28 October 2012

Back to the Swedish zen detective

Donna Leon's story about a Venetian detective was told at a ponderous pace. Håkan Nesser's story about a grumpy, northern-European detective moved at about the same pace, but seemed more lively. Nesser is a successful and popular Swedish writer, but only 5 of his books have appeared in English. All five feature Inspector Van Veeteren, who seems not to have a first name.

The last time I read about the investigative work of Inspector Van Veeteren, I called him a zen detective, because he seemed to spend nearly all his time contemplating the crime he was investigating. Very little actual investigating went on. In fact, little action of any kind took place. The book was long on characterization and scenery and very short on events.

It's been three years. I saw Nesser's name on the Northfield library bookshelf, and picked up The Inspector and Silence. I'd forgotten my impressions of Borksmann's Point.

Inspector Van Veeteren is more active in this investigation of the murders of two young girls from a summer camp in isolated woods near a lake. He's called away from his home "precinct" to help a rookie rural police chief with a case far outside his basic training. Van Veeteren actually goes to the crime scenes. He actually interviews people trying to piece together what has happened and how and why. He pursues leads and travels more to interview more people.

Meanwhile, there's a rag tag assemblage of forensic experts, detectives, and investigators called in from around the country to help the tiny local cop shop deal with tragic and dramatic crimes and an influx of reporters. One reason the murders were the focus of so much press attention was that the victims were attending a "summer camp" run by a messianic leader of a secretive religious cult. The suspicious leader disappears and the three women who were helping run the camp and the "confirmation" program for the near-adolescent girls refuse to talk to the police.

It's lucky so many helpers were called in to carry on the investigation (and carry the story forward). Because, Inspector Van Veeteren spends lots of time contemplating. At one point he rents a boat and some cushions, takes a couple bottles of mineral water, and rows up the local river. At some point, he ties the boat up the river bank and spends most of a day contemplating. Other times he walks in the woods or takes long drives. That might not be bad for the story telling, but Nesser offers no real hints about Inspector Van Veeteren's thoughts during these zen retreats from reality.

No wonder the ending was such a surprise to me. Somewhere in his meditations, Inspector Van Veeteren gets a clue that sends him (and some associates) running after a suspect, who had hardly been mentioned in the book. They catch him on the verge of another murder.

Okay, I'll stop complaining. This time Nesser included enough story telling to keep me more interested than the last time I read one of his mysteries. And at the end of this one, Inspector Van Veeteren, who has been contemplating retirement throughout the book, walks into an antiquarian book store that is for sale. According to the Nesser fan site, listed below, the inspector does retire to the bookstore, even though he keeps getting involved with old colleagues in more investigations. Nesser also began writing mysteries about another Swedish detective. Swedish television produced a series of Inspector Van Veeteren programs set in the years after his retirement.

Have you read The Inspector and Silence? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

A four-minute interview with Håkan Nesser (in English)

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