The Man Who Wasn't There by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt
|The Man Who Wasn't There by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A Cracker-esque journey into Nordic noir that will probably work better on screen than it does in novel form. Political intrigue, murder and the personal doings of the murder squad make for a complex plot, but sadly there's not enough atmosphere to make this truly thrilling.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 448||Date: June 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
Somewhere along the line over the last few years Nordic noir has become the mixed metaphor du jour. It's hard to say where it started, the novels of Henning Mankell possibly, though Mankell himself credited Martin Beck series of novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö as being the first to take mix Swedish crime story-telling with social commentary. Stieg Larsson took it in a different direction with his Salander trilogy – much darker and much more violent. For most Brits and Americans though the term really hit home when The Bridge and The Killing hit our screens. It was through TV that we found the books.
This is important with the case in point because The Man Who Wasn't There is touted as being from the creator of The Bridge. Hans Rosenfeldt is that man. He is listed in the credits for the book as Sweden's leading screenwriter and the creator of The Bridge. His collaborator on this one is Michael Hjorth, listed as one of Sweden's best known film and TV producers and a renowned screenwriter with several Wallander screenplays to his name.
Unfortunately, it shows.
Writing screenplays is a very different art, to crafting a novel that thrills and holds and drives you forward. It is clear that both authors have a clear visual idea of what is going on. However, for this reader (and allowing that some might have got lost in translation) what they haven't mastered is how to grip through words alone. People and places are described accurately. There's no room for reader interpretation – thus limited room for engagement.
Opening shot: 2003. Patricia Welton catches a train, and another train, hires a car, and then, eventually heads up into the mountains on foot. A remote cabin. A man to be shot. A shooting…but then there are complications.
2012: hikers in the mountains find a mass grave. Does six bodies count as a mass grave? The press seem to think so. The Rijksmord (the Swedish murder squad) are brought in to investigate – and along with them Sebastian Bergman, a criminologist, psychologist, profiler or what have you.
Meanwhile, back in Stockholm a widowed Afghan woman finally gets a response to one of her regular letters to anyone who might just listen. Her husband disappeared in 2003 and she wants to know how or why and particularly who were the men who came to see her shortly after he vanished. Shibeka is a settled immigrant… not totally westernised, but trying to integrate. Ostracized apparently by her former friends for reasons she doesn't understand, she simply wants to know what happened to her husband. There are those in her community who seem to think that finding out will be a really bad idea.
Bergman has been compared elsewhere to UK series Cracker for obvious reasons, but although billed as a Sebastian Bergman thriller this book is as much about the back-stories of everyone else in the police department, as it is about the sex-mad psychologist who is trying to win the trust of the detective who doesn't know she's his daughter, and doesn't seem to realise that screwing up her career might not be the best way to go about doing that.
For a small close-knit team there are more inter-connected, largely illicit, relationships and former-relationships that statistics would generally allow for – even in a country as sparsely populated as Sweden. On that ground alone it didn't hold together for me.
Similarly, even for a tale of conspiracy and murder and political intrigue and racial assumptions and prejudices, it just all felt a bit too just so to be believable. Too many crooks in the forces of law and order – without whom the plot falls apart. Professional detectives just a tad too slow on the uptake, especially in their own home circle – you have to wonder how they ever made the grade in the job.
It is intricately plotted and (with the screenwriter skills to the fore) there are no gaping holes or discontinuities. The main thread is utterly believable, as are most of the side-plots, what I struggled with are the devices needed to bring these into the investigated realm. That said, on screen, if well-cast and well-acted, I'd probably have lived with that too.
Where this one falls down for me is not the story, but the telling of it. It could have been set anywhere. Stocklholm could have been London could have been New York or Berlin or Paris, could probably have been Sidney or Johannesberg. There is absolutely no sense of place, no atmosphere. It's too cold and clinical a telling.
Likewise, just about all of the characters are troubled souls in one way or another, but we're being told that, not shown it. I came away not really caring about any of them…a shock ending was not only expected, but doesn't leave me that interested in finding out what happens next.
And ultimately, there was no thrill. It took a long time to read. It was eminently put-downable. Compare this to the likes of Harlan Coben or Lee Child who can keep me up half the night or have me reading on tube platforms wanting, needing to know… and there's no context.
On the whole: not bad, but there's much better out there.
We can recommend Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum set in Norway, for a true sense of Sweden the Wallender books are hard to beat Henning Mankell – or take a step over the border into Finland for an Ariel Kafka mystery Nights of Awe (Ariel Kafka Mystery) by Harri Nykanen and Kristian London (translator).
You can read more book reviews or buy The Man Who Wasn't There by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Man Who Wasn't There by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt at Amazon.com.
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