Hour of the Wolf by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson


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The Independent Culture

Of the Nordic crime writers currently holding readers’ attention in an unbreakable grip, Håkan Nesser is comfortably the most anglocentric.

Nesser himself has a notably dry and ironic sense of humour, more redolent of this island than Sweden, and intermittently makes London his home. He also has something in common with another great generator of suspense, Leytonstone-born Alfred Hitchcock: a preoccupation with guilt and the way in which crime draws everyone connected with it into a dark moral miasma – as in the latest book to reach these shores, Hour of the Wolf (although the novel, translated by Laurie Thompson, was written over a decade ago).

This is a particularly personal case for Nesser's redoubtable detective Van Veeteren, retired and working as an antiquarian bookseller. A teenage boy leaves his girlfriend's eagerly anticipating the lovemaking at their next meeting, but he is struck and killed by drunken driver. It is not a hit-and-run case: the driver, a businessman, tries to cover his involvement by removing all traces of the accident and hiding the body. He believes he has erased his tracks, but receives a letter from a blackmailer, along with the customary demand for money. The driver becomes convinced that he must kill his tormentor, and at the assignation at which he is to deliver the money, he murders a young man. But he has made a terrible mistake...

All this is dispatched with the assurance that readers have come to expect from the author of such quietly compelling crime fiction as The Return and Woman With Birthmark. As before with Nesser, we are reminded of the writer Ruth Rendell in the coolly methodical fashion in which lives are destroyed by a crime, those of both the victims and the perpetrators. We have barely noticed that Nesser’s signature character Van Veeteren has not appeared — until the discovery is made that the murdered young man thought by his killer to be the blackmailer is actually Van Veeteren's errant son. And the ex-policeman's old team find that they are under pressure from their retired boss to track down a murderer — although, needless to say, Van Veeteren is not content to sit on the sidelines.

If the pace here is more measured than in previous books, there is not a single misstep as the grim implications of the narrative are teased out. And — as with Hitchcock — the guilt of a single character becomes a kind of amorphous mass, affecting everyone involved, muddying moral distinctions. If there is a caveat, it is perhaps the speed with which the accidentally lethal businessman hardens into a premeditated murderer, but that hardly distracts from the storytelling acumen that is Nesser's métier.