Monday, 22 March 2010

Reading Speed and the Soap Opera Effect: Håkan Nesser‘s The Return

A body found in a wood in 1994; a murderer released from jail who disappeared in 1993; could they be connected?

That's what Chief Detective Inspector Van Veeteren and his team will have to look into. Unfortunately, the grumpy toothpick-chewer spends most of the book in hospital after an operation for stomach cancer. He's reduced to reading trial transcripts while half-dozen lack-lustre underlings take on the footwork and interviews.

The different reactions to this novel expressed at the crime reading group set me to thinking about how even crime novels need different reading speeds.

Some, like this, are just denser than others. As you read you savour the style and don't mind pondering. If a character comes in on page 30 and you have a vague recollection he's been there before you don't mind looking back. It's the opposite kind of read to a 'page-turner', a cover word that puts me off.

It took a while to get used to the slow, jig-saw like nature of the plot, so I was surprised when a member of the group said she’d found it a ‘quick read’.

The 'routine investigation' unfolds, and it is indeed very routine, (‘repetitive’ is how one member of the group described it) but occasional flash-back chapters privilege the reader.

You can see why the author uses this structuring technique -if he didn't, the reader would be so annoyed with being kept permanently in the dark he'd throw down the book and start reading The Dragon Tattoo instead.

Even the location seems deliberately obscure. The names are Dutch but the place could be Sweden or Poland or any of those north-European places with tiny, introverted settlements surrounded by forest.

An understated rhythm and ironic style combine with literary sleight of hand. Nesser, someone suggested, is well-served by his translator to produce a prose so subtle it’s almost mesmeric. Surveillance of a suspect in a high-class restaurant sets a humorous scene for hapless cops to relish a gourmet meal on expenses. Passages where the point-of-view isn't immediately identified almost make you suspect the author is playing games at the reader's expense; or perhaps he assumes you like it when he teases.

The real turning point of the book, the crucial 'return', is that of Van Veeteren. Once he's back on his feet Van Veeteren soon has things moving, while ratcheting up the intellectual level by several hundred percent. It’s as if he’s wandered in from a novel by Hesse or a Bergman film, except that he’s no indecisive Hamlet. As his name suggests, he's seen too much to hesitate.

His musings are suitably enigmatic:

'What does a fractual care about a camera?' he asked himself.

But he's a man of action when action's required. In the space of a few pages he has put an interviewee through the wringer, osmosed the identity of the murder in a visit to a hut, and achieved the true end of every detective story with a truly shocking twist.

The Return isn’t a good introduction to Nesser’s work. It’s a sequel to the earlier Borkmann’s Point, which won him the best novel award in Sweden in 1994, and the third Van Veeteren novel. I hadn’t read any before, so didn’t possess the ‘cultural capital’ that would have made the earlier chapters easier to read.

The comparison is with soap operas like The Archers or Coronation Street, where recognition kicks for instant involvement because of previous experience. Here, were the hero called Rebus, or Morse, or, more appropriately, Wallander, it would have the same effect.

One of Van Veeteren’s assistants, Münster, was much more fleshed out as a personality than his fellow-detectives. Like Morse’s sidekick, Lewis, he was happily married, forever dreaming about off-duty domestic bliss. It occurs to me that this may be part of the author’s ongoing scheme of things as the books develop, each one of the characters will enter the spotlight and we’ll know much more of them so that each novel will increase our ‘cultural capital’. While this would enhance the soap opera effect, maybe that’s too fiendish a master plan. I wouldn’t mind sticking around to find out, though.

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