Review by Lee Horsley
The Swedish crime writer Hakan Nesser is best known for his highly successful police procedurals, the Van Veeteren series – ten novels (1993-2003), all available in English. He has also, however, written numerous stand-alones, only two of which have been translated into English, both in 2015: A Summer with Kim Novak, originally published in 1998, and The Living and the Dead in Winsford, published in Swedish in 2014. The freshness and immediacy of these stories owe a lot to the fact that (unlike the usual police procedural) they are in the first person. Both carry us touchingly and convincingly into the minds of vulnerable characters living through times of extreme uncertainty and change.
A Summer with Kim Novak is a captivating, well-crafted murder mystery, and readers are kept in suspense until the final pages about who was responsible for “that grisly act”. The narrator, Erik, looking back on his fourteen-year old self, relives “the Incident”: it is the reason he remembers the summer of 1962 “more clearly than any other summer of my youth. It cast its dismal pall over so many things.” But there was also “so much more to it” – most importantly, the experience of being young. In spite of the act of violence at its centre, Nesser’s novel has the charm of a gentle, funny coming-of-age story.
With Erik’s whole world overturned by the serious illness of his mother, he spends the summer at the family’s lake-side cottage with his friend Edmund, his elder brother Henry – and, turning up nearby, “Kim Novak”, the very image of the actress, a gorgeous substitute teacher from their school, accompanied by her extremely unpleasant fiancée. The quirkiness of the boys’ adventures and the awkwardness of their adolescence are beautifully conveyed. The pace of the novel captures the leisure of a summer idyll: “On our first few days at Gennesaret, we surveyed our kingdom… In the summertime, there was never any need to rush; time was an ocean one thousand times the size of Möckeln: you did as you pleased.” They seem to float unhurriedly towards calamity and loss of innocence. And, when disaster strikes, we find ourselves completely engrossed by the causes and consequences of “that fateful event”.
Like A Summer with Kim Novak, The Living and the Dead in Winsford is set in an intensely realized landscape and patiently, vividly creates a disempowered character in whose fate we feel very closely involved. Here, we are following a woman on her own, a former TV presenter, Maria Holinek. In contrast to the earlier novel’s poignant tale of the end of innocence, The Living and the Dead creates a tense, edgy account of the dangers confronted by a woman who is far from innocent – the wife of a missing professor who has herself gone missing, fleeing to an isolated cottage in the village of Winsford on Exmoor. She is “writing in order to avoid going mad – the gradual eroding madness of solitude – and in order to outlive my dog.” Maria is at a moral and emotional crossroads, not just in hiding but dislocated from her entire past: “I had gone astray in my inner landscape, and that was due quite simply to the fact that it had been changed. Or erased.” We are only gradually able to piece together the events that have led to her inner turmoil, and we read anxiously to find out what she is escaping from, what happened in a remote bunker on the Baltic coast, and what will become of her.
A Summer with Kim Novak and The Living and the Dead in Winsford are both, quite literally, “blood on the beach” novels, highly recommended as touching, suspenseful, utterly absorbing summer reading.