I’m one of the few humans on earth who is not a Stieg Larsson fan. I closed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after two pages and never opened it again. That says a lot about my distaste for the book, because in general I have a bias toward Swedish crime writers. I adored Henning Mankell’s early Kurt Wallander mysteries, though I stopped reading him when he abandoned the classic police procedural in favor of plots that had us roving around Africa. And I wasn’t as fond of Wallander’s daughter Linda as a protagonist as I had been of Wallander himself. But I have a new favorite Swedish mystery writer now: Hakan Nesser (Håkan Nesser).
Like Mankell in his earlier days, Nesser writes police procedurals. His setting is a fictional town called Maardam. It’s in an unnamed country, but clearly northern Europe. His sleuth is Inspector Van Veeteren, a thirty-year veteran whose failings make him the stereotypical troubled cop. Yet stereotypes come to life in the hands of a skilled writer and that is what happens here.
Van Veeteren is divorced, of course. He drinks way too much—though everyone around him does too, so we’re not invited to see that as a particular problem. He is, however, trying to quit smoking, substituting toothpicks for cigarettes. Half-chewed toothpicks accumulate around him as he contemplates his cases. He’s grouchy and moody and often bucks his superiors. And he’s homely, sometimes startled when he glimpses a reflection of his aging face. He’s surrounded by eccentric colleagues with contrasting personalities: one has a sweet tooth, another tends a jungle of plants in his office, a third actually has a loving wife and a happy marriage, a fourth is a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, and so on. I’ve grown almost as fond of his colleagues as I have of him.
The novels begin with The Mind’s Eye, proceed through Borkmann’s Point, The Return, Woman with Birthmark, and The Inspector and Silence, and wind up with The Unlucky Lottery (the English translation of that one is still forthcoming). They tend toward the serial-killer subgenre. Van Veeteren is often driven by the need to stop the killer before he (or she) kills again. Nesser uses a third-person narrative voice, so he can alternate back and forth between Van Veeteren’s perspective and that of the lurking villain, and we are often privy to the villain’s motivation. Usually there is a distinctive modus operandi, as in Woman with Birthmark, in which the victims are always shot twice in the heart and then twice below the belt—literally.
What makes these books so appealing, besides the skillful writing? I’d call them Nordic noir, maybe a fortuitous term, since those long winter nights in the far north are certainly noir! Nesser’s mysteries bring to mind the feel of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, though I’d argue that he comes by his noir through a different route.
Geography shapes character. The Nordic people have adapted to their chilly, unforgiving lands, but their world view reflects the challenges their environment presents. In The Return, Van Veeteren recalls his father, who “unswervingly and inexorably . . . had inculcated into his son a certainty that we can never expect the least favor from life.” I was reminded of Independent People, the epic novel by the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. Only hard work can guarantee any kind of survival in the world of Laxness’s fiction, but the effort to survive wrings the joy out of life.
Pleasure is suspect, as in Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast. If one gets too used to pleasure, one might lose the taste for work. And that mentality persists, even when the work ethic creates a civilization which, like modern Scandinavia, is the envy of many. On our own soil, we see the devotion to duty and suspicion of pleasure in Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, which chronicles the society shaped by the Norwegian immigrants to Minnesota. Keillor’s humor probes the dark core of that world: no favors expected from the universe, but survival if one works unrelentingly.
My husband’s roots are Illinois German rather than Minnesota Norwegian, but he shares the Prairie Home Companion’s world view. “Life is what you make it,” uttered in a parody of a flat Midwestern drawl, has become a joking tagline in our marriage. It’s a quote from his mother, who invoked the phrase often as he was growing up.
Duty and responsibility are paramount, and Van Veeteren has been shaped by them. Any joy in his work, if it ever existed, was extinguished long ago. He carries on because that is what one does: life is what you make it. Sometimes our glimpse into the minds of Nesser’s villains, as in Woman with Birthmark, reveals murderers whose acts seem justifiable, given the evil of their victims. But Van Veeteren’s difficult task is to uphold the law, whether he agrees with it or not.
In fact, his world is a Chandleresque world, and that brings us back to noir. Chandler and Hammett came by their dark world view, with its laconic style and slippery moral categories, by way of Hemingway. World War I created a lost generation, disillusioned in the wake of the Great War. In an uncaring universe, where God seemed dead, it is left to Chandler’s lonely hero to right wrongs. Why? The impulse comes from within himself: because life is what you make it. The same is true of Hakan Nesser’s appealing sleuth, Van Veeteren.
Peggy Ehrhart is the author of Sweet Man Is Gone (2008) and Got No Friend Anyhow (2011), featuring blues-singer sleuth Elizabeth “Maxx” Maxwell. Sweet Man Is Gone is now available on Kindle and in other ebook formats.