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Onyx reviews: Mind's Eye by Håkon Nesser

Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser is the first in his series featuring Inspector Van Veeteren, though the third to be translated into English. The books were originally written in Swedish, but their settings are vague: a generic country with place names in a variety of European languages.

Janek Mitter wakes up after a night of heavy drinking with his wife, Eva Ringmar, unable to remember his own name. Six or seven bottles of wine would do that to two people, especially someone like Eva with a known drinking problem. (Are these bottles a different size than what a North American reader would be familiar with, or do Swedish people routinely drink that much? The amount seems ridiculously excessive and is repeated in a different situation later in the book.)

He stumbles around, gradually becoming familiar with his own home. The bathroom door is locked. After he jimmies the door with a screwdriver, he finds his wife inside, dead in the bathtub.

Mitter, a history and philosophy teacher, doesn't believe he killed his wife, but his memories of the evening are a blank. He can't provide much information to defend himself, but he cooperates fully, both with the lawyer assigned to defend him and the police who question him, including Inspector Van Veetern. He is able to provide half a dozen possible alternate theories of the murder. However, laundering his and his wife's clothing while waiting for the police to arrive doesn't seem like the actions of an innocent man.

Van Veeteren, a graduate of Bunge High School where Mitter and his wife taught, tells Mitter he believes is probably guilty and is correct in his belief that the jury will convict. The teacher is sentenced to six years in a mental institute. Van Veeteren has cause to doubt himself, though, when a second murder occurs that is clearly connected to the first. Van Veeteren leads the investigation so that the department's terrible mistake isn't repeated.

Perceptive deduction leads Van Veeteren to suspect that the culprit is one of Mitter's high school coworkers. Nesser does a good job depicting the drudgery of police work. Officers spend days questioning potential witnesses and suspects. They try to use logic to narrow the field, but some of their assumptions eliminate too many people.Van Veeteren understands that most of what they do is an utter waste of time. When they crack the mystery, he will be able to identify two or three key actions that, if they had been executed at the beginning, would have led to the perpetrator almost immediately. As he tells one of his colleagues, "If there's anything I've learned in this job, it's that there are more connections in the world than there are particles in the universe…The hard bit is finding the right ones."

The biggest mystery in the case is Eva Ringmar, who married Mitter on a whim three months before she died. Even Mitter can't explain why. She spent time in a psychiatric institution following her son's death. After that tragedy, she grew increasingly estranged from her first husband. The picture Van Veeteren tries to piece together is marred by inconsistencies in the way people remember Eva. Some men from her past say she was almost virginal, whereas others say she is a wildly inventive and experienced lover. Her current friends admit that she was reluctant to discuss her past. The fact that she and her twin brother were physically abused as children leads Van Veeteren to dig deeper. As in a Ross MacDonald mystery, the hidden mysteries of the past are what give rise to the crimes of the present.

A perceptive reader might make a few connections before Van Veetern presents his conclusions, but that will be due, in part, to his team's thorough legwork. However, there comes a point in the book when the Inspector should brief his coworkers, but to do so would also inform the reader at a literarily inexpedient point. Nesser hides behind a cloak of metafiction to prevent this from happening. "If we were a movie, you and me, or a book, then of course it would be unforgivable of me to tell you certain things at this point in time," he tells his colleagues. "It would be a kick in the teeth for cinemagoers, an insult to the genre as such." It feels like a cheat since the only groundwork he laid for such a maneuver was a scene early in the book where Mitter reflects on his life as if it had chapters like a novel.

It's difficult to address writing style in a translated book. How much is ascribable to the author and how much to the translator? Do idiosyncrasies arise from cultural differences or translation issues? For example, Nasser has a habit of starting chapters using only pronouns to refer to characters—no names. Sometimes this is done deliberately to mask the identity of a character, but in the rest it serves only to throw the reader briefly off stride—for no apparent reason.

In police procedurals, the supporting characters often get short shrift, and Nesser's book is no exception. The secondary investigators are little more than names with tasks to perform. Van Veeteren is the focus, a man of depth and character, philosophical, with a dry wit, classical tastes, a perceptive eye and a strong moral compass. Brusque at times, warm at others. Readers are granted glimpses into his personal life: a troubled son, an estranged and confused relationship with his wife.

He challenges himself to solve the case by setting an arbitrary deadline. He even books his flight to Australia. When the specified day comes, if he hasn't apprehended a killer who is responsible for more grief and terror than any of the police realize, he will be forced to cede the case to someone else. Van Veeteren is harder on himself than on anyone else, even those who don't live up to his exacting standards.

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