Thursday, 17 January 2019

SOREN SVEISTRUP'S THE CHESTNUT MAN

A woman's body is found, missing a hand, one morning outside her suburban Copenhagen house; found after her son rose, made himself breakfast, and went to the neighbours when his mother wasn't there to take him to school. The case is assigned to Naia Thulin, single-mother, youngest detective on the homicide squad, and unhappy possessor of a new partner, Mark Hess, recently returned to Denmark by Interpol, for reasons unexplained but which, given his uncooperative personality, she thinks she can understand. But the murder takes on a different importance when the sole clue, a child's chesnut man left near the corpse, gets connected to the disappearance, a year earlier, of Kristine Hartung, the young daughter of Rosa Hartung, a minister in the Danish cabinet. Now, just at the point Rosa is returning to work, Kristine's fingerprints are found on the chestnut man. The only problem is the man who confessed to Kristine's kidnap and murder is serving his sentence in prison.

The intricacy of The Chestnut Man's set-up is built upon masterly in this gripping twisty thriller from Soren Sveistrup, creator and writer of the ground-breaking Danish crime series The Killing. And there are similarities between that show and this, Sveistrup's first novel. Particularly in the close attention paid to the parents of crime victims, but also in the way that few characters are what or who they appear to be, which is the main device for raising suspicion and keeping the plot twisting away.

There are also some of the familiar Scandinavian tropes--an emphasis on children, on early abuse, on the failures of the state to identify or cope with it. There is the relatively ordinariness of political figures, and the way their own bureaucratic battling is mirrored by other situations: familial and also within the police, and the way family and work impinge on each other is mirrored starkly with Thulin's own situation. As the story opens, Thulin's boss, Nylander, is desperate for more detectives: he blames the growth of new departments, like the one battling cyber-crime. His only consolation is the addition of Hess, a cop no one else seems to want; meanwhile he doesn't know that Thulin has already applied for transfer to cyber-crimes.

I was also struck by the familiarity of the chestnut man motif. The Danish non-confrontational equivalent of conkers, the chetnut men are made of twigs and nuts. The idea of leaving them besides the crime recalls other thrillers, say Jo Nesbo's Snowman--and interestingly it was Sveistrup who wrote the screenplay for the film of Nesbo's novel. It's not just Scandinavian: CJ Tudor's Chalk Man, for example, and I suppose you might trace it back Thomas Harris, but in general the more innocently bizarre the killer's signature, the more chilling the killer's crimes.

The strong point of the novel is the relationship between Thulin and Hess, which progresses slowly and with its own twists, but works best because of the strong contrast in their personalities. There is lmost the sense they are presented as character sketches for actors: leaving some bits to be filled in by interpretation: some of the supporting cast are more fully drawn, but less interesting. Sveistrup runs the story well: the plot moves like that of a series, but never creaks nor barely stretches credulity; the guessing game is fair (and I came close, but no chestnut), and there are the by-now requisite multiple conclusions, which in this case grow progressively more upbeat until the final one appears to set the stage for a sequel. Which ought to be worth waiting for.

The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup
Michael Joseph, £12.99  ISBN 0780241372104

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

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