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In Peter Stjernström's adroitly-handled tale, the best book in the world is what washed-up Swedish author Titus Jensen hopes to accomplish. His publisher is thrilled with the idea but doubts that Jensen is capable of pulling it off. He has in his time been a respected novelist (his books, all pain and blackness, are "perfect reads for a grim weekend on Gotland in November") but his love of partying has blunted his literary reputation to the point where he is now better-known for his theatrical, improvised readings from fossilised old textbooks, which go down a storm with hip young audiences.
How much of a party animal has Titus become? His voice on such performances, he confesses early on, has been trained not so much at drama school as by Philip Morris, Macallan, Absolut and Aquavit. Furthermore, he lives in a trendy part of Stockholm, but his flat is squalid.
Over a booze-fuelled conversation with his younger friend, Eddie X, a charismatic Lothario and radical poet, Jensen has a flash of genius: why not combine lots of different types of books - crime, cookery, self-help, management literature - into one irresistible whole, the only book you would ever need? The idea, provocative for both men, flares like a firework in the night sky. Privately, each acknowledges that it would be important to be the first author to write such a book; openly, however, they play it cool and reject the idea as one that would be extremely difficult to pull off.
Titus's publisher consents to his idea, but with conditions attached: the book will be limited to 250 pages, it must be written within six months, and - a nice comic touch, this - he must write it only on a publisher-provided laptop which has a breathalyser where the 'start' button should be: if he blows into it after drinking, the computer will not come to life. "Welcome, Titus!" is the sprightly message on the screen when he first tries it. "For the time being you cannot access me. It is estimated that you will require eight hours to metabolise the alcohol in your blood ..."
And so it begins. Titus, a man reborn, cleans up his flat, cleans up his act, gives up the drink, and concentrates on his writing as he has not done in years. He makes excellent progress but a nagging sense of dread, fuelled by a couple of incidents that may or may not be meaningful, increasingly clouds his vision: is Eddie X working on the same book at the same time? Titus's paranoia grows, and is not helped when he learns that his rival is seeing Astra, Titus's editor at Winchester Publishing. Titus knows that Eddie is seen as a saint: the day he stops writing poems and takes up novel-writing, he will become a millionaire, with millions of readers.
We only see the extent, if any, of Eddie's own role through Titus's uncertain gaze - until, naturally, events take a decisive turn. Before they do, we have encountered a persistent telemarketer, a recipe for the perfect Four Seasons pizza, a character with Tourette's Syndrome, and Doctor Rolf, a specialist in something known as multi-therapy. There are some nice lines, too. Titus, desperate, sneaks into Eddie's minimalist flat: "It looks as if somebody has thrown a feng-shui bomb into the place: two rooms and a kitchen and not a single superfluous object to be seen."
Stjernström has written a novel in which the comedy is, as comedy so often is, edged with something darker. His crisp, economical writing style has been efficiently translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury.
So is Titus's book really the best in the world? As he excitedly tells Astra, its protagonist is Detective Chief Inspector Håkan Rink, an overweight figure who, by making fantastic dishes with special ingredients, starts to lose weight, discovers reservoirs of energy and self-confidence, which in turn inspires him to question the force's traditional methods and thus inspire a "radical organisational transformation", all the while trying to find a serial killer known as Serial Salvador.
Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe Eddie X's version would have been better ...