Review: Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

Box 21 (published in the UK as The Vault) is not for the faint of heart. It’s not even for the mid-strength of heart. It is strong stuff. There were things about it that I thought were excellent, one thing that didn’t work, and many things that made me very, very angry. Basically, there’s not a lot of middle ground with this book.

Though dark and extraordinarily sad the plot is quite outstanding. There are two main threads, both involving Stockholm detective Ewert Grens. In the first Grens is on the trail of Jochum Lang, a criminal of the nastiest kind who is being released from prison on the morning the book opens and Grens’ sole objective is to send him back there as soon as possible. Twenty five years earlier Lang caused an injury to Grens’ colleague (who was also his girlfriend) which resulted in massive brain damage. She has been institutionalised and unable to recognise him or communicate with him since the incident and Grens s proven pathologically incapable of recovering from the incident himself. When Lang is sent to sort out a young heroin addict who has upset Lang’s criminal bosses, Grens sees an opportunity to arrest Lang again.

The second thread is one of the saddest stories I have ever read. Lydia Grajauskas and Alena Sljusareva are two Lithuanian girls who have been tricked into leaving their country for lives as whores (not the waitresses they believed they would be), the property of a man they call Dimitri-Bastard-Pimp. As the book opens the girls have been working for him for 3 years, servicing 12 clients every day and have become fractured souls in the process. On this particular day Dimitri-Bastard-Pimp beats Lydia so badly that neighbours call the police and she is hospitalised. This enables her to put her long-dreamed-of escape into action.

These threads unfold and intertwine expertly. The pace is fast, and the action credible. The ending is horrific but, in the best noir tradition, is entirely suitable. Although the violence and abysmal treatment of the two women is described in quite graphic detail it never felt gratuitous to me. There was no revelling in the descriptions here, merely a factual accounting of events and their impact that would surely make even the toughest reader weep. I have read books dealing with this theme before but none has touched me in quite the way this one did; keeping me awake, making me seethe with anger and feel impotent that there is nothing I can do about the real-world examples this fiction is surely based on.

The characters, even the minor ones, are vivid. Lydia and Alena are credible in addition to being heart-wrenching and that’s not an easy combination to achieve. But they will stay with me, especially Lydia, and her truth. Ewert Grens will, unfortunately, stay with me too. He is a self-absorbed, dysfunctional, cowardly, bigoted, hypocrite. I regularly fall in love with fictional characters but it’s very rare for me to fall in hate; Grens is an exception. While he is the worst of the bunch there isn’t a remotely decent male in the entire book, which is the only real qualm I have about it. I shy away from unintelligent generalisations about any population group and I know in my heart that all men are not the bastards they are collectively depicted as here (though I might have argued differently in the wee hours of this morning as my anger at the book’s resolution swirled around my un-sleeping brain).

I baulked at giving a book which made me feel so wretched, a book in which there is no lightness, no levity and never even the merest suggestion of a happy ending a five star-rating. But in the end I had no choice. Box 21 does everything I could ask of fiction: it transported me into another world, it introduced me to people I will never forget and it explored social issues thoughtfully and so credibly that I have lost sleep.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As I lay awake being haunted by Lydia and Alena last night I looked up what I could about real-world human trafficking. The best site I found was HumanTrafficking.Org which lists each country of the world in which trafficking takes place (either to or from) and lays out the legal and other efforts to control it. It didn’t do much for my insomnia but I did feel better informed. I’m also looking for a credible charity to donate to that works in this area. If anyone knows of one let me know, it would be good to find one close to home (having discovered that Australia is a large destination country for human traffickers) but I’ll consider them all.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This book has been reviewed at Kittling Books (where Cathy prompted me to put the book on my TBR shelf where it sat for 2 years plastered with a post-it that read “don’t read when sad”), Petrona and Reviewing the Evidence

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Author website
Translator none named (so I have to assume the authors did it themselves as the book was originally published in Swedish)
Publisher Picador [2009]
ISBN 9780312655341
Length 393 pages
Format horrible floppy paperback with really thin yucky paper
Book Series It is the sequel to Beast which was also published in English but there are several earlier books which have not been translated (so far).
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, book review, Nordic Challenge 2011, Sweden. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Review: Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

  1. Maxine says:

    Totally agree with your excellent take on this novel, Bernadette. I thought it an excellent novel (preferred it to the thriller and much flabbier 3 seconds) but boy did it make my blood boil. The ending, well, I shall never forget it, i am still furious.
    Oddly, the ending is not referred to in 3 secs (though other aspects of Box 21 are), but apparently there is another novel inbetween that has not been translated yet, so maybe there is something in that. I actually met the authors at the 3 Seconds UK launch and asked one of them about this but I don’t think he understood my outrage – perhaps it was a long time ago that he wrote the book and he had forgotten.
    I agree with you about the translation, btw, I looked too when I reviewed this book and could not find a named translator. 3 seconds is pubilshed by a different publisher (Quercus) who do name a translator for that. Maybe it is like some Japanese crime fiction I’ve read, in which the translation is done by a “factory” and so they can’t name one person in particular for doing it.


  2. Maxine says:

    PS I checked out Beast but was not inspired to read it based on the EC review.


  3. Maxine how odd that the authors didn’t remember the outrage…or maybe they didn’t feel it…they certainly seemed far more sympathetic to Ewert bloody Grens than I was feeling.

    I have not heard of factory translations before…might explain a few of the oddities (a couple of times it went from American tv-slang to really proper English in a single sentence).

    I’m not sure I’m inspired to read any other book by these two which might sound odd given I rated this one so highly – It’ll certainly be a long time before I can even think about reading anything with bloody Grens in it.


  4. Bernadette – Thanks for this superb review. I’d read Maxine’s review and now yours, and I know I should read this one. I need to steel myself for it, though. Well, I will, and your excellent review is such a good reminder of how powerful a book can be. Thanks!.


  5. Maxine says:

    If it’s relevant to your reading decisions, Three Seconds is not all that much about Grens, the main character is someone else who I did not sympathise with but from other reviews I am in a small minority. It’s a classic “jailbreak” thriller and very “page-turnery”.


  6. Barbara says:

    Terrific review, Bernadette, and I agree with Maxine – Three Seconds was not, for me, nearly as emotionally gripping or difficult as Box 21. Drug dealing and the violence that surround it just doesn’t compare with the human trafficking issue.

    Also, I love your shellacking of “Ewart bloody Grens.” I find his character to be hard to take and over-the-top (more so in Three Seconds, if anything).


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