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by Søren Sveistrup and Caroline Waight, trans.
Harper, September 2019
528 pages
ISBN: 0062895362

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It seems grossly misleading, not to speak of unfair, to invoke the name of Stieg Larsson every time a new Scandinavian author is launched. Certainly, if you approach the current candidate expecting to find a new Lisbeth Salander or even a Mikael Blomkvist as protagonist, you will be in for a disappointment. First of all, we are not in Sweden any more, but in Denmark, in a Copenhagen suburb to be precise, and nobody seems to be sporting any tattoos. Never mind. THE CHESTNUT MAN is a solid, immensely readable police procedural that is not especially political in content but which shares a certain Scandi taste for the gruesome kill.

A year before the novel opens, the twelve-year-old daughter of the cabinet Minister for Social Affairs, Rosa Hartung disappears and is presumed murdered though her body has never been found. Still a somewhat unstable young man has confessed to the killing and is confined. Now Hartung has returned to work and on the day she has, a single mother is found murdered. Disturbingly, a little doll made of chestnuts, the sort Danish children make in the autumn, is found near the body and the fingerprint of the Minister's dead daughter appears on one of them. In due course, there will be more dead women and more fingerprinted chestnuts.

Investigating this are a pair of Danish police - Mark Hess, newly repatriated under a cloud from his former job with Europol, and Naia Thulin, who is bored with the murder squad and looks for a change in cybercrime. Hess is a dedicated detective, almost compulsive in his determination to get to the bottom of the crimes he investigates. He is also generally distrusted, in part because the reason for his exile from Europol is unclear, in part because his commitment to the truth may embarrass both the police who originally undertook the investigation into Hartung's daughter's case and the head of the Major Crimes Division, a man named Nylander, who is struggling with the Department of Justice to maintain funding for his group.

Naia Thulin is an impatient woman, largely because she is frustrated by her private circumstances and by her desire for what she believes will be amore rewarding posting, but she is conscientious when circumstances require it. She makes for a prickly protagonist, largely because she is too often unwilling to listen to Hess, who is, it must be said, often irritatingly slow to expose his thought processes efficiently. But between the two of them, they do manage ultimately to penetrate to the heart of the killings that are appalling Denmark, killings that others, including Nylander, are happy to write off as coincidence.

Initially, I was reluctant to read THE CHESTNUT MAN because of the promise of gruesome killings offered on the jacket flap. But happily, although there is enough in the way of macabre detail to qualify the book as Scandi noir, the author never rubs our noses in it. It is suggestive rather than lurid and will probably not disturb your sleep.

On the whole, the plot is sufficiently twisty to satisfy most and mislead many. The obligatory suspenseful climax was not wholly credible, but then these seldom are. This one was satisfactorily tension-filled, however. The translation is readable and unobtrusive and handles the difficult issue of present-tense narration with tact.

Despite its length, THE CHESTNUT MAN remained compulsively readable for the most part. It is a debut, but written by a man who is a successful creator of several TV suspense series, among them THE KILLING. The publicity accompanying my review copy reveals that Sveistrup suffered some sort of breakdown while writing it that he had to overcome in order to finish the work. I hope that that trying experience will not discourage him from bringing back Thulin and Hess for another engagement in the near future.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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