Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg
Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg (Stockholm Text, 2012, translated into English by Neil Betteridge) is a very interesting book to read in structural terms. When I was younger, books were significantly shorter. Regardless of genre, we were given the edited highlights of the story. In strictly literary works, this would match the modern standards of character development, but delivering rather less plot. In the genres, the narratives were more pithy, distilling plots down to their bare essentials. This meant most of my early reading experiences were based on more efficient storytelling styles. When we moved gently into the eighties and beyond, the one or two doorstop books multiplied until, today, the average length of published books is significantly and consistently longer. This is not inherently a bad thing. There were many times when reading books fifty and more years old that I would shake my head, wondering exactly what had happened as explanations were cut short to conform to the publisher’s page limits, i.e. six gathers of thirty-two pages. Today authors have the chance to capture every loose end and weave it into a completely self-contained story. If the story is left open-ended, publishers today happily buy trilogies. Yet this new found freedom incentivised by publishers who feel that longer is better, is a double-edged sword. Just because you have space given to you does not mean you can fill it constructively. Not every plot benefits from being padded out to make the wordage. Some ideas are essentially simple and benefit from being told shortly. So this presents a challenge to authors. To get published, they have to produce length. To be able to write well at length demands a higher level of craft to construct a plot and people it with rounded characters so that we can read twelve gathers and feel there was something of interest and substance from start to finish.
This is another book featuring Detective Inspector Claes Claesson and Veronika Lundborg. During the first quarter of the book, we watch him take his first daughter shopping and then go through the experience of rushing Veronika to hospital to deliver the second. In other words, this is not the usual police procedural in which there’s an early murder to pitch our heroic detective into the fray of investigation. Although there’s a murder in the first chapter, it takes place in Istanbul and news does not reach the small Swedish town of Oskarshamn until after the second daughter is settling in to her new home. This leaves the rest of the opening section for catching up with the existing cast of series characters and meeting the first of the guest characters for this episode in the continuing story.
The reason for the technical interest in the book is the dedication with which the author invests each character with a backstory. More importantly, she fleshes out the bones of the criminal investigation with the humdrum routines of everyday living. Perhaps surprisingly, the victim gets a significant interior monologue so we see something of why he and his wife were visiting Turkey and how he thinks about her now she’s returned to Sweden. Even Ilyas Bank, the Turk who operates the tea concession on the ferry where the murder occurs, gets a significant moment in the sun. This makes the book what you might call a rich tapestry. Many authors introduce named bodies as plot devices to advance the story. Here we’re offered the chance to get to know each of the characters as individuals. This requires more effort from the reader. Instead of just having to remember the names and general relationship between the characters, we’ve got a lot more material we could carry with us through the story.
So when the news of the carpet dealer’s death reaches Sweden via Interpol, Claes Claesson is suddenly in the frame to liaise with the Turkish authorities despite being entitled to paternity leave. To his surprise if not annoyance, Veronika Lundborg is not against the idea of him going, particularly when it appears the victim is the man who’s supposed to be repairing their rug. This brings our hero and Mustafa Ozen, a young man whose family came to Sweden when he was six, off to meet the victim’s family in Sweden, and then on to the plane for their first meeting with Fuat Karoglu and the investigator in charge Merve Turpan. This gives us a twin track narrative as events move forward in Sweden while the combined investigative resources of Sweden and Turkey make a little headway in Istanbul. But it’s when Claes Claesson returns to Sweden that events begin to move more swiftly. Ironically, a key fact is unwittingly brought to his door by a young couple. They are unintentionally returning the rug left with the carpet dealer for repair. This poses the question of how they got it and why they are searching the town for other rugs. Indeed, there are rug stories cropping up all round town and one possibly associated assault and later disappearance.
The factor that elevates this novel into a higher rank is the tone. In every society, people are unfaithful to each other, betray confidences, steal and physically attack each other, sometimes with fatal results. There’s nothing unusual in this catalogue of human weaknesses and sins. But Karin Wahlberg explores all this with a clear eye. Although not judgmental, she’s equally not shy in exposing the full extent of “wrongdoing” in the broadest sense of the word. Yet the story itself is anchored by Claes Claesson and his relationship with Veronika. It’s not perfect. This is as we should expect from our experience of the real world. It’s very unusual to find any relationship that’s free of tensions when two essentially selfish individuals decide to sacrifice some of their independence to form a partnership. This gives the book a central credibility. It feels like a relationship that would survive in the real world.
Put all this together and you have a pleasing story about people, some of whom commit crimes. I put it this way round because although ostensibly a police procedural about investigating a murder, it’s actually a book in which we’re invited to care about the people, understand them, and have some sympathy for those who survive. I should also alert potential readers that this is not a classic mystery, solved by the experienced police inspector. Not all the “crimes” are solved. The solution to the murder itself emerges as the different characters slowly react to the events around them and exchange information. While it may lack the elliptical efficiency of the books I used to read more than fifty years ago, it gains by allowing a proper place for all the characters. Even a humble seller of tea may manage a faint smile as justice, while not exactly blind, does not see quite enough evidence to act.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.