Book review: The Mind’s Eye, by Håkan Nesser

24 03 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author whose writing has won the Glass Key Award and three Best Swedish Crime Novel awards. His most well-known work is the ‘Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels, set in an undefined European country with fictionalised (predominantly Dutch-sounding) placenames and a cultured, irascible protagonist whose investigations rely as much on instinct as they do on method. I’ve previously reviewed one of the later Van Veeteren books, Hour of the Wolf, as well as Nesser’s standalone mystery novel A Summer With Kim Novak.

TheMindsEye

The Mind’s Eye (Det grovmaskiga nätet, 1993, translated by Laurie Thompson) starts with secondary-school teacher Janek Mitter waking from a six-bottles-of-red night. Stumbling through the apartment, he discovers a woman drowned in the bathtub. It’s his wife (and fellow teacher) Eva Ringmar; they were in alone all night. There are signs that Ringmar didn’t kill herself; Mitter can’t remember having killed her, but who else could it be? He’s arrested, he’s charged, he’s found guilty, he’s committed to an asylum. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren harbours some doubt over whether Mitter was in fact responsible for his wife’s death, but there’s no solid evidence, and Mitter’s lack of memory of the night in question means the investigation can proceed no further.

Janek Mitter is a quirky, intriguing character, but readers would be advised not to get too closely attached to him: he doesn’t survive the book’s first section, and as with his wife, his end is plainly at another’s hand. Can Van Veeteren tease out the murderer’s identity, in the almost complete absence of useful clues?

Van Veeteren should be unlikeable: he’s bossy, he’s arrogant, he has no small opinion of himself, and he seems addicted to toothpick-chewing. And yet somehow he emerges as a fundamentally sympathetic character, sufficiently complex to carry much of the novel’s emotional weight (with the remainder falling largely on the shoulders of the suspects and potential witnesses: although some effort is made to individualise Van Veeteren’s colleagues in the investigation, they hardly emerge as separate real characters in this initial novel). The crimes and their underlying motives are well thought out, expertly revealed, and are both resonant and disturbing; the writing is cold and largely without ornamentation. It’s a deeply impressive mystery, and an excellent introduction to Nesser’s skills in this domain.

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