Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two by Håkan Nesser: The Inspector and Silence and The Unlucky Lottery

Mantle/Pan Macmillan, 2010 (UK edition)
originally published as Kommissarien och tystnaden, 1997
translated by Laurie Thompson
343 pp.

"... there was really only one foolproof method of kick-starting an investigation that had come to a dead end: drink a pint of whiskey and four beers, and when you've gone to bed it's guaranteed that within twenty minutes the phone will ring and you'll be saddled with another corpse."

I actually bought this last year and shelved it before reading it. I must have been having a bad day or something -- or one of those forgetful moments that scare the crap out of me.  When I got my copy of The Unlucky Lottery just recently, I started reading it and realized that something was off. I remember thinking "now how did we get to this point?" and the light bulb over my head clicked on.  Down goes The Unlucky Lottery, postponed until I could go back a year to The Inspector and Silence.  I must say, reading this one immediately before Unlucky Lottery was a smart choice -- the two meshed together so perfectly.

Left to man the Sorbinowo police station while the chief takes time off to get over the death of his wife, Sergeant Merwin Kluuge isn't expecting much trouble in this bit of paradise.  But it's not long until he receives an anonymous call from a woman claiming that a little girl has disappeared from a camp in Waldingen  run by the Pure Life religious sect.  The people at the camp say everyone's accounted for.  The next day he gets yet another anonymous phone call from the same woman, who threatens to go to the press if Kluuge doesn't do something.  But what sends him into a minor panic, and has him reaching for the phone to call the Mardaam police is when she says that if continues to do nothing, "they'll kill some more."  His chief had left orders not to be disturbed and to call Maardam if anything came up, because Van Veeteren owed him.  Of course, V.V. is not happy about this, since he's bought a plane ticket for Crete, but off he goes to Sorbinowo.  But when he gets to the Pure Life camp, the group will hardly give him the time of day, and swear that no one's disappeared. He's allowed to talk to some of the girls, but they're not saying much.  The next day, the body of a young girl is discovered -- she had been raped and murdered.  But Van Veeteren realizes that something's off -- he recognizes the dead girl as one of those to whom he had just spoken to the day before.   So if she had been alive the day before, how could she be the missing girl the caller warned about earlier?  So what happened to that girl? It isn't long until Van Veeteren and the police get their answer.  Complicating the issue is the fact that the small group at the Pure Life camp, with the exception of one girl who is very upset, is not talking.  No matter how much Van Veeteren and the others question them, nobody is saying a word -- or when they do, it's to extol the virtues of their religious beliefs and to put down those living in "the Other World."   The leader, Yellinek, has disappeared; no one knows anything about it -- or if they do, they're not saying anything.  Frustrated, Van Veeteren knows that this case will not be easy to crack -- first he has to break through the wall of silence. 

This is a fascinating book, actually, one that showcases V.V. at his best.  While he pleads with the members of Pure Life to offer up any information they can to help find the murder and rapist of two young girls, nobody seems to care about anything except maintaining the integrity of the sect and defending their missing leader.  Small wonder that he has his eye on trading years of police work for a partnership in an antiquarian book store -- seriously, you can sense his frustration leaping off of the pages.   Although the crimes in The Inspector and Silence are particularly horrifying, Nesser as usual uses some moments of sarcasm and humor to ease the tension.  He also continues the tradition of great characterization and a powerful sense of place, elements that never waver throughout any of his novels.  While many people said they didn't care for this book, I thought it was one of the better ones in the series.

Definitely recommended for Scandinavian crime fiction readers, but do start with book one in the series.  The Van Veeteren novels really are more on the cerebral, rather than the action-packed side, so if you're looking for someone a la Nesbø or Stieg Larsson, you won't find it here -- and this begs the question as to why on the cover of my copy there is a blurb from the Sunday Times saying "[Nesser] is being favorably compared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson."  Nesser doesn't need to compare favorably -- he has his own style which is every bit as good or even better than the authors with whom he is "being favorably compared." 

Mantle/Pan Macmillan (uk version), 2011
originally published as Münsters Fall, 1998
translated by Laurie Thompson
438 pp

"Something had come home after a long, long journey."

With The Unlucky Lottery, I've now read all of Nesser's books that have been translated into English, and I must say, they are among the finest novels of crime fiction coming out of Scandinavia. Sadly now I have to bide my time until the next one is translated and published.  This novel offers its reader an intriguing mystery or two, a compelling story and absolutely some of the best characterizations in the genre. 

The story begins when four older men realize they've won 20,000 euros in the lottery, to be split four ways.  First, though, the plan is to go out for a "knees-up in Capernaum" to celebrate.  By the end of the evening, Waldemar Leverkuhn will go home very drunk and tumble into his bed.  By  the time his wife sees him again, he'll be dead, with over twenty stab wounds in his body,  soaking in his own blood.   And just as the police are getting into their investigation, two other events of interest occur: one of the Leverkuhn's neighbors disappears and one of the original four lottery winners goes missing as well.  Munster and his colleagues have their hands full trying to sort out this case, which takes one twisty turn after another, but they are left to do it with only a minimum amount of help from Van Veeteren, who is  on a year's leave of absence. His trusty assistant Reinhart is also away on paternity leave.  It's up to those officers who previously have been more or less on the sidelines of Nesser's other novels to solve the case.

Although murder and mayhem abound, and the book's focus is on the crime and its solution, Nesser also uses this space to explore other topics, especially the toll that police work puts on his characters' lives.  Van Veeteren, of course, has had enough, and is "focused on beauty and pleasure nowadays" in a wing-backed chair in an antiquarian book store, yet he offers his help once in a while, putting his "oar in," as a friend calls it.  Münster's family life is beginning to suffer as his work keeps him away from home and his wife realizes that there has to be more to their lives.  Moreno finds herself putting work at a distance as she deals with ending a long-term ongoing relationship with her boyfriend.  Nesser also goes back to what seems to be a favorite pastime of his -- examining how past events play a role in shaping an individual's psyche, and above all, the nature of justice: what the police call murder, someone else may call retribution -- it's all a matter of perspective.

The book has a rather chilling twist, which gives the reader pause to think about deeds and consequences, about justice and about the reader's own ideas about the rightness or wrongness of one's actions given certain circumstances.  I love books like this -- far from just a series of events that take you from point a to point b, from the crime to the solution, there's another layer inserted between the lines that gives the reader pause to think about his or her feelings on the matter.  Not that I don't like a good, old-fashioned point a to point b kind of crime novel sometimes, because I do, but this extra layer of self examination elevates this book from just another novel of crime fiction out there on the shelves.

The Unlucky Lottery is absorbing, and scattered throughout is a bit of sarcastic humor, another trademark of Nesser's writing.  Getting nit-picky here, I have to question the validity of using tape recordings of psychoanalytic therapy that someone just hands over to the cops -- Maardam may be a fictional place, but it seems to me that the laws of doctor-patient confidentiality are pretty standard everywhere, so this part did not ring true at all, and it seemed to be a rather unfair ploy the author used to further the story.  And perhaps the characters' lives are a little too much in depth for most readers of crime fiction -- I like good character development, but let's move along already in some cases! Other than those minor issues that bugged me a bit, The Unlucky Lottery is another awesome book -- but I must say, I do hope Van Veeteren isn't totally sidelined in the rest of the series.


  1. I've read two Van Veeteren books and liked them, have the two mentioned on my TBR mountaineous list.

    Glad to hear they are both good.

    Nesser's style is definitely unlike S. Larsson's or Nesbo's. He doesn't tell a wide-sweeping story, with lots of characters, plot twists and tangents.

    He sticks to one case and intensely focuses on it. There is nothing extraneous in his writing. It's focused and to the point.

    His humor just floors me. I stop reading, and think through what Van Veeteren just said or thought. Sometimes I can't believe how brilliant and on target is his remark.

    Nesser's writing is a very good mixture, but it isn't light. It's heavy, but entertaining.

    I look forward to reading these.

  2. Thanks for the reviews. I've just finished 'The Unlucky Lottery' too. I enjoy Nesser's style of writing and the plot was a nice take on a faily well worn subject. I agree with your comments about patient confidentiality but I did notice that the book was written in the mid 1990s. I think data protection has got a lot stricter since then!

  3. Kathy: I just love the way he writes. I can't help but think of The Martin Beck series when I read these books.

    Sarah: Thanks for coming by. I'm a huge fan of Nesswr, and it all started eons ago when one day I was in a bookstore and started combing through the mystery shelves. I wasn't even into Scandinavian crime fiction at the rime, but I was looking for an author new to me. I saw a book by Nesser, bought it, went home and read it, and the next day I was at the bookstore when it opened to buy all of the Van Veeteren books they had. I've discovered many authors like that.

  4. Sorry -- I'm using my iPhone and the keyboard is so small , conducive to making typos!

  5. Yes. I also think of Martin Beck and the writing style of Sjowall and Wahloo when I read Nesser's books. His style is certainly not like that of Mankell's, S. Larsson's or Nesbo's, who tell more elaborate, complex tales with lots of action, twists and so on.

    The writing definitely focuses on one case and doggedly follows it from start to finish.

  6. Kathy: I just don't get why so many people disliked this book. My feeling is that Larsson's books took readers by storm, and that they expect Larsson when they pick up any crime novel coming from Scandinavia.

  7. That's silly. It's the publicity. Publishers, promoters and booksellers still push the "If you liked Stieg Larsson, you'll love ________ (fill in the blank.)

    So much money was made on the Millennium trilogy, that they think that the only way to sell books is to tie them to Larsson's style.

    I've seen this comparison to Mankell, Nesbo, Lackberg and other Scandinavian writers, instead of reviewing them on their own merits and uniqueness.

    Some other websites have poked fun at the constant comparisons and stickers on books which tie in Larsson to totally dissimilar books.

  8. An fyi: You must read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a novel set in Mississippi, a slice of the human condition, about poverty, racism, life in the South. It's also about friendship, lost and found. It's a classic, not only a mystery, by Tom Franklin who teaches at the U. of Mississippi.
    Rave reviews around the Internet.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it