Nesser, Hakan - 'The Return' (translated by Laurie Thompson)
Hakan Nesser is a Swedish author who has written 19 books, of which only three have been translated into English: THE MIND'S EYE, BORKMANN'S POINT and THE RETURN. The translator, Laurie Thompson has also translated the Henning Mankell books, and THE RETURN has a similar style. THE RETURN is Hakan's fourth book, written in 1995 but only translated in 2007. It features the detective, Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, who also appears in Hakan's other books. The story begins with the release of a man from prison after 12 years and his journey home that day, with his few possessions. He is carrying a letter with him that appears to be a confession of some sort and has given him a mission, but the details are not revealed. However, in the next chapter, eight months later, a body is discovered in the woods, missing its head, hands and feet, by a six year old girl. Who is the man? Is it the newly released prisoner or the man he wanted to kill? Why did the murderer make the body difficult to identify?
Investigating the murder is a team of policemen who work for Van Veeteren. The first problem is to identify the body, but the only distinguishing feature is the lack of one testicle, something that causes the police some embarrassment when questioning relatives of missing people. By the time Van Veeteren has to go into hospital a couple of weeks later, for a colon cancer operation, the body still hasn't been identified, and he is forced to hand the day-to-day investigation over to his colleague Munster. But then the missing man is identified as Leopold Verhaven, the recently released prisoner. Van Veeteren then conducts the investigation while recuperating in hospital. Reading through the newspaper reports and court records while recuperating in hospital, Van Veeteren starts to believe that Leopold was wrongly convicted on very weak evidence because of his personality and background. Leopold was a loner who was once a record-breaking middle distance runner, but was caught cheating and stripped of his medals. He then lived a reclusive life in a cottage in the woods, but was first convicted of murdering a woman he lived with and imprisoned for 12 years, and then after his release, he was convicted of murdering a second woman and imprisoned for another 12 years. Van Veeteren develops the theory that the real murderer of the two women killed Leopold, because Leopold had discovered his identity. But is he right? When he leaves hospital, he visits the cottage where Leopold used to live and works out who the murderer is likely to be, and why he did it. After a bit more investigation to confirm his ideas, but with almost no proof, he challenges the suspect, who denies everything. The book ends with an unexpected and shocking conclusion.
THE RETURN has a slow pace, where clues are gradually revealed in sparse detail, making the reader work almost as hard as the detectives in trying to find out what happened. The descriptions of the police investigation are interspersed with those of the last few hours of Leopold, the murderer watching him as he returns, and scenes that give us a clue to the potential identity of the writer of the letter that precipitated this final murder, unveiling the motive. This makes a interesting juxtaposition between what actually happened and what the detectives discover what might have happened from their investigation. Van Veeteren is a bit of a loner himself, newly separated from his wife, with one son in prison and a daughter who lives a long way off. He is deep thinker, an intellectual with an eclectic taste in classical music, who likes to play chess with his best friend, a poet. The rest of his team seem to expect him to solve the mystery eventually, even though they appear to be vaguely amused by having to tape their meetings about the investigation so Van Veeteren can listen to them in hospital. When Van Veeteren leaves hospital and goes to look around the cottage where Leopold lived, Munster thinks to himself that despite the hundreds of hours they have spent sniffing around the place, he wouldn't be surprised if Van Veeteren finds something he missed. And sure enough, it is this visit that confirms to Van Veeteren the likely identity of the murderer. In contrast Munster is a family guy with the distractions of a sexy wife. And Van Veeteren's boss, Hiller is depicted as a bit of an idiot, a 'head gardener in a suit'. It's a book that needs careful reading, to pick up on the clues as they are unveiled. But it is an intelligently plotted crime novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Michelle Peckham, England