From the grand master of Scandinavian crime fiction—and one of the best crime writers of our time—here is the final volume in the critically acclaimed Story of a Crime trilogy, centered on the assassination of Olof Palme in 1986.
It’s August 2007, and Lars Martin Johansson, chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Sweden, is determined once again to reopen the dusty files on the unsolved murder of Prime Minister Palme. With his retirement quickly approaching, Johansson forms a new group, comprised of a few trustworthy detectives who doggedly wade through mountains of paperwork and pursue new leads in a case that has all but gone cold despite the open wound the assassination has left on the consciousness of Swedish society. But the closer the group gets to the truth, the more Johansson compromises the greater good for personal gain, becoming a pawn in the private vendetta of a shady political spin doctor.
A detailed and boldly plotted police procedural, Free Falling, As If in a Dream lifts the veil on one of history’s greatest unsolved crimes, bringing dark humor, suspense, and wit to bear on a case long thought to have no answers.
Eight weeks earlier, Wednesday, August 15. Headquarters of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation on Kungsholmen in Stockholm
“Olof Palme,” said the chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Lars Martin Johansson. “Are you familiar with that name, ladies and gentlemen?”
For some reason he seemed almost joyful as he said it. Just back from vacation with a becoming suntan, red suspenders, and linen shirt with no tie as a lighthearted signal of the transition from relaxation to responsibility. He leaned forward in his seat at the short end of the conference table, letting his gaze wander across the four others gathered around the same table.
The joy seemed to be his alone. Doubtful looks were exchanged among three of the four—Police Superintendent Anna Holt, Detective Chief Inspector Jan Lewin, and Detective Chief Inspector Lisa Mattei—while the fourth in the group, Chief Inspector Yngve Flykt, who was head of the Palme group, seemed if anything embarrassed by the question and tried to compensate by looking politely preoccupied.
“Olof Palme,” Johansson repeated, his voice now sounding more urgent. “Does that ring any bells?”
The one who finally answered was Lisa Mattei, the youngest of the group, but long accustomed to the role of best in class. First she glanced at the head of the Palme investigation, who only nodded and looked tired, then she looked down at her notepad, which incidentally was free of any notes or the doodling with which she usually filled it, whatever was being discussed. Then in two sentences she summarized Olof Palme’s political career, and in four sentences his end.
“Olof Palme,” said Mattei. “Social Democrat and Sweden’s most well-known politician during the postwar period. Prime minister for two terms, from 1969 to 1976 and from 1982 to 1986. Was murdered at the intersection of Sveavägen and Tunnelgatan in central Stockholm twenty-one years, five months, and fourteen days ago. It was Friday the twenty-eighth of February 1986, twenty minutes past eleven. He was shot from behind with one shot and appears to have died almost immediately. I was eleven years old when it happened, so I’m afraid I don’t have much more to contribute,” Mattei concluded.
“Don’t say that,” said Johansson with a Norrland drawl. “Our victim was the prime minister and a fine fellow, and how common is this kind of crime victim at this sort of place? True, I’m only the head of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, but I’m also an orderly person and extremely allergic to unsolved cases,” he continued. “I take them personally, if you’re wondering why you’re here.”
No one had wondered about that. No one seemed particularly enthusiastic either. Regardless, the whole thing started as it almost always does, with a few police officers sitting around a table, talking about a case. No flashing lights, no sirens, and definitely no drawn service revolvers. Although when the crime happened, over twenty years ago, it had started with flashing lights, sirens, and drawn service revolvers. Nothing had helped. The case had ended badly.
Johansson elaborated on his ideas about what ought to be done, the motive for doing it, and how it should all be arranged in practical terms. As so often before, he also relied on his personal experience without the slightest trace of either genuine or false modesty.
“In my personal experience, when a case has come to a standstill so to speak, it’s often worth calling in some new folks who can look at the case with fresh eyes. It’s easy to overlook things,” said Johansson.
“I hear you,” Anna Holt answered, sounding more sarcastic than she intended. “But if you’ll excuse—”
“Sure,” Johansson interrupted. “Just let me finish my sentence first.”
“I’m listening,” said Holt. I never learn, she thought.
“When you’re starting to get up in years like me, unfortunately the risk increases that you don’t remember what you meant to say, if you get interrupted, that is,” Johansson explained. “Where was I now?” he continued.
“How you intended to organize the whole thing, boss,” Mattei interjected. “Our investigation, that is,” she clarified.
“Thanks, Lisa,” said Johansson. “Thanks for helping an old man.”
How does he do it? thought Holt. Even with Lisa of all people?
According to Johansson it was not a question of forming a new Palme investigation, and the investigators who were already in the Palme group—several of whom had spent almost their entire active time as detectives there—would of course retain sole responsibility.
“So I want to make that clear from the start, Yngve,” said Johansson, nodding at the head of the Palme group, who still seemed more worried than relieved.
“No way,” said Johansson. “You can forget any such ideas. I’ve imagined something a lot simpler and more informal. What I want simply is a second opinion. Not a new investigation. Just a second opinion from a few wise officers who can look at the case with fresh eyes.
“I want you to go through the investigation,” he continued. “Is there anything we haven’t done that we should have done? Is there anything in the material itself that we’ve missed and that’s worth looking into? That can still be looked into? If so, I want to know about it, and it’s no more difficult than that.”
Regardless of his hopes on the last point, the following hour was devoted to discussing objections from three of the four others in the room. The only one who didn’t say anything was Lisa Mattei, but when their meeting was over, her notepad was as full of scribbling as always. Partly with what her colleagues had said. Partly with her usual doodling regardless of what was being said.
First up was Chief Inspector Jan Lewin, who after some introductory, cautious throat clearing quickly zeroed in on Johansson’s fundamental motive, namely the need for fresh eyes. The idea as such was excellent. He himself had advocated it often enough. Not least during his time as head of the group that dealt with so-called cold cases. But for that very reason he thought he was particularly poorly suited for this case.
During the initial year of the investigation—while Lewin was working at the homicide squad in Stockholm—he had primary responsibility for the collection of significant portions of the material evidence. Not until the investigation was taken over by the national bureau did he return to his old assignment at the homicide squad in Stockholm. Several years later he moved over to the national bureau, and once there he had also helped on the Palme investigation for a few brief periods with the registration and review of new leads that had come in.
“I don’t know if you remember, boss, but the investigation leader, Hans Holmér, the police chief in Stockholm at that time, collected large quantities of information that perhaps didn’t have anything directly to do with the murder itself but might prove to be of value.” Lewin nodded at Lisa Mattei, who had been only a little girl in those days.
“I remember the police chief at that time,” said Johansson. Of unblessed memory, he thought. “Though most of what he found I’ve managed to repress. What was it that landed on your desk, Lewin?”
At best, quite a bit of questionable value, according to Lewin.
“All hotel registrations in the Stockholm area around the time of the murder. All arrivals into and departures from the country that could be substantiated with the usual passport and border checks, all parking violations in greater Stockholm around the time of the crime, all speeding violations and other traffic offenses in the whole country the day of the murder, the day before and the day after, all other crimes and arrests in the Stockholm area at the time of the crime. We took in everything from drunkenness and domestic disturbances to all ordinary crimes reported during the twenty-four-hour period in question. We also collected accident reports. Plus all suicides and strange causes of death that happened both before and after the murder. I know when I left the investigation they were still working on that part. As you know, it added up to quite a bit. Hundreds of pounds of paper, thousands of pages actually, and I’m only talking about what came in during my time.”
“The broad, unbiased effort,” Johansson observed.
“Yes, that’s what it’s called,” said Lewin. “Sometimes it works, but this time almost all of it remained unprocessed. There simply wasn’t time to do anything. I sat and skimmed through what came in, and I had my hands full just with what first jumped out at me. Ninety percent of the paperwork was basically put right back in the boxes where it had been from the start.”
“Give me some examples,” said Johansson. “What things jumped out at you, Lewin?”
“I remember four different suicides,” said Lewin. “The first took place only a few hours after the murder of the prime minister. I remember it in detail, because when I got the papers on my desk I actually felt some of those old vibrations you feel when things are starting to heat up.” Lewin shook his head thoughtfully.
“The man who committed suicide had hung himself in the rec room of his house. A guard who took early retirement who lived on Ekerö a few miles outside Stockholm. He was the neighbor of a police officer, so I got the tip through him. He also had a license for a handgun, to top it off a revolver that might very well have matched what we knew about the murder weapon at that time. He was generally considered strange by those who knew him. Antisocial, divorced for several years, problems with alcohol, the usual stuff. In brief, he seemed pretty good, but he had an alibi for the evening of the murder. For one thing, he’d quarreled with some neighbors who were out with their dog at about ten o’clock. Then he called his ex-wife from his home phone, a total of three times if I remember correctly, and carried on with her about the same time as Palme was shot. I had no problem ruling him out. We found his revolver in the house search. It was test fired, even though we already knew it was the wrong caliber.”
“And the others?” Johansson was looking almost greedily at his colleague.
“No,” said Lewin, “at the risk of disappointing you, and I was pretty careful about these cases. I remember when the media started making a row about the so-called police track, that it was some of our fellow officers who murdered Palme, I went into the material on my own and checked for that specifically—all the parking violations and other traffic offenses where the vehicle or the perpetrator could be connected to our colleagues, whether or not they were on duty.”
“But that didn’t produce anything either,” said Johansson.
“No,” said Lewin. “Other than some pretty imaginative explanations of why a particular officer shouldn’t have to pay his parking tickets or why his car ended up in such a strange place.”
“Exactly,” said Johansson. “The same old women problems if you ask me. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be interesting for you to take another look at your old boxes? Now when you’ve got some perspective, I mean. I can’t help sensing that you don’t seem completely uncomfortable with the job. And you could take a look at all the rest, once you’re at it anyway, I mean.”
“With some reservations about fresh eyes,” said Lewin, sounding more positive than he intended. “Well, maybe so. The basic idea is good enough.”
Excerpted from Free Falling, As If in a Dream by Leif GW Persson. Copyright © 2014 by Leif GW Persson. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Leif GW Persson has chronicled the political and social development of modern Swedish society in his award-winning novels for more than three decades. Persson has served as an adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice and is Sweden’s most renowned psychological profiler. He is a professor at Sweden’s National Police Board and is considered the country’s foremost expert on crime. He lives in Stockholm. His most recent novel, Free Falling, As If in a Dream, will be published by Pantheon in February of 2014.