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The Swede: A Novel - Robert Karjel

”For several years---a fucking eternity---they let all the races on earth come at me: Arabs, Asians, Africans. The worst is always when they do it themselves, when the Americans make an appearance. Then it’s not just reckless. Then it gets very thorough.”

Grip glanced at the camera in the wall.

“Don’t worry, they can stand to hear what they already know.” Said N. “Oh, they’re inventive, but it’s not their methods that we’re going to talk about, it’s the result. I guess I’ve confessed to everything.”


“Everything they wanted---signed, crawled, and prayed.”

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Rooms for Tourists by Edward Hopper

”In one of Hopper’s paintings, there’s a small hotel. It’s in Provincetown, and it looks the same now as when he painted it in 1945. Whitewashed wood, two stories. If you walk past, you hardly notice it---but if you look at the painting, you long to spend the night there. Two ways for seeing one place.”

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The Sunset Inn, Provincetown, Cape Cod

When Ernst Grip, a Swedish Security Office, is called in by the FBI to identify the nationality of a prisoner who only calls himself N., he has no idea that in the course of unraveling the prisoner’s secrets his own carefully guarded secrets could be revealed as well. N. has been tortured for many years, and yet, during that time he gave them everything they wanted, but his name. Torturers want everything, every last piece of a man’s soul. They want to know every thought, every whisper, so something as simple as not being able to extract a man’s name must have really... pissed... them... off.

”How much have you thrashed him? He curls up in a ball and starts to hyperventilate whenever a human comes near him.”

“Is he Swedish?”

“How much? Every other day for a year---more? A guess: first electric shocks and waterboarding, then just kicks and punches when people get tired. …The nails are growing in again, but they look lumpy. Usually takes six months to get them back.”

As Grip tries to make connections with the tortured man, Shauna Friedman of the FBI keeps dropping hints that she knows too much about Grip’s past. His “art” interests are particularly fascinating to her. They know the situation with N. is FUBARED, and so if things continue to go South, then they want to make sure they have leverage with Grip.

Meanwhile, Robert Karjel takes us back in time to the Thailand tsunami that killed thousands of people. N. and a small group of other survivors, still in shock from the loss of people they loved, hear a preacher from Topeka, Kansas, Charles-Ray TurnballFred Phelps makes a speech broadcasted on the radio saying the tsunami was God’s punishment. They decide that some form of retribution needs to be extended to Charles-Ray.

It is interesting because I knew a Christian couple who commented about God’s punishment on the people of New Orleans after Katrina. ‘Those degenerates in that God forsaken den of iniquity had it coming.’ I shouldn’t be, but I’m still always shocked when I hear Christians gleefully talking about punishments. It seems to be their favorite role for their God to smite, to discipline. This couple moved from Kansas to Florida. They returned to Kansas after their house in Florida was destroyed by a hurricane. Now that is karmic punishment I can support! Using their own Christian formula then they must be degenerates as well, otherwise “God” would have left their house standing.

Grip has that something something that women find interesting that goes beyond just physical attractiveness. It could be his confidence or his moody indifference. His conquests are well known among his colleagues in the security service. They’d be shocked to know he is discovering that he is...gay. He has the same appeal with men that he has with women. When he meets Ben on a vacation to New York, he finds someone he can love. The only problem is Ben is dying of AIDS and running out of money. In the cash or perish system of the United States healthcare system, Ben is going to die much sooner than later. Ben has underground connections with disreputable art collectors who want to possess art that is owned by others or that is locked up in museums. Grip, the man known as The Swede, has the right background to not only get around security, but also get away with the crime.

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”Their shapes, almost human, but not quite. You can’t resist wanting to touch them. Even own them. …

“They’re beautiful,” Grip said.

“Man and woman, in the same form.” Jean Arp sculptures.

Robert Karjel, a lieutenant colonel in the Swedish Air Force, has spent a lot of time working with the American armed forces. He knows Americans well enough to take a few pokes at some of the issues that have been dividing America. Torture, the definition of torture, and whether torture actually produces any actionable data are still being debated in the United States. The way government administrations have gotten around laws against torture by having suspects tortured by our allies makes me sick to my stomach. Asking others to do what we as a nation have finally condemned is frankly cowardly and going against the wishes of most Americans.

Karjel, by putting Ben’s plight in the novel, certainly provides commentary on a health system that has in the past only been for those that can afford it. I’m one of those people that believe that healthcare is a right not a luxury. We still have a lot of improvement to do on our current healthcare system, but the Affordable Healthcare Act was an important step forward.

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Charles-Ray Turnbull is based on Fred Phelps, an angry and bigoted man who actively spread hate and discrimination all over the United States. He spent over $200,000 a year travelling to funerals to protest the existence of those he despised.

Karjel brings another issue to light by using the character Charles-Ray Turnbull, who is of course based on Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame, who so publicly protested at the funerals of US servicemen and known homosexuals. At one point his group had planned to protest at a funeral in Dodge City. I had begun to talk with others about organizing a human chain to keep him from interrupting the funeral, but fortunately he cancelled his plans to come to Dodge City. He died a few years ago, but unfortunately his website godhatesfag and others are still up and operational. I can’t imagine that JC would have approved of the methods of a man like Fred Phelps. He went to school at Washburn University in Topeka, but he was born and bred in Meridian, Mississippi, so though I have to live with the shame that such a creature managed to keep a congregation in Kansas, at least I know the seeds of his hate were first sowed elsewhere.

The various threads of the story of this thriller seem far apart, but as the novel progresses we see those threads moving closer together until they begin to touch and overlap. True identities are revealed in the final pages, and the twists of the plot are untangled to bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. There have been comparisons to John le Carré with this novel which I don’t really agree with. I think this book is much more accessible for a larger readership than a standard le Carré novel. The plot elements reminded me more of the Peter Swanson novels that I’ve read recently. The book is clever, but not ponderously so. It was a pleasant surprise. I certainly look forward to Robert Karjel’s next book.

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