Home > Books > The Inspector and Silence or Kommissarien och tystnaden by Håkan Nesser

The Inspector and Silence or Kommissarien och tystnaden by Håkan Nesser

The Inspector and Silence or Kommissarien och tystnaden by Håkan Nesser (Pantheon Books, 2011) is his seventh book, first published in 1997 and now translated by Laurie Thompson. It’s the fifth to feature Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren and this book marks the transition between the series character continuing work in the police force and acquiring an interest in an antiquarian bookshop — retirement must come to all, sooner or later.

This is a quiet and rather meditative book on the phenomenon we might call intuition. A slightly different way of putting it would be the notion of salience. During the course of an investigation, a senior officer will talk to many witnesses and potential suspects. This is not only thousands of words but also the context in which the words were spoken, the body language, and all the other little signs that might add meaning to the message presented in the literal words. A part of what the officer understands will be edited in the mind and written down in reports for others to read. Such reports will be circulated among the officers and support staff such as the coroners, civilian advisors, and so on. The investigation team will meet to discuss progress and exchange ideas. Somewhere in the midst of all this information, there are likely to be pertinent clues. The problem is how to separate out the wheat from the chaff, how to see the significance in the one fact out of millions.

Hakan Nesser wrinkles his brow to highlight a lifetime of wisdom

Most people have this thing called intuition but few have any real understanding of how it works. In an exploration of the phenomenon with Andrej Przebuda fueled by some excellent Château Margaux, Van Veeteren thinks of it as a chain of reasoning where many of the actual links are missing. This is not to suggest intuition is empirical. You cannot necessarily join up the dots of evidence buried in the whole to make the right picture come out every time. So Van Veeteren demonstrates the art by spending time taking a canoe up a river, or finding a comfortable place to sleep out in the countryside, or enjoying some good food and a pleasurable amount of alcohol. In this, he mimics Sherlock Holmes who would disappear into his rooms at 221B Baker Street and smoke a few pipes to aid his thinking processes. The aim is partly to distract the mind, allowing the unconscious to realign all that’s known. Perhaps it’s like dreaming in which the mind ranges over the events of the day and tries to impose order on the chaos of information held in the memory. However it works, the links in this chain prove to be brief comments by different people at different times that eventually coalesce in Van Veeteren’s mind when he picks up a telephone directory. Who would have thought that something so mundane could be the key to solving this crime.

This is not to say the nature of the investigation is irrelevant. In fact, the awfulness of the crime — the murder and rape of a young girl — is a part of what drives Van Veeteren to deal with it at a more abstract level. It’s always disturbing when this type of case emerges. Indeed, at his age, it’s what may finally push him into taking the decision to leave the police. What makes the case particularly challenging is that the girl is one of a small group attending a spiritual “retreat” out in the forests. A polite way of describing this group would be a cult that indoctrinates the young in extreme religious beliefs. There have been allegations of sexual abuse in the past. When the messianic leader disappears and all the remaining women and girls refuse to speak to the police, the sensational quality of the scenario rises to the top of the pot and simmers in all the newspaper and television coverage. This is the right moment for Van Veeteren to quietly leave the press liaison to others. He needs to continue life at his own pace and without distractions if he’s to understand what happened.

The Inspector and Silence or Kommissarien och tystnaden is completely fascinating as Van Veeteren struggles to fit all the pieces of the jigsaw together. It should be relatively easy. You start with the body, give it an identity and work out who would have had the motive and opportunity. Then you interview the suspects and work out who did it from what they say. Except, in this case, the main suspect is missing and no-one who remains at the retreat is prepared to say anything. This breaks the normal routine and forces the police into less familiar territory as the media begin to criticise the lack of progress. As Van Veeteren recognises, this is very definitely the right time to be up a creek in a canoe with a paddle. For all there’s a darkness rising from the nature of the crime, this is a book to be savoured!

For those who can read Swedish, here’s Håkan Nesser’s official site: http://www.nesser.se/.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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