My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside.
It’s Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1930s. Harry Kvist (“Kvisten”, or “twig”, to his friends, in what can only be irony) is an ex-sailor, ex-boxer, currently a heavyman-cum-debt-collector for whoever wants to hire him. He’s also skilled at tracking down unfaithful spouses, prostitutes, and teenaged runaways. When we first meet him, he is descending on the apartment of the hapless Zetterberg, who has defaulted on a loan. He scares Zetterberg, roughs him up a little, says he’ll come back for the payment tomorrow. So far, so good. But when he comes back, he finds Zetterberg murdered, and himself a person of interest in the inquiry. He’s released after the evidence of Zetterberg’s neighbour clears him, but the police know Kvist rather too well already, and they’re happy to take him in again if they can’t turn up anyone else. He’d rather not have them anywhere near his personal life, so the novel turns into a familiar path for the contemporary thriller: innocent man seeks to save his own skin by uncovering the real wrong-doer.
The reason the police know Kvist so well already is because he’s a practicing homosexual. (In point of fact, he’s bisexual, since he has an involved and very definitely sexual affair with a woman during the second half of the novel, but his relationship with Doris seems devoid of actual feeling. They fuck a lot, but the tumult and conflict of Kvist’s emotions are all directed towards men. It’s men with whom he shares the few moments in the book in which he shows tenderness.) The police have booked him twice, under what they refer to as “paragraph eighteen”—presumably, a Swedish anti-sodomy statute. The inspector who interviews him, Olsson, immediately makes clear his disgust and distaste for this “bloody homophile”, although he does have to grudgingly admit that Kvist is also a hard bastard.
Which he most certainly is. The front cover quote explicitly invites us to compare Holmén’s work with Raymond Chandler’s, which is a hell of an invitation but, as far as I can tell, a completely legitimate one. (Now is probably the time to mention that I have never read Chandler, but I have: listened to Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir segments since I was six years old; read the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin pretends to be a P.I.; and seen a fair few gangster movies. I feel like the lineaments of the noir genre are pretty well known, anyway.) Clinch commits, with manic glee, to its own atmosphere: it’s set in a perpetually snowy Stockholm winter, full of dark back alleys, shack-like tenement flats, and underground nightclubs for the consumption of illegal liquor. (Prohibition-era Stockholm is basically Prohibition-era Chicago.) Kvist, while not given to quite the level of throwaway wisecracks that we expect from Chandler’s protagonists, is a wryly sarcastic, enjoyably cynical narrator. He is much given to punching people’s lights out while detailing the gruesome shifting of bones in his hand as he connects. As an ex-boxer, he lives by sporting metaphors, and his stock of experience gives him an air of dangerous, world-weary authority as he explains street fighting to us:
I close my eyes, inhale what feels like an ice block, and listen. I’ve had to trust in my hearing many times when I was on the ropes, when the swelling around my eyes was such that I couldn’t even orient myself, or when I was blinded by blood or sweat.
Like many a detective, Kvist also has an alcohol problem and is terrible at relationships—in his case, a wife and daughter set sail for America at least ten years ago, but he has not followed them—but this is all complicated by his sexuality. Sweden actually legalised same-sex intercourse in 1944, and has in general been in the forefront of international LGBT rights during the twentieth century, but this story is happening in the 1930s and so Kvist must still cruise in silence and in danger. Although that is somewhat misleading; in most of the encounters he has, he is the danger. The first sex scene takes place less than thirty pages into the book and ends with Kvist punching into unconsciousness the boy who’s just sucked him off. In this combination of hypermasculine aggressive violence with queer sexuality, Kvist reminded me forcefully of Weeper in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings: here’s another man who both reinforces and challenges “manliness”. Later, when he first has a sex scene with his mistress, Doris Steiner, the atmosphere is just as violent: from both sides, there are punches, slaps, bloody noses, hair-pulling. Where Holmén is maybe more modern than Chandler is in his willingness to write in detail about the mechanics of fucking itself; some of these scenes border on the pornographic, which is to say that they are excellent, evocative, achieve what they set out to do, and had me bending the pages away from people on the Tube.
Doris is a fascinating creation: she’s the classic noir dame, the bored hot wife of a rich man. She’s also an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and a former film star. We know from the start that there is something off about her, about the way that she meets Kvist: supposedly she has come to him for proof that her maid is thieving from her jewellery box, but she doesn’t seem terribly concerned, and after they fall into bed, we hear no more about it. When she tells Kvist a little more about her life and history, he seems to take it more or less at face value, which is surprising given his cynicism up to now. Is he blinded by lust, or does his indifference to her mean he doesn’t see her as a potential threat? (Or both?) Either way, alarm bells have started ringing for the reader now: surely Doris isn’t all she appears…
Indeed, she isn’t, though not quite in the way I had hoped. Still, the ending is delightfully, unabashedly melodramatic, with its tense showdown in an opulent setting, the iniquities of the rich and powerful finally entered into the ledger of justice. (Even if that justice happens to be extrajudicial.) It’s strong stuff, but Clinch is a fabulously classy twist on pulp fiction: it’ll be a top-notch summer book for readers looking for something diverting but smart, as long as they don’t mind a little blood and bonking.
Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Vertigo for the review copy. Clinch is published in the UK on 20 May.