Book review: Hour of the Wolf, by Håkan Nesser

18 02 2017

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author and teacher who is most well known (in English translation at least) for his ‘Inspector Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels set in the geographically nebulous city of Maardam. The series has won several awards, including the Glass Key award in 2000.

hour-of-the-wolf

Hour of the Wolf (Carambole, 1999, translated by Laurie Thompson) opens with a hit-and-run: late one night, a drunk driver hits, and kills, a teenager walking home along a poorly-lit street. The driver stops, but there’s nothing he can do for the boy … and so he does nothing.

But somebody witnessed the incident; two days later, the driver receives a blackmail letter. It’s not the sum of money that concerns him so much as the absence of any guarantee that this will be the end of the matter.

As it transpires, his concerns are justified; less so his methods.

We don’t get to meet Van Veeteren until quite some way into the story, and although he is in a sense the fulcrum on which the novel is balanced, he’s not truly the main character: most of the ‘head time’ in the story is devoted to the drunk driver (whose innermost thoughts the reader is privy to, but whose identity is not revealed until such time as the police uncover it) and to Reinhart and Moreno, two of the police officers central to the investigation. By see-sawing between the perspectives of the perpetrator and the police, the book treads a very effective line in … not exactly ‘moral ambiguity’, but more what might be termed ‘conflicted empathy’.This depth of perspective brings the story to a resolution that is at once deliberately hollow—there’s no sense of victory, of achievement, just of having attained some kind of end—and yet also satisfying, in its realistic portrayal of the emotions involved.

The book’s fictional setting (the nonexistent city of Maardam) initially feels incongruous, but its depiction is so patiently detailed that it takes on the attributes of somewhere real, even if it’s not possible to determine whether it’s in Sweden (as one might expect given the author’s nationality), or in the Netherlands (as would be in keeping with the names given to streets and parks, and to many of its inhabitants), or someplace else. Ultimately, it feels credible, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

Hour of the Wolf is a muscular, deeply-drawn story, well-plotted and with some memorable characterisation (although I did feel, as seems reasonably often to be the case with the Scandicrime I’ve sampled thus far, that the characterisation of the offbeat and deliberately abrasive officer among the supporting cast—in this series, he has the name Rooth—tended to detract from, rather than add colour to, the story). Ultimately, though, even the irritating Rooth can’t derail the story, which moves with a sort of locomotive purposefulness through its various waystations on its way to the terminus.

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