CHAPTER ONE: AN ATTACK WITH IMPUNITY
It happened very quickly. One moment, Ulf Varg’s hearing-impaired dog, Martin, was enjoying his outing to the park, sniffing about in the bushes, pursuing ancient and tantalising smells, the next he was bleeding copiously from a number of severe head wounds. Above him in the trees, the unrepentant perpetrator of this outrage, a large male squirrel, bloodstained himself but clearly the victor, looked down on his victim with all the mocking impunity that the arboreal have for the land-bound.
Of course, these things often take place against a background of entirely ordinary events. A big thing happens while small things are going on all about it. Take suffering: Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a reflection on Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,
reminds us of just that—of how the Old Masters understood only too well the human context of suffering, about how it occurs when people in its vicinity are going about their ordinary business, their innocent routines. The tragedy of the boy falling into the sea unfolds while a ship sails blithely on, while a man ploughs a field unaware of what is happening in the bay. Ordinary human business. So it was that when misfortune struck Martin on that Saturday morning, Ulf himself was chatting in the park to a fellow dog owner; a small boy was trying—unsuccessfully—to launch an uncooperative kite, the boy being still too young to understand that kites require wind; and a young couple, newly in love, were having their first disagreement, on a park bench, about what to do that evening.
At first, Ulf barely noticed what was happening. His conversation with the other dog owner was about a puzzling series of incidents that had taken place in the park a few weeks earlier and that, in the opinion of the other man, had been scandalously under-investigated by the police. The incidents in question had occurred at night and had all involved young women being approached by a man who, without warning, danced up and down in front of them shouting, “Cucumber! Cucumber!,” before rushing off into the trees.
“It’s utterly bizarre,” said Stig, Ulf’s friend in the park, about whom he knew very little other than that he was a doctor and often overworked. “Seemingly, it was not all that serious, but the victims have all been young women in their late teens or early twenties, and they’ve been pretty shocked by the experience. I know one of them. She works in the hospital pharmacy. A very open, friendly girl—and robust, too, I would have thought. But she was pretty shaken.”
Ulf tried not to grin. As a member of the Department of Sensitive Crimes in Malmö, he had seen just about every sort of bizarre behaviour that people were capable of, and he had long assumed nothing would surprise or shock him. Human perversity, he realised, was endlessly inventive. No sexual fixation or aberration, however ridiculous, struck Ulf as being unlikely or impossible: no private fantasy was too odd not to have its secret practitioners; nothing was out of bounds or unlikely as a vehicle for concupiscence. Eyebrows may have been raised in the past over these things, but not now, when all judgement as to personal erotic preference had been more or less abandoned in the name of . . . in the name of what? wondered Ulf. Freedom? Personal fulfilment? That must be it: our ability to disapprove had been blunted. And as disapproval waned, so too did morality itself change. It was no longer about goodness; it was about freedom to do what you wanted to do. In a world in which the concept of sin was so outdated as to seem like a medieval survival, the real offence seemed to be disrespect for the tastes and ambitions of others.
Ulf managed a serious face. “That’s not good,” he said at last. “People should not frighten other people with . . . with cucumbers. That’s bad.”
There was a note of accusation in Stig’s tone. “Then why did your colleagues in the uniformed police not do anything? Why did they say: probably just a harmless crazy person? Why did they not lift a finger to investigate?”
Ulf felt he had to explain about operational discretion. “The police can’t do everything,” he pointed out. “We have to pick and choose—according to what’s most urgent, or most serious. If somebody threatens to kill somebody, for instance, we drop everything to investigate.”
Stig nodded. “So you should.”
“But if it’s something minor—a small theft, for example, or a row between neighbours—we might decide we just don’t have the time to look into it.”
Ulf thought the analogy apposite. “Yes, it’s what you people do in the emergency department, isn’t it? People come in and you decide who’s bleeding the most or who’s in most pain. It’s the same sort of decision.”
“Yes,” said Stig. “But . . .” He paused. “It’s just that people think the police have become soft. They think the police will let people get away with anything. And that’s particularly the case here in Malmö, where the police are anxious to not be seen to be picking on people.” He paused, looking hesitantly at Ulf: one had to be careful what one said, and many people said nothing. “Is it because the police are party to our great Swedish pretence that crime doesn’t exist here?
That people are imagining it? Or that it’s all socio-economic?”
Well, it is, thought Ulf. Or, at least, to an appreciable extent: crime was committed by those on the outside. But he looked away; he knew what the other man meant, but he knew, too, that he could quite quickly be drawn into the sort of conversation that he wanted to avoid. He reached for the anodynes. “We do our best,” he said. “Sometimes, if you come down too hard on a particular group, it makes matters worse. They think you’re picking on them. And you might be—even subconsciously. You have to keep everybody onside—as far as possible.”
The doctor sighed. “I know, Ulf. I know. You’re right about that. We wouldn’t want Sweden to become an oppressive society.”
“No, we wouldn’t.” His agreement was real, and heartfelt; he would not have wanted to be a member of the Criminal Investigation Department of a heavy-handed government. Policemen could sometimes find themselves becoming oppressors because of the very nature of what they did, but Ulf had always seen the police as public guardians—the protectors rather than the destroyers of people’s freedoms. That was his vision of police work in general, and in particular it was the philosophy that guided his approach to the unusual complaints with which his own department, the Department of Sensitive Crimes, was concerned.
“And yet,” Stig continued, “a light touch should not allow people to go around frightening people by shouting ‘Cucumber’ at them.” He fixed Ulf with a challenging stare. “In the dark. In a park. Whether or not a cucumber is threatening is surely contextual, wouldn’t you say?”
It would be easy to laugh now, thought Ulf. Of course, cucumbers were capable of being threatening in a way in which peaches and nectarines, for instance, were not. But this man, this cucuberist,
was really a minor irritant, in the way of those day-release patients from the psychiatric hospital who go about the town carrying on one-sided conversations with their individual demons . . . or talking on their mobile phones—it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between those who were talking to themselves and those who were merely having a telephone conversation through microphone headsets.
“I’m sure they’ll do something,” he said. “When they have the time, they’ll have a word with him.”
This was greeted with incredulity. “Have a word with him? Is that what policing has become? Having a word
“It’s sometimes the most effective response,” said Ulf.
“But this is clearly sexual assault,” Stig protested. “You don’t have a word
with people who do that sort of thing.”
“Does he have a cucumber with him when he jumps out in front of people?” asked Ulf.
Stig shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well then . . .”
Stig was not sure whether Ulf understood. Sometimes policemen were a bit literal, he reminded himself. Did he have to spell it out? Surely not, and yet not everybody was sensitive to these things. “But the whole point, Ulf, is that the cucumber is phallic. It’s the most phallic of vegetables.”
Ulf felt a momentary irritation. He had read Freud and felt that Stig’s remark verged on condescension. But his friend was probably right about the phallic nature of the cucumber: there was no other vegetable that matched it in that respect. And yet he reminded himself that people looked at things in their particular ways; cucumbers might mean different things to different people. That was not to say that they had no significance here: of course, symbolism was important in the investigation of crime, as the psychological profilers were at pains to point out. Those people found, in the criminal modus operandi,
all sorts of clues as to motivation, and these clues often led directly to the perpetrator. There had been that man who had kidnapped domestic cats, always picking on Siamese, sometimes leaving them injured in their owners’ gardens or in the streets. The public had been revolted, as gratuitous cruelty to animals always met with disgust. The case caught the eye of the press, and this in turn brought in the Commissioner of Police, who said that every effort had to be made to find the culprit. A profiler was approached, and he suggested that enquiries should focus on finding somebody who had been raised by a stepmother, and particularly by a stepmother who kept Siamese cats. “He’ll be transferring his dislike of his stepmother—a very common problem—to the cats,” he advised.
The police had paid heed to this diagnosis and had interviewed the entire membership of the local Exotic Cat Appreciation Club—fruitlessly, as it transpired. And then, quite by chance, Ulf had seen a magazine feature on a local pair of conjoined, or Siamese, twins. The author of the article had been sympathetic, but conveyed the impression that the twins were unhappy with their lot. Unhappiness, thought Ulf, does not always keep its head down: it may mould our response to the world. And at that point it occurred to him that the profiler had ignored the most obvious of all possibilities: attacks on Siamese cats might be (a) carried out by persons of a Thai background, or (b) by conjoined twins.
The twins, under investigation, proved blameless, and before Ulf had time to interrogate members of the local Thai community, the perpetrator of the attacks was filmed on CCTV chasing a Siamese cat down a street. He was apprehended and interviewed by the duty police psychiatrist, who reported that far from being motivated by animus against Siamese cats, he was, in fact, trying to steal them. This was to sell them across the border in Copenhagen, where unscrupulous dealers were prepared to take expensive pets without too many questions as to provenance. It was when the cats resisted that they were damaged, and that was entirely through ineptitude on the thief’s part.
It had become an open-and-shut case, but it gave rise to debate in Ulf’s department about how one might go about arresting a conjoined twin.
Copyright © 2021 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.