Review: Håkan Nesser – The Living and the Dead in Winsford

51I7Od6SANL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Håkan Nesser is one of my favourite authors from Scandinavia. He’s an interesting writer because, although he hails from Sweden, his Van Veeteren books are set in the fictional city of Maardam which I’ve always felt has a Dutch feel to the place. The actual country where the city is located is never revealed to the reader. With his last book to be translated into English, The G File, the series came to an end. This year, however, fans of Nesser have two standalone books of his to enjoy: The Summer of Kim Novak which I’ll be reviewing next week and The Living and Dead in Winsford. They are very different but excellent reads.

In the village of Winsford on Exmoor, a woman arrives to take up residency of an isolated cottage. She tells locals that she is a Swedish author who is writing her next book. However, Maria’s intention is simply to outlive her dog. Maria is escaping the recent traumas where we know that she and her husband, Martin, had to flee Stockholm because of a scandal. Martin is portrayed as a blustery liar who may have raped a maid at a hotel. Her children are keeping their distance and Maria has long since stopped loving her husband. However, why Maria is now on her own in a foreign country is only gradually revealed.

Håkan Nesser generality writes substantial books and The Living and Dead in Winsford is no exception. The atmosphere of Exmoor, its isolated location and bleak weather is well portrayed and Maria appears to revel in the landscape, taking long walks in an attempt to exorcise the past. What her personal history is, however, is only gradually revealed to the reader. When it becomes clear what Maria is escaping from, the reader becomes engrossed in how Maria’s story will be concluded. This is partly due to the fact that she clearly settles into the community, forming a relationship with a local man. It’s hard to say any more without giving too much of the plot away.

The book is part thriller but also reads like literary fiction. This is no surprise as Nesser is an excellent writer. The tone is less humorous than his Van Veetern series but was perfectly suited to the narrative. A great read.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for my review copy. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.

Review: Hakan Nesser – The G File

The G FileHakan Nesser is one of my favourite crime writers. His Woman with Birthmark easily features in my top 10 crime novels of all time and I’ve found his output to be of a consistently high quality. His protagonist Van Veeteren has taken a back seat in some of Nesser’s later books but he is back with a vengeance in this final novel of the series. The G File features that most potent of cases, an old investigation that remains tantalisingly unsolved. But, given that it’s Nesser who’s doing the writing, there is plenty in the narrative to surprise the reader.

In 1987, private investigator Verlangen is approached by a woman to follow her husband, Jaan ‘G’ Hennan. When the woman is found dead days later in her empty swimming pool, suspicion naturally falls on Hennan who has a reputation for violence. However, at the time of his wife’s death Hennan was drinking in a bar with Verlangen, the man who was being paid to watch him. Although Hennan is arrested, Van Veeteren, who has his own demons to conquer in relation to the suspect, is unable to find anything to prove the man’s guilt. Fifteen years later Verlangen goes missing, leaving behind a message that suggests he finally found proof of Hennan’s guilt. For Van Veeteren it’s a chance to finally lay ghosts to rest and one last case before he completely retires.

Some books that complete a series are often a disappointment, earning their plaudits as much from the sense of an ending than literary merit. This isn’t the case with The G File. At 400 pages, it’s a long book but the splitting of the narrative onto two distinct parts, that of 1987 and 2002, means that the plot never drags. The character of Verlangen, alcohol soaked yet loving his teenage daughter, which is developed in the first part exerts a strong pull in the later narrative, despite his absence. There is a nice symmetry, typical of Nesser’s writing, that his now adult daughter instigates the search for her missing father.

I guess is must be part homage to the books of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that there have been ten books in this series. We have seen Van Veeteren morph from a serving Chief Inspector to a retired bookshop owner, dragged out of his retirement for one last case. In this final book he displays the tenacity and talent we as readers have grown to appreciate and it is a fitting end to the series. And, without giving away too much of the plot, Nesser still has the ability to surprise.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for my copy of the book. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.

Review: Hakan Nesser – The Strangler’s Honeymoon

20131121-081340.jpgI had hoped to read and review this book before now as Nesser is one of my favourite writers. However it was pushed down the pile until last week when I finally managed to finish what turned out to be one of the writer’s best books, not least because of the welcome reappearance of Maardam police inspector Van Veeteren.

Sixteen year old Monica Kammerle has an affair with he mother’s boyfriend and little realises that she is consorting with a killer who is unable to deal with rejection. When her mother’s body is found under the bed of their apartment, police are desperate to track down the missing Monica, convinced that the killer has struck again. Van Veeteren is drawn into the case when he promises to help a priest who is later killed without revealing the source of his concern.

We are now reaching the end of the series with one book left to go. The novels have been a delight to read and although some have been better than others, the series is distinguished by the deceptive complexity of the plots and the quality of the writing. Nesser also has the ability to deliver a creepy read without resorting to cheap gimmicks, relying instead on a slow build up of tension that leaves the reader in a state of satisfying disorientation.

The Strangler’s Honeymoon opens with a brief but brutal killing on a Greek island. It’s textbook Nesser. We have encountered the killer from the off and now we are waiting to see how the plot unfolds. Although we are inside the killer’s mind, his place in society and name are hidden from both the police and reader until the final section. In many ways it is this part that is the most thrilling. All has been revealed but Van Veeteren embarks on a personal mission to unsettle and unmask the killer that concludes, where it began, back in Greece.

The vulnerability of women has been a continuing theme in Nesser’s work and it is explored further here, although naturally, not everything is as it seems. As he has shown before, women can be both the abusers and the abused and the difference is sometimes indistinguishable.

Nesser has pulled off the trick of wiring a novel that, ninth in the series, satisfies all the requirements of devotees of his books but at the same time could be picked up and read by a reader new to his work. It’s a fitting penultimate book to the series and it’s just a case of now waiting until next year for the final instalment, The G File.

Thanks to Mantle for my copy of the novel.