By Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson
Pantheon, $25.95; 306 pp.; originally published
as Münsters Fall
In Håkan Nesser’s fictional Maardam (probably the Netherlands), the cold wet grey of autumn feels “like a funeral in a foreign language”: “the sky hovered over the town like a slowly but inexorably darkening lead dome.” For his detectives, led by the venerable Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, the weather is a reminder “that it’s not until we start fighting evil that we begin to realize how all-embracing it is.”
In late October, four 70-something retirees celebrate a winning lottery ticket — about $11,000 to split — with a drunken dinner at their favorite bar. They head home about midnight: Two of them make it, a third, Felix Bonger, vanishes, and the fourth, Waldemar Leverkuhn, is found gutted by 28 stab wounds. Ten days later, his wife, Marie-Louise, confesses to the murder. In between, a neighbor, Else Van Eck, disappears.
Intendent Münster and Detective Inspector Ewa Moreno lead the investigation. They suspect that Leverkuhn, Bonger, and Van Eck are somehow linked. They also suspect that Marie-Louise is no murderer.
But in the absence of further evidence and with her confession confirmed, justice proceeds over the next months, and she sits calmly in her cell awaiting the sentence. It is Christmas time, and seeing that the guards are careless, she turns her blanket into a noose and hangs herself. A few days into the new year, Van Eck’s body is discovered — cut into pieces and left in plastic bags.
Münster reopens the investigation. He turns to his mentor, Van Veeteren, who has all but retired to an antiquarian bookshop but offers this advice: “In every case there’s one person who knows the truth — and the frustrating thing is, Intendent, that they usually don’t realize it themselves. So we have to hunt them down.”
The search focuses on the Leverkuhn children, daughter Ruth and son Mauritz, who were almost completely estranged from their parents, and the eldest child, Irene, who has been confined to a mental institution since adolescence.
The detectives sense a motive from decades past. The family dynamic has generated “accursed, inescapable birthmarks that could never be operated away.” They are convinced that they have solved the case. Almost every reader will agree. And they will all be wrong.
In the fog that hangs over Maardam and over the vagaries of humankind, losing one’s way is always the danger. As Detective Inspector Moreno senses, “she had started to feel like she was standing with at least one foot on the wrong side of the border. That border you had to stake everything on not crossing — not least because all the roads over it were one way only.”