“The Alienist set in eighteenth-century Stockholm: Brawny, bloody, intricate, enthralling—and the best historical thriller I’ve read in twenty years.” —A.J. Finn, #1 bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
“Thrilling, unnerving, clever, and beautiful.” —Fredrik Backman, international bestselling author
Named Best Debut Novel of 2017 by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers
It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.
When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite.
Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.
In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.
Over the course of the novel, these extraordinary characters cross paths and collide in shocking and unforgettable ways. Niklas Natt och Dag paints a deliciously dark portrait of late 18th century Stockholm, and the frightful yet fascinating reality lurking behind the powdered and painted veneer of the era.
The Wolf and the Watchman – 1 – “Mickel! Watchman Mickel! Please wake up!”
As an agitated shaking rouses Cardell from his slumber, he feels a fleeting ache in the left arm he no longer owns. A carved wooden arm has taken the place of the missing limb. His stump rests in a hollow space inside the beechwood, attached at the elbow with the aid of leather straps. They are cutting into his flesh. He should know better by now and have loosened them before nodding off.
Reluctantly, he opens his eyes and stares out across the vast plain of the stained table. When he makes an attempt to lift his head, his cheek sticks to the wooden surface and he inadvertently pulls his wig off as he stands up. He curses and uses it to wipe his brow before tucking it inside his jacket. His hat rolls down onto the floor, its crown dented. He punches it out and then pulls it onto his head. His memory is beginning to return. He is at Cellar Hamburg and must have drunk himself senseless. A glance over his shoulder reveals others in a similar condition. The few drunks that the proprietor considered affluent enough not to toss into the gutter are sprawled over benches and across tables, until the morning, when they will stagger away to receive the reproaches of those waiting at home. Not so for Cardell. A crippled war veteran, he lives alone and his time is no one’s but his own.
“Mickel, you’ve got to come! There’s a dead body in the Larder!”
The two youngsters who have roused him are guttersnipes. Their faces look familiar but he is unable to recall their names. Behind them stands the Ram, the well-nourished manager who works for Widow Norström, the owner. The Ram is groggy and flushed and has positioned himself between the children and a collection of etched glass: the pride of the cellar, stored behind lock and key in a blue cabinet.
The condemned stop here at Cellar Hamburg on their way to the Sconce Tollgate and to the gallows beyond. At the steps of the Hamburg they are served their last drink, after which the glass is carefully retrieved, etched with name and date, and added to the collection. The patrons may drink from one of these only under supervision and upon payment of a fee based on the degree of infamy of the condemned. It is said to bring good fortune. Cardell has never understood the reasoning.
Cardell rubs his eyes and realizes he is still inebriated. His voice is thick when he tries it.
“What the devil is going on?”
It is the older one—a girl—who answers. The boy is harelipped, and her brother, to judge by his features. He wrinkles his nose at Cardell’s breath and takes cover behind his sister.
“There is a body in the water, right at the edge.”
Her tone is a blend of terror and excitement. The veins in Cardell’s forehead feel close to bursting. The pounding of his heart threatens to drown out what feeble thoughts he tries to muster.
“How’s this my problem?”
“Please, Mickel, there isn’t anyone else and we knew that you were here.”
He rubs his temples in a vain hope of easing the throbbing pain.
Above the Southern Isle, the skies have not yet begun to lighten. Cardell staggers out and down the steps of the Hamburg and follows the children along the empty street, halfheartedly listening to a story about a thirsty cow that reared up at the water’s edge and took off in terror in the direction of Danto.
“Her muzzle touched the body and made it spin in a circle.”
Underfoot the stones give way to mud as they get closer to the lake. Cardell’s duties have not carried him past the shores of the Larder in a long time, but he sees that nothing has changed. Nothing has come of the long-held plans to clean the shoreline and build a quay with piers, though this is hardly any cause of wonder when both city and state teeter on the brink of ruin. The fine houses around the lake have long since been repurposed into manufactories. The workshops throw their waste directly into the water, and the fenced section intended for human waste is overflowing and ignored by most. Cardell lets out a colorful phrase when his bootheel ploughs a furrow in the muck and he has to flap his healthy arm to maintain his balance.
“Your cow was frightened by an encounter with an overripe cousin. The butchers throw their scraps into the lake. You’ve woken me up for nothing more than a rancid side of beef or some pig’s rib cage.”
“We saw a face in the water, a person’s face.”
The waves lap against the shore, churning up a pale yellow froth. Something rotten—a dark lump—is floating a few meters out. Cardell’s first thought is that it cannot possibly be a human being. It is too small.
“Like I said, it’s butcher’s scraps. An animal carcass.”
The girl insists she is not mistaken. The boy nods in agreement. Cardell snorts in surrender.
“I’m drunk, you hear? Dead drunk. Soused. You’ll not forget this when someone asks about the time you tricked the watchman into taking a dip in the Larder and how he gave you both the thrashing of your lives when he came up again, soaked and enraged.”
He works his way out of his coat with the awkwardness of the one-handed. The forgotten woollen wig falls out of the lining, into the slush. Never mind. The miserable thing only cost a pittance and the fashion is on its way out. He wears it only because a more proper appearance improves the chances that someone will stand a war veteran a drink or two. Cardell casts a glance at the sky. High above, a band of distant stars shine over Årsta Bay. He closes his eyes to seal the impression of beauty inside him and steps into the lake, right leg first.
The boggy edge doesn’t support his weight. He sinks down as far as his knee and feels the lake water pouring over the edge of his boot, which remains stuck in the sludge as his involuntary fall forwards pulls his leg along. With something between a crawl and a doggy-paddle, he begins to make his way farther out. The water is thick between his fingers, full of things that even the residents of the Southern Isle don’t consider worth keeping.
His intoxication has impaired his sense of judgment. He feels a stab of panic when he no longer has the lake bottom under his feet. This water is deeper than anticipated and he finds himself back at Svensksund three years ago, terrified and tossed by the waves, with the Swedish front drawing back.
He grasps the body in the water once his kicking has carried him close enough. His first thought is that he was correct. This cannot be a human being. It is a discarded carcass, tossed here by the butcher’s boys, made into a buoy as the gases of decomposition expand its innards. Then the lump rolls over and shows him its face.
It isn’t rotten at all, and yet empty eye sockets stare back at him. Behind the torn lips there are no teeth. The hair alone has retained its luster—the night and the lake have done their best to dim its color, but it is without a doubt a mass of light blond hair. Cardell’s sudden intake of breath fills his mouth with water and causes him to choke.
When his coughing fit has subsided, he floats motionless next to the corpse, studying its ravaged features. Back on the shore, the children make no sound. They await his return in silence. He grabs the body, turns around in the water, and starts to kick with his bare foot to make his way back towards land.
The recovery effort becomes more laborious when he reaches the muddy embankment and the water no longer carries their weight. Cardell rolls over onto his back and kicks his way up with both legs, dragging his quarry by its ragged covering. The children do not help him. Instead, they back away cowering, holding their noses. Cardell clears his throat of the filthy pond water and spits into the mud.
“Run to the Lock and tell the Corpses.”
The children make no move to comply, as eager to keep their distance as they are to get a glimpse of Cardell’s catch. Only when he tosses a handful of muck at them do they set off.
“Run to the night post and get me a fucking bluecoat, damn it!”
When their small feet are out of earshot, he leans over to the side and vomits. Stillness descends, and in his isolation, Cardell feels a cold embrace pressing all air out of his lungs, making it impossible to draw the next breath. His heart beats faster and faster, the blood throbs in the veins in his throat, and he is overcome with a paralyzing fear. He knows all too well what comes next. He feels the arm that is no longer his solidify out of the surrounding darkness until every part of his being tells him it is back where it once was, and with it a pain searing enough to cancel the world itself out, as a jaw with teeth of iron gnaws flesh, bone, and gristle.
In a state of panic, he tears at the leather straps and lets the wooden arm fall into the mud. He grabs his stump with his right hand and massages the scarred flesh to force his senses to accept that the arm they perceive no longer exists and that the wound is long since healed.
The seizure lasts no more than a minute. Breath returns, first in shallow gasps and then in calmer, slower inhalations. The terror subsides and the world regains its familiar contours. These sudden panic attacks have plagued him for the past three years, ever since he returned from the war, one arm and one friend poorer. And yet that was all a long time ago now. He thought he had found a method to keep the nightmares at bay. Strong drink and bar brawls. Cardell looks around, as if for something to soothe himself with, but he and the corpse are alone. He sways side to side holding his stump in a firm grasp.
This reading group guide for The Wolf and the Watchman includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The epigraph of The Wolf and the Watchman was written in 1793, the same year that the book takes place, and reads, “Guile begets guile, violence begets violence.” What is your interpretation of this quote and how does it set the mood for the story that follows?
2. The book’s events take place at the dawn of the Romantic Age, a period known for its emphasis on emotions, originality, and individuality in art, seen by many historians as a response to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment that proceeded it. How does Natt och Dag’s portrait of Stockholm in 1793 support or conflict with these common characterizations of this era? Are the seeds of romanticism evident in The Wolf and the Watchman?
3. In 1789, four years prior to the book’s events, the storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of the end of the French monarchy. In 1792, a year before the events of the book take place, the King of Sweden—Gustav III—was assassinated. How is the political tumult throughout Europe reflected in the system of justice Winge must navigate in his investigation? Does the instability abroad make itself felt in Stockholm? If so, how?
4. How do Cecil Winge and Mikel Cardell display their very different personalities? What unites them in their search for the unknown man’s killer? Do you think they have different motivations for finding the killer?
5. We discover that Winge has estranged himself from his wife. But is this because of his illness or her infidelity? Are the two connected? Do you think he is correct to push her away so that she doesn’t have to see him die? Do you think this action is selfish or selfless?
6. Following a clue, Winge speaks with a cloth merchant who brings up the ancient Roman playwright Plautus’s phrase, homo homini lupus est, which in one translation reads, “Like a wolf is man to other men.” The wolf was the symbol of the Roman Empire. Wolves are pack animals, admired for their loyalty and power, but also seen as predators and deceivers. How does this idea frame the conversation Winge is having about the nature of humanity?
7. Kristofer Blix is only seventeen yet has already done military service and seen brutality in the Russo-Swedish War. How do you think this experience effects his choices when he arrives in Stockholm?
8. In Part Three we meet Anna Stina, a young woman who is faced with a number of harrowing decisions. To what extent do you think Anna Stina has options, and to what extent is she a hostage to other people’s actions? Do you think it is important to act in a morally correct manner even if the consequences of those actions are personally devastating?
9. Over the course of the book, we encounter several different men who are called “Watchmen,” who have the authority to protect the city’s residents. What can people like Anna Stina do when their would-be protectors turn out to be their oppressors? Do you see any parallels between her situation and the modern-day conversation around police brutality and corruption?
10. At the end of the novel, Winge makes a decision to lie in order to achieve his goal of serving justice. Do you think Winge has undercut the truth and morality he stands for by doing so? Do his means justify the ends, or has he made himself part of the machinery of the corrupt society he detests?10.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Reviews of The Wolf and the Watchman have compared it to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Patrik Suskin’s Perfume. What do you think it shares with these and other great historical novels? Are there any other books that you would recommend to your book club that are similar to The Wolf and the Watchman?
2. The “modern” Swedish Smorgasbord originated in the 1700s as an upper-class tradition of a spread of appetizers and drinks before dinner. Visit https://sweden.se/collection/classic-swedish-food/ to find delicious Swedish meals to make for your book club, and enjoy all the cheeses, breads, herring, potatoes, and meatballs that Sweden has to offer.
3. This is a novel full of atmosphere and period detail. What do you think are the most interesting moments in the book, visually, that you would like to see on the big screen? Are there parts that you think might be too gruesome for the screen? What kind of music would you select for the film?
Niklas Natt och Dag (“Night and Day”) is a member of the oldest surviving noble family in Sweden. He enjoys playing the guitar, mandolin, violin, and the Japanese bamboo flute. The Wolf and the Watchman, his first novel, was named the Best Debut of 2017 by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers and is being published in thirty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and their two sons.
“The Alienist set in eighteenth-century Stockholm: Brawny, bloody, intricate, enthralling—and the best historical thriller I’ve read in twenty years.”
– A.J. Finn, #1 bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
“In his debut novel, Natt och Dag examines the effects of a brutal murder on those who investigate it—and explores the psychological causes for the crime...Chilling and thought-provoking. Relentless, well-written, and nearly impossible to put down.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Thrilling, unnerving, clever, and beautiful.”
– Fredrik Backman, international bestselling author
"A masterpiece of a novel."
– Historical Novel Society
“[A] masterly first novel...The book’s structure, which includes flashbacks and multiple perspectives, will remind many of Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, and Natt och Dag uses this structure to heighten suspense and deepen characterization. The Swedish Academy of Crime Writers named this the bets debut novel of 2017, and U.S. readers will be likewise impressed.”
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An unexpected masterpiece, a wild and unusual mix of genres that in one fell swoop succeeds in renewing the entire crime fiction genre.”
– Arne Dahl, prize-winning and Swedish #1 bestselling author of the Sam Berger series
"A standout. The characterization is excellent, as is the evocation of eighteenth-century Stockholm, an uncommon historical setting that provides a vibrant backdrop for this unusual mystery. Natt och Dag's side-plots dovetail neatly, his pacing is skillful, and he explores with aplomb his novel's main theme, Homo homini lupus est —Man is wolf to man.”
"Calls to mind another auspicious debut murder mystery set in an unfamiliar place and time: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s been nearly 40 years since that foreign-language historical thriller captured the world’s imagination, thoroughly engrossing readers and propelling its author into international stardom. So we’re about due, and Natt och Dag is certainly a worthy candidate.”
“This gripping historical thriller surely announces the arrival of a fine new European talent. Vivid and absorbing.”
– The Observer
"An excellent story with corkscrew twists and a wonderfully clever ending, completely worthy of Cecil Winge’s splendid mind. Winge and Cardell are thoroughly engaging characters, and they give the whole book a powerful heart"
– Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
"Complex and richly realized... Besides the rich and fascinating characters, Natt Och Dag’s greatest strength may be selecting details to convey a city of two centuries past.... This is Natt och Dag’s first published novel, but it seems too skillful and too assured to be his first writing... [He] surely has more fine work ahead of him."