Book review: The Department Of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith

It is amusing to imagine a reader unfamiliar with Alexander McCall Smith’s work picking up this book and finding it decidedly odd. Billed as a new genre of Scandi-blanc (as opposed to Scandi-noir crime novels), The Department Of Sensitive Crimes introduces us to detective Ulf Varg of the eponymous department of Malmo’s police HQ. Fictional Scandinavian sleuths all have their issues. Harry Hole is a chronic alcoholic, Saga Norén wrestles with Asperger’s and Wallender suffers from memory loss. Varg’s problems include his name, which somewhat embarrassingly translates as “Wolf Wolf”, and his pet, Marten, who is deaf but has been trained as the first Swedish lip-reading dog.
Alexander McCall SmithAlexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

Varg’s inappropriate behaviour adds up to nothing more than slightly awkward interactions with his colleagues, always as a result of his need to be kind and considerate. The crimes which land on his desk are also a world away from the brutal, twisted conspiracies in the Scandi-noir genre. A made-up boyfriend is missing, paranormal goings on are reported at a health spa and a market trader is wounded – not seriously – in the knee by a mystery assailant.

Fans of McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series will immediately understand the wit that underpins the character-led narrative. Detective work, as in the case of Mma Ramotswe, is best served by being a student of human quirks and highly attuned to tiny details.

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McCall Smith has a supreme talent for sketching truly likeable characters who are free to pontificate on all sorts of areas of interest, whether it’s the office clerk Karl’s obsession with fishing, Varg’s neighbour and dog walker Mrs Hogfors’ belief in that his lacklustre canine is suffering from seasonal affective disorder or indeed Varg’s melancholy and confusion about his attraction to a married colleague.

The crimes may be inconsequential but the conversations throughout the book are fascinating. Varg has an interest in Nordic art of the 20th century and discusses philosophy with his therapist. The rapidly changing nature of Swedish society, the purpose of political correctness and the nature of marriage are also discussed.

McCall Smith’s humour is usually described as gentle, but readers familiar with the rhythm of his writing will find plenty here to make them snort. The loquacious junior policeman who cannot stop offering his dull opinions is an absolute gem of a creation and one who I hope reappears in subsequent books in the series. How could you not love a character who tells a long rambling story with the punchline: “That’s pericarditis for you.”

For the McCall Smith first-timer, particularly one versed in the more usual type of Scandinavian crime, this novel will appear deeply odd. But readers who get the joke – and it is a good one – will be eager for the next instalment. - Kirsty McLuckie

The Department Of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown, £18.99