In a Stockholm apartment, a man is carefully heating tulips in the oven, just enough to open the flowers to hide amphetamines inside before he closes them back up by placing them in the fridge. Is he a notorious bad guy about to smuggle drugs into a high-security prison? Or a secret good guy who is going to blow the Polish mafia wide open just as it tries to take over the drug trade in Sweden's jails?
Welcome to the fictional world of Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, a bestselling Swedish crime-writing duo with the most unlikely background: They met through a mutual interest in the rehabilitation of ex-cons. In the late 1990s, Roslund was a broadcast journalist investigating crime stories who, under a Swedish system of citizen social work, had spent some time mentoring prisoners.
"I was always missing a link, the link between prison and real life," Roslund said. "No matter how hard I worked with those guys, when they got out they committed the same stupid crime and got locked up in the same cell."
When Roslund heard about a new organization of ex-cons and former drug addicts dedicated to helping released prisoners go straight, he was determined to film a documentary about the group known as KRIS. (The Swedish acronym translates as Criminals Return to Society.)
"They were very suspicious … but I was lucky because it was Borge who answered the phone," Roslund said. Hellstrom, who had served two brief sentences for assault in his youth and spent a total of a year in jail before becoming an administrator in the non-profit sector, was one of the founders of KRIS.
After a year working on the documentary together, the two did not want to stop their conversation about the consequences of violence.
"We started building stories," Roslund recalls. "We said, we know so much about this, let's write about it."
In 2004, they published Odjuret, translated into English as The Beast. Their latest book, just published in English as Three Seconds, is their fifth, and they are currently working on a sixth.
The books have a recurring character, the embittered police superintendent and grief-stricken widower Ewert Grens, but he is never the central figure. In Three Seconds, it is Piet Hoffman, the Polish mafia's man in Stockholm, busy trying to get himself arrested so he can take over what the Poles euphemistically call the "closed market" for drugs - the addicts inside prisons. Unbeknownst to Grens, who is investigating a murder Hoffman witnessed, Hoffman is also "Paula," a high-placed police informer who is trying to bust the Polish gang open, and who reports to the slippery Erik Wilson, a police superintendent who bends the law to his own ends.
Roslund and Hellstrom, who have long since quit their original jobs to write fiction full time, won't reveal their working methods or how they share writing responsibilities: "If one stands in front of the other and says I am the one, it wouldn't work," Hellstrom said. "We are two big egos." Three Seconds, however, is a seamless thriller with a single sensibility in which the victim and the perpetrator can be hard to distinguish from each other.
In Sweden Roslund and Hellstrom's first book appeared a year before Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but North American observers will inevitably see Three Seconds, which will be adapted for the screen by Twentieth Century Fox, as the next wave of Swedish crime fiction. Roslund says it is no coincidence that Sweden is currently producing good crime writing: He attributes it to a loss of innocence that began with the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986 and continues through to the terrorist attack that killed a suicide bomber who blew himself up in a Stockholm street last December.
"Crime is no longer limited by borders; it is so universal," Roslund said, contrasting that with images of Sweden, which remained neutral during the Second World War, as a peaceful haven where politicians don't need bodyguards and nobody locks their doors. "The more naive you are, the more aware you have to be."
Roslund and Hellstrom don't like to preach but they do see their books as part of a social dialogue about crime and how to avoid it. Hellstrom thinks the American model, with an armed citizenry barricading itself into gated communities, is not the solution.
"If you want to read our books for entertainment, that's okay. No problem," Hellstrom said. "But if you want to have some knowledge about problems you maybe don't know exist, you can read them that way also. They say we have some kind of social goal but we never tell the reader what to think. … It's for the reader to make the decision: Is this good or not?"
In a world in which smuggling drugs inside tulips may prove some kind of heroism, the answer is not always what it seems.