Art Kavanagh

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Joakim Zander, The Swimmer review

This was a bit of a disappointment, I’m sorry to say. I saw it in a bookshop a few years ago and was hooked by the description. It sounded intriguing, which is exactly what I look for in a story about spies, lawyers and political shenanigans, “intrigue” being (among other things) the French word for plot. The author, Joakim Zander, is a Swedish lawyer who works for the EU, based in Helsinki. Several of the characters in this book are also Swedish lawyers, or former lawyers, and one of them, arguably the central character, works for the EU, but in Brussels. “Arguably the central character” — yeah, there’s the rub.

The narrative is fragmented and the chapters are mostly short and fast moving. There’s one first-person narrator, the swimmer of the title. He was working for the CIA when, in Damascus, 1980, a car bomb meant for him killed the mother of his daughter. He and his daughter both survived but he had to abandon her at the Swedish embassy while he first went home to be debriefed by the CIA and then began his search for revenge for the assassination of his daughter’s mother. The swimmer is the only character who addresses the reader in the first person, yet it’s not really his story that the book tells.

One of the most interesting characters is the most peripheral of the main ones. George is a young former lawyer whose greed, corruption and, let’s not mince words, idiocy have lost him his junior position in a prestigious law firm. He now works for an outwardly respectable PR company where his dodgy past leaves him with no protection against being further compromised. Other characters include Klara, the Brussels-based sometime lawyer (now the assistant to a careerist Social Democrat MEP) and Mahmoud, postgraduate legal student and Klara’s former lover.

Because of the legal background and EU setting, I’d hoped that the central scandal would be financial or economic in nature. No such luck. It’s all about private contractors to the US military who have been torturing and killing civilians in Afghanistan, and then having their backsides covered by the CIA. A soldier who had served with Mahmoud has the evidence on an encrypted MacBook Air, which ends up in Klara’s possession, making her the target of the contractors, the swimmer (still with the CIA), SaPo and … have I forgotten anyone? Oh, yeah. George. It all ends up with the pursuers converging on a remote archipelago in a blizzard and rough seas.

There’s plenty of excitement but it all seems rather contrived, partly by the frequent shifts in point of view. I won’t be in any hurry to read the second book in the series.

Originally posted on Goodreads, 5-Jan-2019.