Almost unbelievably, one of the world’s most prolific living authors has published not just another new novel, “The Department of Sensitive Crimes,” but the first of another new series of novels.
Alexander McCall Smith is the beloved Scottish author of the wildly popular “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books about the wonderful Botswanan private detective Precious Ramotswe. He is also the author of the “Isabel Dalhousie” and the “44 Scotland Street” novels, both set in his native Edinburgh, as well as the “Portuguese Irregular Verbs” series and several single free-standing novels and stories.
This latest book, touted as the first in a new series, the “Detective Varg Novels,” is set in Malmö, Sweden, in the Department of Sensitive Crimes of the Malmö police. Its staff of four includes Detective Ulf Varg, his colleagues, Anna Bengtsdotter and Carl Holgersson, and clerical assistant Erik Nykvist. This group of eccentric cops, ensconced in its own office, is not your typical group of hard-boiled police detectives but rather more like a group of sensitive philosophers.
The Malmö police refers cases to the Sensitive Crimes Department if they “require complicated investigation.” This apparently often means having some quirky aspect that the regular cops have no idea how to handle.
For example, the first case we hear about involves a man stabbed in the back of the knee. No one can figure out how or why anyone would do that. When the actual culprit is unmasked, the case is processed and resolved primarily through Varg’s sensitive handling of the unusual perpetrator. Another case involves a missing person, a young woman’s boyfriend, who turns out to be a fabrication of her imagination. How does one pursue looking for someone who is imaginary, especially when a real person who might be missing complicates the case? A third case is a tricky one given to Varg in confidence by the police commissioner. His cousin and her husband own a hotel that may be visited by werewolves who are scaring customers away.
As in the author’s other books, there is lots of humor in the puzzling situations our detectives find themselves in. When the young woman with the imaginary boyfriend talks to the police, she finds that one lie begets another and another, with the whole situation soon spiraling out of her control. When investigating the werewolf case, Varg and his assistant find themselves in very awkward situations, including very New Age-y spa employees and suddenly finding themselves on a nude beach.
Whereas the crimes may not be that sensitive, the handling of them by Detective Varg and his colleagues certainly is. For example, when dealing with a suspect with dwarfism, they agonize for a while as to what term to use to refer to him, and they recognize that prejudiced behavior toward him has affected his actions. This becomes a key factor in the resolution of the case. If you don’t like characters like Isabel Dalhousie who overthink, you may not go for this.
As in other McCall Smith series, the place is almost a character in itself. Like Gaborone, Botswana, in the “Number 1 Ladies Detective” series and Edinburgh, Scotland, in the “44 Scotland Street” and “Isabel Dalhousie” series, the southern Swedish city of Malmö plays an important role here. Although I have never visited Sweden, I feel as though I learned something about its culture from this book.
In inimitable McCall Smith style, these are not murder mysteries but rather a series of lesser crimes, on the order of those encountered by Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie in his other series. This current book deals with three largely unrelated cases. Through the office’s sensitive handling of them, we also learn a lot about the detectives themselves, especially Ulf Varg and Anna Bengtsdotter.
This book will no doubt delight fans of McCall Smith’s other novels, and we will eagerly await further iterations of this series. We want to learn more of Detective Ulf Varg and his work.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.