Some novels never let you forget that you’re reading words on a page—words so carefully chosen that they build upon each other to form a complex linguistic mosaic.
I Am the Tiger is not one of those novels. And I mean that as a compliment.
Unlike those novels that are more linguistic performance than entertainment, I Am the Tiger is as close to unfiltered literary entertainment as I’ve found. Reading this work of Swedish horror, by a man known as the “Swedish Stephen King,” is like watching a gripping movie play out in your mind. The clichéd expression “I didn’t even realize I was reading” rings quite true in this instance.
Perhaps that’s because John Ajvide Lindqvist was a magician before he was a writer, a line of work he details in I Always Find You, the book that precedes I Am the Tiger in the Platserna (Places) trilogy. Lindqvist doesn’t want readers to pay attention to how the story is told, only what is happening within it. This opacity functions well on both that level and on the level of plot, where a vaguely supernatural creature seems to be driving a massive increase in drug dealing in the Swedish suburbs. Lindqvist, like the skilled magician he is, focuses our attention on the two troubled protagonists while distracting us from the destruction to come.
Like the previous two books in the trilogy—I Am Behind You and I Always Find You—this third book can stand alone, and yet still fits perfectly into the trilogy’s structure. Characters move through the books, sometimes as protagonists in one and then minor characters in another. Running through all three novels are the same central images: the Blackeburg Tunnel, the Field, and the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. What these have to do with one another is central to the mystery at the heart of the trilogy, a mystery that is solved (sort of) at the end of I Am the Tiger.
You don’t even need to be a student of Swedish culture and history to (generally) get the references to Lindqvist’s stomping grounds. Palme’s assassination, according to my own brief research, seems on a par in the Swedish imagination with the Kennedy assassination’s place in the American psyche. What little I know of Swedish history and culture I’ve learned from Lindqvist’s books and from the small but fascinating group of Swedish speculative fiction texts available in English. And yet, Lindqvist makes even a clueless reader like myself feel like I do generally understand the references he drops to Palme, the Blackeberg Tunnel (near where Palme was shot), and Swedish suburban life in general because he makes these things seem universal. As an American, I can see the Swedish urban and suburban environments in their American counterparts and I know that all you need to say is “Kennedy” to trigger a million ideas and images about 11/22/63 in my brain. The title (in the English version) of this third installment in the trilogy is, appropriately, the title of an ABBA song, and I think most of us above a certain age know of ABBA. Lindqvist makes Sweden an Every Country, and makes you want to learn so much more about it.
I Am the Tiger focuses on Tommy T., a has-been journalist who’s sliding half-voluntarily into retirement; and his nephew Linus, an unfocused drug-dealing kid with a depressing home life. The chapters flip back and forth between Tommy and Linus’s perspectives, with Tommy breathing new life into his career as he investigates the infusion of a powerful and pure form of cocaine that’s flowing into Sweden’s suburbs. Linus becomes involved in this dangerous game, slowly giving himself over to a darkness that ultimately leads to his destruction.
What tips off Tommy to this drug trade is a wave of apparent suicides by highly placed drug lords and other criminals in Sweden. Many of those men had no apparent reason to commit suicide, and the circumstances of their deaths are highly suspicious. Calling on his old contacts and linking back up with his former journalist colleagues, Tommy slowly learns that one person (with vaguely supernatural powers?) is running the whole thing—from the jungles of Colombia to Sweden’s shores. The coke coming in is so pure that it nearly drives its users insane—they’re so desperate even for a gram, that they’ll sell their own grandmothers. When Linus is drawn into the big leagues by a drug-dealing colleague, he finally feels like an adult with a purpose, someone who can make a living and escape from a depressing home where his father sits paralyzed from a horse-racing accident.
We ultimately learn that the ringleader of the operation is somehow connected to the strange suicides in this novel, the dark incidents in I Will Always Find You, and the horror and desperation of I Am Behind You. A gelatinous black liquid associated with this person/creature appears in all three books, suggesting something ancient and evil. All of this, though—the drug ring, the suicides, the insanity, the police corruption, the journalistic incompetence—are a sidenote to the ancient evil that was brought into the world by one deranged, child-abusing cop and the colleagues who covered for him decades ago.
Like I said, Lindqvist has a talent for making his novels read like a film reel running through your brain. Us anglophone readers, though, wouldn’t even be able to experience this without the skillful artistry of translator Marlaine Delargy. Of course, I’d love to learn Swedish in order to read the Platserna trilogy in the original, but the English version is so good, that I’m perfectly happy relying on Delargy for my Lindqvist fix.
Speaking of which, I hope you know that Lindqvist has several other books in English. The most famous one is Let the Right One In, which I’m going to go request from the library just as soon as I finish this review.