BOOKS Murder leaps over European borders
Thriller fingers Yugoslav police in Swedish killing
It remains one of the 20th century’s most notorious unsolved murders.
On Feb. 28, 1986, Sweden’s then-prime minister Olof Palme was fatally shot on a Stockholm street after attending a movie with his wife.
His death sparked an unprecedented global investigation that would rack up some $50 million in costs.
But the lone assassin has yet to be found or identified.
Canadian thriller writer Alen Mattich thinks the truth may lie in the shadowy recesses of Yugoslavia in the dying years of its existence before it was dismembered by civil war.
Indeed, his latest novel, Killing Pilgrim, published by Anansi, specifically fingers Yugoslavia’s much-hated department of internal security as being complicit in Palme’s assassination.
Mattich has no doubt that the Yugoslav secret police (also known as the UDBA) was capable of this kind of bloody outreach.
“It is known they were doing a lot of this stuff,” he says by phone from his London home.
Furthermore, Western governments were ready to turn “a blind eye” to what was happening — because although Yugoslavia was a Communist state, its leadership had broken with the Soviet Union in pursuit of a policy of nonalignment.
“Western governments were a lot more accommodating to … the Yugoslav secret service than they would have been to other Communist states.”
Feared security bodies like Russia’s KGB and East Germany’s Stasi may enjoy higher profiles in the popular imagination, but the new novel contains an afterword in which the 48-year-old novelist suggests that “of all the organs of state security operating from Europe’s Communist bloc, the Yugoslav secret police was perhaps the most murderous beyond its borders.”
Killing Pilgrim chronicles the further adventures and misadventures of Mattich’s beleaguered Croat protagonist, spy operative Marko della Torre — Alen Mattich House of Anansi with the 1986 murder of Sweden’s left-wing prime minister continuing to cast a lethal shadow years later on events hundreds of miles away.
The year is 1991 and Yugoslavia is breaking up. Croatia has declared its independence and faces imminent war with Serbia. It’s against this turbulent background that della Torre becomes the victim of a squeeze play by two ruthless players — the Croat nationalist movement and the CIA.
He reluctantly takes on a mission to track down Palme’s purported assassin — a sinister exUDBA agent whose very name — “the Montenegrin” — triggers terror within the espionage community.
Killing Pilgrim boasts a high suspense quotient, but it’s also strong in character — beginning with its engagingly sardonic and reluctantly heroic central character, della Torre.
“I see della Torre as a fairly ordinary guy, smarter than most, not particularly adventurous or decisive, trying to get through difficult situations. And trying to be as good a person as his circumstances allow,” says Mattich.
In fact, Mattich confesses that the very name — della Torre — is a pun on “dilatory” which represents “a little bit of how I feel about him.”
“As a writer, you’d like to think that you’ve created something that has substance to it,” he admits. “But to be honest, it’s a thriller. It’s designed to be entertaining — but possibly a little bit thought-provoking, as well.”
Alen Mattich’s Killing Pilgrim suggests Yugoslavia’s department of internal security was complicit in the death of Olof Palme.