Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Håkan Nesser and a word on blogs
There was recently a comment about blogging quoted by Richard Schickel in the L.A. Times, in his article about blogging versus criticism. He quotes D.J. Waldie as saying that blogging is a form of speech, not of writing. I agree with that comment, based on reading lots of blogs and "writing" this one. Others may disagree--what do you think? The distinction doesn't have to be seen as a criticism of blog-criticism: but a blog doesn't go through an editorial process, isn't solicited by a publisher, and is usually more immediate for those and other reasons. So what we get (or give) in a blog is a discussion, a conversation, rather than formal writing (no matter how immediate a good writer can be in that form). And in fact that's what I find attractive about the better blogs--they're a way to talk about something, with a circle of people who might be interested in the same topic, however geographically dispersed they may be. The blogosphere is like a huge bar, with multiple overlapping discussions, and with your own selection of beverage rather than some bar owner's offerings.
On to the subject at hand: Håkan Nesser's second crime novel has been published in English (out of the sequence of the original Swedish publication, as is becoming annoyingly the norm). The Return is based on Inspector Van Veeteren's home ground, the city of Maardam in an unnamed North European country (the first novel in the series to be published in English, Borkmann's Point, occurred in a provincial town some distance from the city, and the police chief and detectives in that town replaced most of Van Veeteren's usual team in that book). As in some other series, the detectives are narrowly drawn characters, a device that throws into relief the personalities of the witnesses, victims, and murderers that populate each novel. The lead character is Van Veeteren, basically a thinker more than an investigator, and in that he resembles Nicolas Freeling's Van Der Valk a bit, (perhaps Nesser's character's name is meant to suggest Freeling's--Van Veeteren's French in-laws and grandchildren, for example, echo Van Der Valk's French wife), and the ending of The Return suggests Van Der Valk's off-center sense of justice. Münster, VV's more-or-less partner, is more of a field investigator--and a key factor in Münster's characterization is his relation to his wife, who's always calm and happy and sensual (and Münster often reflects on his luck in being married to her). The dialogue (particularly in the witness interviews) is lively and interesting, as are the plots. The plot of Borkmann's Point hinged on a surprise ending that was a bit Agatha Christie, from my point of view, but The Return is less reliant on surprise and more of a procedural, involving as it does the full complement of Van Veeteren's team. A headless, hand-less, and foot-less body is found rolled up in a carpet, and identified as a man named Verhaven who was recently released from prison after murdering two women. The police have almost nothing to go on and pursue the case by going over the presumed victim's murder trials and interviewing anyone they can find (while also questioning the identification of the body and Verhaven's guilt in the two crimes for which he was emprisoned). I've mentioned before that there is a "neverland" aspect of Nesser's setting. It's "Northern Europe," sort of Netherlands but also with suggestions of Denmark or Flemish Belgium. He draws the portrait of the fictional country well, without being obtrusive about it, but the pan-North-European quality of place and character names throws me off a bit--it's hard to decide how they should be pronounced, even--should we use a Swedish inflection, though the names sound more Dutch or German, even Slavic? Should we imagine this to be a thoroughly multi-cultural place, with Slavic pronunciation of Slavic names, Dutch pronunciation of the more Dutch-looking names, etc.? Is this a game the author is playing with us? That would be OK, but I miss the local color that is the part of any crime novel--local expressions, local slang, food, attitudes, etc. Nesser invents criminological/sociological/judicial facts that the characters refer to or have to deal with, creating a full sense of a culture that the cops live in and have to deal with, but little details like the kinds of cookies that an old woman who is being interviewed serves the detectives, or the brand of beer that a detective drinks, are vague and ethereal rather than specific and grounded in local culture. On the other hand, some books are so steeped in the local culture that references to TV personalities or consumer products can be puzzlingly opaque to readers from outside the local orbit. Nesser's unnamed country is more invented than the Eastern Europe of Olen Steinhauer's books or McBain's 57th Precinct, since after all McBain's Isola is a parallel-universe New York), and the invention may allow him latitude in dealing with cultural specificities like historical relations with Germany or where along the Protestant/Catholic divide his characters have grown up (and perhaps the depths of his invented country are revealed over the breadth of the series, most of which is after all not available in English). In any case, his fictional country is rewarding to enter for a while, and his stories compel the reader's interest. Plus he can be quite funny, as in a chapter in which VV is simultaneously conducting an interrogation and figuring out how his fancy new office chair works. There's an irony of a sort that's worth noting: The Return deals with events punctuated by two 12-year prison sentences, and the novel itself has taken 12 years to arrive in English. We can hope that the rest of the series doesn't languish that long before being available in the English-speaking world...