Monday, December 13, 2010

In The Spotlight: Håkan Nesser's Mind's Eye

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Håkan Nesser has become justly recognised as a leader among Swedish crime fiction writers. His Inspector Van Veeteren series is a clear example of the Swedish police procedural, and his characters are considered memorable. So let’s take a closer look at the novel that introduces Inspector Van Veeteren, Mind’s Eye.

As the novel begins, Maardam schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up from a drunken sleep with a terrible hangover. Within minutes, he finds that the hangover is the least of his problems as he discovers the body of his wife Eva Ringmar in his bathtub. Mitter has no memory of the events of the night before, so he can’t produce any kind of believable alibi. He’s soon arrested for the murder and despite the efforts of his attorney, and his own claims of innocence, he’s convicted. Because he has no memory of what happened, Ritter is confined to a mental institution instead of a prison. At first the murder seems like an open-and-shut case of a drunken crime of passion. However, some points about the case make Inspector Van Veeteren wonder whether Mitter was telling the truth when he says he didn’t kill his wife.

Everything changes when Mitter himself is brutally murdered. Now, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team launch a thorough investigation into both killings. They begin to look into the lives of both Eva Ringmar and Janek Mitter to try to find out who would have wanted to kill both people. Now that it’s clear that there’s more going on here than a drunken argument that ended in tragedy, Van Veeteren has to return to some vague clues that Mitter gave him during the original interrogations. It’s the patient following-up of things Mitter mentioned and other pieces of evidence that finally lead to the killer. As it turns out, the deaths of both Mitter and Ringmar have everything to do with Ringmar’s past.

There are several elements woven through this novel that tie the threads of the plot together. One of them is the character of Eva Ringmar, which evolves slowly as the novel progresses. When the police first interrogate Mitter, he can’t tell them much about his wife, since they’d only been married for three months. We first find out that she’s a teacher at the same school where Mitter works and that she’s reticent about her past. Mitter knows that she was married before, as he was himself, but she never says much about it because of a tragedy that happened during that marriage. In fact, that tragedy was so terrible that it drove Ringmar to a serious drinking problem and a stint in an institution. As the novel moves along, we learn more and more about Eva Ringmar. Each bit of information about her gives Van Veeteren (and the reader) a slightly clearer picture of her character. This is important because Ringmar’s history is central to the plot and to the solution of the murders.

The search for the truth about Eva Ringmar reflects another important aspect of Mind’s Eye: the police work involved. This is a police procedural, so we “follow along” as Van Veeteren and the members of his team interview Eva Ringmar’s family members, friends and work colleagues. The police go through painstaking effort and spend a lot of time to find out the truth. Here’s how Münster, one of Van Veetering’s team members, thinks of it:

“They would work for thousands of hours before the case was closed, and when they eventually had all the answers, it would become clear to them that nearly everything they had done had been a complete waste of time. They would realize that if only they’d done this or that right away, they would have cracked it in two days instead of two months.”

Another thread that runs through this novel is humour. It tends towards sarcasm and is sometimes dark, but there are some funny moments in this novel. For example, during Mitter’s murder trial, the officious prosecuting attorney has been badgering him with questions. He asks how Mitter knows that he didn’t kill his wife, since he doesn’t remember anything about the night of her death. Here is Mitter’s response:

“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.”

At that, everyone in the courtroom bursts into laughter and in fact, that comment of Mitter’s endears him to Van Veeteren, who’s been watching the proceedings. That remark stays with Van Veeteren, too, and he savours it later in the novel. The bursts of humour in the novel stand out against the sadness of the story itself.

Another aspect of this novel that we see throughout is the spare writing style. Nesser makes his points with a real economy of words. For example, here’s a bit of Van Veetering’s musings about whether or not Janek Mitter killed his wife:

“Had this crazy schoolteacher really pressed his wife’s head down under the water and held it there until she was dead?

Two minutes? No, that wouldn’t have been long enough. Three, three and a half?

Van Veeteren doubted it. And he didn’t like doubts.

And then there’s the character of Van Veeteren himself. In this novel, he’s not just dealing with the case he’s working on; he’s also dealing with several personal problems. At the beginning of the story, his ex-wife Renate is talking about getting back together, a thing Van Veeteren does not want. His son, Erich, is in prison on drugs charges, and his dog’s not been well. Add to that a persistent cold and a few aches and pains and it’s easy to see why Van Veeteren is somewhat gloomy. But he’s not altogether negative and bitter. Van Veeteren is a skilled detective who’s dedicated to his work and has a real intuition about crime and criminals. He’s aware of it, too:

“No point in hiding his light under a bushel. There was always a mass of tiny little signs pointing in one direction or another, and over the years he had learned to identify and interpret those signs….It was nothing special; but of course, it was an art. Not something you could learn in the normal way, and not something it was possible to teach; just an ability that he had acquired after so many years on the force.

For Christ’s sake, it was a gift, and in no way something that could be regarded as just deserts for work done.”

Van Veeteren is a distinct and unique character, and his personality, too, comes through in the novel.

There are also elements of psychology throughout Mind’s Eye. The motive for the murders is psychological. The psychology of Eva Ringmar is also central to the plot. That psychology, along with the characters, the humour and the writing style, is woven through the story in the context of the work the police do to solve the murders. But what’s your view? Have you read Mind’s Eye? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 20 December/Tuesday 21 December – The Grave Tattoo – Val McDermid

Monday 27 December/Tuesday 28 December – The Far Side of the Dollar – Ross MacDonald

Monday 3 January/Tuesday 4 January – 4:50 From Paddington – Agatha Christie


  1. Thanks for putting one of my favorite new (to me) authors in the spotlight. My favorite thing about Nesser's books is Van Veeteren's character. I love that he's so sure he can pick out who's guilty, even if that does seem arrogant or maybe even a little mystical. I read somewhere that some people develop what seems to be "intuition" but is actually based on many, many hours of work, like a doctor who can develop a quick diagnosis without being exactly able to say why. So Van Veeteren's ability is entirely plausible, and I like him for being aware of it.

  2. Margot-Thanks for reminding how much I enjoy the humour in the books written by Hakan Nesser. I have read the first four Van Veeteren's to be translated and have one more on the TBR shelf, which I shall move up my reading schedule now.

  3. I have enjoyed this series ever since I read the first book (not sure which one because I borrowed them from the library in the order I found them).

    These novels may not be fastpaced thrillers, but I have come to like Van Veeteren so much that I am sorry I have already read the whole series. He feels very real to me, and it is admirable that he can be such a strong personality and still very good at delegating tasks.

    So thank you for reminding me of so many pleasant hours in the company of an old friend :D

  4. Karen - Oh, I like Van Veeteren, too, and one of the reasons is exactly and precisely what you said. He's got what you could call intuition, or mysticism, or whatever-it-is. He's able, as he says, to spot the right clues in nineteen out of twenty cases, and you're right; he's not afraid to be proud of it. Interestingly, he doesn't come off (at least to me) as insufferably arrogant, either. But of course, I don't work for him ;-).

    Norman - Isn't he a great character? I really like him, too. And I have to admit, I've chuckled out loud more than once while reading a Nesser book. There is some excellent humour in those novels, isn't there?

    Dorte - :-). I like the way you put that: spending time in the company of an old friend. It really doesn't take long, does it, to feel that way about Van Veeteren. He's a wonderful character. You point out something really interesting about him, too; he's so talented, and yet he does delegate quite well. He seems to remember that the case is more important than his ego.

  5. The humour is definitely the thing I remember most from this novel Margot - I love the interplay between Van Veeteren and his colleagues.

    My only problem is finding the time to read all the rest of this series!

  6. Bernadette - I agree with you on both counts! I really do enjoy the banter between Van Veeteren and his colleagues, and he's got a darkly humourous way of looking at the world that I do find appealing. And yes, finding the time to read the rest of the series can be a challenge. It's a challenge worth facing, though. Hey, maybe we should set up a 2011 Van Veeteren reading challenge ;-).

  7. Hello, I stopped by your blog today. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have provoked an interest in Swedish novels. This one sounds interesting.

  8. Ann - Welcome, and thanks for stopping by :-). There is quite a lot of interest now in Swedish crime fiction, and what's interesting is that there's such a variety of it. That's one thing I like about it.

  9. I don't think I've read any of the Swedish mysteries yet, though I thoroughly enjoyed Mankell's Wallender series on Masterpiece Mystery Theater from PBS, and I've enjoyed the Larsen films I've seen so far. I guess I should try Nesser's work.

  10. Patricia - Swedish crime fiction had quite a reputation long before the recent popularity of Stieg Larsson's novels, but a lot of people aren't really familiar with it. You could do far, far worse than starting with Nesser.

  11. This writer is new to me. Thanks for pointing him out.

  12. Patti - Oh, my pleasure. I think you'll like him.

  13. This is a new to me author, as well. I enjoy when humor is mixed in with a mystery. This one sounds like one I'd enjoy very much. Thanks for introducing me to this author.

    Thoughts in Progress

  14. Mason - Nesser certainly does include humour in his novels. I should let you know that the story itself - the solution of the mystery, that is - is sad. But the story is very compelling, the characters terrific, in my opinion, and yes, there is the light touch.

  15. The new book is very interesting. We recently rated it at our blog.

    What is it about Modtryk? They seem to be doing everything right.

    First Stieg Larsson, then another success and then yet another!!

    Heres our review:

  16. Just finished Mind's Eye and need help. Who is Ingrun and what is the meaning of the last page of the book???