Many people like crime thrillers for just as many reasons, but here are two big ones: chase scenes and kingpins. Chase scenes are popular for the erudite argument that they usually add up to at least the sum of their parts–parts like "bullets" and "large pieces of fast-moving machinery"–that have a well-established kinetic appeal. Kingpins are popular for the more human reason that they mirror some distorted version of ourselves. Everyone wonders what they could accomplish if they let their predatory side roam free, the bold Heisenberg to our shy Walter White.
Alexander Söderberg’s debut thriller The Andalucían Friend has car chases, of course. But it's the study of innocent Sophie Brinkmann and her association with the criminal elite that infuses the story with tension and propels it forward.
“When Sophie is drawn into this world, she can’t tell who or what is right or wrong,” Soderberg tells me via email from Sweden. “That is the emotional motor, the dramatic dilemma of the story.”
Sophie is a nurse working at a hospital in Sweden. Her compassion and easy bedside manner earn her the affection of every patient she cares for until the attention of charismatic newcomer Hector Guzman threatens to upend her life. His acquaintance plunges her into a feud between rival syndicates controlled by himself and Ralph Hanke–a ruthless German businessman–and draws the terror of a police unit acting outside and above the law. The novel concludes the opening salvo of a planned trilogy with Sophie as entrenched as ever in a world she never wanted part of but has reluctantly come to acknowledge as her own.
Hector and Hanke are big forces in the reality of the book but less powerful players dramatically. The two fight and plot against each other relentlessly, but can ultimately be counted on to carry out their parts as expected. The biggest and most unexpected transformations undergone by any of the characters all occur in one place: the police department.
The police approach Sophie out of an avowed concern for her involvement in Hector's dealings, but quickly reveal themselves to be the deadlier threat. Their questionable tactics snowball quickly and unexpectedly into outright brutality as what seems like a fierce desire for justice is unmasked for what it really is: greed and the simple desire to save face. The power of Söderberg’s depiction isn't that he just throws a bunch of corrupt cops into some shoot 'em up mix of international crime and watches the sparks ignite; it's that he disguises their motivations behind the blindness and naiveté of the reader's proxy, Sophie. Söderberg uses the idea of public trust to set up expectations he can then violate fantastically, to great dramatic effect. In the faithless world Söderberg has created, no one is above doing anything to anyone.
Söderberg’s wheelhouse is television. The Andalucian Friend started out as a teleplay and expanded to accommodate the author's burgeoning universe. Already optioned for film, the story may yet return to the screen, albeit this time in extended form. When asked about the trilogy's future direction, the author harkens back to his roots (and the roots of all drama):
"When you write a TV or film script you stick to a three-act structure,” he writes. Act one, as we’ve all been taught, is the setup, act two the action, and act three is the resolution. “I look at this trilogy like that in a way, with some obvious tweaks.
"So book two will be…the action."
Joe Marshall is a freelance writer and author of the book I Haven't Actually Written a Book: 100 Tips for Lying in Website Promos. The product of a good public education, he has trouble with the finer sort of encyclopedia.