With its unassuming title and Swedish origin, North American readers might be tempted to let Box 21 slide into the "maybe later" category of books. This would be a mistake for readers that have a serious interest in any of the following: crime thrillers, anthropology, social justice, women's rights, ethical conundrums, or, absent any of the above, fresh, potent, and innovative contemporary literature.
Like a kayaker or river rafter putting in on an unknown river, the reader of Box 21 will experience maximum excitement and tension if he or she dips their oar without much knowledge of the rocks, rapids, waterfalls, and vortexes that wait downstream. A skeletal outline of the plot: Set in contemporary Stockholm, Box 21 pits two detectives, one cynical and bitter, one idealistic and philosophical, against two plot strands that are only loosely intertwined: a death related to heroin addiction, and two deaths related to sexual slavery. In the unfolding of the plot, the reader is deeply immersed in the graphically portrayed worlds of drug addiction, and the world of kidnapping women from developing nations and inducting them into the sexual slavery of prostitution. The story is told in almost excruciatingly sharp focus, authors Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom disdain the use of the use of any literary airbrushing that might lessen the impact on the reader.
The gritty adherence to realism in this novel is not accidental. Borge Hellstrom is a recovering drug addict that has done jail time for his drug-related crimes. Currently working to rehabilitate young criminals and/or drug addicts, there is a soul-scalding immediacy to his descriptions of an addicted young man teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Anders Roslund developed the Swedish TV show Culture News. While some authors of fiction might introduce the topic of sexual slavery with overtones of salaciousness, sensationalism, or (shiver) even romance, Roslund approaches the topic with all the delicacy and subtlety of a hard swung baseball bat impacting on the body of the victim. The Roslund-Hellstrom team writes, I'm guessing, not simply to entertain, but to engage and to enrage the reader. Intentionally or not, they succeed. They have a message, and they want it heard at high volume and with clarity. We all love a book that is written well enough to make us laugh out loud, or to cry. At one point in the book, I seriously frightened my wife by leaping off the couch where I was reading and shouting "NO, God damn it!" It was the first time I've ever reacted to a book that way, and after a slightly heated reaction by my wife, a promised last time.
A centerpiece of the book, done masterfully by Roslund/Hellstrom, is ethical dilemma. No spoilers here, just a promise: Box 21 will twist your conscience into pretzels and Mobius strips. It will indirectly raise the question of whether it is appropriate to have men (as a gender) involved in the prosecution of sex crimes.
Three yellow flags: First, Jane Jakeman, in reviewing a previous Roslund/Hellstrom collaboration called The Beast, says "The reader will need a strong stomach". Heed her words. Second, either through the effects of translation, or cultural differences between Sweden and the U.S, or maybe both, the cadence of the novel takes a bit of adaptation. The sensation for me was similar to the first ten minutes of a Shakespeare play or a movie with subtitles: mild irritation, which then rapidly becomes unnoticeable. Finally, the stylistic elements of Box 21 are rough-edged, and often raw. Guernica, Picasso's painting commissioned to show the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, had similar elements. Think Stockholm instead of the Spanish town of Guernica, and sexual slavery and drug-related crime instead of civil war: the blunt and graphic images of both Guernica and Box 21 are deeply effective at achieving their goals. And both are truly art.