The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf: A Detective Varg Novel (4) (Detective Varg Series)

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Release Date: 
August 15, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Allow this novel to float its ideas and its just—if not legal—solutions with its philosophy, and accept an end-of-summer blessing.”

If climate change, politics, and catastrophes are starting to keep you away from mystery novels as a genre, because they add more fear and stress, the newest gentle mystery from Alexander McCall Smith belongs on your reading table. Slow, aching, quietly questioning, and free of bloodshed (if you don’t count surgery to a dog), The Discreet Charm of the Big Bad Wolf is a novel that offers a deep rest, a bit of faith in life, and an entertaining puzzle of grand theft, decorated by many people offering their kindly apologies along the way.

Ulf Varg is a senior detective in the Department of Sensitive Crimes in Malmö, Sweden, the kind of man who ponders things like the 100-year guarantee offered for replacement windows, as well as the thought processes of his hearing-impaired dog Martin. Varg has a painful problem in his workplace: He’s still in love with a colleague who is now otherwise engaged, and it prevents him from finding comfort with anyone else. But he must set this aside when his office receives a report of a curious theft: a man’s house has been stolen. Yes, picked up from its foundation and connections, and taken away, apparently on a large truck.

Fridolf Bengtsson appears on time at the office, calmly reporting the theft of his property. Ulf’s steady questioning suggests briefly that a possible culprit could be Fridolf’s estranged brother. But the brother lives in Denmark, has his own houses in both Denmark and Italy, and is well off. Ulf reluctantly removes the only suspect from his list, but he has his own brother issues and can’t quite let the thought go—so finds himself unexpectedly discussing this with Blomquist, an odd colleague that everyone in the office finds too awkward to befriend.  Blomquist has a gift of saying important things that leave others falling short, like his statement that “We must be kind to each other—it’s the only way.” Ulf’s immediately wracked with guilt, because he’s been far from kind to Blomquist. This accidentally leads to him sharing the case of the missing house with the odd investigator and researcher.

Those who’ve read McCall Smith’s noted No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series will find odd echoes in this book of the voices of Mma Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Grace Makutsi: people with very modest control over external events and who puzzle over their own lives in terms of ethics and humanity. (In fact, the similarity to these better-known voices is the one major drawback of the Varg series.) The name of Varg’s unit may also recall for some readers the Peculiar Crimes Unit in the Bryant and May series by Christopher Fowler—but here, the only similarity is that Varg’s department too gets assigned very eccentric victims and losses.

Complicating the crime investigation is Ulf Varg’s peculiar love life, in which he’s been trying to detach himself from his infatuation for Anna by dating Juni, who in turn is disrupting Ulf’s important relationships with both his dog and his silver Saab car. He seesaws back and forth between frustrations and self-blame, one moment regarding romance, the next regarding crime solving. Wobbling along with him reveals more philosophy of life, however, and some of it is highly memorable: “We bemoan our fate we make a disastrous mess of so much and then transfer the blame to others. We are deeply flawed in ways beyond the understanding of dogs, who see us as simply perfect, entirely fitting objects of their loyal and soul-deep devotion, their unconditional love.”

Allow this novel to float its ideas and its just—if not legal—solutions with its philosophy, and accept an end-of-summer blessing. It might not be the most incisive crime fiction this year, but it certainly offers an effective and tender probe of the mysteries of life among humans (and their dogs).