Friday, 20 November 2009

Maskarna på Carmine Street by Håkan Nesser

A few months ago, I went to see Håkan Nesser speak about his writing at the Swedish Church in London. He's been my favourite Swedish modern crime writer for a few years and I couldn't wait to meet him and hear him speak. I wrote about it on my other blog.

As you may imagine, I was thrilled at the prospect of reading his newest book, The Worms on Carmine Street. This is a loose translation, but it gives you the idea of the title, which, put mildly, is eccentric. Just like the man himself.

The book is set in New York, where the author lived for a number of months. It's a story of the city where more human experiences and personal histories are crammed into a small area than anywhere else in the world. It is also a story of the search for a child who's gone missing. And of guilt and of loneliness.

The story is similar to Nesser's collection of short stories, From Doctor Klimke's Perspective, where Nesser examines the possibility of absurd co-incidences, magical happenings and existentialism. In those stories several supernatural phenomena are never explained, where as here, Nesser tries almost too hard to ground the plot in reality.

At first Worms on Carmine Street moves relatively slowly back and forth between the history of the relationship between the first person narrator, author Erik Steinbeck, and his painter wife, Winnie. It lingers between their first meeting (this itself having an intriguing and almost supernatural co-incidence), and their present self-imposed exile in West Village on Manhattan. It then races through their married life to the tragic event surrounding the disappearance of their child, Sarah.

Half-way through the book the narrator at last remains in the present, which to the reader is far more seductive in it's description of well-known places in New York, actual events and real people. Though I guessed the crisis in the middle of the book, I still found it a satisfying and plausible twist to the plot, one that also allowed the narrator to spring into action. Action which at last started to remind me of Nesser's other, highly enjoyable crime stories, featuring Detective Inspector Barbarotti, or (in his earlier books) Inspector Van Veeteren.

There's no date (as far as I know) when Maskarna på Carmine Street will be published in English, but I assume it will be sooner rather than later, set as it is in New York and not in some abstract Northern European country. Even so, I do not wish to spoil the enjoyment of this book to you by revealing the ending. Sufficient to say, as much as the first half of the story is uneventful, the second half is fast paced.

The book, however, is not a classic Nesser. Whether it's the influence of New York, or the subject matter, but the book is decidedly more sombre than any of his other works. And that's going some. We're talking about Nordic crime literature after all. Angst doesn't come close to describing the level of existential loneliness found in this book.

Still, I'd recommend this latest Nesser to anyone who's enjoyed his earlier works, or even anyone who's new to Nordic crime writing. It has a magical, lingering quality that many of the British or American crime stories lack. Or perhaps I just enjoy reading about that, oh so, Nordic of mental states: serious, slow, self-fulfilling introspection.

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