Swedish security-force agent Ernst Grip is the kind of character whose cool barometer is permanently set to cucumber: a womanizing, whiskey-swigging cipher straight out of spy-novel central casting—or at least that’s how he reads when we meet him in The Swede’s opening pages, on his way to yet another international assignment. But the man and his mission are both messier and less predictable than the book’s airport-paperback setup suggests.
Armed with little more than a carry-on, a well-stamped passport, and a brusque summons from the U.S. Justice Department, Grip arrives in New York City in April 2008 to find that his contact, an unflappable CIA agent named Shauna Friedman, has no intention of filling him in on pesky details. Instead he is flown to a military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean—“a ribbon of sand and vegetation, made into an outpost for strangers. No one called it home”—and presented to a nameless, badly beaten detainee who may or may not be his fellow countryman. As the narrative jumps back and forth between Grip’s uneasy presence on the island and his covert past, it also simultaneously traces a ragtag band of survivors of the 2004 tsunami from a remote Thai beach to a warehouse in Kansas. (It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the dots between them duly connect, though you’ll learn a lot of interesting things about art theft, domestic terrorism, and black-ops intelligence before you get there.) Karjel’s writing sometimes falls back on the hardboiled tropes he works so hard to subvert—amoral baddies pull invisible strings just because they can, femmes are seldom not fatales—and a final twist feels telegraphed. Still, his English-language debut, which has already earned comparisons to Homeland and been optioned for U.S. television, is consistently smarter and more nuanced than most genre fiction, and his cynical take on geopolitics has the ring of real experience.
There’s a reason for that: Karjel is also a lieutenant colonel in the Swedish Air Force, with a résumé that includes directing Black Hawk rescue missions in Afghanistan and hunting pirates off the coast of Somalia. Clearly, he doesn’t need fiction to fall back on; The Swede is a compelling read, but its exploits must pale next to the tales he could tell in a memoir. B+
“What were they doing, the Americans? Were they planning to start a new war, or had they not yet ended the last one?”