Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction is the weaving together of the sleuth’s personal and professional lives. That’s a very positive development, as crime fiction fans want their sleuths to be whole characters. Today, let’s take a look at the way this weaving together of personal and professional lives works in the police procedural; to do that let’s put Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss in the spotlight.
The novel begins just before Christmas when wealthy and powerful Swedish financier Richard von Knecht jumps from the balcony of his exclusive apartment. As soon as the police are informed of the victim’s identity, they know that this is going to be a major case. Detective Inspector Irene Huss and her boss Superintendent Sven Andersson get word of the case and are put to work. At first the case seems like a suicide. But forensic evidence soon shows that there’s a very good possibility that von Knecht was pushed off the balcony. So Huss and her team are plunged into the tangled and difficult job of finding out the truth about von Knecht’s death.
The most logical suspects in most murders are immediate family members. But in this case that seems impossible. Richard von Knecht’s wife Sylvia and his son Henrik were on the street below the apartment building when the murder occurred, so neither could have committed the crime. So the team begins to look into the victim’s life and among his friends and other relations to find out who would have wanted to kill him. They’re just beginning to collect evidence and piece together von Knecht’s last days when a bomb goes off in another building. It happens that von Knecht had an apartment there, too, that he used for conducting his business. That bomb claims another life as well as causing a lot of damage. And the building happens to be located next to a shop owned by a notorious drug dealer and gangster. Was von Knecht somehow involved with drug dealing? Or is that a coincidence? Then there’s another death. Now the team has to search for the link among the deaths to find out who’s committed the murders.
In the meantime, Huss has very busy home life. She and her chef husband Krister have thirteen-year-old twin daughters Katarina and Jenny. They have different looks and personalities, but both are bright young ladies with whom their mother has a strong bond. That bond’s tested, though, when Jenny begins to get involved with a local skinhead band and in particular with one member of the band. Huss and her husband are both dismayed at the skinhead rhetoric and Jenny’s apparent embracing of it. And then there’s Huss’ job. Some of the people she’s after in this novel are very nasty people who wouldn’t think twice about using Huss’ family members as “bait” to stop her investigating. In the end, Huss and her team untangle the complicated relationships among the crimes they’re investigating. And one of Huss’ team-mates finds a way to communicate with Jenny about the path she’s on.
This is a police procedural, so one of the strongest elements in it is the “inside look” we get at the “ins and outs” of a police investigation. We follow along as the members of the team go through briefings, collect and sift through the evidence, interview witnesses and suspects and compare notes. We get a real sense of the long hours and frustration of solving a difficult case, too. We also see how team leader Sven Andersson tries to keep his team together and focused while at the same time juggling media bombardment and pressure from superiors.
The team itself is another important element in this novel. Huss is the central sleuth character in the novel, but she is not the only focus of it. She doesn’t solve the case herself, and we see how the team members support each other and work together. That teamwork is essential to the solution of this mystery, and every member knows it. What’s especially interesting about this particular team is that we also see the members’ more human sides. For example, Sven Andersson is somewhat old-fashioned in his view of women. Although he knows women can be competent and the equals of men in police work, he still has difficulty with the integration of women on the police force. But he’s not a bad person and tries very hard to deal with his prejudice. Another member of the team also has some difficulty with women on the force, and when that difficulty escalates into what most people would call sexual harassment, Andersson has to work hard to keep his team together. The team functions very well professionally, but it’s refreshing to see that they’re also human, “warts and all,” and have their conflicts. That sub-plot adds realism to the novel.
There are also some very interesting characters in this novel. Irene Huss, for instance, is a loving wife and mother. She’s also a judo champion and a skilled detective. But for all that she’s not a “superhero.” She makes mistakes, doesn’t always handle witnesses perfectly, and isn’t any more adept than anyone else at coping with the stresses and strains of raising young teenagers. And then there’s Sven Andersson, who more than anyone else on the team feels the strain of managing this investigation, since he’s leading it. He struggles to cope with the changing face of the police force and we respect him for at least being aware that he has a long way to go. He genuinely likes every member of the team and supports them all, but he’s not a father figure. He’s a boss. Everyone’s loyal to him but they also respect him as the one in charge.
The other characters in the novel are also distinctive. As the team gets to know the members of the von Knecht family, we see that the family’s dysfunctional, but it’s subtly done, so the characters seem authentic. The same thing’s true of the other people in von Knecht’s life. As Huss and the team interview his friends, business associates and past relationships, each character comes into focus. Tursten also uses these characters to shed light on the kind of person von Knecht was. So we slowly learn about his character. We discover that he was hardly the upstanding citizen that you’d think from his “public face.” In fact, more than one person has a reason to resent him deeply. But at the same time, he was not a monster. His character is revealed as having depths – including some unpleasant ones – that make the case more complex and for the reader, more interesting.
It’s also worth mentioning that Huss’ thirteen-year-old daughters ring true, too. It’s very difficult to write adolescent characters, but Jenny and Katarina act and speak like authentic teens.
There’s also a thread of humour woven through the novel. It’s subtle, but it’s real. For instance, at one point in the novel, Huss is traveling by train to Stockholm to conduct an interview. She’s had to rush to catch her train and as it is, she’s not dressed formally:
“The only baggage Irene was carrying was a yellow plastic bag from the newsstand with snacks and newspapers. She didn’t even own a handbag and never had, most of what she needed in her daily life she kept in her jacket pockets. They bulged unaesthetically. She decided to pretend there was a fax machine in her right pocket and a palm computer in the left.”
Huss catches the attention of a beautifully-dressed woman – obviously a business executive – who disapproves of her. Here’s Huss’ response to that cold disapproval:
“She gave the woman in the suit a radiant smile and sat down. That’s the most effective way to startle people. They think you’re crazy and instantly avert their eyes.”
It’s effective, too. And what adds to this bit of humour is that the same woman happens to be on the train when Huss returns to Göteborg, where she’s based.
Detective Inspector Huss is a rich police procedural with engaging characters and an interesting and believable mystery that’s solved by painstaking police work and some solid intuition. The novel also features a very effective weaving together of personal and professional lives. But what’s your view? Have you read Detective Inspector Huss? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 17 October/Tuesday 18 October – Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow
Monday 24 October/Tuesday 25 October – Hallowe’en Party – Agatha Christie
Monday 31 October/Tuesday 1 November – Double Barrel – Nicolas Freeling
A very Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadian friends. May you have a wonderful celebration with family and friends.
The Neighbours Downstairs
erm – Sorry for the noise and mess…