The Living and the Dead in Winsford – Hakan Nesser

This is a piece of Swedish crime fiction that takes place in Exmoor, as the central character (Maria Holinek) offers her first person perspective on her life and situation. The former TV celebrity, is spending the winter in a hidey-hole on Exmoor, with the initial ambition – so she tells us – to outlive Castor, her dog. She pretends to be a Swedish author, seeking inspiration for her next novel. We soon find out that’s not why she is there…

The author has clearly spent some time on Exmoor, and does a great job of recreating its stark, oppressive, and wild beauty. The creeping shadow of dark – or could that be terror – lies await in every scene. And Maria Holinek is well drawn, and engrossing, though there were a couple of times in the plot when I wasn’t sure her actions were in keeping with the parts of her personality I had been exposed to. That, however, may be down to my own shortcomings in taking on board the available hints.

There is an interesting back story about what Maria’s husband did in his youth – unraveled as she accesses some of his papers and computer files. But, as interesting as it was, it did not fit in so smoothly.

Indeed, at the end, my overall impression was that this well written and interesting novel was a little rough round the ages. I read that sentence and it seems strange, especially given the fine prose that Nesser has composed. But, whether it’s due to the editorial approach, or the translation, or the plot structure, indisputably there is something that did not work for me. It was the least rewarding of Nesser’s books that I have read.

A strange one.

The Strangler’s Honeymoon – Hakan Nesser

This is another in the generally excellent Van Veeteren series, and another that takes place after the great man’s retiral. Former Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is approached by a priest. But Van Veeteren cannot give him the time needed and when next available, the poor priest is already dead, having apparently committed suicide. We dear readers know that this is connected to the tragic tale of a mother and daughter caught in a monster’s spider web of deceit, lies, corruption, and murder.

DI Ewa Moreno is the leading police – as in serving police – character. But Van Veeteren, from the safety of his antiquarian bookshop, makes a significant contribution. The hunt is on for a clever serial killer.

Characterization? My take is that there’s a greater emphasis on the killer than in other of Nesser’s books. It’s not overbalanced, but it sometimes gets close. Moreno and her challenges are interesting, but the Chief Inspector’s shadow is always there.

Plot? Not too many layers to peel away, and not too many surprises. But believable, taut, and tense.

Overall, this is no easy read because there is some graphic content that pops up in between the author’s finely crafted prose. But it’s worth it. Nesser creates a gentle ambience, edged with shades of grey, highlighting the horror, and then returns you to the show. You read on, drawn in to his all too real world.

Of all the Van Veeteren books I have read thus far, this is the one least likely to appeal to a reader not into crime fiction. But it has a lot to say, and is sufficiently meaty that I may well read it again.

Hakan Nesser? That guy can write!

The Weeping Girl – Hakan Nesser

[This amply demonstrates the power – and the danger – of Amazon. It started with me looking back at books I had enjoyed reading, then a quick visit to the web, and before you know it there are more books to read… All too easy.]

Though billed as one of the author’s Van Veeteren series, the former star of the police force is only involved in the margins. The lead is primarily taken by one of his proteges, DI Ewa Moreno. While on holiday, the policewoman has a chance encounter with a girl, Mikaela, on her way to see her father for the first time. The girl disappears, and then the father she was visiting – in a lunatic asylum – also disappears. What is going on?

I’ve come to see Nesser’s style as something of an acquired taste. For example, the central story is about a teacher – Mikaela’s father – who slept with one of his female pupils. That pupil’s pregnancy, and subsequent slaying by the father, is deeply embedded in the consciousness of the locals. But Nesser’s prose is laid back, almost pedestrian, and imbued with the apparently real life concerns of the characters beyond the crime. So, Moreno deliberates about her boyfriend and the possibility of settling down and having a family. Van Veeteren muses about old books. And so on.

Other readers may wish for more direct action and get up and go. For my part, the gentle peeling of the layers of the mystery is skilfully done, while delivering believable characters in a believable setting, with some observations about life as we know it.

In short, enjoyable crime fiction.

Hour of the Wolf – Hakan Nesser

It’s a couple of years since I read a Nesser book, and this Inspector Van Veeteren mystery was an excellent reminder of the quirky, wonderful talent the author has.

Set in some unknown European country, it begins with a drunk driver making his way home after a boozy night out, killing a pedestrian. From the driver’s fleeing from the scene, matters snowball out of control, resulting in several deaths and dreadful emotional damage done to several families.

Van Veeteren, now retired and a partner in an antiquarian bookshop, becomes involved. Part of the unique aspect of this book in the series, is watching his interaction with his former colleagues. (If you read the book, you will find it quite touching.)

The plot, and how the police and Van Veeteren cope with finding and solving the clues, is well put together. There are enough twists and surprises, though that is not Nesser’s trademark specialty. Instead, it’s the writing.

The writing is a joy. It’s never flowery or overstated. However, you are drawn in to the thoughts of the characters and the world they inhabit. It’s a real world, with life going on all around the forces of law and order and the victims’ families, unceasingly. At times the perspective is overly pessimistic – like when Van Veeteren says “Life is much over-rated. But it’s better if you don’t discover that too soon.” – but there’s enough optimism lurking there to offset it. (Just!)

Nesser’s observational powers are superb, and he crafts his book with a brilliant balance of doom, gloom, humor, and hope. At the same time, he entertains.

Crime fiction of the highest quality. Strike that. Fiction of the highest quality. Highly recommended.