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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: An ordinary murder

by Philip Martin | January 19, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

The prime minister and his wife decide to take the subway to the cinema on a Friday evening.

They stand on the Old Town platform along with the citizens, some of whom shyly nod in their direction. A few of the bolder ones speak to him. A good-natured man who may have had a drink or two teases him about taking public transportation.

When they get on the train, all the seats are taken. The prime minister and his wife are familiar faces, but no one offers a seat. If they were to do so, the prime minister would likely refuse. It is a short ride. They can stand.

They get off the train at the Rådmansgatan metro station, make their way up the stairs and walk to the cinema a few blocks away. They see a line, annoyingly long. The prime minister starts toward the box office with every intention of cutting the line. But his wife snarls, "Don't you dare" and he acquiesces, taking his place beside her to wait his turn.

When they get to the ticket seller he, like everyone else, recognizes them and gives them seats in an area reserved for the cinema's directors. When they reach their seats they find they are sitting directly in front of an old friend, a trade union official. When their friend starts talking politics, the prime minister's wife gives him a look. They are not there to talk politics.

They are there to enjoy the movie, a comedy called "The Mozart Brothers" by left-wing Suzanne Osten, about an experimental interpretation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" by a director who hates opera.

The movie is a little pretentious, yet the prime minister and his wife enjoy it, though she feels that her original choice--Lasse Hallström's "My Life as a Dog"--would have been better. They sit in the theater as the credits roll and the lights come up, waiting for the crowd to thin out. As they walk up the aisle, the trade union official says that Sweden is a marvelous country, where the prime minister and his wife can walk through the city at night, without bodyguards, like any other citizen.

A thin layer of ice and snow coats the Stockholm streets in the last hour of February 1986, but the prime minister and his wife are Swedes; they are wearing sensible clothes and footwear. It is about 20 degrees,, and there are still people on the street. A hot dog stand is open. The prime minister's wife stops for a few seconds to admire an Indian gown in a shop window. Ahead of them is an art supply store, its windows brilliantly lit.

As they walk past the store, a man steps behind the prime minister and claps his hand on his shoulder. A .357 magnum, a Dirty Harry revolver with a barrel at least four inches long, unusual and conspicuous gun for a political assassination--fires two shots into the prime minister's back. They say he is dead before he hits the ground.

The gunman pauses for a second. The prime minister's wife, who somehow has been slightly wounded, bends over her husband and screams, "No! What are you doing!" The killer calmly holsters his pistol and only then begins to run up a flight of 89 steps, taking two or three at a time.

Witnesses say he was tall and athletic and kept running after he reached the top of the stairs, but he slowed considerably, having almost slipped on the ice a couple of times. His black raincoat flapped between his legs, someone will remember. Others will recall different things.

But the murderer of Olof Palme gets away.

    1. .

It escaped my notice last summer when the Swedish government announced they were closing the Palme case because they were satisfied it had been solved.

According to them, the murderer was Stig Engström, a graphic designer at an insurance company who may have encountered the prime minister and his wife by chance.

Swedish authorities concluded there was enough evidence to arrest and try Engström, but conceded that without a confession or any additional evidence it would be difficult to convict him. And since the suspect committed suicide in 2000, there was no sense in pursuing a criminal trial anyway.

Most Swedes shrugged. Engström, who was 52 at the time of the Palme assassination, had originally been regarded as an eyewitness to the assassination; in the immediate aftermath of the shooting he made himself a bit of a pest and became a minor celebrity.

It wasn't until a few years ago that a couple of journalists independently came to the conclusion that he was the most likely suspect. Then the official investigation came to the same conclusion.

It's not a very satisfying case.

"He has the right timing, the right clothing; he has unique information, he lied, he had close access to guns of the right type," prosecutor Krister Petersson said. "He was right-wing and Palme unfriendly."

Engström was professionally frustrated, seemingly at a dead end in his career. He felt thwarted and wanted to be recognized. After the murder, he took delight in the media attention and overstated his involvement as "an eyewitness."

Petersson said he couldn't rule out the fact that Engström was part of a wider conspiracy, but you can never rule that out entirely. The simplest answer was that he happened to be on the street with a gun when Palme appeared in front of him. He acted impulsively.

That is sometimes how the world works: A pathetic figure steps out of the shadows and changes the course of history. That is what a .357 magnum and armor-piercing ammunition can do for you. And if you are ordinary enough, you can hide in plain sight for years.

I've been diverted down the Palme rabbit hole by a couple of Swedish TV series available on the Sundance Now platform. Palme appears as a minor character in later episodes of "The Restaurant," which is a "Downton Abbey"-like soap opera, and his murder is the McGuffin in "We Got This," a dark comedy created and co-written by Schiaffino Musarra, an expatriate American filmmaker married to a Swedish woman and living in Sweden.

Musarra stars in the series as George English, an expatriate American filmmaker married to a Swedish woman and living in Sweden who undertakes solving the Palme case for the offered reward (about $7 million) in order to pay off his tax debt to Swedish authorities. (In a way, George's story mirrors Musarra's, only instead of solving the murder to pay off his tax debt, Musarra imagined a show about the solving of the Palme murder to solve financial problems.)

You don't need to know anything about the Palme case to enjoy the series--one of the conceits of the show is that most Swedes born after the Palme assassination know very little about it--but watching the show might drive you to Google.

Where you might discover that Musarra is in talks to make another series, this one for the American market. About the JFK assassination.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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