The Best of September’s Reading

September was another busy month with a raft of crime fiction events to attend, most with a strong Scandinavian theme. I’m now concentrating on Crimefestreading for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian Crime Fiction as submissions are coming in thick and fast. My highlights to date will be subject of a post soon as there have been some excellent books. I’m slightly behind on my posts as I read more books than I managed to review in September. For consistency’s sake I’m only considering the four books I reviewed for my ‘best of’ title. That goes to Hakan Nesser’s The Weeping Girl. Despite the absence of Van Veeteren, it was a high quality thriller and it’s sad to think we’ve nearly reached the end of the series.

The four books I read for Crimepieces were

1. The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield

2. The Weeping Girl by Hakan Nesser

3. Bad Blood by Arne Dahl

4. The Black Life by Paul Johnston

For a summary of other crime fiction reviewers’ picks of the month, head over to Mysteries in Paradise. As usual, it makes interesting reading.

Hakan Nesser – The Weeping Girl

It seems that Hakan Nesser’s protagonist, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, has been retired for his readers as he is only The Weeping Girlglimpsed in this book. It’s a mixed blessing when authors do this. On one hand the books don’t feel the same without a character that readers have seen develop throughout a series. However, as is the case with Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur who has been absent in the last couple of books on a quest to find his missing brother, removing the central protagonist does allow existing minor characters to bloom and come to the fore. This is the case in Nesser’s latest book The Weeping Girl.

DI Ewa Moreno from the Maardam Police has to interrupt her holiday to meet a suspect who has demanded that he speak only to her. On the train to the interview she encounters the weeping girl of the title, Mikaela, who tells Ewa that she has just discovered who her real father is: Arnold Maager, a man convicted of killing one of his students years earlier. She is in her way to the psychiatric unit where he is being held to meet him for the first time as an adult. When Mikaela suddenly disappears, followed soon after by her father, Ewa becomes drawn into the case much to her boyfriend’s dismay, while the suspect who she is interviewing drops a bombshell that shakes her faith in her colleagues.

The greatest strength of Hakan Nesser’s books is the consistency of his writing. He has a distinctive style, writing strongly plotted novels with a solid police procedural focus. One of his early books, Woman with Birthmark, would be in my top 10 Scandinavian crime novels and he has managed to maintain the quality in his subsequent books. The Weeping Girl is his eighth book to be translated into English and the absence of Van Veeteren allows the character of Ewa Moreno to open out. The book is particularly good at showing the dilemma of a policewoman who enjoys her freedom and independence along with the challenges of her job and the toll it takes on her personal life. Moreno has always been an interesting character but, as this book shows, she could easily hold a series of her own.

The plot seems a little slight compared to some of Nesser’s earlier books. His novels aren’t generally particularly complex; there is often a central mystery with the team working to solve it. The Weeping Girl doesn’t really deviate from this style but perhaps the ending which (no spoilers) teases the reader slightly with its revealing of the culprit which might have given the plot an insubstantial feel. Nevertheless, Nesser remains one of my favourite writers and I hope to read his next book, The Strangler’s Honeymoon later this month.

Thanks to the publisher, Pan, for sending me a copy of the book.

Review: Håkan Nesser – Hour of the Wolf

It took me a while to get into the books of Håkan Nesser. They are a little bit different from other Scandinavian police procedurals and his wry take on the idiosyncrasies of society and the slightly flippant tone of the writing can overshadow the well constructed plots. However since Woman with Birthmark, he’s become one of my favourite Swedish writers and I was looking forward to the release of his latest book.

Hour of the Wolf is the story how a single action can unleash a chain of events that have a cataclysmic effect on those involved. One evening, a teenage boy is killed by a drunken driver who stops his car and disposes of the body in a ditch. He then resumes his everyday life and embarks on a new love affair until he receives a blackmail letter in the post. A person claims to have witnessed the event and wants money ensure his silence. The car driver concocts a plan to kill the blackmailer but as events don’t go to plan, the killer’s control along with his grip on reality starts to unravel.

Police investigating the killings, led by Reinhart, have to break some bad news to Van Veeteren, the newly retired chief inspector. Unable to stand on the sidelines while the investigation takes place he nudges the police towards the eventual conclusion.

The book was similar in structure to previous books, particularly Woman with Birthmark in that we see the action from both the police and the killer’s point of view. As readers, we know slightly more than the police which can be irritating in other books but worked well here. The overall premise – the actions of a hit and run drunk driver to hide his crime- reminded me a little of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities but the character of the killer is gradually revealed as someone with with serious delusions. His twisted view of the world allows him to justify each one of his killings in the defence of obscuring his role in the original death.

The police investigation was well constructed and it was nice to see Reinhart take centre stage after the focus on the Munster/Moreno relationship in the previous book, The Unlucky Lottery. His love of his family and attempts to step into the shoes of the legendary Van Veeteren gave him a strong role in the narrative. Although written in 1999, the gap in time was less obvious in this book even the latter chapters set in pre-9/11 New York.

The title of the book was slightly confusing as I originally thought it might refer to the Bergman film of the same name but the reference relates to the early dawn hour where the killer has to face the enormity of what he has done. Given the awful senselessness of the crimes, the lack of the gently mocking tone we have come to associate with Nesser’s writing was entirely appropriate. I felt the killer was slightly over the top but the way in which the killings were described, gathering their own momentum so that there was an inevitability about the murders compensated for this.

The book has also been reviewed at Eurocrime.