In The Spotlight: Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss

Hello, All,

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

 
 
 

On Another Note…

A very Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadian friends. May you have a wonderful celebration with family and friends.
Sincerely,
The Neighbours Downstairs
erm – Sorry for the noise and mess…

23 Comments

Filed under Detective Inspector Huss, Helene Tursten

23 responses to “In The Spotlight: Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss

  1. Patti Abbott

    You could keep pretty busy just reading Scandinavian crime novels.

  2. I don’t read many Scandinavian crime novels (as you probably know from the way I score on your quizzes) and that’s a shame. There are some real gems out there.

    Has this novel has been translated? If it has, they do a wonderful job capturing the story from the original. I love the humor in the excerpts you quoted.

    Characters are created very real and the situations also. I think it’s difficult to write teenagers and so if it’s captured, well done! Thanks for this review.

    • Clarissa – There really is some fantastic Scandinavian crime fiction out there. But let’s face it; nobody has time to read everything there is out there.
       
      I agree that the humour comes out very well in this novel and yes, it’s translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray. He’s a highly skilled translator, isn’t he?
       
      And yes, I think that the teenagers are captured effectively here. It’s not easy to do that, so I have a lot of respect for Tursten’s ability at that.

  3. I liked this book very much thank you (I only plucked it from my TBR pile because I noticed it was coming up on your Spotlight feature). Other than the excellent elements you have already highlighted I liked the way some of the book’s tangents were as interesting as the main story, e.g. when Irene tracked down von Knecht’s first wife and their son…that was a very sad thread but quite beautifully written I thought and I liked the attitude it displayed from the Police perspective in that Hess didn’t hound her – in some novels you get this sense that the police treat everyone as if they are guilty until proven innocent and that this attitude is OK whereas in this I thought the opposite was shown and I think that is an important distinction.

    • Bernadette – How kind of you :-). I’m so glad that you enjoyed the book. And I agree about some of the tangents in the story, especially the one you mention. As you say, such a sad thread, but it’s so well-written and poignant without being syrupy. One of the things I noticed about this novel, too, is that even characters who only appear briefly are still well-drawn. We still get a sense of who they are, and that takes talent. The book’s not overly long, either, folks, so Tursten manages to do that without getting overly wordy. Quite a feat. And you know, you’re quite right about what the novel shows about the police. There’s a compassionate side to the cops that we see here, and a sense of treating most of the witnesses quite decently. Not that the cops are milquetoasts, but they don’t bully people, either. That’s a well-taken point.

  4. Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving Margot.

  5. And yet another book on my tbr list 🙂
    You know what stood out for me on this one? Not the plot, you don’t feature books with rubbish plots, but your description of the twins. As the mother of teenage twin girls who look very different, and have very different personalities, this pairing, such a change from identical, or boy/girl, always makes me take notice 🙂

    • Sarah – Thanks for the kind words :-). I didn’t know you have twin teenagers. Then yes, you’ll have a lot in common with Irene Huss in terms of her home life. I think that Jenny and Katarina are actually very well-drawn. They have authentic teenage voices (i.e. not adult minds and voices in teen bodies, but also not little children). Tursten does a solid job, too, of creating the bond between Jenny and Katarina and their mother. It’s clear that they love each other. But that doesn’t stop them arguing, getting exasperated and so on. I like that family.

  6. I’ll have to put this on my TBR list. It sounds like the characters are complex and flawed (always interesting) and I like the fact readers get a close look at police procedure. I’ll be looking for this one.

    • Elizabeth – That’s one thing I really like about this book. Tursten does a good job of taking the reader through the case bit by bit from the police perspective. There are some very well-written team meetings where they discuss the case. There are also some really well-done interviews with witnesses and descriptions of collecting evidence and so on. The reader gets a real look at what it’s like to be a cop.
       
      And yes, the flawed characters are well-done, too. It’s hard not to get really interested in finding out more about them.

  7. I love this book, and series, thanks so much for highlighting it so well here. As well as all the points you (and Bernadette) make, I think there are a couple of very poetic passages in it – can’t recall the circumstances now, one in a hospital where someone is very ill, I think. So far three of the books have been translated into US editions, which we in the UK can buy on Amazon (Soho Crime). A fourth one is due out in translation early next year. I presume also a US version. Steve Murray only translated the first.

    • Maxine – Thanks for that information about Steve Murray. And yes, the series is a wonderful one isn’t it? You’re quite right, too, that there are some beautiful passages in this particular novel. And you’ve pointed out one of the loveliest parts in terms of style (although it is sad). That’s where Huss is interviewing von Knecht’s long-ago mistress and their son who is in hospital. I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone so I’ll say no more about the circumstances. But yes, the writing is absolutely beautiful. And I am looking forward to the next instalment….

  8. Interesting that weaving in the full humanity of a sleuth and his or her family and associates entails subplots. What seems a challenge for writers is to make sure these subplots don’t simply develop character. They must be in some sort of dynamic relationship to the main plot, energizing and thickening it.

    • J.P. – You make such a well-taken point! If we’re going to see what the sleuth is really like as a complete person, there really do need to be subplots. But there’s a tricky balance there as you point out so clearly. A sub-plot that takes away from the main plot is distracting. Sub-plots are best if they are involved with, or in some other way enhance, the main plot.

  9. I reacted to Irene Huss much the way you and Bernadette did. I’ve read two books in the series so far, and enjoyed both.

  10. kathy d.

    Irene Huss is probably my favorite woman character in Scandinavian crime fiction, although I also like Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s lawyer as a close second.
    I have no more insights to bring to the blog. It’s been said in previous posts and the main review.
    I’m waiting eagerly for her next book. I think Soho Crime is involved in publishing this, or it was last time I checked.

    • Kathy – Irene Huss really is a great character isn’t she? I like her very, very much myself, so I can see why you feel the way you do. And I heard that about Soho Crime too, but I don’t know if it’s still true. Either way, I’m looking forward to reading the next Huss novel.

  11. kathy d.

    Night Rounds by Helene Tursten will be published on Feb. 7, 2012, by Soho Press.

  12. Pingback: Review: Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

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