Translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Released: 2nd February 2012
When Jens Lapidus’ debut novel, Easy Money, landed on my desk, it came bearing a quote that is almost inevitable these days on the English translations of Swedish novels – the quote that compares this writer to Stieg Larsson. What caught my eye about this quote, though, is the fact that it came from none other than the Demon dog of American crime fiction, and one of my personal favourites, James Ellroy.
Easy Money – originally published in Sweden in 2006 – takes an in-depth look at Stockholm’s underworld through the eyes of three men for whom that shady empire is home. Jorge is Chilean, and is doing time for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. When Jorge pulls off the impossible – hops over the twenty-three-foot wall that surrounds Österåker prison – he disappears into a world where his knowledge of the cocaine business can make him king. He just has to stay free, and stay alive, for long enough to put that knowledge to good use.
JW is a wannabe – a country boy living it large in the big city, hiding his background in order to fit in with the rich set who sleep all day and party all night in Stockholm’s most fashionable area. He drives a gypsy cab on the nights he isnt partying to afford the parties and soon graduates to dealing cocaine when his boss sees potential in him. JW has ulterior motives for being in the city – several years earlier, his older sister followed the same course and disappeared without a trace. JW hopes to achieve what the police could not, and find what happened to her.
Mrado is a member of the Yugo Mafia. He’s a big man who lives on a diet of protein bars and steroids. He’s a racketeer, running a large chunk of the city’s coat-check business. Mrado, a Serbian who fought at Srebrenica, fears no man, but he has a weak spot – a daughter that he sees one day every other week, and even that under protest by his ex-wife. As the lives of these three men converge, moving towards the largest cocaine shipment Stockholm has ever seen, violence erupts, and they find that they may have more in common with each other than it would seem at first glance.
Lapidus presents us with a realistic vision of what Stockholm’s underworld might look like – the various factions battling for a piece of this or that business in a city barely big enough to hold them all. He does this through alternating chapters told from the point of view of each of the three protagonists. It’s a complex world, and the interrelationships between these men – never fully revealed to them, but revealed piecemeal to the reader – is equally complex, and Lapidus uses small, exciting chunks to build a story that is, for the reader at least, much more than the sum of its parts. The comparisons with Larsson are undeniable and, in my opinion, well-founded: this is a side of Sweden that most Swedes probably don’t know exists, a side that the Swedish tourist authorities would much rather wasn’t advertised; it portrays Stockholm as a dark and violent city peopled by rich brats, and gangsters and wannabes. Like the journalist Larsson, Lapidus is well-placed to provide a realistic look at this world– he’s a criminal defence lawyer who, according to his bio, represents some of the most notorious criminals in Sweden.
The novel reads like a tribute to Ellroy. The subject bears a close resemblance to some of the myriad plots that drive his Underworld USA trilogy, but most striking is Lapidus’ telegraphic, rhythmic writing style. The short, sharp prose that defines most of Ellroy’s work is beautifully reproduced here, despite the translation from Swedish to English.
Jorge knew how it was: Friends on the inside are not like friends on the outside. Other rules apply. Power hierarchies are clearer. Time inside counts. Number of times inside counts. Smokes count; roaches count more. Favors grant relationships. Your crime counts: rapists and pedophiles worth zero. Junkies and alkies way down. Assault and theft higher. Armed robbery and drug kingpins on top. Most of all: Your membership counts. Rolando, a friend according to the rules on the outside. According to the principles of the slammer: Playa batted in the major leagues, Jorge in the minor.
It’s impressive to read, and respect to both author and translator for pulling it off. The fashion-obsessed JW, his chapters littered with brand names, and club names, comes across as a cut-price Patrick Bateman: all of the ego, and none of the psychopathic tendencies. It’s difficult to know, though, if this mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis’ most enduring creation is deliberate or not.
Lapidus infuses the novel with a deep sense of place, and the story is littered with street names and place names. There’s an implicit trust that the author won’t mess around too much with the city’s geography, but it serves to ground the action in real places that can be found on a map, and to make the reader feel like they know at least a small part of the city. If you’re like me, it also serves as a tourist guide and makes the reader long to (re)visit.
Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.