BOOK REVIEW: ‘Three Seconds’

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THREE SECONDS
By Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom
Silver Oak (Sterling), $24.95, 496 pages

You may not like this book but you will find it very difficult to put down. It is a brutally gripping thriller that offers authoritative insight into the darkness of the criminal world, and its prose is as tense as a telegram.

This latest in the juggernaut of tough Scandinavian mysteries has unusually solid credentials in the background of its authors, journalist Anders Roslund and admitted former criminal Borge Hellstrom, and their plot is strengthened by experience. It all begins with a brief and searing chapter about a young man who is what is known in the underworld as a “mule.” He has swallowed 200 little brown rubber balls containing drugs. His journey will end only when he has painfully vomited up the contents of his stomach for the dealers waiting for their valuable delivery. The miserable mule knows he “has to do it, keep it all down, or else he was a dead man.”

The book is written in short, tersely phrased chapters that tell the story of Piet Hoffman, a secret operative for the Swedish police with one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Hoffman has to walk the thin wire between maintaining his credibility with criminals always on the lookout for a “snitch” and being watchful of his ostensible colleagues in a police force that he doesn’t trust either. He has reached a prominent position within the Polish mafia and is deeply involved in a scheme to take over the distribution of amphetamines within the Swedish prison system.

For Hoffman there can be no mistakes if he is to survive and find a new identity and a normal life with his much-loved wife and two small sons. The authors expertly contrast Hoffman’s split personality as he snatches moments of affection and home life with his children between tense encounters with thugs and high level police officials who are equally capable of killing him if it becomes politically expedient.

The plot twists and takes unexpected turns as Hoffman treads a path that becomes more perilous when he gets involved in a botched drug deal that results in a police informant being shot in the head.

The murder further complicates Hoffman’s task and he must protect himself from the danger that surrounds him. There is no one he can trust and he knows it. Only at the last moment does he tell his wife the truth about his life and advises her in a worst-case scenario what she must do to protect herself and their children. And Hoffman is prepared for that scenario. Especially chilling are the unvarnished accounts of the time he must spend in a terrifying prison to bring about the results he seeks. He is facing death at the hands of the convicts and he is aware of it. Most fascinating are the accounts of the meticulous preparations Hoffman makes as part of his effort to survive.

In the meantime, he also has to deal with Detective Inspector Ewert Grens whose investigations endanger Hoffman as they indicate a deliberate government cover-up of a series of crimes. Such antics coincide with Hoffman’s period of imprisonment and make his situation as an informant that much more perilous. The book virtually explodes in its conclusion, which leads to a series of high level exposures among the police as the apparent death of Hoffman becomes a final act of vengeance.

The authors acknowledge that they are writing about criminals and the prison and probation service that are responsible for them. They offer a short but intriguing series of postscripts on which the Hoffman story is evidently based.

They assert as fact that the Swedish police service for years had used criminals as covert human intelligence sources in a cooperation that is “denied and concealed.” They contend that in order to investigate serious crime, other crimes were marginalized. They emphasize that “only criminals can play criminals” and that is why they are recruited. They also note that criminal informants are “outlaws” and when they are exposed, authorities deny having used their services. They add that police are “convinced that conventional intelligence methods are not sufficient to combat organized crime and will continue to develop their work with covert human intelligence.”

These postscripts are especially effective in that they obviously form the basis from which the book was written. It might be speculated that it is not only Swedish police who use these tough tactics to reach their objectives of controlling crime in and out of prison.

Hoffman is a skillfully drawn and intriguing characterization of a man torn between his desire to escape and his determination to fulfill an incredibly dangerous job. The conclusion of the book is perhaps not entirely a surprise, but it is as riveting as the chapters that precede it. The authors have produced a remarkable and memorable thriller.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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