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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Box 21

Anders Roslund
Börge Hellström

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the authors

To purchase Box 21

Title: Box 21
Author: Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 393 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Box 21 - US
Box 21 - UK
Box 21 - Canada
Box 21 - France
Blasse Engel - Deutschland
Box 21 - Italia
  • Swedish title: Box 21
  • English translation originally published in the UK as The Vault
  • The English translation is uncredited (yeah, that's always a great sign ...)

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Our Assessment:

B : some weaknesses in the presentation, but overall a solid, readable B-thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/10/2009 Marilyn Stasio
The Washington Post . 19/10/2009 Patrick Anderson

  From the Reviews:
  • "For all their cinematic hyperbole, the authors don’t contribute to any further degradation of Lydia, who makes a believably tragic model for all the real women exploited by human traffickers." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Box 21 (...) is no sermon, but the authors make their outrage clear. (...) (I)f the nasty realities of the sex trade don't scare you off, Box 21 is a harsh but vivid reminder of just how brutal men can be." - Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Box 21 features the obligatory taciturn lone-wolf cop (thirty-three years on the force), DSI Ewert Grens -- "Fifty-six years old and lonely", who listens to too much Siw Malmkvist. One big burden he carries with him is that: "he had lost his woman long ago". Beloved Anni didn't die, but something terrible happened to her decades earlier (which is described in the novel), and Ewert hasn't been able to get over it; he still visits her weekly, but it doesn't seem to do either of them much good.
       Ewert's younger colleague is Sven Sundkvist -- "the only one in the police house whom Ewert didn't detest". Sven has a bit of a happier personal life, with a wife and an adopted (from Cambodia ...) son -- though during the days covered in Box 21 he disappoints his family by being far too busy.
       Box 21 shifts back and forth between several main characters -- the criminals, the victims, the cops -- in quite short chapters; this means it takes a while before the story gels, but once it does the fast-paced back and forth work reasonably well. The bulk of the book takes place over the course of less than a week in June (with short flashback-sections bookending the story) and involves two separate crimes.
       On the one hand there's Jochum Lang, released from prison at the start of the book -- much to Ewert's chagrin: there's some personal history there, and if there's one person Ewert wants to see put away for life it's Lang. Lang soon enough obliges when he immediately gets back down to business once he's free, leaving him vulnerable to some serious long-term incarceration -- but though there is a witness who can identify him he's had great success intimidating similar witnesses not to testify against him previously. Ewert, of course, does his best to make sure that doesn't happen this time.
       The other case involves one of two young Lithuanian women who have been forced into the sex trade, each servicing twelve customers daily. When her handler, Dimitri-Bastard-Pimp (as everyone calls him), beats too much of the crap out of Lydia Grajauskas the police do show up to see what's going on. Dimitri-Bastard-Pimp has diplomatic immunity, so there's not much they can do with him beyond ship him out on one of the next boats home (only for him to -- quite unrealistically (diplomatic immunity only gets you so far) -- return with two replacement-babes soon enough), but Lydia takes advantage of her stay in hospital to send a message. With a bit of help from her friend -- Alena, the other prostituted girl -- she soon has what she needs and puts her plan in action: she's got a gun and some Semtex and soon she's holding hostages in the hospital morgue. She also makes very clear that she's serious.
       Things turn out a bit differently than expected with the hostage crisis, but Lydia is able to make at least part of her point -- and after that Ewert tries to figure out how much of the rest should be more widely known, since it might affect the lives of others. A fair amount of Box 21 is about collateral damage -- potential and actual --, from Sven's family, disappointed by how his police-work keeps him away from them and their plans together, to considerably more serious instances. And for all Ewert's efforts, Roslund and Hellström have no qualms about closing the book with the cruelest of ironic twists. (Perhaps to counter that they offer another ironic twist -- regarding Lang's situation and sentencing -- that goes the other way.)
       Parts of Box 21 are very unrealistic -- notably Dimitri-Bastard-Pimp's ability to continue with business as usual -- and the descriptions of what Lydia and Alena go through aren't entirely convincing, but on the whole Roslund and Hellström manage the thriller-elements quite well, especially the hostage crisis. Still, the presentation of the novel is often awkward -- as is some of the pacing, with the story- (and thriller-)arc peaking way too early on. Character-development is also not their strong point, with Ewert remaining too much of a cipher, and when he goes even more rogue than usual they're reduced to offering defenses of the guy (without any more foundation than peoples' words) such as (three hundred pages in ...):

Detective Superintendent Grens seldom failed. It was well known. He simply didn't make silly mistakes. That was fact, regardless of what you thought about his social skills or ability to communicate.
       Which is followed shortly later by a different character also offering reassurance:
He was the best policeman Sven had ever encountered, incapable of making simple errors and always prepared to pursue every case to its conclusion, regardless of consequences. To him the investigation alone mattered, to the exclusion of everything else.
       Yes, despite following the adage of showing rather than telling for much of the novel, the authors didn't manage to show anywhere near enough of Ewert to avoid having to tell things like this to readers. About the rest of the characters ... well, they don't even bother telling readers much. As part of a series -- this is apparently the second Ewert Grens/Sven Sundkvist adventure -- perhaps there's some build-up over the course of the series; as a stand-alone title, however, readers remain far too much in the dark about who these guys really are (and why they should care about them -- the (Anni-)sympathy (or that adopted kid) only gets Roslund and Hellström so far (not very)).
       A note also on the translation: the rule of thumb with uncredited translations is that you should simply fling them aside on sight (though I suggest spitting on them and cursing the publishers, too), and as even just the brief quotes above suggest, this isn't a particularly good one. Still, whoever did the translation showed a better ear than the (credited, albeit only pseudonymously) translator of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; sentence by sentence it can look pretty bad, but on the whole it reads surprisingly well, allowing the reader to breeze comfortably through it. Mind you, this isn't great writing (the original clearly isn't either), but it is very readable.
       The moralizing about the sex trade here is relatively unconvincing, and Roslund and Hellström seem to rather like wallowing in (and describing) that muck for titillation-purposes, but there are enough redeeming thriller-elements to almost excuse that.
       Box 21 doesn't withstand much closer scrutiny, but for a sensationalistic and relatively mindless thriller-read it is certainly solid enough: a B-thriller, all around.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 January 2011

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Box 21: Reviews: Anders Roslund: Other books by Roslund and Hellström under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Swedish author Anders Roslund was born 1961.

       Swedish co-author Börge Hellström was born in 1957

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