science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else. often, though not always, discussed in relation to gender identity and (a)sexuality.
Anybody can knock out an opponent, but only a technician can take a bloke's heart away from him.
Historic Scandinavian noir, set in Stockholm 1932, following a bisexual ex-boxer: how could I say no?
Harry Kvist is a former boxer who was quite popular at his time, but never quite made it to pro-status. December 1932 sees him working as a debt collector in Stockholm, a task that lets him put his fists to good use. His next assignment seems promising: rough up a debtor, collect the debt, get a lot of dough. The first part goes quite well – for Harry at least, not so much for the debtor – but then it‘s down the drain with no up in sight. When Harry returns the next day, the debtor‘s dead and he is framed for murder. Two people could attest to his innocence. The boy is out of the question, because Harry has already been sentenced for violation of paragraph 18 („indecency“) twice, and anyway, he punched him afterwards, so not the ideal situation to ask for a favour. The whore Harry chatted with is nowhere to be found. When a third witness leads to his release, Harry goes looking for the prostitute – and tries to find the real murderer as well.
Clinch came to my attention 2016, when members of both the GR m/m group and the Pulp Fiction group started to read and review this book simultaneously – and seemed equally satisfied. There isn‘t that much overlap between those two groups (except when you count my presence in both of them as overlap; which I guess you can), so I was instantly intrigued. Yet I was hesitant to get my own copy: I planned to wait for a German translation, as Swedish translates better into German than into English, and I have a somewhat easier time with 1st person present tense in German to boot. But none seems to be forthcoming, and I finally ran out of patience. I‘m glad I did get over myself, because Clinch is certainly worth it.
My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside, pressing on like some kind of automatic doll. One movement is not more than a natural extension of another. The body is abandoned to answer in a certain way to a given situation, hardened through thousands of hours of training. The fight turns into a physical self-examination, a receipt for the time that’s been invested. Street fighting is really no different; it just lacks a system of rules.
As far as noir goes, Clinch is firmly on the grittier, pulpier side of things. It’s a very physical story. The violence is as graphic as are the sex scenes, which end in not entirely consensual violence as well. But sensuous as those scenes are, Clinch isn’t celebrating violence; things aren’t prettied up or glorified. Amongst breaking bones and flowing blood there are few instances of tenderness, presented in a way that always make you question how genuine they actually are.
Holmén also adds some really nice touches: “The meat thermometer in his throat shows thirty-three degrees but I don’t know how long I’ve been out.”
The author plays some well known noir tropes to good effect and offers some top-notch character work. Harry Kvist has an intensity to him that I find hard to resist. He’s just as intense in his needs and in his longings as he is in his propensity towards violence. He’s not easy to decipher, but as his backstory is presented in little nuggets throughout the book, you get a pretty good idea about the man. I especially liked the fact that he isn’t a good detective. His fights have left him with an impaired memory, not the best prerequisite for detective work, and he often solely relies on his fists. But there’s no success to justify his brutality, which makes this character all the more tragic.
Although gritty and brutal, this is not a fast-paced story. Holmén seems more interested in atmosphere and character than in a fast-moving series of events. He’s also a historian and it shows. The first part is a bit in danger of reading like a Swedish street directory. The second half more than makes up for it. The book is at its best when it zooms in on Harry and his relationships, be it his companionship with his landlord, the undertaker Lundin, his distaste for a certain ex-lover, or his relation to the femme fatale of this story, an ageing film star.
Bisexual characters in genre-fiction are still rare. Unapologetic bisexual men like Kvist even more so. I read a lot of SFF, and when we get trad-published SFF stories with queer characters, they often fall into the trap of either a) concentrating on the character's queerness, b) being so busy with being “diverse” that they forget to tell a story or c) giving the character no personality apart from being queer. The books churned out by Tor are the worst offenders in all of these regards, Indies and Angry Robot do somewhat better. As usual, crime fiction seems to be a bit ahead of the game. I keep asking for stories with queer characters that are simply good stories with good, believable characters who happen to be queer, and Clinch certainly fits that bill. This being the 1930's, Kvist’s bisexuality is cause for conflict, and the book buries quite a few gays, but that’s to be expected. Most importantly, Holmén gives you people, in all their complexity, with all their flaws. And that’s all I’m really asking for.
Henning Koch’s English translation flows quite well, although, as a GR reviewer has already remarked, he mixes British English and American English vernacular, and I’d wished for a bit more consistency.
Clinch is the first part in a trilogy, and now my hesitancy has one advantage: The two other parts are already published and I can read them right away (well, almost, I have a longish buddy read coming up).
Bonus points for avoiding the phrase “letting go of the breath one wasn’t aware one was holding”, and instead saying: “I notice that I’ve been holding my breath, then straining for air.” See, authors, there are variations you can use!