The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is getting very close to the end of our journey – only 4 letters to go after this one. Many thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for all of the frightful fun thus far. Erm – sorry about that bit at the pub last night… ;-) Today we’ve arrived at the Hotel V, and before I unpack, let me share my contribution for this week: Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren.
When the Van Veeteren series begins, he is a Detective Chief Inspector on the police force of fictional Maardam. As the series progresses, he retires from the force and launches a new career as an antique/rare book dealer. Now…are you beginning see what his appeal is?
But even while he’s on the force, Van Veeteren is an appealing character. As the series opens he’s separated from his wife and doesn’t have very much contact with his daughter Jess or his son Erich. Later in the series though he develops a relationship with Ulrike Fremdli, whom he meets when he investigates the murder of her husband Karel Innings in Woman With Birthmark. But even during the years when he’s alone, Van Veeteren doesn’t sink to the bottom of the proverbial bottle or beg his former wife to come back to him. In fact, he rather enjoys life on his own. He gets on with his life and doesn’t wallow in misery and that’s refreshing.
But that’s not to say that Van Veeteren is an overly positive person. He’s very pragmatic and he’s seen more than his share of life’s ugliness. So he can be cranky (especially when he has a cold) and negative at times. But he’s got a sense of humour about his habit of being dour. Here, from The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case) is one of his thoughts about waking up next to Ulrike one New Year’s Day:
Noticed that he was smiling. There was an unusual twitching in his cheek muscles but by Jove, it was a smile.’
In general, when unpleasant things happen to him Van Veeteren has almost a sense of fatalism about it. His usual reaction is along the lines of, ‘Well that figures!’ But rather than making him overly depressive, his attitude gives him a very practical turn of mind.
That way of thinking also gives Van Veeteren a wry sense of humour that allows him to appreciate life’s weird moments and other people’s wit. For instance, in Mind’s Eye, he and his team investigate the murder of schoolteacher Eva Ringard. Her husband Janek Mitter, also a teacher, is the most logical suspect and in fact is arrested and tried. He claims he’s innocent even though he doesn’t remember much about the night of the murder, since he was very drunk. At one point in the trial, an officious prosecutor asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time. Here’s Mitter’s response:
‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’
That line (one of my favourite of all crime fiction funny moments) makes nearly everyone in the courtroom break out in laughter – and convinces Van Veeteren to take a new look at the Ringard case.
Another appealing aspect of Van Veeteren’s character is that he’s a philosopher. He has the gift of being able to ‘step back’ and reflect on what’s happening in his life both personally and professionally. And what makes that even more appealing is that as he reflects we can tell that he doesn’t take himself overly seriously. In The Inspector and Silence for instance, Van Veeteren is long overdue for a holiday, but instead he and his team investigate a series of brutal murders that seem to be connected to a local cult calling itself Pure Life. At the same time, his ex-wife is angling to have him join her and their children and grandchildren for a holiday – something he doesn’t want. So he tells her a ‘white lie’ claiming that he’s already booked for a holiday in Crete. Here are his thoughts about that decision:
‘Crete, he thought as he got of the car, why not?
Yes, indeed, why not? If you could redeem your sins by doing penance, it should be child’s play to conjure up a retroactive truth from a white lie.
I’m in good form linguistically today, he thought. Unfortunate fortune! Retroactive truth! …I ought to start writing my memoirs right now.’
That trip to book a visit to Crete turns out to be the right decision when Van Veeteren runs into Ulrike Fremdli at the booking office…
Van Veeteren is, besides everything else, a very good cop. He’s smart and most of all intuitive. He’s able to look at the facts in a case and get a sense after a bit of who is and isn’t lying and who may be or probably isn’t guilty. He also has a way of finding innovative directions for an investigation when the ‘usual channels’ aren’t producing results. Little wonder then that even after he leaves the police force, Intendant Münster, Rooth, and his other team-mates consult him about cases. And Van Veeteren stays actively interested in what the police do, so his contact with Münster means as much to him as it does to Münster (not that he would admit it).
One of the things that make Van Veeteren a good cop is that he recognises the value of the contributions his fellow cops make to cases. He does lose his patience at times, but he doesn’t ride roughshod over his colleagues or bark out orders. When someone suggests something of value, he listens. And throughout the series he serves as a mentor, especially for Intendant Münster, who finds himself feeling awkward at the thought of taking Van Veeteren’s place at the helm so to speak after Van Veeteren leaves.
Van Veeteren may be Münster’s boss while he’s on the force, but one of the running jokes in the series is that Münster is the better badminton player. Here’s Van Veeteren’s thought about that (taken from Mind’s Eye):
‘Of course he [Van Veeteren] knew that he was the best interrogating officer in the district, possibly in the country; but he would have been delighted to abandon any such claim in return for being able to give Münster a sound thrashing at badminton.’
In fact, the two develop a solid friendship that continues after Van Veeteren leaves the force.
A smart and intuitive detective who also has a sardonic sense of humour, Van Veeteren is a philosopher who understands how strange life can really be. I like that outlook. Oh, and did I mention he loves books? Just saying…