Carl Hamilton, code name Coq Rouge, is a rich Swedish aristocrat (‘Hamilton’ is actually a very aristocratic Swedish name), very rich, and also a super-spy. He is lazily called ‘Sweden’s James Bond’ but it goes much deeper. You need to start with the author, who is an interesting chap. Jan Guillou started his career as a journalist of a decidedly lefty bent, and in the early 70s did jail time for revealing the existence of a very, very secret service that operated independently of the Swedish government. However, Guillou is also a patriotic Swede and fully concedes that a neutral country on the front line of the Cold War needs such a thing. It is a paradox worth exploring. Enter Count Carl Gustaf Gilbert Hamilton, about whom Guillou has now written a whole series. Kerstin loves them but sadly they are rarely translated into English; this was a very old second hand paperback. Hamilton trained as a computer expert, as that is where intelligence work is at nowadays, but was also selected by said secret service for training by the US Seals, giving him a very Liam Neeson-like particular set of skills. He too is a patriot and can fully see the dirtiness of what he does; he too sees there is sometimes no alternative. As he puts it, he is not so much licensed to kill as sometimes obligated. The whole series explores the morality of having someone like Hamilton in a modern liberal democracy. Every mission he comes back a little more damaged. The secrecy also works against him: in the last book he led a highly secret and successful mission for which he even won a bravery medal, but it is so secret he can’t tell anyone about it, not even to clear his name when he is accused of being a Soviet spy himself. However, by the end of this, only the fourth in the series, his existence is revealed to the Swedish public and he becomes a national hero, so how the rest of the series continues, I have no idea. Also unlike James Bond, we get the practical compromises required on either side to keep the Cold War from hotting up: the title refers to an alliance of convenience with the KGB resident in Stockholm to track down whoever in the security service is leaking inflammatory material to the press and destabilising relations between Sweden and the USSR, which both sides find inconvenient.
And is is very Swedish. The book opens with a captured Russian spy successfully escaping back home, though he knows the KGB will suspect him of having been turned by the Swedes because his escape story will just be too fanciful: the fact that he was let out of jail on day leave, given a pension, and allowed to get onto a ferry to Finland without any kind of supervision. His KGB masters won’t believe there is any European country in which that could plausibly happen … But, in fact, there is precisely one.