Hakan Nesser – The Return (1995)

The Return is the second book in the Van Veeteren series which now comprises 10 books, although only five have been translated into English. Hakan Nesser has written a total of 20 books in Swedish and won the Best Swedish Crime novel award 3 times. I read the book under the misapprehension that it was supposed to be set in Sweden and was therefore struck above all by the fact that the location writing was so undescriptive, so inadequate, so absent in fact. But I now discover from a website (http://www.hakannesser.com/hakan-nesser-biography/) that….

These books play out in a fictitious city called Maardam, said to be located in Northern Europe in a country which is never named but resembles Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany. The names however are mostly Dutch.

Obviously if a writer is adopting this tactic then the location writing needs to be very unspecific! It is a very odd plan to adopt and immediately leads to the question as to why Nesser should do this? The answer clearly is that he wants the reader’s attention to be concentrated on other areas. So what areas? Well not, on the evidence of this book, the plot. Ann Cleeves said at this year’s St Hilda’s (https://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2010/08/20/st-hildas-2010-behind-the-mask-part-2/) that Nesser was a very fine plotter, but there is almost no plot at all in The Return. The story is that a man is released from prison after serving a second 12 year sentence for the rape and murder of a young woman (he had served a similar sentence for a similar crime before), and his mutilated body is discovered soon after his release. Was he killed by someone seeking vengeance or was he in fact innocent of the crimes and killed by the murderer? Well it is only necessary to say that there are no great plot surprises here. Maybe his other books are different, but in this case Nesser is far from being an average, let alone, very fine plotter. The investigation plods along with the various members of Van Veeteren’s team doing routine police-work.

The very fact of the location’s fictitiousness prevent the book being of any sociological interest for obvious reasons. It is not very interesting psychologically either: there are no in-depth psychological portraits and that is obviously not really one of Nesser’s preoccupations. The characterisations are adequate without being really sparkling or attention grabbing.

So having taken away all the usual attributes which mystery writers concentrate on in varying degrees (plot, character, location, sociology, psychology) what then is Nesser’s concern; what is central to The Return? The answer is simple if surprising. It is Van Veeteren and Van Veeteren’s philosophising. A couple of other characters are allowed some minor philosophising, but it is chiefly Van Veeteren who does so. And the results of his thinking produces the book’s real shock (which I allow certainly is a real shock and caught me wholly by surprise). So Nesser’s interest is philosophy and his vehicle for his philosophising is Van Veeteren. There is much concern with patterns, determinism, free-will, time, justice and so on. The Return in fact belongs to that very small sub-genre of philosophical mysteries. Although one could hardly think of a more different book than The Name of The Rose they do in fact share the same territory.

Given this aim – to write a philosophical mystery – it does make perfect sense not to clutter up your book with plot, psychology, sociology, location and so on. How the reader reacts to all this will, I suspect, be a matter of how much they like philosophical speculation, and beyond that how taken they are with Nesser/Van Veeteren’s attempts at the same. Personally I do quite  like it, but found that in this book ponderous and obvious. There was nothing which struck me as either original or particularly interesting. But it obviously goes down very well with those who award Swedish Crime Prizes! My final assessment then is that while this book is an interesting curiosity, and certainly worthy of inclusion of any discussion about justice in mysteries (next year’s St Hilda’s topic!), its reliance on Van Veeteren’s philosophising means that if, like me, you find the latter far from scintillating you are unlikely to derive much enjoyment from The Return.