#NordicFINDS – Sweden Week – A new to me grumpy detective

The Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser

Translated by Laurie Thompson

As so often happens with crime series, The Mind’s Eye published in Swedish in 1993 – the first in Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren mystery series, wasn’t the first to be translated into English later in the late noughties. That was the second: Borkmann’s Point.

Why do publishers do this? They did it with Pierre Lemaitre’s Verhoeven books, they did it with Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík Murders series (of which I’ll review the third/first in English next week). Yes, there may be rights issues – different publishers, availability of translators etc. but in my mind there is also the possibility that publishers take the opportunity to present their new audiences for the translated work with a well-developed detective, knowing that fans are likely to go back to the beginning of a series. Whatever the reasons, I prefer to start at the beginning of a series when I can; actually The Mind’s Eye was the third Van Veeteren book to be translated!

I am pleased to say that Inspector Van Veeteren arrives fully formed and I was really taken with this older, well-worn, grumpy detective with baggage who rather resembles Maigret in his detection style and methods.

We begin with a crime. A man wakes up hungover after a real night of it to find his wife lying dead in the bath. He can’t remember a thing, and in his stupor he starts cleaning up before calling the police while he gets his mind together. Teacher Janek Mitter is bound to be convicted of her murder, but he can’t remember a thing about that night.

Van Veeteren knows he’s not the killer – but is unable to prove otherwise at the beginning of the book. The first main part of the novel is thus the courtroom scene – in which Mitter, having decided to take the stand against his lawyer’s advice, plays to the audience in reply to the suave prosecutor:

Mitter allowed himself a couple of extra seconds thinking time before replying. Then he said, calm and restrained:

‘No, I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’

The gallery exploded. Ferrati sat down. Havel hammered away at his desk. Rüger shook his head, while Mitter stood upright in the dock and then bowed modestly to acknowledge the applause. […]

He [Van Veeteren] couldn’t recall having experienced anything funnier. […] The image of the prosecuting attorney, Ferrati, in frilly knickers was something he could hide in the innermost recesses of his mind, to be dug out whenever it suited him for the rest of his life. Ponder over it, and enjoy it.

So Mitter is convicted of his wife Eva’s murder and confined to a rather insecure Broadmoor type prison asylum. Soon he ends up dead too, but not before having left a hidden clue, which the police don’t find until it’s almost too late. Van Veeteren and his main assistant Münster, who reminded me of Maigret’s bright sidekick Lucas, have to delve deep into the past lives of Janek and Eva Mitter, especially that of Eva. There is much legwork to be done – we’re in the pre-internet age, so there is a lot of discussion and working out on paper not on computers. In his increasingly convoluted investigations, VV finds himself interviewing several women about the pair, lunching with one of them:

She had given him a hug and thanked him for the meal, and it occurred to him that she was the second woman in this investigation that he could have fallen for.

If he had been at an appropriate age, that is. And the type to fall.

While most crime series are set firmly in a particular location, Nesser’s Van Veeteren books are different. He has created the fictional northern European city of Maardam, which could be in Sweden, Germany or the Netherlands perhaps – for many of the names are German or Dutch. This means that the action is concentrated on the actions of the team of detectives and geography doesn’t really have much of a place to play in the novel. Luckily Van Veeteren is a strong enough character to carry it off – at times you could almost feel the cogs in his brain whirring. I loved the relationship between VV and Münster, which occasionally veers into ‘Grasshopper’ territory (remember Kung Fu?), the two make a good pairing. VV sets himself a deadline too, either he solves the case and will go to Australia on holiday, or he’ll hand in his resignation and go to Australia – he even books his ticket for a week hence. He doesn’t have too long before his retirement, but we know he’s not ready yet and what would he do on his own?

My late mum was a fan of Van Veeteren, and I have her paperbacks of the first three in the series. I’ll definitely be reading them for I enjoyed this one very much indeed.

Source: Own copy. Pan paperback, 277 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

12 thoughts on “#NordicFINDS – Sweden Week – A new to me grumpy detective

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I can tell you why publishers sometimes start with a later book in the series. It’s a very sad but real reason, as I’ve discovered since starting to publish myself: because with translated fiction it is much more of a gamble and an investment and it has to sell better from the outset to allow for further translations. Very often, the first book in a series is not necessarily the strongest entry, so it’s far better to start with the best one you can (without it being too late in the series to destroy all credibility and sense of continuity). Then, if it does well, you can go back and translate more.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’m the same as you – I love to start a series at the beginning and I can’t understand what motivates publishers to mess around like this! I somehow missed this series but it sounds good – I love a grumpy detective!

  3. Julé Cunningham says:

    Publishing out of order is one of my pet peeves, but understand why they do it as Marina Sofia describes. I remember discovering this series and reading everything that was available all at once, it’s one I wouldn’t mind going back to. Wonderful review!

  4. thecontentreader says:

    Thank you for a great review. I love Nesser’s books, both those about Van Veeteren and those freestanding. I especially appreciate what I call the background stories to the murders. There is always a very touching story to be had about the victim or the culprit. I don’t think I have read this one. Always a pleasure to read him though.

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