Translated by Caroline Waight
I’ve had this book recommended to me by so many Scandi-crime afficionados, that it seemed a good choice to pick for a #NordicFINDS23 readalong…
Hmm, maybe not such a good decision: for not only is it nasty, it is so twisty that it was nearly impossible to tweet as I went to avoid spoilers. I should have gone with something classic or non-thriller. Still, I shall write a about it in a non-spoilery way, except for the first few chapters.
Sveistrup is the screenwriter behind the series that got the whole TV phenomenon of Scandi-noir in its original language going – OK, Wallander had been wowing audiences before, but it was The Killing that really captured the viewing public’s imagination, helped by the publicity over Sofie Gråbøl’s jumpers as Detective Sarah Lund. Sveistrup went on to adapt Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. I enjoyed The Killing but I haven’t watched The Snowman – although we read the book for book group many years ago (reviewed here).
The Chestnut Man is Sveistrup’s first novel, and as you read it, you can see how eminently adaptable it is, there are significant cliff-hangers and plot twists at regular intervals. It’s been compared to Stieg Larsson, but is actually far better written, and is also far nastier – and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (read pre-blog) is one of the nastier Scandi-crime novels, as is The Snowman. However, Sveistrup takes it to another level, the crimes are super-twisted and absolutely vile.
Giving you a taste of what’s to come, the prologue to the novel begins on Halloween 1989 where policeman Marius Larsen visits a remote farmhouse and leaves a message for its owner, but thinks something isn’t right. He discovers a bloodbath of bodies, but amazingly the family’s two younger children, a girl and boy have survived. Something else catches his eye though…
Marius can’t see how many there are, but there are more than he can count with the naked eye. Chestnut dolls, male and female. Animals, too. Big and small, some childish, others eerie. Many of them unfinished and malformed. Marius stares at them, their number and variety, and the small dolls on the shelves fill him with disquiet, as the boy steps through the door behind him.
If you’re squeamish, the prologue may be enough to not turn the pages further. The novel takes up around thirty years later (although this isn’t actually specified), and the next chapter begins with a torture scene and the subsequent death of Laura Kjær.
A few pages later, we meet Naia Thulin, detective in the Copenhagen Major Crimes Division, who is biding her time over a move into the prestigious new cyber-crimes unit. She needs her boss Nylander to finish her references, but he’s short-staffed and procrastinating. He’s about to get some extra manpower though having been assigned a temporary transferee from Europol at the Hague, while his position is being evaluated. Thulin is asked to show him the ropes, and they’re assigned to case of Laura Kjær.
The reader immediately warms to Thulin, ambitious, efficient as a police officer, guilty as a single parent at leaving her daughter Le with her grandfather so much. Similarly, we have our suspicions that Mark Hess, liaison officer at Europol, is not interested at being shunted back home to Copenhagen, waiting for his desk job at Europol to be reconfirmed. There’s a nice tension between the two from the outset, their styles are completely different.
Before they get to the scene of the crime though, we begin another strand of the story – which will naturally tie in with with the grisly murders, those done and those to come. Rosa Hartung is returning to work. She is the Minster for Social Affairs, but hasn’t worked since the disappearance of her twelve-year-old daughter Kristine a year ago. She and husband Steen are still heartbroken, they still hope that Kristine is alive, but life for them and their younger son Gustav has to go on.
Back to the murder of Laura Kjær. The body is in the garden, it was a particularly brutal murder – one of her hands is missing. Thulin liaises with Simon Genz, the head of Forensics, who really knows his stuff, and can’t resists trying to get her to come out running with him – his idea of a date? Thulin is used to this and brushes him off for now, they need to concentrate on the case. It is Hess who spots the chestnut man later though, hanging in the entrance of the playhouse in the garden in one of the photographs. When retrieved, we get the first real bombshell – on the body is a fingerprint of Kristine Hartung!
That’s all I’m going to say about the plot specifics. It gets more and more twisted, more and more gruesome as the murders start to mount, and the red herrings are many. The race to uncover the serial killer’s identity is on. The reveal when it comes is masterly!
If you can put the gore and depraved crimes to one side for a moment, the good news is that Sveistrup has created two amazing protagonists in Naia Thulin and Mark Hess. They are the heart of the story and are justifably portrayed in full detail. You also have to feel strongly for Rosa Hartung; she may be a career politician, but she is also a mother, and once the fingerprint comes to light, is thrust back into the frenzy that descended when her daughter first went missing.
Read on if you dare…
Sveistrup keeps the story moving swiftly from scene to scene – the chapters are mostly short, a few pages usually and it keeps the reader thinking too, not introducing too many new things each chapter. How televisual! The publicity puffs are of the ‘if you enjoyed Stieg Larsson, you’ll enjoy The Chestnut Man‘ and yes, that’s true, but The Chestnut Man is better-written (and obviously translated excellently by Caroline Waight).
So to summarise, a strong stomach is needed, but the characterisation and plotting are superb.
One question remains, should I now bother to watch the TV series on Netflix?
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Penguin paperback, 502 pages.
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