Down for the Count
by Martin Holmén
(trans. Henning Koch)
November, 1935. Harry Kvist walks out the gates of Langholmen jail into another biting Stockholm winter. He has nothing to his name but a fiercely burning hope: that he can begin a new life with the lover he met in his cell. That he can leave behind his old existence of gutter brawls, bruised fists and broken bones. That he can finally go straight.
But the city has other ideas. Nazis are spreading their poison on the freezing streets, and one of Kvist’s oldest friends has been murdered. Before he can leave Stockholm’s underworld for good, he must track down the killer. As Kvist uncovers a trail of blood leading to the highest echelons of Swedish society, the former boxer finds himself in a fight to the death with his most dangerous opponent yet.
Down for the Count is a punchy Swedish thriller about an ex-boxer, Harry Kvist, who’s just out of prison after 18 months inside for assault. He’s still in a cell when the book opens, planning his future with his cell-mate lover, a man he calls Doughboy due him having landed a six month stretch for stealing a loaf of bread. Doughboy is set for release a week after Kvist who hopes they can have a life together.
Barely out of prison Kvist is engaged in his old pugilistic skills. This is noir. The cold, grimy setting is Stockholm in the mid-1930s. Kvist returns to a flat over an undertaker's. The yard is surrounded by a close-knit community, all struggling to get by. The undertaker is Lundin, who gives Kvist a job while he looks for work as a debt collector (one of his former roles).
Another of Kvist’s friends and neighbours, a woman called Beda, has died. Kvist last knew her as being terminally ill with cancer, and recalls that she asked him to look out for her son, Petrus. This bad news is added to when Kvist discovers that Beda was murdered, by her son!
Kvist can’t believe this version of events and Petrus, deaf and mute, has since been carted off to an asylum for the insane. Wanting the truth, Kvist investigates how Beda died and how Petrus came to become blamed. In doing so he enlists Beda’s estranged daughter for assistance after his doubts into Petrus’ guilt are confirmed. Now he has a case to crack, all before Doughboy gets out later in the week.
Kvist is as hard as they come but caring too. He wants to help Doughboy get back on his feet, looks after a dog, wants to find/help Petrus and fights to get justice for Beda. He also has a teenage daughter, Ida, who he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, which adds another layer of emotion.
There is violence in the air. Nazis are on the rise, and there’s the immediate threat from the likes of the gangster Rickardson, but the world of debt collecting has never been without conflict. What’s not expected is how high up the corruption and threat goes.
This is the second novel in Holmen’s Stockholm trilogy. In the style of the great US noir of the 30s, this is told with a first-person narrative, with the violence and observations sharply drawn, often with a humour. There’s also historical and societal commentary as the book, much like its protagonist, pulls no punches.
About Martin Holmén
Born in 1974. Teaches History and Swedish at an upper secondary school in Stockholm. Author of the Harry Kvist thrillers, described as gritty, historical, queer noir fiction with a unique Swedish flavour. Available, or soon to come, in Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.