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THE RETURN
by Hakan Nesser
Doubleday Canada, March 2007
336 pages
$29.95 CDN
ISBN: 0385663625


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

On a day trip with her kindergarten class, a six-year-old girl makes a horrifying discovery. Wrapped in an old bit of carpet is the mutilated corpse of a man. The body lacks head, hands, and feet, and, it later turns out, is also missing a single testicle, though not as a result of the other mutilations.

As this last peculiarity is the only truly identifying feature of the otherwise anonymous corpse, it leads to some entertaining exchanges as Van Veeteren's team of detectives interview the relatives of various missing men in the hopes of figuring out who the corpse is.

Meanwhile, Van Veeteren himself has other things on his mind. Diagnosed with bowel cancer, he is scheduled for surgery and, indeed, spends most of the book in hospital. Were this a more conventional sort of police procedural, such a circumstance would present a certain handicap to a vigorous investigation of a quite grisly murder. But we are dealing with Van Veeteren, whose approach is cerebral rather than active. While he lies in bed, ruminating, his more earthy team, confident that he will come up with a solution in due course, poke about, eat biscuits and think about sex with the wife.

Eventually, Van Veeteren is sprung from his hospital bed, a bit shaky on his pins but determined to bring the murderer to book, even though his superiors would rather see the whole thing dropped. Acting on an insight achieved during a game of chess, Van Veeteren brings the case to a successful, if unorthodox, conclusion.

Nesser chooses to set his series in a non-specific northern European country that appears to have elements of the Scandinavian countries, Germany, the Netherlands, and perhaps Poland. Some readers might find the generic nature of the setting a bit irritating, especially when sociological questions arise. Do Scandinavian hospitals really serve up beer to recovering patients the day after gut surgery? Are murder trials really decided by the majority vote of a panel of five? Is 12 years actually considered a horrifyingly long sentence for rape-murder?

I suspect it is precisely to avoid such specific detail that Nesser has invented his setting. The nurses probably wouldn't fetch the beer, but Van Veeteren wants one and one he shall have. But the greater advantage appears at the end of the book. The question most pressing on Van Veeteren's mind has been less who did it than what is his own role is he Justitia or Nemesis? Posing the issue in these terms would sit uneasily in a novel grounded in incontrovertible and specific fact, but in the generalization that is Mardaam, it is right at home.

A note on the translation: Laurie Thompson's rendering of the Swedish original is generally fluid and transparent; every once in a while, however, he seems to have left his computer for a bit of lunch, leaving the task up to Babelfish. The results are unfortunate.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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