Varg in Love, page 1
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Edinburgh EH9 1QS
Copyright © Alexander McCall Smith, 2013
ISBN 978 1 85697 274 4
eBook ISBN 978 0 85790 625 0
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form, or by any means electronic, mechanical or photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the express written permission of the publisher.
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Varg in Love
ULF VARG, A SWEDISH DETECTIVE, whose name translated means Wolf Wolf – Ulf being Danish for wolf, and Varg being Swedish for the same thing – was not a man for romance. He had been married before, but this marriage had come to an amicable end when his wife decided that she wanted to live in Australia – alone. Rather to his surprise, he discovered that being single suited him, although admittedly there were moments when he felt lonely. Loneliness in Scandinavia can somehow seem – to those, elsewhere, who read about it – more intense than in other parts of the world. Perhaps it is the emptiness of the landscape; perhaps it is something to do with cultural expectations. Whatever it is, being a lonely Swedish detective can be fairly bleak; even if Scandinavian noir fiction is all the rage and has numerous followers abroad, these detectives can still be lonely at home, looking out over a frozen landscape or contemplating the silence of a long drawn-out northern night.
ULF HAD A SOCIAL LIFE, of course. From time to time he saw his brother, Bjorn, and he had a cousin in Stockholm with whom he occasionally went on aimless, badly-planned fishing trips. They rarely caught any fish, of course, a fact that his cousin jokingly put down to his “bad fishing karma”. Ulf, however, thought that there might be some truth in that explanation.
BJORN VARG WAS THE LEADER of a minor political party, the Moderate Extremists. This party had once been a member of an unstable political coalition that enjoyed power for seventeen days before collapsing under a vote of no-confidence. Bjorn referred to that period proudly as “my days in government”. He thought that he could have changed things for the better if he had been given a few more days to do the job; as it was, his coalition achieved nothing at all – not one piece of legislation, although it did make four minor regulations that were subsequently repealed by the incoming government.
ULF WAS AN ATTRACTIVE MAN – fairly tall, and with prominent cheekbones, he was described by many as one of the best-looking detectives in Sweden. He dressed casually, but smartly.
“You could wear anything, Ulf,” one of the women in the office once remarked. “You could wear anything and make it look good.”
Ulf shrugged off the compliment. “I don’t bother much about clothes or appearances,” he said. “What’s the point if, like me, you have nobody to say goodbye to you when you leave the flat in the morning and nobody to greet you when you come home at night.”
Hearing this, the women in the office looked thoughtful. “What a complete waste,” said one. “Ulf would make a wonderful husband for somebody.”
This remark met with complete agreement. It was felt, though, that any efforts at match-making would not be appreciated by Ulf. “Somebody once invited him to dinner and put him between two single women,” said his secretary. “He called me up from the hostess’s bathroom and asked me to phone him, saying that he was needed for an investigation. I didn’t like doing it, but I did.”
“How sad,” mused one of the women. “How sad it is that men won’t do what women want them to do.”
IT WAS COMING UP TO VALENTINE’S DAY. Ulf noticed that the shop windows were filled with boxes of chocolate wrapped in red, with expensive gifts for men to give women and for women to give men; with pictures of couples embracing and drinking champagne together; with sundry scenes of romance and affection. The champagne in these images was being quaffed from red-tinted glasses. Ulf winced; he did not approve of such sentimentalism – springing, as it did from purely commercial motives. He was relieved that he did not have to buy any Valentine gifts or send any cards. If the rest of the population chose to act like love-struck teenagers, then that was their look-out. He would have no part of it.
BUT ON VALENTINE’S DAY HE RECEIVED a card himself. It was there on his desk with the rest of his mail for that day, clearly addressed to Inspector Ulf Varg, Malmo CID, Malmo. He opened the envelope and saw the card within. The picture on the front was of snowy landscape somewhere in the north of Sweden. Crossing this scene was a railway line, on which a train was making its way somewhere. Somebody had drawn in the snow a picture of two hearts entwined. On opening the card, he read the message written in red ink: Be my Valentine? Make me howl? Woooo!
Ulf sat quite still. He closed the card, and then re-opened it. He re-read the message. Make me howl was clearly a reference to his name and the association it had with wolves. And the woooo was presumably the sound of a wolf howling.
He tucked the card into a drawer and looked furtively about the large open-plan office in which he worked. There were six or seven other people in the room, all at their desks, all apparently engrossed in some task. None of those present seemed to have noticed their boss opening his mail.
Ulf picked up the phone and made a telephone call.
THE CALL THAT ULF MADE WAS to an old friend from school days. This friend was now a librarian in the National Library in Stockholm, where he was in charge of juvenile literature and ephemera. A few years earlier he had written a well-received history of the comic book in Sweden entitled Swedish Life in Pictures; a History of the Portrayal of Swedish Reality in Comic Books in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century. Ulf had received a complimentary copy of this book, but had never read it. Now he phoned his old friend and said to him: “Tell me, Lars, what noise does a wolf make in a Swedish comic strip?”
The librarian was surprised by the question. It was no stranger, though, than the many unusual queries that the National Library received each day, and it was one to which he had a ready answer.
“Swedish wolves go woooer,” he said. “In Denmark, they are portrayed as going woooo. It’s an interesting difference.”
Ulf was intrigued to hear this. “So what you’re suggesting, Lars,” he said, “is that somebody who had been brought up in Denmark might think that a wolf goes woooo rather than woooer? Is that what you’re suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” said the librarian. “But if you asked me whether that was possible, I would have to say yes, it is.” He paused. “It’s the same thing, I suppose, as asking a Frenchman what sound a bullet makes in a French comic book.”
“And what sound is that?” asked Ulf.
“Pan, pan,” replied the librarian. “Whereas in the Anglo- Saxon world they go bang, bang, as is well known.”
They prolonged their conversation with a question from Varg as to how Lars’ bees were doing. Lars was a keen apiarist and had sent Ulf a jar of his honey earlier that year. Ulf had pronounced it excellent.
Finally, Lars asked: “Why do you want to know this, Ulf? Is it to do with one of your investigations?”
“In a sense it is,” said Ulf.
AT COFFEE TIME THAT MORNING Ulf called the members of his department together. There were four of them: two men and two women. The men were called Anders and Edvard, and the women were called Cristina and Blix.
“Everybody busy at the moment?” he asked, as they seated themselves on the chairs he had placed before his desk.
“All the criminals are in hibernation, perhaps,” said Blix. “It’s too cold to go out housebreaking, I imagine. And as for murder, that requires passion, doesn’t it, and if you’re shivering through a Swedish winter you’re hardly going to have much of that. No, a bad time for the CID, if you ask me.”
Ulf nodded. “It’s bad for morale,” he said. “Sitting around with nothing to do must be pretty discouraging.”
“You can say that again,” said Anders. “I hate having nothing to do.”
Ulf sat back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. They knew this position. This is what he did when he was about to come up with something. They sat forward in their chairs, eager to hear his proposal.
“I have received a card,” said Ulf. “It arrived today.”
They looked at him with interest. None had observed that it was Valentine’s Day, it seemed.
“What day is it today? Ulf asked.
“February the fourteenth,” said Anders.
“Exactly,” said Ulf.
They looked at each other. Ulf could be opaque, and they thought this might be an instance of his opacity. It was something to do, they thought, with the way his mind worked. He created opacity and then deliberately, and in a most logical fashion, stripped aside the veils of obfuscation to reveal the truth within. It was the Varg method, people said – detection through inductive deduction.
Then Edvard remembered. “It’s Valentine’s Day! My goodness, I forgot, and my wife will be sitting there waiting for a card to arrive.”
“Buy her roses,” said Cristina. “Take the roses home. That’ll forestall any criticism.”
Edvard nodded. “That’s exactly what I’ll do.”
They were silent. Ulf was about to say something.
“I RECEIVED A CARD THIS MORNING,” said Ulf. “A Valentine card.”
Edvard smiled. “Good for you, boss. Somebody fancies you.”
Ulf reached into the drawer and extracted the card. “As you will see,” he said, passing it to Anders, “it’s anonymous.”
“They always are,” said Edvard.
“Yes,” said Cristina. “That’s the whole point.”
“Perhaps,” said Ulf. “But don’t you think that sending an anonymous communication – of any nature – to a detective is simply going to be regarded as a challenge? What detective worth his salt is not going to want to find out who sent the card?”
Anders shrugged. “If he’s got nothing better to do, I suppose.”
Ulf raised a finger. “Exactly. And do we have a great deal to do at the moment?”
Anders grinned. “You want us to find out who sent it? Is that what you want?”
Ulf leaned forward. “I propose that we regard this as a training exercise. That will make it a legitimate use of departmental time. We shall see whether we have the skill to find out who sent this card.”
For a moment nobody said anything. Then Anders spoke. “Good idea, boss. Let’s get started. What’s the postmark?”
Ulf passed him the envelope. “Malmo Central Sorting Office,” read Anders. “So the sender lives in Malmo.”
“Good thinking,” said Ulf. “That narrows it down to one of approximately three hundred thousand people.” He paused. Then he continued, “All right everybody, set to work.”
They rose to their feet. As they started to leave, Ulf said, “Cristina, stay behind please.”
CRISTINA SAT DOWN. SHE WAS A WOMAN in her late twenties, a graduate of the University of Stockholm in philosophy and economics. She had worked for a short time in the Ministry of Justice before she had decided that active police work was more to her taste. She had done well, and after a few years of regular duty was promoted to the Criminal Investigation Department in Malmo. She was a popular member of the department, liked and respected by her colleagues.
“Let’s look at this situation together,” said Ulf. “What do we already know?”
Cristina shrugged. “We have a card. There must be thousands of these sold in Malmo in the first couple of weeks in February. That’s all we know.”
“I think we know a bit more, Cristina,” said Ulf.
She looked at him enquiringly.
“Well,” Ulf went on. “We know that this card has been sent to me.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And we also know that the person who sent me this card must know me – otherwise it wouldn’t have been sent.”
Cristina agreed that this was so.
“Which means,” Ulf continued, “that it is a person who must see me reasonably frequently.”
Cristina nodded. ‘That’s true.”
Ulf was silent. He was looking out of the window. In the street outside, the morning sun was shining off the wet surface of the pavement. The winter sky was clear, but cold and empty – a dome of light blue above the rooftops of the city.
“What else do you think we know about the sender?” asked Ulf.
Cristina smiled. “Nothing,” she said. “At least, as far as I can see.”
“Look at the picture,” said Ulf, handing her the card.
“Snow,” she said. “And a train.”
She gave the card back to Ulf.
“People choose cards for particular reasons,” said Ulf. “Their choice of picture is subliminally affected by many things – their aesthetic sense, their mood, their personal background. Pictures have so many associations, you see.”
“Yes,” she said. “I understand that.”
“So,” said Ulf, “the person who bought this card must like trains. Trains must mean something to her.”
Cristina was hesitant. “Possibly,” she began. “But …”
Ulf raised a hand to stop her. “I would say that this person used to live somewhere remote – in a town that was quite isolated. The train would represent the means of escape from this remote existence. The train would be symbolic of the journey to the big city, the bright lights.”
Cristina said nothing.
“And then,” Ulf continued, “we have a vital clue in the wording of the message. The person who sent the card has spelled the wolf sound in the Danish, rather than the Swedish, manner.” He paused. “That means that she spent part of her childhood in Denmark.”
He looked at Cristina. She was watching him warily.
Ulf smiled. “So, just out of interest, let me ask you this: did you live in a remote place when you were young?”
She nodded. “I did, as it happens.”
“As it happens,” repeated Ulf. “And was there a railway station in this place?”
Again she nodded.
Ulf tapped the table with a finger. “And I think you once told me – as I recall – that you spent four years in Denmark before you went to university in Stockholm. Is that correct?”
Cristina was smiling. “You could say so,” she said.
Ulf sat back in his chair.
“Thank you,” he said.
In the silence that followed, he picked up the card and examined it again.
“You have very good taste,” he said quietly. And then he said: “Are you free for dinner this evening? I know a very good place. It does northern cuisine. It’s called the Wolf’s Lair, as I recall.”
Cristina smiled again. “I’ve read reviews of it,” she said. “People say it’s very good.”
“In that case,” said Ulf. “Seven o’clock?”
She inclined her head in silent assent.
“Receiving your card made me very happy,” said Ulf, his voice lowered. “Thank you for bringing some romance back into a life from which, I regret to say, it has been somewhat excluded in recent years.”
“You’ve been busy,” said Cristina. “It’s understandable. All that noir.”
“We should never be too busy for romance,” said Ulf. “N
Alexander McCall Smith, Varg in Love
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