The Wolf and the Watchman

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

(There's no translator listed, strangely, but this was originally written in Swedish.) A murder mystery set in 1790s Stockholm. Cardell, a watchman in name only since he’s more interested in getting drunk and escaping his memories of being a soldier, is called in when street kids find a human body dumped in a nearby lake. The body is a torso only: limbless, toothless, eyeless, and, of course, nameless, and yet very recent. Cardell teams up with Winge, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, devoted to rationality and tiny details, who’s also busy dying of consumption. Together they a) figure out how to identify the body, and b) trace the killer.

A perfectly fine premise. And yet THIS BOOK IS SO TERRIBLE. So terrible that I don’t even know where to begin listing all of my problems with it!

Okay. Let’s start here: The Wolf and the Watchman is divided into four parts fairly equal in length. Parts One and Four are the story of Cardell and Winge as they investigate the mystery of the torso. Parts Two and Three are the stories of, respectively, Kristofer Blix and Anna Stina, who have only the most tangential of connections to the main plot. So minor are their contributions, in fact, that they could have served the exact same role in the mystery without even being given names, much less 100 pages each of backstory. And their sections aren’t uninteresting; if I had read them as independent novellas I probably would have enjoyed them, particularly Anna’s. But when you’re in the middle of a book and it suddenly jumps to a different character with no apparent relation to what you were previously reading (both of them do eventually connect to the murder plot, but only near the end of their sections), you can’t help but be distracted by wondering when you’re going to return to the main point of the book. 

The Wolf and the Watchman also absolutely revels in the grossest, dirtiest, harshest, most sickening parts of history. Which you probably could guess from any book that opens with a limbless torso, but it’s true of every element of plot and setting and description. And that limbless torso – I’m trying not to go into any great detail, because if I did this post would need an abundance of trigger warnings. But let me say: I read a lot of murder mysteries, and this one is definitely a step beyond the usual, verging on torture porn. Not to mention the literal torture, the multiple rapes, and the child abuse, to name only a few other elements. I don’t require a rosy portrayal of the past, but The Wolf and the Watchman is so self-evidently gleeful at rubbing its readers' faces in shit, mucus, and rotting corpses that it’s hard not to take a step back and roll your eyes. It reminds me a bit of Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue – though oddly I liked that book; I suppose Donoghue simply could pull off the grimness better than Natt och Dag does – but they share a similar desire to be The Most Depressing and The Most Gross.

Yet another problem was an absolutely appalling, out of nowhere, simply horrific scene of blatant anti-semitism. The Jewish character is a loan collector (such a surprise, I'm sure) who seems to be reenacting The Merchant of Venice, taking his pound of flesh:
“I am no simple bean counter who drives my business by way of interest rates, Kristofer Blix. I trade in other commodities. When the young man’s debt became considerable, I realized that I owned him and that I could do whatever I wanted with him [...]. Once I formed glass into the shapes that pleased me. Today I shape your lives in the same way.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, he is then described as having LITERAL HORNS:
When shadows fell across his face, I thought I could glimpse fangs between his lips and a forehead bulging with two small horns, each finger ending in a claw. I rubbed my eyes to coax back reality.

Granted, this character only appears on about three pages out of an entire novel, so it would be easy enough to skip over it, but what is it even doing here? What is happening in Sweden that this appears so nonchalantly in a novel published in 2019 – well, 2017 in the original Swedish? Apparently it was even voted best debut novel that year by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers which... I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

In an equally appalling but entirely separate plot development, a young woman ends up pregnant after being raped. Being unmarried, she's worried her life will be destroyed if her pregnancy is discovered, plus, you know, she violently hates the rapist. The man she goes to for abortion drugs instead gives her a placebo, telling her the truth only once it's too late for her to safely have an abortion. He then uses her dilemma to force her into accepting his proposal of marriage. This plot would fit in just fine with all the grimdarkness above, except that we're apparently supposed to see it as a good thing. The man's actions are repeatedly described as his redemption, and the woman, instead of being furious, is grateful and happy, decides she really does want the baby after all, and even finds her trauma over the rape and the rest of her past healed by her continued pregnancy. WHAT. THE. FUCK.

And in a minor detail apparently just thrown in for fun, Winge sets free a man who murdered his wife. There's no particularly redeeming features about this guy – he and his wife fought repeatedly, one night he got drunk and hit her harder than usual – but he's less bad than the central murderer of the plot, which I guess I agree with? I don't think that justifies Winge's decision to set him completely free to live his life as though he never murdered anyone, though. 

Just an awful book all around. I cannot believe the good press and huge marketing push it's getting.
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"Named Best Debut Novel of 2017 by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers.

One morning in the autumn of 1793, watchman Mikel Cardell is awakened from his drunken slumber with reports of a body seen floating in the Larder, once a pristine lake on Stockholm’s Southern Isle, now a rancid bog. Efforts to identify the bizarrely mutilated corpse are entrusted to incorruptible lawyer Cecil Winge, who enlists Cardell’s help to solve the case. But time is short: Winge’s health is failing, the monarchy is in shambles, and whispered conspiracies and paranoia abound.

Winge and Cardell become immersed in a brutal world of guttersnipes and thieves, mercenaries and madams. From a farmer’s son who is lead down a treacherous path when he seeks his fortune in the capital to an orphan girl consigned to the workhouse by a pitiless parish priest, their gruesome investigation peels back layer upon layer of the city’s labyrinthine society. The rich and the poor, the pious and the fallen, the living and the dead - all collide and interconnect with the body pulled from the lake.

Breathtakingly bold and intricately constructed, The Wolf and the Watchman brings to life the crowded streets, gilded palaces, and dark corners of late-eighteenth-century Stockholm, offering a startling vision of the crimes we commit in the name of justice, and the sacrifices we make in order to survive."

Any book touted as "The Alienist set in eighteenth-century Stockholm" is a must read for me!
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I think this might be another "this wasn't for me but others might like it" book.  I just could not get into the story or connect with the characters.  I found myself just wanting to finish.
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This story was a true adventure for me.  Before reading this book, I knew very little about the history of Sweden, or even how much the impact the French Revolution had on other European countries. In The Wolf and the Watchman the reader is given a picture of a truly heinous murder in a gritty grimy setting.  This is not the stuff of fairy tales, this is a tale of people living in poverty, struggling to find their way to their next drink and their next day, of prostitution, graft and double crossing, and of two men determined to find the truth behind the murder before time runs out for them.  It took a few chapters for me to get into the rhythm of the writing and to get a feel for the setting and characters, but then it flowed very well.  I highly recommend the book, with the note that it is not for the light of heart, the murder and the descriptions of life in the 1700’s are presented very graphically.  Thank you to NetGalley and Atria publishing for an advanced copy in return for an honest review.
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This is a difficult but engrossing and incredibly well written story.

I say it's difficult because the writing plants us firmly in Sweden during the late 1700s, amidst political upheavals in a bleak society. Realism abounds, and it's rarely pleasant. I swear I felt the lice in the bedding crawling on my skin. I felt the dirt and grime, the misery, the hunger, and the pain. Sometimes I had to put the book down and find relief in my modern surroundings. 

The writing is descriptive and atmospheric. This story is as much about the place and time as it is about the people. Consequently, the pace is slow, but I didn't mind that because I was completely transported into this world. Rarely do I find a book that so completely takes over all my senses. At no time was I sitting on a sofa with a book in my hand; I was walking the streets of Sweden, with all the sensory stimulus and emotions the characters experienced. 

The characters are well developed and complex. None of them remain stagnant, either. They transform as circumstances affect them. 

The plot is no one thing I can summarize. It's layered and woven together in surprising ways. 

This is a dark and bleak story that I lived and breathed and loved.
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This book was an amazing read. You will travel to 1973 Stockholm to a time of "crowded streets, gilded palaces and dark corners."

What begins with a dead body floating in the Larder will take you on a journey towards justice in a way that will make you wish you were a personal observer in the eighteenth century. 

It takes some time to get used to the writing in my opinion, but once you get into the book you can't put it down! I loved it!
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Set in the late 1700's Stockholm, this novel comprise a feeling of desperation, sadness, cruelty and  injustice. 
The narrative is excellent: starting with the discovery of a body, the atrocities that the subject must have endured, and the last case appointed to a dying man to uncover the truth. The following chapters will unravel dark secretes and heinous acts with unexpected subplots and situations.
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I’m not a fan of historical fiction needless to say it took me a while to get interested in this book but I’m glad I powered through it.  The plotting is outstanding and the writing is captivating. The character’s stories are fascinating and well developed. This is not a read for the squeamish. This is one savage story with explicit and graphic details of torture. Having said all that the author did a phenomenal job pulling you along the story in such a manner that I wanted to put the book do
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It's 1793, and a mutilated body has been found floating in the city's lake. Mickel Cardell, an ex-watchman and crippled ex-soldier feels compelled to give the man a proper burial. Cecil Winge, an attorney and consultant for the Stockholm police, makes this case the last thing he will do as he is dying from consumption. He wants to solve the puzzle of the identity of the man who had no arms, no legs, no teeth, eyes or tongue. Who was he? Why was he tortured in such a manner? Who could have done this to him? The two men, Cardell and Winge, go on a mission to solve this case before time for one, or perhaps both, run out.

Kristofer Blix is the son of a doctor. He writes letters to his sister in which he chronicles his life, his conquests, his good times, his misfortunes, and the horrible path he finds himself upon.

Anna-Stina is a beautiful young woman who finds herself committed to a horrendous workhouse accused of being a whore after upsetting the local priest. Life here is horrific and she devises an escape plan.

If you haven't guessed it, this one is brutal folks. There are some scenes in this book which will not be for everyone. If you are squeamish, you may want to think twice. Whew! Hard core is all I can say! For those who dare, this was a captivating and riveting. 

How are these stories connected? Who is the mutilated young man? How did he come to suffer such a fate? There is a lot of mystery here but there are also vivid descriptions (not just the brutal ones), scenes which detail what like was like in Stockholm during that time. The individual stories of the characters are interesting and detail each character’s motivation.

A brutal and chilling tale and glimpse into life in the 1700's that I found to be captivating, depressing, and revolting all at the same time. Boy, what a journey this was. I enjoyed how the men approached solving their case as the had to deal with some despicable people who were part of Sweden's underbelly. 

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley who provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All the thoughts and opinions are my own
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At first, I was not really into this book. However, once the story of Anna Stina began,  I was intrigued. 
For some reason the story of Cecil Winge didn't grip me as it should have, but the story of Johannes and Anna was what drew me in and held me. I found I was forcing myself to pick up the book but by the end I was emotionally invested in Anna's story at the very least. I wouldn't say it was a wonderful book, but it definitely somewhat interesting. I would suggest you try it out if you are into historical fiction or Scandinavian history.
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I almost lost my nerve to keep going with this book. 

But Niklas Natt och Dag pulls back from that edge just in time to keep you going. You will want to know what happens, but you may quail at what you need to go through to get there. 

Set in 18th century Sweden, "The Wolf and the Watchman" begins with the discovery of a mutilated body in the Stockholm cesspit. Watchman Mickel Cardell is the one who hauls it out--he is soon joined in horror by Cecil Wenge, a lawyer dying of tuberculosis who wants to solve this crime while he still can. This journey will take them to unspeakable places and involve a number of intriguing characters. The resolution will surprise you.

Set at the time of the French Revolution, "Watchman" weaves in the recent assassination of Gustav III at a masquerade ball --yes, very Verdian, the inspiration for "Un Ballo en Maschera."  Gustav had started to embrace some of the advances of the Enlightenment but changed his mind and was returning Sweden to autocratic rule. The world is shifting, but in which direction no one is sure.

A lot of this novel is hard to take, but if you're a fan of Scando Noir, you won't be surprised.  Besides that, the plotting is smart and surprising and the writing is accomplished--is this the guy's first book? Hard to imagine. Kudos to Ebba Segerberg for the masterful translation.
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This is a ~very~ graphic novel of cruelty and depravity set in the harshness of Sweden in the early 1800's.  It was a most difficult read and I only made it through about 30%.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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The Wolf and the Watchman is a gruesome, chilling, ugly, bizarre and perplexing historical thriller. It was too gruesome and way too explicit for my taste. Each character was bizarre and barbaric and their actions were described in extremely grisly, gory detail. I pushed through to the end only because this was a free ARC from Netgalley and I wanted to follow through with my review. Otherwise I would have put this one down long before the ending.
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Many thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for the eARC in exchange for an honest review!

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, takes place in the late 1790's Stockholm when a mutilated corpse is found in a bog.  Mutilated isn't even the proper word, but an ex-lawyer named Winge and a watchman of sorts, Cardell, end up on the case together.   There are 4 parts to the book, each featuring a different character and set of gruesome horrors, telling the chain of events that led up to Cardell pulling the body out.

I haven't read any historical fiction set in Sweden or Stockholm, and the author did an intense job of portrating the depravity of the city in that period.  Corpses in snowbanks, poor and displaced people everywhere, drunkenness and botched executions, spies, it really is set in an interesting period.  

I just can't wrap my head around the things the characters suffered - dismemberment, torture in so many forms, beatings and whippings and rapes and sadistic guards, treating that body like a mannequin... This book is 100% not for the faint of heart but even if you skim the historical parts, anyone enjoying a goos mystery, thriller, medical horrors, etc should definitely read this.

It took me a while to get truly interested in the book, I don't know if it was the  writing style, all the history, or the first section in general, but then once Blix took over I was hooked.  Cardell and Winge didn't pull me in at first like the other characters, although in the fourth section I had come to like them a lot more and applauded how all the events tied together.  A circle of cruelty with the characters finding some kind of closure at the end - whether good, bad, or in death.

The english translation comes out in March of 2019 and I thank the publisher and NetGalley again for letting me read the early copy!
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About two years ago, I heard someone say that they didn’t like a book because it put thoughts in her head that she didn’t want polluting hear brain. After reading The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, I now know exactly what she felt like. This novel is almost relentlessly vile, as character after character is shown to be violent, duplicitous, or sadistic. There are almost no good people in this book and lots of very bad things happen to just about everyone. It is as if someone took the author aside and said, look, people like dark books, so go and write the darkest, grimmest, nastiest things your brain can come up with. That’s what reading The Wolf and the Watchman is like.

The novel begins with two children hauling Stockholm watchman, Mikel Cardell (violent), out of his drunk and take him to a body found in an open sewer. Cardell retrieves the body, only to find that it is entirely limbless, with its eyes, tongue, and teeth removed. When dying former lawyer-turned-detective Cecil Winge (manipulative) finds out about the case, he wants to solve it and asks Cardell to be his partner. Once Cardell is beaten up in a sure sign that the pair are on to something and they both discover the incredibly awful fate of their murder victim, we are taking on a long side trip to learn about the last months of Kristopher Blix (a naive coward who really will do anything to save his skin) and learn how Anna Stina Knapp became a woman willing to do shockingly awful things to stay out of the workhouse.

The side trips are relevant, but it takes a while to understand how they’re related to the overall plot—especially Anna Stina’s story. It’s only in the last quarter of the book that we rejoin Cardell and Winge for a series of hairpin plot twists and even more appalling revelations as they finally discover who their victim was and how he came to be floating in sewage.

I was drawn to The Wolf and the Watchman because of its setting. I clearly am a sucker for places and times I haven’t yet visited in fiction. This book was also described as The Alienist in Sweden and I just couldn’t resist. I wish I had. This book is not among the best of the Scandinoir tradition; it’s not even among the second best. The characters give unnatural speeches. The motive behind the main crime is implausible and convoluted. And all of this is on top of almost 400 pages of relentless inhumanity. I don’t recommend it at all.
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I enjoyed the book from the perspective of presenting a mystery/horror-ish genre in a nontraditional matter. 

The book starts with discovery of a body with no limbs, tongue, or eyes. Winge (officer) is searching for the perpetrator of the crime. Then, the book transitions to gradually introducing the key characters with their history that are connected to the truth of what has happened! Winge dies from sickness in peace knowing the truth of the crime. 

The suspense is not felt like a normal horror/mystery book but rather reads like a historical fiction. As a warning to readers, there are portions of the book where the details are explicitly expressed in a gruesome, dark way! That personally convinced me that the book's genre is a mixture of mystery/historical/horror.
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Set after the Russo-Swedish War (no, I hadn't heard of this war before), Jean Michael "Mickel" Cardell, an armless watchman, discovers a limbless, dead body in a river. Cecil Winge is a lawyer consulted to help the police with this mysterious body. Winge is not-so-secretly dying of consumption. This is just the first part of the book. Overall, the descriptions are brutal and violent yet still entertaining enough to want to find out what happens. I learned a great deal about the underbelly of Sweden during the late 1790s, perhaps even more than I bargained for. 

Thank you to Netgalley for this ARC.
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There is no getting over the fact that reading The Wolf and the Watchman was disturbing. When a body is found near Stockholm, Cecil Winge, an investigator, and Mickel Cordell, a watchman are an unlikely pair who join forces to track down the killer. These two men, one suffering from consumption, and one who has lost his arm are working against the clock to unmask the victim as well as the killer.
The setting of this novel, in 1793, means life is hard. There is disease, corruption, and nothing like a forensic scientist to pop up and provide a clue. The picture that the author paints is vivid, and dark, and gruesome, so I wouldn't recommend this for the faint of heart. Yet, it does pull you into an intriguing mystery and as long as you can see beyond the gory aspects, it comes together in a way that makes perfect sense. You will need to have a strong stomach to see beyond the cruelty, but if you do, you will see the author has a gift with words. Dark and twisted doesn't even begin to do The Wolf and the Watchman justice.
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"The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag" (2019; Swedish original 2017)

"The depravity of our species is a rule without exception."
— Cecil Winge in "The Wolf and the Watchman"

Is this book for you? Have you found yourself rereading the opening of Foucault's "Discipline and Punish," the section about the 1757 execution of Robert-François Damiens? Did you enjoy the wood chipper episode in "Fargo"? Are you a fan of books like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or "Silence of the Lambs"? Do you imagine your pleasure for those books would be increased were their narratives parachuted into late 18th-century Stockholm? Would lice, chamber pots, amateur amputations, rotting flesh, and stinging cold be the literary spices to make your reading entrée more delicious? Here's an amuse-bouche from "The Wolf and the Watchman" to test your palate:

    "A dozen men at a time get up on top of a single victim, holding on to each other's shoulders and waists for balance, and then bounce by bending and straightening their knees. Soon the prisoner's body gives way. The chest bursts with a bang, the skull is trampled flat with such force that the eyeballs shoot across the cobblestones. Under all of them is a bloody mess where no one can tell any longer which body part was attached where."

Part of the defense for what goes on in this novel (I understand some won't think a defense is necessary) rests with the novelist who underscores the extensive research he did about late 18th-century Stockholm. Another defense would be that the depravity addressed by the main character in the tale needs to be considered seriously, the way you might take up Klossowski's "Sade My Neighbor." Pondering the dark side of the Enlightenment has intellectual merit. Cultural products like "The Wolf and the Watchman" might present an accurate version of the complex constitution of the modern subject. The worldwide popularity of Natt och Dag's book tells us about the current cultural landscape that is likely ignored at our peril.

A Dutch interviewer spoke with the author who describes the book's characters:

    "There are four. Mickel Cardell is a war veteran who lost his left forearm during the Swedish Russian War from 1788 to 1790. Like many other war veterans with injuries, he got a job as a city guard in Stockholm. His job is mainly to supervise prostitution. Mikel, however, cares little about his duties, he considers the prostitutes especially as women who have badly affected life and is also quite a drinker. Cecil Winge is a kind of lawyer who is occasionally called in by the police. He is the enlightened type, the man of reason. He is rather inspired by the figure Sherlock Holmes, although I did not want to emphasize that too much. He has poor health due to tuberculosis. Then there is Kristofer Blix, who has the leading role in the second part of the book, a 16-year-old young man who has the dream of ever becoming a surgeon. Finally, there is Anna Stina Knapp, a young girl who is accused of being a prostitute and who is brought to a workhouse against her will."

Like David Mitchell's novels, Natt och Dag constructs his by splicing the narrative into what seem at first unrelated strands that eventually tie together by the close.

Some readers will feel pulverized after finishing "The Wolf and the Watchman," the way you might feel were you to binge watch only the Ramsay Bolton sections of "Game of Thrones." What saves the novel from its arguable excesses is the lessons it offers about justice — one, that those with an obsession for justice are less those living the high life and more those who have suffered injustice, and two, that achieving justice might require some fiction, some falsehood and manipulation that might involve a disappointment about justice, i.e.,  that it cannot always do its own work, be had in untainted forms by allowing itself to unfold according to a prescribed process (precedent). I suspect Lady Justice's blindfold is in place deliberately to allow her to avoid seeing such manipulations done in her name. In other words, justice doesn't look like a happy ending. This latter point is addressed in a recent film, "Agatha and the Truth of Murder" (2018). The film, not approved by Christie's estate, corroborates something asserted by one of Christie's characters: "The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it." That kind of beauty could be assigned to Niklas Natt och Dag's novel.
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The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag is a fascinating and unique novel and my interest never flagged from beginning to end. Cecil Winge, the detective/lawyer facing a losing battle with consumption, and Jean Michael (Mickel) Cardell, a watchman with a wooden arm, haunted by the ghost of a war long over, make an unlikely, but likable duo. Together they search for the killer of a brutally murdered man they have named Karl Johan, found in the Larder by Cardell. Bizarre, gruesome, and debauched, The Wolf and the Watchman with its prostitutes, crooked politicians, and more than its share of drunken con men is not for the faint of heart, but for those who dare, is a great and unputdownable book of 18th century Stockholm.
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