Book review: The Darkest Day, by Håkan Nesser

8 05 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish writer, mostly of crime fiction, best known for his series of ten ‘Van Veeteren’ novels set in the fictional city of Maardam, the nationality of which is never specified though it combines predominantly Dutch nomenclature with a somewhat Scandinavian sensibility. He’s a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, a winner of the Gold Key Award, and is currently on the shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award. I’ve previously reviewed three of his books here, including two of the Van Veeteren series.


The Darkest Day (Människa utan hund, 2006, translated by Sarah Death) is the first of Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarossi’ series, although the Inspector himself does not feature at all until page 185, over a third of the way into the novel. The focus is on a family celebration gone disastrously wrong, as what should be a momentous and happy occasion turns into a slow-rolling train wreck of a reunion. Newly retired patriarch Karl-Erik Hermansson is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday on the same day that his robustly businesslike elder daughter Ebba is turning forty; his outwardly-devoted wife Rosemarie Wunderlich Hermansson, a fellow newly-retired teacher, nurses a secret ambition to kill either herself or her husband over his ambition that they sell up their home of thirty-eight years in the (fictional) Swedish town of Kymlinge to relocate to Spain’s ‘Costa Geriatrica’; only son Robert has disgraced himself, some months previously, through an inebriated act of spectacularly public masturbation during filming of a lowest-common-denominator TV show in which he had been appearing. It’s the kind of setup which, in a lengthy and slow-moving novel, could well turn turgid, and yet Nesser’s characterisation and portrayal is a delight. There’s ample time given, in an introductory sequence that busies itself with the kind of skeweringly precise social observation that somehow the Van Veeteren novels (perhaps due to their deliberately muddled location) have not seemed to accommodate, to get to know the several principal members of the Hermansson clan, and therefore to feel genuinely invested in their welfare when first one and then another of those family members goes inexplicably missing within a 24-hour interval.

The novel is well-imbued with black humour, arising more from the character interaction than from the situations unfolding within the tale, and yet the tension of the last hundred pages or so is almost excruciating, as forces converge towards a chillingly disastrous finale. It is, I have to say, very well done.


Book review: Frozen Moment, by Camilla Ceder

4 04 2018

Camilla Ceder is a Swedish counsellor, social worker, and crime fiction novelist. She has written two crime novels, both available in English translation, featuring Inspector Christian Tell of Göteborg CID as principal protagonist; I’ve previously reviewed the second of those books, Babylon, here.


Frozen Moment (Fruset Ögonblick, 2009, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Ceder’s first novel, and follows the investigation of Tell and his team into the murder of Lars Waltz, a middle-aged backroads car mechanic of no identifiable notoriety or wealth. Waltz has been fatally shot at point-blank range and has then been gratuitously driven over repeatedly in a four-wheel drive or similar vehicle. There’s no discernible reason why anybody (other than, perhaps, his ex-wife) would want this man dead, and yet someone was sufficiently motivated to not just kill him but to make of his murder scene a gruesome spectacle. The case attracts the attention of journalism student Seja Lundberg, who’s on the scene early when she drives her elderly neighbour Åke (who first found the body) back to the workshop so he can be interviewed by police at the scene. Seja’s ongoing curiosity about the murder has two effects: it makes her a suspect in the crime, and it leads to an awkwardly burgeoning relationship with Tell, who knows he should know better than to get involved with a witness and possibly a perpetrator …

The characterisation in Frozen Moment is a definite selling point for the book. Ceder has a hugely impressive ability to capture the tells, idiosyncracies, foibles, and unspoken insecurities of a broad range of characters, which are expressed with clarity and candour. Alongside a diversity of witnesses and suspects, the components of Tell’s team are all wrought as distinct individuals, their interactions both credibly mundane and revealing. This psychological depth adds urgency and weight to a story which—other than in its brutal means of murder—does not otherwise place undue emphasis on heightened tension (though there is, usefully, a natural escalation as the story progresses to its close). This is a superior example of the Scandinavian crime novel, which satisfies more novelistic characteristics than just word count, and it’s easily good enough to rue the fact that Ceder’s output to date has been only the two books. If what you look for in a crime novel is truly getting inside the heads of the characters, then you owe it to yourself to read this one (and its successor, Babylon).

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.


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.

Book review: The Killer’s Art, by Mari Jungstedt

19 03 2018

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and crime fiction author, best known for her series of Gotland-based police procedurals featuring Inspector Anton Knutas (with most titles in the series available in English translation). I’ve previously reviewed the first three books in the series.


(Before the review proper, I should just reassure readers that the book’s title is not spoilerish: there is no character called Art in this volume.)

The Killer’s Art (Den döende dandyn, 2006, translated by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the early-morning discovery of a naked corpse, which has been hanged from a tall medieval gate in the city walls of Visby. It’s quickly established that (a) the deceased is Egon Wallin, well-known (and apparently universally liked) local art dealer and gallery owner, and (b) Wallin didn’t hang himself. So who did? Inspector Knutas and his team commence an investigation in which no motive suggests itself as plausible, though as they dig deeper into Wallin’s personal and professional lives, several secrets and deceptions are revealed …

As always in Jungstedt’s work, the worldbuilding is very good, with the setting of Gotland ably described alongside the blend of genuine and invented art history that backdrops the novel. The characterisation, also, is effective: one of the strengths of the series is its nuanced depiction of the developing professional relationship between Knutas and his longtime colleague Karin Jacobsson, as well as the rather fraught personal relationship between recurring characters Emma Wingarve and TV reporter Johan Berg. (My sole grievance with regard to characterisation is in the portrayal of regular supporting character Inspector Martin Kihlgård, who’s described as being so food-obsessed that he’s eating something in every scene he appears in: while I appreciate that caricaturish ‘tells’ can provide a shorthand for depicting a less-complex character, it nonetheless seems somewhat cheap and unconvincing in an otherwise well-constructed story.) I think, though, that the danger of a series like this—which now, as I understand it, runs to eleven books—is that ultimately it can strain credulity that an island (a large one, admittedly) with a population of slightly less than sixty thousand can play host to such a sequence of complicated and rather outlandish violent crime sprees. While each book is impressive in isolation—Jungstedt’s writing may not quite have the visceral clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson’s, nor the psychological brutality of Karin Alvtegen’s, but she writes well and excels at the depiction of complicated interpersonal relationships—I do find myself wondering if, perhaps, the whole isn’t somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But at this stage there are another seven books to go before I reach that point, so it’s maybe premature to speculate just yet.

Book review: The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

27 02 2018

Though Maj Sjöwall and the late Per Wahlöö both also wrote novels individually, this Swedish duo is best know as the authors of the ten-volume ‘Martin Beck’ series, a set of police procedurals charting crime and societal change across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. I’ve previously reviewed the first two books in the series, Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.


The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen, 1967, translated by Alan Blair) details the investigation of a sequence of shocking fatal attacks on preteen girls by an unknown assailant, in public parks across Stockholm. With no reliable witnesses (the only people thought to have seen the attacker are a mugger and a three-year-old boy), and with two fatalities only days apart, the police are under extreme pressure to solve a series of crimes almost completely devoid of useful clues. The taciturn Beck (whom I’ve discovered, three books in, that I visualise as actor Martin Clunes—perhaps it’s a first-name thing) leads an investigation which, by necessity, repeatedly clutches at straws and repeatedly ends up down blind alleys but which, finally, starts to crystallise into a case with one suspect …

The Beck novels have a distinct flavour of ‘time capsule’ about them: they’re very plainly not of the modern world of smartphones, the internet, and magically-powerful forensic analysis. This means they have a particular charm which more recent procedurals, seeking to capture our present day, lack; yet the Beck novels’ setting was the present day of its time, the background issues—mismanaged urbanisation, societal unrest, the uptake in hallucinogenic substances etc—were very much concerns of the time. And insofar as human nature seems to necessitate never properly solving any of its problems, but merely compounding them in unexpected ways, it’s fair to say that the society of these novels (and that society is a reasonably subtle but nonetheless enduring focus of the series) is distinctly recognisable to the modern-day reader, for all that it differs in some details.

The above may make The Man on the Balcony sound dry and sombre, and yet it’s not. It’s low-key, certainly, expressed in clipped, efficient prose that lends the story immediacy. The characterisation is effective but largely undemonstrative; there are no larger-than-life crises designed to throw characters into an emotional or physical maelstrom, merely the plodding routine of the long and poorly-focussed search for the killer, punctuated by fresh clues, fresh red herrings, and fresh attacks. The book doesn’t even aim at catharsis, as if acknowledging that the ultimate result of all of this can never be a resolution, merely an end of sorts. It’s all surprisingly immersive, and quietly intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Sjöwall & Wahlöö, you should.

Book review: The Falling Detective, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 02 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer, best known for his noirish ‘Leo Junker’ novels, for which he became the youngest author to ever win the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year award. I’ve previously reviewed his prizewinning debut The Invisible Man from Salem and his YA/crime short novel October Is The Coldest Month.


The Falling Detective (Den Fallande Detektiven, 2014, translated by Michael Gallagher) is ostensibly named after a century-old novella of the same title (or at least, I presume, the same Swedish title) by ‘L P Carlsson’, though Google is silent on whether such a novella (which may or may not have been by an ancestor—Carlsson is a reasonably common name in Sweden) ever actually existed. Be that as it may, the present book opens with the fatal stabbing, in a snow-laden Stockholm courtyard, of sociologist Thomas Heber, a specialist in the dynamics and interactions of far-left and far-right activist groups. With the only witness to the attack a six-year-old boy who watched the dimly-lit courtyard scene play out from the vantage of his bedroom window, the police have very little to go on as the investigation begins. And within hours, the small team to the case is supplanted when responsibility for the investigation is transferred to Sepo, the Swedish secret police. Which should suit Leo Junker just fine—in his first weeks back at work after disciplinary action resulting from a poorly-executed police raid, he’s finding it difficult to perform even routine tasks without resort to antidepressants—but, because he happens to be in possession of evidence that Sepo haven’t been made aware of, he and mentor Gabriel Birck continue a clandestine second-layer investigation into Heber’s killing. It’s a gambit fraught with danger: Leo could stand to lose everything he holds dear if he puts a foot wrong …

Carlsson’s writing has a distinctive fresh noir feel to it, effortlessly blending verisimilitude and grit. Leo is a severely flawed and highly sympathetic protagonist: secretive, addicted, marginalised within the rigid, ruthless, and not altogether trustworthy society of the police force; not exactly gifted, not exactly brave, his career seems like a slow-motion car crash happening around him; and yet he’s determined to catch whoever’s responsible for Heber’s death, and for the deaths that follow in its wake. This blend of dysfunctionality and dogged determination is, of course, a staple of both Scandicrime and noir; and yet Leo feels fresh, unique, in large part thanks to the clarity of the prose. (The only parts of the story that flagged slightly for me were those dealing with the right-wing activists Christian and Michael, which felt a little too scripted, not entirely genuine.) Other than this, though, the worldbuilding is on point and the cast of characters around Leo fascinatingly varied. And although it would doubtless be more sensible to begin one’s reading of Carlsson with The Invisible Man from Salem (the first book in the series), The Falling Detective is amply self-contained that it’s entirely possible to read in isolation.

Book review: Death Angels, by Åke Edwardson

31 12 2017

Åke Edwardson is a Swedish crime novelist and former journalism lecturer. A three-time winner of the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy award for Best Crime Novel, he’s most well known for his ten-volume ‘Erik Winter’ series of police procedurals.


Death Angels (Danse med en angel, 1997, translated by Ken Schubert) shuttles between Göteborg and London, with a sequence of apparently identically-choreographed murders of young men (Swedes in London, Britishers in Göteborg) providing homicide squads in two cities with a grim challenge. Chief Inspector Erik Winter and his London-based counterpart, Steve Macdonald, are thrown into cases which gradually merge into one overarching investigation.

Winter, though as functionally driven as any fictional sleuth, doesn’t exhibit the tropes that most seem to typify Scandicrime detectives: alcoholism, divorce, chronic illness, financial insecurity. He’s urbane, independently wealthy, jazz-obsessed and almost disturbingly high-functioning. While this would appear to be skirting dangerously close to ‘Mary Sue’ territory, it helps that he appears to be reasonably riven by self-doubt; and the character cast surrounding Winter is reasonably diverse in personality. The writing is polished, idiosyncratic, introspective, sometimes overly philosophical: there are passages where the characters appear primarily as props for some well-elaborated argument, which while interesting can prove something of a distraction for the reader. There are also disturbingly extended passages of dialogue with insufficient speech attribution, which is particularly problematic when characters are in furious agreement: I found myself repeatedly scrolling back through a dozen or more pieces of speech so as to find an anchor point sufficient to identify the several subsequent utterances. And there’s profligate head-hopping, which is a bit of a pet peeve for me. All of this makes it sound as though it were a confusing (or at least frustrating) read, which it wasn’t: overall, it’s a pleasantly smooth narrative, with an intricate puzzle at its core and an appropriate (though not fully compelling) resolution at its climax. There’s a slight old-fashionedness, too, to its attitudes on sexuality: though the LGBTIQ issues that inform the storyline are treated progressively enough in the main, some of the terminology used would now be viewed as more derogatory than might have been apparent two decades ago, when the book was first published.

In summary, it’s more intellectual than visceral; some readers, I suspect, might find it lacking in grit. I can recommend it, though, on the strength of the worldbuilding and of the writing more generally, and I will in time get around to checking out the others of Winter’s escapades.