The Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson

The Mind’s Eye
Håkan Nesser
Originally Published as Det grovmaskiga nätet in 1993
English translation published in 2008
Inspector Van Veeteren #1
Followed by Borkmann’s Point

While I have previously written about several crime novels by Scandinavian authors most have fallen outside the publishing powerhouse that is Scandi Noir (perhaps the exception would be The Murder of Harriet Krohn though even that is a little different as it was structured as an inverted crime story). Today’s book, Håkan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye is clearly an example of that type of fiction so I was curious to see whether I would take to it.

The novel begins with Janek Mitter, a schoolteacher, waking up from a night of heavy drinking to find his bathroom door locked. After knocking and yelling for his wife to open the door, he decides to take the door off its hinges and, when he does, he discovers his wife drowned in the bathtub.

Inevitably he comes under suspicion and the first third of the novel details his response to the investigation and eventual trial. Of course the actual solution could not be quite so simple and a second murder at the end of that first section sets the investigation on a different track, exploring the life and history of the victim.

Perhaps the first thing to question is whether, with the crime taking place in a locked bathroom, we ought to consider this a locked room mystery. I feel the locked room is a plot device rather than the point of the mystery. It helps point the police even more strongly toward the idea that Janek, as the one who found the body, is guilty but a mechanical explanation for how it might be achieved is presented fairly early in case anyway. Once the second murder takes place that question is basically forgotten.

This is frustrating for several reasons, not least because the reason for creating the locked room is never really explained, making it an apparently unnecessary step that raises the chances of detection with no apparent benefit to the criminal. In short, locked room connoisseurs will likely feel unimpressed with this element of the story.

Instead this first third of the novel is far more interested in exploring the preparations for the trial both from the perspective of the police and Mitter’s lawyer. This was my favorite phase of the investigation, in part because I found Mitter to be an engaging, if not particularly likeable, character but also because these chapters do a good job of building the reader’s unease with the case being built against him.

As I alluded to earlier there is a second murder and that marks a shift in the story, both in terms of the type of investigation being done and our focus. From this point onward it is Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren’s story as he probes into the pasts of the two victims and tries to understand exactly why they were targeted.

While the investigation of the first murder focuses on some of the more physical aspects of the crime scene, the investigation of the second murder seems to occur in the abstract. The details of the second murder are not really the focus of the investigation, though the location where it takes place is quite interesting, but rather Van Veeteren is focused on exploring the motives and the possible links between the two murders.

I did not particularly warm to Van Veeteren who is presented as a brilliant but unassuming mind wrapped up in a rather dour and caustic shell. He is led by his instincts and intuitions and crucially he has the ability to conceive of ideas that might not occur to most of us because they seem too outrageous or outlandish using only small pieces of evidence.

My problems lie in the way the narrative seems to keep us at an arm’s distance from Van Veeteren, allowing us to observe what he does but not to see everything he sees. This allows Nesser to pull off a moment that feels quite shocking and yet this is only achieved by withholding some information from the reader. I am pretty confident that I was not given everything I needed to solve the mystery myself and so I felt a little cheated by that conclusion.

What makes that all the more frustrating for me is that the ending is in many ways quite memorable. That shocking moment may not be entirely fair in the way it is set up but I think Nesser handles it extremely thoughtfully and seriously, exploring it in a way and with a sense of empathy I would not have expected.

As powerful as that moment is however, I cannot overlook some of the frustrations involved in getting to that point. The lack of resolution for the locked room is one source of irritation as is the withholding of information needed to solve the crime ourselves. Perhaps if this had been pitched more as a thriller rather than a procedural I might have had more tolerance for the latter but unfortunately it fell short of my expectations in that regard.

The result is a book that intrigued me but left me hungry for more. Van Veeteren can be quite funny, albeit in a sort of dour and sarcastic way, and I would have liked more to delve a little deeper into his character to understand him better. Similarly I liked a lot of the characters who struck me as well-observed, particularly the rather odious headmaster of the school Mitter worked at, but Nesser stacks all the most entertaining figures at the start of the story.

Will I return for more? I expect so. There was enough here that I can certainly see the potential in the character and in Nesser’s engaging writing style. It may be a while though before I get around to it…

Further Reading

John Grant had a much more positive take on the novel than me, describing it as gripping, but we do share a disappointment with its locked room.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good
Helene Tursten
Originally Published 2018

Eighty-eight year old Maud is not the sort of person you would look at and think they were dangerous, let alone a killer! She is physically quite frail, tries to keep herself to herself and seems to live quite a comfortable lifestyle.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good collects five stories that feature the octogenarian committing murders. Given that we know who, the mystery lies in understanding why she wants someone dead or how she will accomplish the task.

The murders themselves range in credibility from some which take quite mundane approaches to extinguishing life to the outrageous one featured in the first story in the collection. Heads being pierced or crushed is a recurring theme so those who are sensitive to such things, be warned!

As usual with short story collections I provide thoughts on each individual story after the break below but there are some general points I’d like to make about the book.

Firstly, I found the collection to be about the right length. As much as I enjoyed the character and the premise, I think that it would stretch credibility to have her commit many more murders at her age.

Maud is an interesting creation and I enjoyed the little glimpses we get into her past. While some of those character moments are interesting, I do feel that the bigger mystery of how she evolved into the killer we encounter in these stories ought to be told and I do think this feels like its biggest omission.

All in all, I think the collection is a strong one. Its darker elements may not appeal to everyone but I admire its creativity and think it does a surprisingly good job of selling the idea that this elderly lady could commit these murders.

Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk

HardCheese
Hard Cheese
Ulf Durling
Originally Published in 1971

A man is found dead with injuries to the back of his head in a locked room in a low-grade hotel. The owner of the hotel is adamant that no one could have entered the building during the night without his knowledge and the other residents seem to have been otherwise occupied yet there were three glasses set out in the man’s bedroom.

The book is broken into three unequal sections, each narrated by a different character. The first, narrated by Johan Lundgren who is a member of a crime fiction reading group is the most joyous. He tells us how the three members of the group go about taking the small amount of information they are given about the crime and start spinning fanciful theories about how it was done, all the while making little judgements and comments about the tropes of mystery fiction that will delight long-term readers of the genre.

I particularly enjoyed getting to know the three characters who made up the detective fiction club and seeing the ways they would interact with each other. These characters felt familiar to me and their excitement at encountering a puzzle like the ones they had read about in their own lives was rather infectious.

The second comes from the perspective of Gunnar, the policeman assigned to the case, and is pitched more in the PI mold. Where Johan span a solution in the Golden Age style, Gunnar seems set on a much simpler explanation and his investigation takes a different tack. Though less intellectual than that of the club members, he does uncover some interesting elements of the case and I enjoyed reading his thoughts about the three members of the club and their interference.

The final, shorter section comes from a third person and draws on elements of the other two investigations to present a solution. It is hard to go into much detail here, firstly because I want to avoid spoiling how the mystery is solved but also because this section is far more straightforward and less characterful than the two which preceded it. I did find it satisfying however and appreciated how well the solution is communicated.

This multiple narrative approach does mean that the book does feel a little disjointed though I enjoyed each part and saw the presentation to be an opportunity to comment on and pastiche two different forms of crime fiction, finding a middle ground with the last narrative. The book builds to a clever resolution of the mystery that struck me as being quite original.

But does it play fair? I have been struck in reading reviews of this how split reviewers are on this question. It is of course hard to answer without spoiling but in my opinion it meets the criteria of being fair because it does provide all of the information needed to successfully identify how the murder was achieved, even though it may require the reader to step away from the novel to piece everything together. I can see why some readers feel frustrated but I appreciated the tidiness and ingenuity of the method.

I think there might be more of a case to say that the novel isn’t playing fair with guessing the identity of the murderer and there I am less decided. All I can say is that I didn’t feel it was unfair when the revelation came although I was surprised by their identity.

I was a little less satisfied with the locked room aspect of the mystery and the relative simplicity of its solution. It did occur to me upon finishing the book that while I have really enjoyed several of the books I have read from Locked Room International, I have yet to actually find a book where the Locked Room aspect was really satisfying. If anyone has any recommendations I would be happy to entertain them!

Where Hard Cheese succeeded most for me was in its characters and its appealing structure. I found it to be frequently very funny and I thought Durling had some creative and interesting ideas. Unfortunately while Durling seems to have written quite a few mysteries following this, Hard Cheese is the only one currently available in English translation. Were more to appear though I would certainly want to give them a try.