The Living and the Dead in Winsford by Håkan Nesser

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Translated by Laurie Thompson

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Håkan Nesser is a successful, award-winning Swedish crime writer best known for the Van Veeteren series of police novels, a few of which have been translated into English – though I confess I haven’t read any of them (yet). His new novel departs from the series character and formula as well as from the Nordic setting. It is a slow-moving, gripping psychological thriller whose central character is a middle-aged woman. It is set in England, in an isolated part of Exmoor, as winter approaches and the darkness closes in. The narrator, Maria, has come from Stockholm for as yet unexplained reasons and intends to hide out alone in a run-down rented house with her dog. She says at the start that she intends to live in the present, avoid complications, and outlive her dog. But inevitably she has a secret that will nag at her throughout the novel and which she will ultimately have to face. That secret is revealed in sections of flashback that also deal with her husband’s past and the secrets that he too has kept – but that recently he intended to reveal. In his case, that meant writing a novel to expose a decades-old crime in which he was involved. The events from which Maria is running away are far more recent and disturbing, we learn. While we try to make sense of events and characters as they unfold, Maria is also trying to uncover the events of her husband’s earlier life, through access to drafts of his novel, internet information and so forth.

The atmosphere of the novel is brooding and cold – as we’ve come to expect in “Nordic” crime fiction. It is established in the setting on the bleak moors with autumn turning to winter, fog and rain blurring the landscape. The house Maria is renting is isolated, dark and damp; she takes remote walks with her dog. She is an outsider by nationality and because she is a woman alone, but also because in this remote English location any stranger is noted. She comments that ‘I was overcome by a feeling of being very solitary, totally insignificant and passed over. In many ways it is easier to live somewhere without horizons, in the mist and in a confined space.’ Slowly the reader learns the explanation for this desire for secrecy and anonymity. And then the darkness starts to take on menacing shapes and sounds. She starts to think that she is being followed; a man appears at a distant window making threatening gestures. The tension mounts and the reader’s bewilderment increases. But Nesser is a skilful writer and, rather than just building up this conventional mood of menace, he diverts his main character into a growing intimate relationship with a neighbour and several local contacts and friendships. He is very good at catching the reader off-guard and thwarting our attempts to anticipate the outcome.

The central character is interesting and unusual. Her attitudes and behaviour are sometimes alienating but her isolation, as well as her determination and persistence, can make her more sympathetic. My reaction to Maria shifted throughout the novel – as I think Nesser intends. She takes the reader into her world, and into her mind, and is alternately vulnerable and chilling. Occasionally she has the lack of feeling of a Highsmith character, though what we learn of her past also tends to make her actions more understandable. Her husband and children seem distant and self-absorbed, and her husband has also recently been involved in a scandal that led to the couple leaving Sweden to avoid its unpleasantness. This ambivalent response to the main character is sustained by the narrative as it moves between the present, the recent past and the distant past.

In generic terms, we should probably call this a thriller. It is certainly very carefully plotted and engrossing.  However, in its slow pace and introspection, the novel is also a disturbing psychological examination of the strangeness of human motives and behaviour.  It develops quite slowly but with a relentless sense of approaching calamity. The ending does not disappoint – though I do wonder if there wasn’t a bit of cheating going on, a bit of mis-direction to sustain the reader’s interest through what is quite a lengthy novel. I will have to re-read it to check whether I’m right, or if I missed a connection that would account for one or two incidents. But this is a very minor reservation: it is a very good read, and I am now looking forward to reading some of Nesser’s other novels.

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Hakan Nesser, The Living and the Dead in Winsford, (Mantle : London, 2015). 9781447271925, 480pp., hardback.

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