Mode’ by Stefan Tegenfalk (translated by David Evans)

-Reviewed by Ian Farnell-

I know it’s a translation, but I’m not sure about the title. Vredens Tid is the original Swedish title of Stefan Tegenfalk’s debut novel, which translates literally as Wrath Tide, so David Evans’ translation is an improvement.

My first thought upon receiving this novel (apart from the title) was “Oh, it looks like one of those books they advertise in train stations”. Now, I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but – well, it really does.

Anger Mode Stefan Tegenfalk Massolit Publishing

Regardless, Anger Mode (yup, still not sold it to me) is the debut novel by Stefan Tegenfalk, the latest Swedish author to make the translation into English, and the first of a trilogy. Wave hello, everyone.

The plot: there’s a drug out there, and it is making people angry. It is putting them into a mode in which they kill people. An anger mode, if you will. This promising idea is rather quickly delivered to us, and sets up what could be an interesting police procedural with some scary advances of science on the side. In the background is a shadowy antagonist, whose dark thoughts the reader occasionally glimpses, though nobody else does.

Anyway, nobody knows where this drug is coming from, or how to stop it. Enter frumpy yet dedicated Detective Inspector Walter Gröhn, and his new assistant Jonna de Brugge, a woman from RSU (which I’m told is an acronym for the Swedish Special Investigations Unit, although the best that Google gave me was Roehampton Students’ Union, and I doubt that’s it). She’s a young, by-the-book sidekick who asks helpful questions to keep the plot moving and show Gröhn’s experience of the Swedish justice system. Together they attempt to wade through murder and bureaucracy in order to solve the case. And it is round about here (ie. the beginning) that things start to get silly.

The writing is not inclined to give us depth, usually telling rather than showing. Often it is Dan Brown-esque, almost a thriller-by-numbers. Intent and emotion are expressed bluntly through internal monologue, filled with boring rhetoric and self-satisfied waffle, and characters do not get a chance to portray themselves through dialogue or action. Thus, interactions feel forced, sounding stilted and unconvincing – one man (a real hardcase) brusquely asks “Now tell me, what the fuck have you done with the multimedia evidence?”. The narrative is similarly droll, and littered with strange, empty similes; at one point we are told that ‘the room was as packed as a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were fifteen people round a table’. Clang!

The dialogue is matched by a similar ridiculousness in plotting. Somewhere along the way, the police procedural is whipped along so fast by the thriller pace that it gets left behind. There’s a sharp gear change, and Anger Mode is suddenly more political thriller than crime novel. The story jumps erratically from our protagonists to people we have never met before and have no vested interest in. This is only made worse when Walter Gröhn takes his investigation in a direction disliked by the powers that be and is suspended from duty, which leads to a large section of the novel focusing on a variety of other characters who seem to operate on an increasing level of farce.

The new head of the investigation, Martin Borg, is a raving anti-Islamist who, without any evidence whatsoever, blames the murders on Saudi-funded terrorists intent on destroying the Swedish legal system. He then arrests five Muslims that he found in a house somewhere, and uses torture to make them talk, which of course they don’t (one of them dies). And at this point nobody – not the other officers, not the chief prosecutor, not the lawyers or anyone else at this Bruce Springsteen concert – stops for a minute and says “This is insane! You’re making it up! You’ve got no proof! And stop killing people!”. I guess they were too busy singing along to Born in the U.S.A.

We also meet Jerry and Tor, two felons who swear a lot and talk in clichés about spilling your guts and nailing you to the wall – you know, hard man talk. Jerry and Tor are sent to kidnap a man, which they manage to accomplish. They then let the man escape, and go home because they are tired. You know, like hard men do. They’re not exactly the Krays. More like the Marx Brothers.

I could stomach most of this if I thought there were a point. But it doesn’t feel like there is. It feels like the protagonists were sidelined because the story needed spinning out after a promising start. That’s a shame, because Tegenfalk has a potentially strong story trying to get out and be told.

This is a book that can’t make its mind up. Is it a political thriller or a crime novel? A light read or a social commentary? Alas, we may have to wait for the second and third instalments of the trilogy to find out. The confusing and erratic nature of the story makes this first one quite a fight to endure. Even writing this review is something of an effort. And there are so many more interesting things I could be doing.

All together now: ‘Born down in a dead man’s town…’

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