- - Friday, June 1, 2012

By Jens Lapidus
Pantheon Books, $26.95 471 pages

Perhaps author Jens Lapidus, described in a cover blurb as “a criminal defense lawyer who represents some of Sweden’s most notorious underworld criminals,” was writing about his own clients when he describes how a Serbian thug named Mrado and his sidekick Patrik went about soliciting the “right” to run the coat-check concession at a Stockholm night club.

The burly bouncer snorts a refusal to pay protection money. In due course, Patrik confronts him in the men’s room. Mr. Lapidus describes what happened:

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“[Patrik] head-butted the bouncer guy on the nose. The blood appeared even redder against the white tiles as it sprayed the wall. The bouncer yelled for his colleagues. Tried to shove Patrik aside. But Patrik amped. The boys by the stalls ran forward to break it up. Mrado stepped between them. Pushed them away. Patrik grabbed hold of the bouncer’s short hair. Pounded his head against the urinal. Teeth went flying. Pounded again. More teeth. His nose broke in a number of places. The urinal looked like a butcher’s sink. Patrik pounded the bouncer’s head again. It sounded hollow.”

There is more gore, much more. It’s the sort of violence that rushes through the novel of a writer who is being acclaimed in Europe as the next Stieg Larsson (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” among other novels). The comparison is not quite apt. The late Larsson wrote about crusades against government and corporate corruption. Mr. Lapidus is immersed in the criminal subculture of Sweden, and his characters make up a far nastier crowd.

Further, the most evil villains are not even Swedish. Rather, they are the dregs of European criminality who avail themselves of the open-borders policies of the European Union. To be sure, many decent people from throughout Europe flock to Sweden in quest of better lives (the liberal social benefits surely play a role as well). But drawn in with them are the worst-of-the-worst Serbians who learned the killer’s trade in the violence that came with the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Unrestricted immigration was one of the so-called “blessings” when the European Union was created. Alas, the object lesson to be learned from Mr. Lapidus‘ novel is that intended good deeds can have awful consequences.

Through much of its history, Sweden has been known as an island of tranquility amid a host of neighboring states to whom a constant state of warfare seemed normal. Sweden managed to stay out of both world wars, oblivious to nasty comments made by those who risked their lives to fight Hitler. On the rare occasions when the Swedish military went abroad, its soldiers wore the “blue helmets” that identified them as members of U.N. peacekeeping missions. Even the occasional Swedish “master criminals” were nonviolent. Indeed, its most famous malefactor was Ivar Kreuger, famed as the “match king,” who used a fountain pen, not a pistol, to rob investors of millions of dollars.

Three central characters are at the core of “Easy Money” (the title stems from the riches to be earned from the drug trade). One of them, Johan Westlund, known as “JW,” is a cabdriver who parties with a crowd of rich swells who strive to outdo one another in lavish spending. JW more or less lives off this crowd. He is the classic deadbeat who endows himself with a strong claim to “entitlements,” that is, cadging money and favors from acquaintances. (Many of us have had the misfortune to encounter moochers who offer flimsy excuses for not splitting restaurant tabs, and who “forget” to repay loans large and small. JW is a prime example of that genre.)

When his supposed pals tire of his hanger-on status, JW sees a chance to pull himself out of penury when a drug dealer recruits him to supply his rich party-boy friends. Then his boss tasks him with finding Jorge, a young Latino drug dealer who has escaped from prison. The aim is to use Jorge’s contacts to expand business. The convoluted plot then shifts to the Serbian thug Mrado, who works for an even more powerful Yugoslavian criminal, Radovan, who controls much of the Swedish underworld. Mrado longs to muscle Radovan aside and take control himself.

These individuals are set upon a collision course that you quickly realize is going to result in major bloodshed. Mr. Lapidus does not disappoint. His climactic shoot-out scene would make Tom Clancy cough and take respectful notice.

Mr. Lapidus is also daring enough to flaunt fictional convention. The traditional thriller has a good-versus-evil theme, with at least one “good guy” - a dedicated cop, or a concerned citizen - determined to thwart the villains. In this instance, dash any thoughts of any such a hero. What passes for “justice” results from a double-cross - make that “triple-cross” - that puts Mrado in prison for murder, and provides JW a six-figure windfall in a foreign bank account.

In 469 pages, I did not encounter a single admirable character. “Easy Money” is raw and dark, with crisp dialogue that shouts authenticity. Be forewarned: Mr. Lapidus does not cater to the squeamish reader. I’ve enjoyed Stockholm several times in past years, but given Mr. Lapidus‘ writing, I fear I will never be comfortable there again. This book shows a side of Sweden you won’t find in the travel guides. But it is a five-punch, five-head-butt read.

• Joseph Goulden’s latest book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover).

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