Review of “Three Seconds” by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom

This book won the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award in 2009 for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year. The story takes you deep into the world of undercover police in Sweden, as informant and ex-con Piet Hoffmann tries to penetrate the innermost reaches of the Polish drug dealing mafia by doing work for the mafiosos and gaining their confidence.

Most unfortunately for Piet, a drug deal he set up between some Poles and a Danish undercover policeman goes wrong, and the Dane gets murdered. Piet calls it in, anonymously, to the Swedish police. A bulldog of a police officer, Ewert Grens, who, like most of the non-supervisory police force, is not in on the undercover program, is determined to find out who the Swede was in the room when the murder was committed.

The upper levels of Sweden’s law enforcement get concerned because they know they cannot stop Grens from doing his job, but they must not risk exposure of their use of criminals for police operations. Thus, they decide to find a way to get rid of Piet.

In the meantime, Piet has agreed to a new task from the Polish mafia – his most dangerous yet. He is to get himself arrested on a drug charge, and then help the mafia get control of drug-dealing inside a Swedish prison. Piet arranges for his police handler, Erik Wilson, to get him out in two weeks. But Erik leaves the country on assignment, and has no idea that Piet is slated for elimination by his own police hierarchy.

The prison operation is going well until Piet is deliberately “exposed” as a snitch, a deadly label, as Swedish law enforcement well knows. He is set upon by prisoners, prison guards, the Polish mafia, and even a Swedish army sniper as he desperately tries to escape them all and run to freedom.

Evaluation: While the book eventually got very exciting, I had a few complaints. It turns out that Three Seconds is just the latest in a series featuring Police Detective Ewert Grens. References to past cases and relationships are made in the story that aren’t essential but that were frustrating to me because they were not explained. Also, many of the (short) chapters begin with personal pronouns (he or she) rather than names. It sometimes takes two or three pages before you know which “he” or “she” is being talked about. I found that rather irritating and eventually just flipped ahead, learned who was the subject of the chapter, and then flipped back to read. In addition, the translation seemed awkward in places. Aside from all that, I’m not really very into drug mafias. Nevertheless, as the story progressed, the tension ratcheted up considerably, and in the end did become quite gripping.

There is definitely a verisimilitude in the many-stranded plot not shared by a lot of suspense writers. Of the authors, Roslund is a journalist who worked for many years covering prisons, and Hellström is a reformed ex-criminal. (Hellstrom confesses to an intimate knowledge of the amphetamine trade as well, blaming it on his “messy youth” in an interview.) The two of them spent eight months doing further research to make sure they got it right.

This book is gritty, violent, and unnerving. It also seems quite realistic, and occasionally riveting. If a movie were made from this book (and I can’t imagine it not getting optioned), it would be grim and quite brutal, but would have you at the edge of your seat.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by SilverOak, 2011


Barry Award Nominee for Best British Crime Novel (2011)
Glass Key Award Nominee (2010)
The Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger (2011)

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17 Responses to Review of “Three Seconds” by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom

  1. Jeanne says:

    Grim and brutal; I agree.
    I thought the bare-bones writing style was the authors’, but you could be right that the translation might be at least partly to blame.

  2. I am a fan of Swedish mysteries, so I might make some allowances for a few flaws.

  3. zibilee says:

    I read another review of this one yesterday that said the build-up was a bit slow, which might not actually be a problem for me. I am surprised by all the new Swedish thrillers coming out lately and do want to try a few of them. It does sound like I should start with thi first book though!

  4. marthalama says:

    I don’t know why but the Swedish mystery trend has passed my by. I have read any of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and while my husband enjoys Wallender it does nothing for me. This sounds like it’s a good book, just not for me.

  5. bermudaonion says:

    I wonder if the problem with the pronouns happened in translation. I’d be willing to give this one a shot.

  6. Sandy says:

    I like thrillers that take place in other countries, just for a chance in scenery. But the problems you describe would be my problems too. It is very hard to find a good one these days.

  7. JoV says:

    I hate chapters (or even paragraphs) begin with personal pronouns (he or she) rather than names. While it may be clear in the writer’s head, it sure confuse mine.

    I like to try a few good Swedish crime writers.. or Scandinavian for that matter. Would appreciate anyone to recommend me some titles. 🙂

  8. I actually spotlighted this one on my blog today as a Friday Find. I only learned of it this week. Its interesting to know there are more in the series before this one. I think I could probably overlook the ‘lost in translation’ problems as long as the story kept me going. I really am happy to have read your review and your candid comments. Great job!!

  9. ds says:

    Oh dear, another Swede to read…

  10. Susan says:

    I read Three Seconds with The BN FirstLook BC.It became part of MY DNA I am so impressed by AndersandBorge writing style and so tightly woven I am going to read “Box21” until the next one is translated and released…I must know more,,

  11. Staci says:

    Sounds like a great movie to be made for sure. I think I would have to see the movie first then try to read this one! 😀

  12. gah, i still haven’t read ‘the girl with the dragon…’ so not sure i’m ready for this one. i do like series novels, though…

    your points are well made and it is annoying when authors don’t reference characters by name.

    sounds like the author has enough experience to make this an authentic and catchy read. i’m sure fans of the genre and series will enjoy it.

  13. stacybuckeye says:

    Another interesting cover, but one I’m skipping.

  14. Trisha says:

    Yikes! I hate reading a book and finding out there were previous ones I should have read first!

  15. Richard says:

    “I’m not really very into drug mafias.” Reassuring, Jill, but I do sense a little hesitation in how you worded that? 😀 All kidding aside, I like how you laid out the novel’s pros and cons as usual here. Think I’ll keep looking elsewhere for my next crime fix, though. Cheers!

  16. Julie P. says:

    I think this one sounds intriguing! I guess I need to start at the beginning.

  17. Wendy says:

    Interesting to read your review of this one since I also just read it (you and I agree on many of the “flaws”!) I ended up liking the end much better than the beginning when I found myself a little confused with all the characters and trying to link them.

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