It’s 1793. Sweden is a major military power in the region and has recently been at war with Denmark, Norway and Russia. Internally the king has been assassinated. Revolution is breaking out in France and there are fears it will spread throughout Europe. Life, it is fair to say, is not a bundle of laughs.
When the limbless corpse of a young man is pulled from the sewerage that pools in the rivers that Stockholm is built on, Mickel Cardell, a drunken watchman, ends up working with the lawyer, Cecil Winge, to find out who is responsible for the crime.
You could reasonably say that this is a detective story. In Winge it has a detective and, eventually, the crime is solved, but this is a detective story like no other I have ever read. Winge’s investigations take the reader into the underbelly of late 18th-century Stockholm with a degree of detail that means I would not encourage you to read the book too soon after a full meal. Sexual sadism, common or garden sadism, brutality, starvation, fraud, robbery, rape – these are the everyday facts of life and Niklas Natt och Dag spares us no details. Cardell and Winge are both, in their own ways, trying to be good people, but they admit that their city is, in truth, beyond redemption.
The story should be profoundly depressing, but somehow it is not. Cardell and Winge are both fascinating characters. Cardell has lost an arm fighting the Russians and is constantly haunted by the guilt of surviving a battle that saw his closest friend die. Winge is dying of consumption. Both seek some sort of redemption by solving this crime, the more so as they come closer to understanding the prolonged horror of the victim’s death.
Winge is a rationalist, convinced that some sort of order can be imposed on the world by logic. Cardell is more emotional. Neither alone has any hope of success, but together they make progress.
The characters they meet on the way are as crucial to the success of the novel as is the plot. There is the young would-be surgeon, who loses his money in a gambling fraud and is trapped into becoming complicit in the long slow death of the victim. There is the young woman who turns away a man’s advances and, in revenge, is denounced as a prostitute. It is the meeting of these two which provides one of the few genuine opportunities for redemption in the book. (It’s a measure of the general misery that the act of redemption involves suicide, but then we can’t have everything.) And there is the evil villain – a man so comprehensively repellent that only a detailed back story including his even more repulsive father makes him at all credible. Sadly the quality of the writing means that he is all too credible indeed.
Yet, against a background of almost unremitting bleakness, The Wolf and the Watchman allows moments of light, the more intense for the darkness that they illuminate. Cardell finds the opportunity to save one innocent life, Winge discovers that sometimes rationality has to give way to the imperative to do the right thing. One of the guilty is punished, which is, as I’m sure Winge would argue, is better than nothing. One, at least, of the innocent is saved (as are several of the not-quite-as-guilty – but it’s the 18th century, what did you expect?)
Stockholm remains a mix of great beauty and incredible squalor. The corruption that taints every layer of society is about to be challenged as Europe trembles on the brink of Revolution and War (though an interlude in Paris makes us realise that one set of vices will simply be driven out by another). Winge, waking covered in blood will be dead in days, if not hours. Cardell, by contrast, may have found redemption in this life.
This is not a cheerful book, but it is a very, very good one. I recommend it wholeheartedly.