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the limits of pain

13 april 2013

I was intrigued by K. Arne Blom's 1974 crime novel The Moment of Truth, and eventually got to read the next (or at least next-translated) in the series, The Limits of Pain. Again we are in Lund, again with a not-strongly differentiated cast of police detectives. And again we are confronted with the condition of 1970s Sweden, and the philosophical problems of the origins of suffering and cruelty.

As often happens in procedurals, Seved Olofsson and his men are posed several different mysteries at the same time. The first is existential, not criminological. A 90-something husband has killed his terminally ill wife, at her request. It's hard enough to live with the killing, which he announces to the police as soon as he's committed it. But it's even harder to live with the idea that society is obliged to try him for murder – even when the proverbial no jury on earth would convict him.

Meanwhile, somebody's been killing dogs and cats, brutally. And somebody's been harassing inspector Martin Holmberg and his family. And somebody else, in a nearby town, has disappeared. Not really mysteriously; the barely-known man was simply prone to take a long walk every night, and has stopped taking it, intriguing his neighbors. And a terrorist is on the loose.

Readers of Krimis expect these stories to converge, and they sort of do, but in offbeat and captivating ways. It's a skillfully-wrought story, keeping even readers who think they've seen it all off-balance. The Limits of Pain is short on gruesome violence (except, regrettably, to dogs and cats) and mild in terms of shoot-'em-up action (though Holmberg has a tense and wholly realistic encounter with an armed madman, full of mixed signals and very un-Hollywoody mayhem).

Holmberg, not least because of his given name, recalls Martin Beck: quite intentionally, I'd imagine, though of course Martin is a popular name in Lutheran countries. But Holmberg, like most of Blom's characters, is happily married. The suspects in The Limits of Pain (again, excepting the dog-killer) are characters who've known married happiness, and sometimes taken to crime when they've lost it (recalling, again, The Moment of Truth).

The characters are still not distinct enough for my liking. There's more than one Martin (again, realistically enough), and there's more than one Månsson (the idealistic detective from the earlier novel who by this one has lost most of his character notes). But perhaps that's Blom's point. We are all deeply alike, in our impulses, needs, even our generosities. Crime happens when something warps our security and makes us individuals.

Blom, K. Arne. The Limits of Pain. [Smärtgränsen, 1978.] Translated by Joan Tate. Godalming, Surrey: Ram, 1979.