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the inspector and silence

30 july 2021

Religious ritual-torture-and-murder cults are a staple of the Scandinavian crime novel. Whenever a series seems to be running out of steam, our Kommissar can always match wits with a fanatic predator who kills in the name of his god, or perhaps in his own name, believing he's a god.

A funny thing happens when little girls start disappearing from a cult camp in Håkan Nesser's 1997 novel The Inspector and Silence, though. Van Veeteren, the crusty, volatile senior chief inspector, perpetually a few months away from retirement, goes out to the scene to investigate. It's not really his bailiwick, but the local acting police chief Kluuge has been told to bring in Van Veeteren as a consultant if he encounters a difficult case. Van Veeteren interviews the charismatic prophet with a criminal past, and tries to interview the three women who surround the prophet and protect him with their devotion and silence (hence the title). The inspector doesn't get far, and spends some time ranting and raving at the fanatics for obstructing justice. But after a bit even he has to wonder. He thinks that their faith is bullshit and their attitude toward society reprehensible – but he's enough of a civil-liberties adherent to realize that the cultists really do have the right to remain silent.

Nesser's crime novels are set in an imaginary country, which limits their capacity for topical relevance ‐ as if the cult-adjacent killings in Henning Mankell, Camilla Läckberg, or Jussi Adler-Olsen bore much relevance to pressing Scandinavian social issues anyway. But since The Inspector and Silence truly cannot be about the problems of any known country, Nesser interestingly sidesteps direct or even oblique social commentary to focus on a more general issue, the vexing dilemma of people's right to be massively annoying in the pursuit of their own conscience.

Van Veeteren goes full Maigret on this lugubrious case, drinking his way through the town where the murders have occurred, visiting the cult headquarters to get a feel for the community, letting the facts of the case percolate through his brain – and then stumbling on the answer almost by accident. The tension ebbs at times, and the revelation of the solution is coyly opaque at first, but for the most part The Inspector and Silence is a true mystery with lots of deft touches. It's still a strong summer read a decade after its first appearance in Laurie Thompson's enjoyable English.

Nesser, Håkan. The Inspector and Silence. [Kommissarien och tystnaden, 1997.] Translated by Laurie Thompson. 2010. London: Pan [Macmillan], 2011.