The Father figures the dynamics of excessive force

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With the abundance of sleuths who have become household names, from Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole, crime fiction can often seem synonymous with serialized detective stories. Yet the genre occasionally produces the rare narrative that focuses instead on the criminal character. Rather than relegating these figures to the role of conventional antagonists, Anton Svensson’s The Father, Made in Sweden: Part I (2016) portrays the lives of four bank robbers with empathy and intensity as it delves into the structures of familial alliance, social inclusion, and economic disparity that compel their criminality.

The first of a two-novel series, The Father is based on the true story of three brothers who executed a string of bank heists in Sweden during the 1990s. In the fictionalized account, three brothers — Leo, Felix, and Vincent Dûvnjac — and their childhood friend Jasper first plunder an army artillery before staging robberies that become increasingly ambitious in scope, leading the media to dub them the “Military League.”

Co-authored under the pseudonym of Anton Svensson, The Father achieves its intimate perspective from Stefan Thunberg, the fourth brother, and its naturalistic style from Anders Roslund, the investigative reporter who covered the story. This unique combination results in multiple points of view that portray both an incisive interiority, when voicing the thoughts of the Dûvnjac family members, and a distanced objectivity, when City Police detective analyzes the Military League’s actions.

The skillfully crafted narrative alternates between past and present timelines in order to detail the childhood events that led to the brothers’ crime spree, as various permutations of violence permeate the lives of the Dûvnjacs. Ivan, the titular father, uses force as a form of dominance and discipline within his household, repeatedly beating his wife into submission while teaching his sons that family is an unbreakable bond, as he trains his oldest son, Leo, how to box in self-defense. The prologue exemplifies this paradox of violence, documenting the singular encounter that results in the dissolution of the brothers’ bond with their abusive father, which consequently strengthens their ties to one another. Their recollection of this moment, however, is subjective, as each brother insists that he is responsible for opening the front door for their estranged father, allowing him access to attack their mother and forcing them to finally take a stand against his brutality. In turn, each brother’s interpretation of this incident reveals a particular psychological motivation for his criminal activity.

With its emphasis on family dynamics, The Father is a crime novel in the vein of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. One can’t ignore the similar patrilineal titles, but the two works also share a psychological exploration of criminality and kinship. Unlike The Godfather, however, in which the patriarch is a symbol of stalwart leadership and unquestionably power that passes from one generation to another, The Father is more concerned with the fallibility of such a conception. Rather than representing trust and loyalty as clear-cut parameters dictating that no one goes against the family’s interests. Instead, trust within the Dûvnjac clan vacillates between nurturing values of filial and fraternal obedience and disillusioning one of these ideals, illustrating how the ties that bind can eventually create a noose around one’s neck.

The Father, Made in Sweden: Part I (Quercus Books) available 5 April 2016.

Aged Ambler shows decline in The Care of Time

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What I find remarkable about Eric Ambler’s writing is his ability to fuse the intrigue of a thriller with the conviction of a political manifesto. In his final spy novel, The Care of Time (originally published in 1981; now reissued digitally by Ipso Books) he does so, however, with mixed results.

Editor Bob Halliday’s new contract begins with a bang when he receives a bomb threat followed by an actual, albeit already defused, bomb from Karliss Zander, a known terrorist middleman seeking Halliday’s assistance. With this bluff of violence, Zander lures Halliday to Italy under the pretense of ghostwriting a book that will be part memoir of 19th-century anarchist Sergey Nechayev (the inspiration for Dostoyevski’s The Possessed) and part expose of government corruption that benefits from covertly backing terrorist organizations. Zander’s true intention, however, is to use Halliday as a pawn in negotiations between NATO, the CIA, and an Arab prince known only as “the Ruler, who will allow NATO to build a military base in the Persian Gulf in exchange for permission to found a health clinic in Austria. Through this mediation, a second cover story evolves in which Halliday, Zander, and his associates pose as a television crew to interview the Ruler about the plans for said clinic in an attempt to reveal his true motivations for seeking refuge in Austria.

The Care of Time has all the hallmarks of an Ambler thriller — a protagonist trapped by his situation, fantastic journeys of flight and pursuit, and a narrative layered with falsehoods — yet the pacing of the novel’s second half suffers from lengthy and sometimes convoluted dialogue as information passes among parties and overly detailed exposition of the television set-up storyline. Where Ambler excels is in the first 100 pages in which he uses Zander’s bomb threat to assess the history of terrorist philosophy. In conversation with previous espionage works, Ambler recalls the first wave of anarchism featured in Conrad’s The Secret Agent before denouncing the bureaucratic back-room deals that fuel and finance the second wave of terrorism. Had Ambler continued this thread, The Care of Time would be on par with his earlier works that reinvigorated the espionage genre. Instead, the novel feels like the embodiment of Zander himself, a worn, world-weary intelligence agent for whom the spy game has gone on too long. The novel may not appeal to fans of contemporary fast-paced techno thrillers, but those interested in the more cerebral strain of classic spy fiction will appreciate Ambler’s overview of the transitory end of the Cold War and the onset of the new age of terror.