The Return by Hakan Nesser

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The Return by Hakan Nesser

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Van Veeteren is faced with a headless, handless and footless body in this elegant police procedural which broaches the question of how far the police should go to ensure that justice is done. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 321 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Pan Books
ISBN: 978-0330492775

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Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is just about to go into hospital for an operation – he has cancer – when a young girl discovers a body in the woods. It's rolled up in a carpet and lacks head, hands or feet. Initially the problem is not finding the murderer, but establishing the identity of the body. As it's been rolled up in the carpet for eight months or so and doesn't fit the descriptions of any men who have been reported as missing it seems that this is one man whom no one has missed. Van Veeteren might have had part of his bowel removed but he's still determined to run the investigation from his hospital bed.

If I was ever to live abroad my choice of location would be Sweden, but each time I discover a new Swedish crime writer I'm struck anew by the thought that a socially-conscious country can produce such a rich seam of crime writers. Recently we've seen Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I've grown fond of Karen Alvtegen's tense, psychological thrillers and the eminently bankable Henning Mankell should never be forgotten. In a country which seems as crime-free as any I've visited, murder is rife.

And now we have to add Håkan Nesser to the list. He's long been known in his native Sweden but it's only relatively recently that he's been translated into English. The Return is set in 1994 and is mercifully free from mobile phones as a result, but that apart the book is not dated in any way. It's a solid police procedural and as usual hours of dogged police work only come to fruition when a member of the public comes forward with the information they need. The interaction of Van Veeteren's team is a joy to read and they're all real characters who come off the page well. Van Veeteren himself is sardonic and philosophical – but always good value and warmer than many contemporary fictional detectives. He's perhaps one of the few that you feel you might like if you met him.

It's a thought-provoking book. Van Veeteren muses as to what he would do if he was certain that someone had committed a crime but couldn't produce the standard of proof which a prosecutor would require. It's easy to be high-minded and say that the man should be freed, but how will the family of his next victim feel?

If I have one minor quibble with the book it's that I lacked a sense of place – I wasn't even certain that I was in Sweden – I could equally well have been in Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands – and finally had to settle for the thought that it was definitely northern European. It's a small and personal point though – unfortunately I like crime novels which come complete with a map!

Something which did come home to me very forcibly was the skill of the translator, Laurie Thompson. I've become accustomed to his translations of the Henning Mankell books – I was particularly impressed by his work on Depths – but the style here is completely different. Thompson still produces a translation which is so good that it's easy to forget that it wasn't written in English.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of The Mind's Eye by Hakan Nesser.

In keeping with the 'Northern European' feel of the book I'm going to recommend a couple of Norwegian authors for further reading. If Van Veeteren appeals to you then I think you'll also enjoy Karin Fossum's Konrad Sejer books or the Gunnarstranda and Frolich novels by K O Dahl.

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