Book Review

Photo by Patrick Pahlke on Unsplash

The Man with the Silver Saab, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is an author whose name I certainly recognise, and of whose work I know I should be more aware, if not actually familiar with, but the series which I might previously have come across, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, some of which has already been televised, so I believe, didn’t have any specific appeal for me, but for unknown reasons; now that I have read this quirky little story, I would be prepared to investigate other books by him, and there are at least four other series, apart from the Detective Varg, of Sweden, series, of which this book is a member: the aforementioned The No1. [etc.], the 44 Scotland Street [apparently “the world’s longest-running serial novel”], and The Corduroy Mansions series, and the Isabel Dalhousie novels.

The Varg stories have been described by one reviewer as “Scandi blanc”, which I would consider cleverly accurate. Ulf Varg is the head of a police department in Malmö, the Department of Sensitive Crimes, which does have a somewhat ‘politically correct’ ring to it, but I don’t think the author is trying to make a political point here: one has to assume that he must have some minimal knowledge of the Swedish police system to qualify him to write these stories, so perhaps there is such a thing? This is certainly not an all-action, ‘gung-ho’ type of story, but there is a lot of inner dialogue, predominantly from the main character, but also from some of the supporting characters. The main storyline concerns a potential art fraud, which has impacted negatively upon the career of a respected art historian & expert assessor, so the possible suspects have to be treated with great sensitivity; not least because of the potentially large sums of money which can be involved.

Concurrently with this, at the beginning of the story Ulf has to deal with a bizarre attack on his beloved deaf dog, Martin, by a malicious squirrel in a local park, which results in possibly incompetent surgery by his veterinarian: Martin’s nose, almost severed in the attack, requires reattachment, but it appears to have been reattached upside down. The surgeon dismisses this as unlikely, despite the visual evidence apparent to Ulf, citing the difficulty of the procedure, and Ulf feels inhibited to ask for any sort of restitution, and during Martin’s recuperation, he seems unaware of any problem, which has to be more important to Ulf, ultimately. The incident does have a positive outcome though, apart from Martin’s recovery, because Ulf, who is currently single and has been in emotional turmoil because of his infatuation with a married colleague, finds the temporary secretarial replacement in the veterinary practice sufficiently attractive to ask her on a date. The other metaphorical thorn in Ulf’s side is another of his colleagues, Blomquist, who is a pedantic & somewhat verbose individual, holding forth on personal dietary regimes at tedious length; he is also, however, fastidious in his work, so Ulf tries hard to accommodate him and appreciate his good qualities, such as they are!

The resolution to the main aspect of the plot is the result of steady & thoughtful work on Ulf’s part, so there are no car chases, or shoot-outs, but there is a fair amount of psychological evaluation of suspects, of the type that might be employed by Holmes or Poirot: there are no mentions of “little grey cells” though, thankfully. The use of the classic Saab [I couldn’t find a photograph of a silver one, so a yellow one will have to do] driven by Ulf is undoubtedly a deliberate device to elevate Ulf from what could, otherwise, be a bland character, so if you enjoy thoughtful crime stories without undue stress or jeopardy [perhaps an inaccurate generalised assessment on the evidence of only one book, but nevertheless], then I can happily recommend these books, and Smith’s writing style is erudite, but not too obviously or irritatingly so. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021; Little, Brown] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14478-8.

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