Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'Münster's Case': Pursuing crime with quiet humor

Håkan Nesser has long disproved the stereotype that Scandinavian crime writers aren't funny. His humor is observational and quiet, however, rather than slapstick or outrageous.

Münster's Case

By Håkan Nesser

Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson

Pantheon. 320 pp. $25.95

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

Håkan Nesser has long disproved the stereotype that Scandinavian crime writers aren't funny. His humor is observational and quiet, however, rather than slapstick or outrageous.

In Münster's Case, Nesser carries the quiet amusement further than ever before, at least in his novels available in English, making of it a major plot point that I won't give away here. But you'll get it as soon as you come to it.

The raw material of Münster's Case may seem familiar: mysterious disappearances, each complicating the police investigation of the one that went before; family secrets; quiet men and women whose lives puzzled their neighbors.

But in Nesser's world, the investigators spend at least as much time commenting on and fretting about themselves, their marriages, the state of the world, and the process of investigation itself as they do investigating:

"You don't need to have a motive for killing anyone nowadays. . . . All that's needed is for you to feel a bit annoyed, or to think you've been slighted for one reason or another."

"Oftentimes, it wasn't confirmation of a justified crime that would provide the release the perpetrator was looking for, but words. Being able to talk about it afterward."

"I don't want to know, he suddenly realized. I don't want to know how it's going to turn out. It's better to be blind, and to hope."

And, in an unassuming passage that sums up Nesser's view of police work, "[New] incidents kept on cropping up afterward - tin after tin of red herrings, as Rooth had put it."

And as the novel's final chapters will suggest, police in Nesser's fictional universe, far from acting upon and changing the world, as most crime-fiction investigators do, are just one more set of bemused observers.

Münster's Case is nominally an Inspector Van Veeteren mystery, the seventh of the series to appear in English translation. But Van Veeteren barely appears. Instead, the title character and lead investigator of a string of three disappearances is Münster, a supporting character notable in previous books for his amusing negotiations of the journey of marriage, led often by his wife. Here, too, Munster proves a competent investigator - prone, however, to self-doubt and ready to turn for help to Van Veeteren, his esteemed senior colleague, now retired and running an antique bookshop.

The name Van Veeteren is a tribute to the late Dutch crime writer Janwillem van de Wetering, whose Grijpstra and De Gier novels Nesser enjoyed, as he has said, "a lot, of course, perhaps the way they sort of look in the wrong direction most of the time, not really concerned about their work."

Nesser sets the Van Veeteren novels in the fictional Dutch-sounding town of Maardam, but courtesy titles and human and place names suggest an imaginary Northern European pastiche that also includes bits of Germany, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries. Nesser is also given to honoring other crime-writing peers. Minor characters here and in other novels bear the surnames of crime writers from Finland, Sweden, and the United States. "Most people like to have a name," Nesser says, "and it doesn't cost a lot to give knowledgeable readers some meaningless hints."

The seven Van Veeteren novels that have appeared in English, starting in 2006, first appeared in their original Swedish between 1993 and 1999. Nesser has published about 13 more novels in Swedish since 1999, several of them Van Veeterens and several featuring an Italian-Swedish police inspector named Barbarotti.

The English-speaking crime-fiction world could thus be in for a healthy supply of Nesser novels for quite a number of years yet even if the man never writes another word.