When you’re dead drunk, the last thing you want to deal with is a dead man. Yet duty calls for Swedish night watchman Mickel Cardell, who laboriously hauls his war-wounded body off to retrieve a drowned carcass. But the cause of death is no ordinary drowning: The corpse’s eyes have been gouged out, his teeth removed and his limbs severed. Accordingly, Cardell finds himself paired with special investigator Cecil Winge, a man so wracked with consumption and close to death that he has earned the nickname “Ghost of the Indebetou.” This unlikely couple is tasked with solving the unidentified man’s murder, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to do so before the coffin lid slides over Winge himself.
But that’s just one obstacle they’ll have to overcome. The year is 1793, just one removed from the regicide of Swedish King Gustav III, mere months after French King Louis XVI had a date with a guillotine, soon to be followed by his queen consort Marie Antoinette. Swedish adventurism has left the national treasury in shambles, and the stark divide between the ruling classes and the peasantry has left the masses in a state of agitated discontent.
The sense of a ticking clock pervades Niklas Natt och Dag’s swift-paced, cinematic first novel, which was named Best Debut by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers last year. Though they seem to be the oddest of couples—one a man of action, the other a man of deliberation—Cardell and Winge prove to be an effective team as they crisscross political, cultural and economic strata to establish the dead man’s identity, and ultimately try to effect some rough form of justice.
In some ways, The Wolf and the Watchman calls to mind another auspicious debut murder mystery set in an unfamiliar place and time: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s been nearly 40 years since that foreign-language historical thriller captured the world’s imagination, thoroughly engrossing readers and propelling its author into international stardom. So we’re about due, and Natt och Dag is certainly a worthy candidate.