Sword, by Bogdan Teodorescu, is a very different crime novel from any I have read before. It was translated from Romanian by the excellent book blogger Marina Sofia as one of the first publications from Corylus Books, a new publishing house that aims to publish some of the European crime fiction that otherwise wouldn’t be available in English. I bought it when they first released it, but it’s been lingering on my Kindle ever since. I’m very glad I made it one of my 20 Books of Summer, as I enjoyed it very much. It starts off in a very similar vein to your common-or-garden serial killer novel: a body is found with a single wound to the throat, and then slowly the victims begin to pile up.
However, the focus of the novel is not on the killer or the investigation at all. The crime elements are really an excuse to look at the political posturing and jockeying that the case caused, each party trying their best to turn the situation to their advantage. The killer (nicknamed Sword) is choosing only Roma victims, and only those that have criminal backgrounds – which means that a substantial part of the populace unfortunately thinks of Sword as a hero. The various political characters in the novel debate how to avoid offending these citizens and yet not alienate the sizable Roma minority in the country. Some of them choose to stir up the interethnic conflict because creating that kind of fear results in votes, leading to a feeling among Roma people that the police are deliberately turning a blind eye. Although, as readers, we do see that the police are working on the case, it’s also true that a lot of those in power dismiss the victims because of their ethnicity and/or criminal background. I knew that discrimination against Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities was widespread in the UK, especially the south of England (and especially Kent, where I grew up). Into my early teens, there were still occasionally pubs and shops with “No Travellers” signs – highly illegal, and unthinkable with any other ethnic group by the late 90s/early 00s. I hadn’t realised that this was so widespread in the rest of Europe, and this book was an eye-opening look at the issue in Romania at the time the book was set.
The corrupt dealings between both major political parties and the press was unsettling, and, especially given the cosy relationship between our current prime minister and particular publications, made me wonder uneasily how widespread that type of behaviour is in 21st century UK. When I was reading up about the author as I wrote the review, I was surprised to discover that he was a journalist, political analyst, and briefly Acting Head of Public Information in Romania during the very period in which he set Sword. He obviously knows the world where he set this very well indeed – the shadowy corridors and locked rooms of power. That comes through in the writing – I felt like the wheelings and dealings of the various players in this novel were very convincing.
You’ll notice that I haven’t named any of the characters – that’s because most of them don’t have names, or their names aren’t as important as their roles (“the president”, “the Minister for the Interior” etc). I didn’t really feel like I got to know any of the characters, but, while that would normally put me off a novel in any genre, it didn’t bother me here. The characters are not the point of the book. Really, every character in the novel is asking the same question: what is Romania now, post-Communism, and where do we want to go? The President and his party are trying to resolve that by developing Romania’s links with Western democracies, especially the US, and raising the international profile of the country as “the leader of the Balkans”. Other politicians, journalists, and activists are more worried about the conflict brewing at home, especially the cynical stirring of interethnic tension in order to increase votes. The whole “setting one demographic of the country against another for political gain” part of the plot felt unnervingly close to home – as I imagine it would feel to readers in many Western democracies right now. Part of that is the translation (for example, the periodic references to “fake news” made me curious about whether this was a direct translation, or an equivalent to a similar idiom in Romanian). The underlying themes definitely rang true either way.
Because of my poor knowledge of the history of the Balkans, I was initially confused about the timeline. The President is preoccupied with putting Romania on a footing to join NATO and the EU, and there are allusions to the Romanian Revolution having happened fairly recently. Because there are also frequent references to “what happened in Kosovo”, though, I kept wanting to think it was set in the late 00s, around the time that Kosovo declared independence. Eventually I did some googling and remembered that there were several decades of conflict pre-independence, and that the references were probably to either Kosovo’s previous declaration of independence in 1990, or to the subsequent insurgency which led to the Kosovo War. I definitely knew there were wars going on in that general region during the 90s, but I think I had it mixed up with the Bosnian War in my mind. Reading Sword made me aware of just how limited my knowledge is of recent European history, and I think that’s something I will aim to address in my future reading – maybe once I’ve finished my Transmongolian challenge I can go on a trip around southeast Europe! This is not a flaw of the book, of course – if anything I appreciated the prompt to go and find out what was going on at the time.
This was a fascinating book – it gripped me and surprised me throughout, and it has definitely made me keen to read more of the work being brought into English by Corylus Books. Some of their output sounds just a bit too dark for me, but I think the next one I’ll be reading is The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir – set in a small town in coastal Iceland, somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. It does take some getting used to a very different type of crime novel, but I found that I got used to the style about a quarter of the way in, and once I did I couldn’t put it down. This is really worth reading if you’re interested in crime fiction or thrillers – highly recommended.