The Unlikely Murderer review – an irresistible, Zodiac-lite Scandi thriller

Who killed Olof Palme? The Swedish prime minister was shot dead in a Stockholm street in February 1986, and for decades the identity of his killer remained a mystery. Even last year, when the case was finally officially concluded and the blame was pinned on Stig Engström – an insurance company employee who killed himself in 2000 – there was hot debate in Sweden about whether he had actually carried out the crime.

No such doubts plague The Unlikely Murderer, Netflix’s new five-part drama about the Palme case. Engström guns the PM down in the first scene, leaving the show free to meld facts and speculation into an irresistible story of an eccentric who somehow outwits the police, set in a beautifully realised late-80s world of thick knitwear, chunky ashtrays and big, solid barnets.

It’s a Scandi-kitsch Zodiac and highly bingeable. But, beyond the main narrative, The Unlikely Murderer becomes two parallel shows about frail, showboating men of different stripes. Trundling moistly through the foreground is Engström, who puts himself forward as the first eyewitness at the scene of the killing, playing the press off against the police and using shards of publicly available information to bolster his story. He is portrayed as a chaotic fantasist whose plan shouldn’t have a chance of working … except that it’s going to, because the police are inept, too.

Constantly gulping cheap whisky or viscous red wine and obsessively cutting out newspaper clippings about the case, Engström is given just the right flavour of schlubby desperation by Robert Gustafsson, a comedian known in Sweden for sketches, impressions and sitcoms. He plays him as a comedy protagonist without the comedy, the sort of man to whom nobody at the dinner table or in the pub pays any attention, unless it’s to bully him for a quick laugh. His efforts to climb the social ladder in the nice suburb of Täby are a sozzled fiasco. You can almost whiff the bitter frustration emanating from his pores; that he is a failed councillor for the tax-cutting Moderate party is nearly too perfect.

In the first three episodes – which are corking – Engström is an ensemble player in a drama about politics, the media and what happens when blokes with enlarged opinions of themselves dominate positions of responsibility. When it becomes apparent that the Stockholm police have an investigation on their hands that could not be more momentous, the county chief constable Hans Holmér swans in, confident and clueless, to take it over.

In a delicious piece of casting, Holmér is played by Mikael Persbrandt, an actor who has “Sex appeal” as a subheading in his Wikipedia entry. Here, though, the rasping charm on show in Sex Education and the aggressive swagger he brought to Beck have been allowed to fade. Sporting a tremendous head of lank, rapidly thinning hair, Persbrandt nails Holmér as a smarmy, preening bluffer who dismisses the efforts of leathery veteran detective Arne Irvell (Peter Andersson), whose conscientious sifting of the evidence shows it all points to Engström. Instead, Holmér is obsessed with uncovering an international conspiracy that will make for a sexier news story. His bravado born of inadequacy causes harm, just as Engström’s does: a British version of the series would need to think carefully about which one Steve Coogan would play, but the correct answer would be Holmér.

In the second half of the series, the focus shifts as we see journalist Thomas Pettersson begin to reinvestigate the case years after it’s gone cold (as well as appearing as a character in the series, the real Pettersson wrote the book on which the show is based). There are also flashbacks to the painful embarrassments that blighted Engström’s existence before the killing. The storytelling loses some momentum here, but Gustafsson holds our interest with his portrait of an impotent man who spots a chance to make an impact for the first time in his life.

The series ends solemnly, with Engström having ruined his own already benighted life, as well as taking Palme’s. Despite being sinfully entertaining, The Unlikely Murderer can’t credibly be accused of taking the tragedy too lightly. Besides, that’s not the most important test that dramas like this have to pass: they should also tell us about something universal beyond the facts of the case. This one – with its fine observations of male pride turned toxic – hits the mark.