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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
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
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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