The Strange Case of the Moderate Extremists by Alexander McCall Smith REVIEW

With a name like The Strange Case of the Moderate Extremists, you know you are in for a treat of oxymoronic absurdity.

moderate extremists

“The world was full of falsity – and smoke and mirrors, and every sort of artifice.”

I have a complex relationship with Alexander McCall Smith. Not that I know him personally, but I do know his books. His books’ covers to be exact. Even in a library where there are many fetching book covers to behold, my eye is immediately drawn in byhis. Never judge a book by its cover they say; however, today I absolutely did. It was time to see if the content matched the whimsy book cover as well as the stellar name of this detective short. With a name like The Strange Case of the Moderate Extremists, you know you are in for a treat of oxymoronic absurdity.

“That morning, though, as he was licked into wakefulness by his dog, Martin, who had leapt on his bed and applied his tongue to his master’s still pillow-bound face, Ulf recalled very clearly the subject of his fading dream.”

The story begins with a dream. Ulf dreams of a setting much like his Uncle Maksimilian’s home, conjuring up terrifying days of being forced to watch Ingmar Bergman movies because of his uncle’s fondness for them. His brother Bjorn was also a participant to those days, and together they would wonder what Uncle Maksimilian and Aunt Birgitte got up to in the sauna (wink wink, nudge nudge). In a seeming coincidence, Bjorn appears on TV, in his capacity as a moderate extremist (he is a politician), after which Ulf receives a call from Bjorn because his help is required.

As the brothers meet up for lunch, we wonder, as Ulf does, how on earth two people could grow up in the same environment and turn out so vastly different. Bjorn has such idiotic views, like the desired removal of abstract art because lay people don’t get it, or wanting to ban ethnic food since it feels unpatriotic to eat any food that isn’t Swedish. You think to yourself how on earth such an absurd human being could exist, as well as belong to a political party that subscribes to such inane views? Smith’s work is satire at its finest and has such aptness attached to it given the recent political opinions surrounding the New Zealand mosque attacks.

Bjorn needs Ulf to find out who is leaking party secrets, and there is a cat breeding crime that also needs solving – a busy time for detective Ulf Varg at Sensitive Crimes. Ulf is an extremely well-layered character, so much so that I find myself relating to him in such a short period of time. I admire the quickness of his detective mind, his openness about his desires and loneliness. Both mysteries are also equally compelling, which is proof that you don’t need a homicidal angle to write a good mystery. There is such nostalgia to Smith’s work. While reading this book I felt like I was taken back to the good old days of Hercule Poirot and Nancy Drew. Maybe I should judge a book by its cover more often.

Review copy provided

Verdict
Smith delivers a compelling main character in detective Ulf Varg, who possesses a dependency lacking in more modern detectives. The short does its intended work, to introduce us to a world of characters who have just made their debut in a full-fledged novel (The Department of Sensitive Crimes).
9

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