Book review: The Beige Man, by Helene Tursten

5 10 2016

Helene Tursten is a Swedish crime-fiction writer with a background in nursing and dentistry. She’s written around a dozen novels, most of which (including all those translated into English) are police procedurals focussed on the cases investigated by Detective Inspector Irene Huss, a member of the Violent Crimes Unit within the Swedish police force in Göteburg.


The Beige Man (En man med litet ansikte, 2007, translated by Marlaine Delargy) opens not so much with a bang as a devastating thump, when two joyriders in a stolen BMW slam into a pedestrian on the icy streets of Göteburg. The pedestrian is killed instantly, but the police patrol chasing the stolen car breaks off the pursuit to attend the accident and the BMW escapes. When the vehicle is found a few minutes later in a secluded area near a deserted holiday camp, it has been torched, thus obliterating any evidence of the thieves’ identities; but the police have a bigger problem, because the car has been dumped near a root cellar which turns out to contain the body of a young girl, dead apparently through strangulation and showing signs of sexual assault. The girl has been dead only a few hours, but this doesn’t match the timing of the chase and the BMW’s subsequent torching: there is nothing to tie the car thieves with the girl’s murder. Nor is there any explanation for why the dead pedestrian, a retired police officer named Torleif Sandberg, was out at night, running through the streets in lightweight clothing ill-suited to the subzero temperatures. As part of a six-person team, DI Huss is hard-pressed to make headway on the cluster of conundrums that describe the case: Who was the girl? Where are her killers? Who stole the car? And as the winter flu season kicks in and the questions proliferate, it becomes even harder to make progress in the investigation.

The novel gives a solid and detailed portrayal of Huss’s role in the case. As a police procedural, it’s more concerned with the unravelling of mystery than with the heightening of tension: the book moves not so much towards a climax as a resolution. But there’s ample depth in the characterisation, the plotting, the petty workaday frictions—this is, by my reckoning, the eighth in the Irene Huss series, and the team is presumably long-established, their quirks built up book after book—to retain the readers’ interest. The medical detail, as one would expect given the author’s background, seems well-informed; likewise adherence to orthodox police practice (though of course, sometimes it’s necessary to bend or break the rules, as Huss is willing to do if the situation truly merits it). And Tursten seeks to provide a holistic overview of Huss’s life during the investigation, including her home life and hints of the lives of colleagues around her. These mundane aspects heighten the sense of realism.

If the writing doesn’t quite attain the luminosity of the best Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read, it’s nonetheless effective, and the central crime is satisfactorily complex: I guessed at some aspects of it before the close, but not the totality. I suspect that, as with Leena Lehtolainen’s ‘Maria Kallio’ series (with which this bears some commonality of tone, though Huss and Kallio are very different protagonists), this is a series which is likely to grow on the reader with each subsequent title.




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