Book Review: The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith
By Doreen SheridanApril 15, 2019
Equal parts hilarious and heartening, The Department of Sensitive Crimes is the first book in Alexander McCall Smith’s new Detective Varg series.
Celebrated author Alexander McCall Smith turns his keen eye for human psychology to the wildly popular genre of Scandi-noir, as the spate of crime novels from Scandinavia that focus on gritty, often grotesque, crimes is sometimes known. Of course, Professor McCall Smith doesn’t do grimdark, as fans of his immensely popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie series already know. His mysteries, by and large, are relatively bloodless affairs. So, too, are the ones in this novel, the first in a genre christened “Scandi-blanc,” in contrast with its parent.
The Scandinavian air of reserve is on full display—as is the commitment to fairness and justice—but the cases investigated are far lighter than the murders and kidnappings that are Scandi-noir’s usual mainstays. In fact, some of the cases undertaken by Professor McCall Smith’s Department of Sensitive Crimes, as the small office in the Malmo division of police is known, may not actually be crimes at all.
First, and definitely a crime, is the assault of a market vendor who is stabbed in the back of the knee. Investigating this case will take Detective Ulf Varg and his investigative colleagues, Anna Bengsdotter and Carl Holgersson, from the scene of the crime to the courthouse to a military camp and beyond as they pursue justice well past simply finding the assailant and bringing him to book.
The second mystery involves the disappearance of an imaginary boyfriend but really exposes the complicated relationship between three young women who consider themselves friends. Bim, the college student who makes up a boyfriend in order to impress the more experienced Signe and Linnea, is taken aback to discover that her fiction should bring up unexpected reactions:
[It] was surprising that Signe should be envious. She already had two boyfriends; did this mean she wanted a third? Or was it that people, for all they wished their friends well, never actually wished them that well? Some relationships, of course depended on the superiority of one party, and a change in the balance of advantage could destabilise them. That, she decided, was happening here. Signe wanted her to feel inferior because that somehow made her—Signe—feel better about herself. She was the big, more successful sister; she was the popular one; she was the one who could dispense advice and crumbs of comfort. She did not want an equal relationship, and she certainly would not want to be eclipsed.
The third case involves the Commissioner of Police asking Ulf for help investigating his cousin’s spa. Someone appears to be sabotaging the premises but not quite enough for the proprietors to lodge a formal police complaint. Ulf’s inquiries will lead to hints of the supernatural as well as repercussions for his entire department.
I really enjoyed how Professor McCall Smith wove together all these cases in his novel while also highlighting the personal interactions between and interior lives of each member of the squad. Ulf and Anna’s requited feelings for one another make for a fresh take on seemingly doomed police romances, and the novelty of Ulf’s depressed dog was surprisingly engrossing. But most of all, I appreciated the philosophical underpinnings of the novel—a belief in goodness, kindness, and affirming joy.
Ulf looked up at the sky. He felt a curious, indescribable happiness, and was not sure why he should feel this. Was it because he was in Anna’s company—or was it because of something quite different? He could not tell, but he remembered learning, years ago, that the important thing with happiness was simply that you should feel happy; it did not matter, the philosophers said, if you did not understand the reason why you felt happy, as long as the happiness itself was there. That was all that counted.
While I can’t say that I enjoyed this book more than the ones featuring Mr. McCall Smith’s most famed heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, I did find it an extremely pleasant read that had just enough touches of Scandinavian realism and place to transport me far away from the setting of his other novels. Thoughtful and gentle, The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a must-read for his fans—or for anyone who wants a break from the bleak violence of Scandi-noir without traveling too far afield from its setting.