Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: What evil lurks in Sweden’s bucolic countryside?

Review of: The Inspector and Silence
Author: Håkan Nesser (English translation by Laurie Thompson)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Source: Library
Grade: C

All Chief Inspector Van Veeteren wants at the beginning of Håkan Nesser’s 1997 The Inspector and Silence is a quiet vacation with a chance to chat up an interesting woman, who he met, not coincidentally, during his investigation of her husband’s murder. Followed, perhaps, by an even quieter retirement as the owner of a local second-hand bookshop. He definitely doesn’t want the complication of a new criminal investigation. But when a police chief in a summer resort town calls in a favor a few days before Van Veeteren is due to leave for sunny Mediterranean isles, he feels compelled to respond. After all, the man is the protégé of a fellow officer who once saved Van Veeteren’s life.

And the case, although especially distasteful – the beating, rape and murder of a young girl -- should be easily closed before his plane leaves. The girl was attending a religious camp in the area. With few neighbors in the rural area, the obvious suspect in the attack is the camp’s charismatic preacher, who requires his nubile charges to swim nude in the nearby lake. The man already has a criminal record for assault on another young follower. But when police arrive at the camp to investigate, the preacher has disappeared. And the camp’s chaperones insist that all their charges are accounted for, a story backed up by the other campers.

But if no one is missing, who is the girl? Who assaulted and killed her? And why did the charismatic preacher choose such a suspicious time to disappear?

Further complications ensue. The girl’s murder, reported by anonymous caller, was actually the second anonymous tip about campers at the religious retreat. When local police received the earlier tip, the acting chief visited the camp, was told then that all the campers were accounted for, and dismissed the call as a prank.

It takes a second call, in which the tipster gives detailed directions to the location of the corpse, before a search is made. And before the acting police chief admits he’s in over his head and calls for outside help.

The body of the first murdered girl (if there was a first girl) is yet to be found. No one at the camp is able (or willing) to throw any light on the crimes, or on the whereabouts of the absconded preacher, and the trail is growing cold. Will Van Veeteren be able to solve the case before he leaves for vacation? Will he be able to solve it at all?

Van Veeteren is divorced, grumpy, and definitely past his prime as a police investigator. And although the acting police chief he arrives to help also calls in reinforcements from neighboring districts, the body of the first murdered girl isn’t located until a dogwalker stumbles across it. Not until a week after the bodies start piling up do the police even think about searching for the missing preacher.

The degree of incompetence would lead a U.S. reader of mysteries to suspect veniality on the part of the police. But in Nesserland this appears to be business as usual. (I write Nesserland instead of Sweden because Nesser’s names for his fictional places and people are amalgams from a number of Northern European countries.)

I have to admit, I don’t get it. I picked The Inspector and Silence (in the 2011 translation by Laurie Thompson) off a shelf of my local branch library because of the current The Girl with the (whatever)-generated fascination with Nordic noir fiction, and because of Nesser’s reputation as one of the best of recent Swedish crime writers. It left me feeling more annoyed than thrilled.

Perhaps I’ll give Nesser another try, maybe his award-winning Mind’s Eye (1993), or 1996’s Woman with Birthmark, or 1999’s Carambole, all now available in English translation. But for your first foray into Nesser’s work, leave The Inspector to a well-deserved silence.

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