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the return

18 august 2017

To be convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence once may be regarded a misfortune; to be convicted twice looks like carelessness. In the case of Leopold Verhaven, it is carelessness taken to its extreme, a cosmic insouciance that sees him serve 24 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit, but almost seems to relish being accused of. Although Verhaven is not a suspect in Håkan Nesser's murder mystery The Return (1995). He is the victim.

Inspector Van Veeteren, the crusty, erratic, out-of-damns-to-give hero of Nesser's long-running detective series, heads into the hospital for cancer surgery just as the police identify a mouldering, decapitated, hands- and feet-less body in the woods as Verhaven's. For a while, Van Veeteren is confined to his bed on the ward, following his team's investigation of the killing via tape recordings. The case is sensational because, as noted, Verhaven was a notorious murderer, someone who did away with two women he had relationships with – the second, years after serving a long sentence for the murder of the first.

Now, somebody has killed Verhaven, and frankly nobody's too upset about that. Verhaven was at best a cold fish and at worst a remorseless killer. Nobody in authority is even too upset about the idea that the person actually responsible for the first two killings may have murdered Verhaven to silence and suppress him. A reversal of the earlier verdicts would reflect very badly on the police and the court system in Nesser's odd, but oddly plausible fictional nation.

But Van Veeteren cannot let go the fact that Verhaven may have suffered and died while a triple murderer walks free. He pieces together the solution to the case intuitively, and I must say obliquely. Either Nesser, or translator Laurie Thompson, or both, glide past key inferences in a way that may mimic Van Veeteren's associative genius.

Once Van Veeteren knows for certain who's really responsible, a dilemma common to many a detective novel arises: how to make sure that justice is done when justice itself is powerless to act? If you want to learn how he resolves this problem, read the book – I will not spoil it here.

Nesser, Håkan. The Return. [Återkomsten. 1995.] Translated by Laurie Thompson. 2007. New York: Vintage/Black Lizard, 2008. PT 9876.24 .E76A8413