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Hakan Nesser - The Return
on 2 May 2007
Slowly but surely, they trickle into English. They come out of order, sometimes years late, and with different titles, but at least they come. This second Håkan Nesser translation is his fourth novel, and, I think, the third in his Inspector Van Veeteren series. And a fine series it is proving to be.
The body is found by a group of schoolchildren in a local wood. Wrapped in a carpet, lacking heads and limbs, it necessarily proves a trial to identify. Evidence eventually points it to being that of a recently released convict, a local athletic hero turned double-murderer who disappeared straight after his release nine months prior. However, just as the case is gaining steam, Inspector Van Veeteren has to go into hospital for an important operation. And it is thus from his hospital bed that he must marshal the present-day investigation, and, with a hunch that the answer lies in the past, with the two young women whom the recent victim was convicted of killing, trawl through old newspapers and trial transcripts in his hunt for the solution...
The concept of an investigation being conducted from a hospital bed should immediately put one in mind of those crime classics, Colin Dexter's The Wench is and Josephine Tey's The Daughters of Time, in which strangely compelling investigations are carried out by convalescent policemen. The Return is not quite of that class, but it is nonetheless a compelling and excellent crime novel, equally as good as his English-language debut last year. The one thing which stops it being of that class is the fact that we don't really spend quite enough time with Van Veeteren in hospital. Much legwork is done by inferiors (which is obviously necessary otherwise no progress would be made in the present-day case!) but sadly those inferiors are not quite as wonderful company as the Chief Inspector. Admittedly, though, occasionally taking the eye away from the drab and serious business of being in hospital does balance the book nicely and remove the risk of it becoming a bit gloomy!
The Return is a darker book than its predecessor, for several reasons. Van Veeteren has a serious illness, and his thoughts take on a slightly more philosophical angle than in the previous book, where he was perhaps more chipper and humorous. While that is still the case to an extent (he can be beautifully sardonic), that side of him is certainly leavened by his condition. Also dark is the plot, which features either a very harsh revenge, or a terrible miscarriage of justice (that is if the police are even on the right track) which has severe implications for the country's legal system.
Van Veeteren has been compared to Morse (and the book comes endorsed by Colin Dexter), but, though while he may be able to make covert allusions to Voltaire's Candide in the style that Morse might, he's actually more like Camilleri's Montalbano. Vaguely gruff, temperamental, a little eccentric, but overall very warm, and funny, and someone it's easy to identify with. Many fictional cops, you'd be hard pressed to say you would genuinely like to spend actual time with, but Van Veeteren is not one of them.
The Return is special in that we get insight into two periods, two environments in which crime is committed. It has interesting things to investigate: not only Van Veeteren's feelings concerning his illness, but also the climate of two social environments which bred crimes then and now. It's an interesting look at small-town Swedish society in the 60's compared to now, and while some things seem different, some things also seem disturbingly similar. The only problem with this is a slight overfull-ness in terms of plot, with the reader never quite getting the impression that any one strand is having teeth sunk into it (by writer, reader, or police). However, that doesn't detract from what is overall a top-notch crime novel, clever and innovative, that I enjoyed immensely. In the end, Van Veeteren oversteps a considerable boundary to achieve justice. The result of this will be very interesting to see in future books, and I await them eagerly.