The Inspector and Silence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


The Inspector and Silence
by Hakan Nesser
Pan Macmillan HK$91

The huge success of Stieg Larsson's three books, featuring feisty computer-hacking heroine Lisbeth Salander, and Henning Mankell's series of thrillers focused on troubled detective Kurt Wallander, have set a benchmark to which most newly translated Swedish novels are inevitably compared.

Hakan Nesser, with his thrillers featuring the enigmatic, toothpick-chewing detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, deserves the comparisons; the former teacher-turned-writer has won numerous awards for his books, which have sold in excess of five million copies in more than 25 countries. The fifth of his novels to be published in English, The Inspector and Silence sees Van Veeteren called away from his usual beat to help a young police officer investigating the disappearance of a schoolgirl in a small lakeside town.

The teenager, who was attending a summer camp held by a religious sect in a woodland area, is reported missing by a woman making an anonymous phone call, but initial inquiries draw a blank. Members of the sect, including other children at the camp, are unhelpful when the police question them and deny anyone is missing.

Yet Nesser has already planted the seed of doubt - and the threat of menace - subtly in the reader's mind.

He starts the book with a quote by poet M Barin: 'Imagine a 12-year-old girl, imagine her being attacked, raped and murdered. Take your time. Then imagine God.'

Then he introduces the tearful girl on an early morning walk. 'It was silly wandering around in the middle of the road and sobbing. Even though there was virtually no risk of meeting another soul - it was silly - it was just as she was about to stand up and continue on her way that she heard a twig snap close by, and she quickly realised that she was by no means as alone as she had imagined.'

Nesser cleverly and slowly cranks up the tension, while lacing his story with touches of gentle wit and an engaging eye for detail. His characters come to life amid the evocative descriptions of the seemingly tranquil Swedish countryside.

He may not provide the high-octane thrills and spills that regularly punctuate Larsson's books - his slow-burning novels are more understated - but there is still much to enjoy.

His time as a teacher is evident in his measured prose and telling phrases. The sedate, chess-loving Van Veeteren, while no match for Salander in a fist-fight or hunting for clues on a computer, can be relied upon to never give up nor to lose sight of what he needs to do. His calmness is deceptive. For just when you fear that he is taking too long to calmly work through the muddle of clues - sometimes feeling the need to frantically chew on two of his toothpicks at one time - when you feel like shouting, 'Quick, before it's too late', Van Veeteren stirs himself.

The Inspector and Silence quickly draws you in with its mix of red herrings and false trails then lands a couple of good punches to the gut to stun you and make you want to keep turning the pages as we - yes, even Van Veeteren - race towards the nailbiting conclusion. Recommended.