Clinch, by Martin Holmén

Even though I finished Martin Holmén’s Clinch (translated by Henning Koch), I’m still not sure if I like it or not. I was attracted to the novel because of its setting. I’ve said it before, but I’m a sucker for places and times I haven’t read previously read about. Holmén’s Stockholm of the 1930s was fascinating. What I’m not sure about is the main character, Harry Kvist. At the opening of Clinch, Kvist makes his living repossessing bicycles from people who’ve stopped paying for them and occasionally putting pressure on folks who’ve stopped paying larger debts. He’s not afraid to use his fists. He’s a former boxer, so violence comes naturally to him. What I’m not sure about is Kvist’s penchant for rough sex with partners who don’t have the same tastes.

Clinch begins, as so many noir novels do, with an ordinary job. Kvist has been sent to “encourage” a man to resume making payments on a big loan from a wealthy farmer outside of Stockholm. The man seems appropriately “willing” after Kvist hits him a couple of times and destroys a mirror. As if Kvist’s character wasn’t clear enough yet, we see him pick up a man, who we later learn is called Leonard, and drive to a secluded location. Leonard is willing enough at first, but Kvist doesn’t ask consent before pushing things into the painful. The encounter ends with Kvist knocking Leonard out with a punch to the jaw.

Shortly thereafter, Kvist is arrested for murdering the debtor. The ordinary job has unfortunately linked him to bigger crimes that he spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out who framed him and who really killed the debtor. I was tempted to stop reading Clinch after Kvist punched Leonard. I gave the novel a few more pages to convince me to keep going. After Kvist is arrested, then temporarily released due to lack of conclusive evidence, the ex-boxer walks the streets of Stockholm, looking for the prostitute who can give him an alibi and looking for clues to clear his name. Kvist is not a good detective, but I kept reading because I wanted to see old Stockholm.

The central mystery in Clinch is anything but clear. None of the usual motives about money or anger or jealousy seem to apply. The only skills Kvist has as a detective are the ability to get information out of people and surviving all attempts by his unknown enemies to kill him.

I can’t sat that I was entirely glad to stick with Clinch. While I did learn more about Kvist’s past—arrests for homosexual activity, his deceased child and lost wife, his failed boxing career—I could not get past his casual sadism. There are several sex scenes in the book that begin consensually, but Kvist always takes things further than his partner wants. When he questions people, Kvist does more than hit them; he often add something humiliating or particularly painful. If you are triggered by any of this, avoid Clinch.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 June 2016.

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