Scoop Review of Books

An eco-murderer

The Strangler’s Honeymoon by Håkan Nesser (Mantle, $30)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

StrangerlThe cluster of horrific Scandinavian crime stories has now yielded The Strangler’s Honeymoon, first published in Swedish in 2001, and now translated into English by Laurie Thompson. In keeping with the Scandinavian crime-writing tradition, the story is blacker than those from milder climes. Ex-teacher Nesser’s books shock with nasty detail – in this one you can feel the killer’s hot breath on your cheek as you read.

The murderer is certainly a match for the ostensibly retired chief inspector and antiquarian bookseller Van Veeteren, one of Sweden’s most popular characters. If you met the killer and the cop in person, you’d probably take to the former more than the latter. Van Veeteren is not at all the easy-going everyman and irritates a lot of his peers in the crime game.

Curiously, the characters’ names seem to be Dutch, Spanish and German, and it’s made clear that the main character Van Veeteren cannot read Swedish. The fictitious setting seems to be a northern European city but is fictional and ambiguous. None of this is puzzling enough to detract or divert from the killer’s focus on his unsuspecting victims, the police focus on catching him, the power of the story nor our own attempts at deduction. Even the fictitious literary allusions seem plausible.

The gruesome tasks of the crime-solving men and women and their essential discussions are relieved by the droll humour in their repartee around ghoulish topics. But the horror of murder is not softened and nor are we spared any details. This is not gratuitous detail, and it is original – who has ever heard of an eco-murderer, with “no environmentally damaging aids needed. All natural and healthy”? However healthy this murder’s lifestyle, a lot of cigarettes are smoked and more than one victim is harmed. I learned a new metaphor too; the lift in police headquarters is “ the sluice between life and work”.

Nesser writes about ordinary, believable people – a schoolgirl and her invalid mother, professional women, university professors – who all do extraordinary things they can justify, if only to themselves. The highly intelligent killer knows himself well and has no delusions about his wickedness but knows he cannot stop his intrusions into others’ lives.

Nesser has won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award three times, and the Nordic countries’ Glass Key award once. Having his novels translated for other markets is not new to him. Five of Nesser’s 20 books have been translated into English, all featuring the intriguing Van Veeteren and his unconventional police behaviour. With The Strangler’s Honeymoon, English translator Thompson, probably most known for translating Henning Mankell, has done well but a punctilious proof-reader would have picked up on several missing prepositions.

At over 600 pages this might look like a daunting read, but the text is not small nor densely packed, and once you start it’s imperative to know what happens next. The characters’ relationships and the plot are richly textured, with the movement back and forward in time during the 16 months covered by the story. This sustains the tension til the very last line.