Alexander McCall Smith makes the irrelevant relevant in The Talented Mr. Varg (Pantheon), a satirical social commentary on the mundane.

Ulf Varg is not your average police inspector — a Scandinavian art enthusiast who loves books about cooking, travel, art and the krimis crime novels he reads for pure entertainment. He’s a sensitive man in a perfectly sensible job — a detective with the Department of Sensitive Crimes — in Malmö, Sweden. Of course, he routinely corrects people after introductions when they mistake it for The Department of Sensible Crimes, or The Department of Strange Affairs. But such is life.

Varg listens to “the same old complaints of humanity.” Isn’t that the job of a detective? But too often, he catches himself contemplating the meaning of life, sometimes fearing he might just be too sensitive for the work he must do. 

THE DEPARTMENT OF SENSITIVE CRIMES

It’s the job of Sensitive Crimes to “assess the social and personal harm, and if it’s serious, … take action.” It is the department’s duty “to look into unusual examples of criminality,” many times the obscure and irrelevant. “It’s all very polite Stuff. Very Swedish.” The only department like it in the world. 

But others in the police department aren’t so sure about it. “All crime is sensitive,” they argue. Their resentment causes them to devise special rules for the Sensitive Crimes unit, such as different and more complicated procedures for the ordering of supplies — a passive-aggressive method to inform Sensitive Crimes they aren’t so special. 

Varg tries not to concern himself with such pettiness. He thinks, as he’s often thought, “there was a time for childishness, just as there was a time for being adult. The important thing was to know which time was which.”

A divorcee, Varg combats his loneliness with his dog, Martin. Deaf and depressed, Martin is the only dog in Sweden who can lip-read. Although the vet treats him for depression, more likely than not, Martin is cheered up by going to Pilates class with his dog sitter, Mrs. Högfors.

Varg’s brother, Björn, is the leader of Sweden’s Moderate Extremist Party, not to be confused with the Extreme Moderate Party. Varg isn’t much for politics, deciding the most effective political message might be something as simple as “Free sandwiches for all, for life.” Who could resist voting for that?

TWO CASES, SEEMINGLY UNRELATED

When Varg attends a Saturday group therapy session recommended by his psychoanalyst, a woman in the group asks him to investigate the blackmail of her renowned novelist husband. At the same time, Anna — his fellow investigator whom he secretly loves — asks Varg to verify whether her husband is having an affair. 

As Varg investigates both cases, he makes some unusual discoveries, reminding him that sometimes things aren’t what they seem at all. Frequently, reality is the opposite of what we first assume, and, more often than not, innocent explanations resolve the situation. 

Amid dealing with mundane discussions with colleagues — suffering from prickly heat and how to rid oneself from toenail fungal infections — to the persistent angst embedded within all Swedish souls, Varg admits that often all one can do is sigh. He acknowledges that sighing is “sometimes the only reaction one could muster to the world. That was what the world provoked in us — a sigh; for all the things we had to do that we did not want to do; for all the things that we had not done but that we would have liked to have done; for all that and more.”

This witty tongue-in-cheek examination of the routine is a reminder that none of us — even those with wealth and power — should take ourselves too seriously. We can’t help but love Ulf Varg, laughing when we recognize the small things in life that both confound our sensibilities and make every day worth living.

As Martin’s dogsitter, Mrs Högfors, often declares, “The world is a funny place.” Varg can’t agree more.

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Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world’s most prolific and best-loved authors. He was a professor of Medical Law for many years before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles, short story collections and a number of immensely popular children’s books. But it wasn’t until the publication of the highly successful The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series that Alexander became a household name. His various series of books have become bestsellers throughout the world, including the popular 44 Scotland Street novels, the Isabel Dalhousie novels, the von Igelfeld series and the Corduroy Mansions series. In addition to these series, Alexander has written a number of stand-alone novels, including The Forever Girl, Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party, My Italian Bulldozer, The Second Worst Restaurant in France, and Emma — a reworking of the classic Jane Austen novel. Alexander has received numerous awards for his writing and holds twelve honorary doctorates from universities in Europe and North America. In 2007 he received a CBE for services to literature. In 2015 he received the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and in 2017 The National Arts Club of America—Medal of Honor for Achievement in Literature.