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Great start to Swedish crime series about a woman inspector
on 22 February 2011
Although I often enthuse about Scandinavian crime fiction, DETECTIVE INSPECTOR HUSS is an excellent police procedural even by the sky-high standards of authors such as Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indridason and Kjell Eriksson.
Irene Huss is a 40-something police detective, happily married to Krister, a chef, and with twin teenage daughters Kristina and Jenny. The book tells the story of her and her colleagues' investigation into the death of a rich financier, Richard von Knecht, who falls from his balcony window in spectacular fashion as the book opens in the middle of a cold and slushy Swedish winter, while his wife and their adult son are waiting for him in their car below.
Immediately, the strength of the story writing is apparent. In the style of the brilliant "parents" of the genre, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the book covers in full the details and interpersonal dynamics of the police investigation, as the half dozen or so cops follow up all the leads and meet up every morning over ubiquitous cups of coffee to review progress, decide next steps, and assign tasks for the upcoming day. Gradually, the characters crystallise in the reader's mind: the titular Irene is always juggling home and work duties, though work doesn't have much trouble in winning that particular struggle. She's feisty yet practical and humorous, in many small ways defusing the tensions between other members of the team and keeping them optimistic that a solution to the case will be found, although she is certainly no Pollyanna. She doesn't own a handbag, wears jeans and a padded jacket (with lots of pockets), and doesn't bother about the housework - definitely my kind of woman.
Irene's boss, Sven Andersson, is overweight, balding, divorced, and incomprehending of the dynamics of his team now that women and "outsiders" (a Finnish cop) are included. Yet despite his sexism and old-fashioned attitudes, he's a good boss. Although at the start of the book he has serious trouble relating to the efficient and professional, but female, pathologist, he grows on you. Later on, when some behaviour within the team gets out of hand, he may not understand what's going on but he muddles through to do the right thing, relying heavily on half-remembered training courses and Irene's common-sense rather than on his own intuition. Other cops include the aggressively macho Jonny, independent Brigitta, dependable Tommy and intelligent Hannu, the Finn, silent unless spoken to, but when he does say something, it always counts.
The investigation into the death of Richard involves unravelling his complex family and business relationships over a number of years. This is one of the many fascinating parts of the book, particularly Irene's relationship with and dissection of Sylvia, the dead man's widow. And although two more deaths occur in fairly rapid succession after the first, one has faith that these are not provided to keep the plot going, as is so often the case in crime fiction, but are integral to the central mystery. And so it proves.
Not only is the plot superbly constructed and fast-paced, and the police characters very real, and the book full of wry, humorous observations (often laugh-out-loud), but Helene Tursten writes lyrically about emotion. In particular, two passages of the book: one in which Irene travels to Stockholm to interview an old flame of Richard's; and a subplot involving one of Irene's daughters becoming a skinhead and Tommy telling the girl a story about his own history, are poignant and sad, excellent pieces of writing in their own right irrespective of the rest of the plot.
Reading a book in translation, one is never sure of the relative contributions of author and translator; here, my hat is off to both. The book is quite long, but it delivers on all fronts. It is rare to find so many aspects of good writing in one book. The details of the police procedural don't flag: for a book of this length I was surprised that all the cops are fully occupied throughout turning up leads and interviewing suspects, as well as getting into dangerous situations - which are all the more devastating for the author's refusal to glamourise them. I was also impressed at the clear picture conveyed of Irene, her marriage, and of the other cops, witnesses and other characters. There's lots of humour and perceptive social comment along the way, as well as a strong social message about the importance of history - and let's not forget, a satisfying conclusion to the case. Despite this cornucopia, for me, the highlight is the humanity and poetry that shines through at intervals within this unsentimentally told, straight-up story.
[Some of the remarks by other reviewers about the translation fail to acknowledge that these translations are American. The Inspector Huss series is only published in American translation (Soho Press) not English, sadly. It is not fair, therefore, to criticise the translations on the basis of Americanisms! And only three have been translated at that. What a pity.]