CrimeFest blogfest III: Interview with Håkan Nesser
In the third of a series of posts about CrimeFest authors, here's an interview I did with Nesser last spring, upon publication of the Van Veeteren novel Mind's Eye.
© Peter Rozovsky 2009
Readers of translated crime fiction know that series are often translated out of order. Håkan Nesser's is no different. The newly published Mind's Eye, third of Nesser's ten Van Veeteren novels to become available in English, after Borkmann's Point (second in the sequence) and The Return (third), is the first of the series, published in Swedish in 1993.
The novel tells the story of a high school teacher named Janek Mitter who wakes up hung over and finds his wife dead in the bathtub. He struggles to recover his memories of the fatal night, cracks jokes and makes a mockery of his trial, and finds himself confined to a mental institution. Then Mitter himself is murdered, and the investigation and mystery begin in earnest.
The book contains much that will be familiar to Nesser's readers: deadpan humor, sympathy even for unsympathetic characters, and delightfully true-to-life oddball observations. Since this was the first in the series, a reader might naturally wonder if the novel is more autobiographical than those that followed, in the proverbial manner of first novels everywhere. I did, so I asked Nesser a few questions.
What have English readers missed by having only three of the Van Veeteren novels available in their language?
You’ve missed seven books, but hopefully Pantheon will make up for the loss. Next one is published next April. Woman with Birthmark (Kvinna med födelsemärke) got the award for best crime novel in Swedish 199-something. (Note to readers: The year was 1996, when Nesser beat a field that included Åke Edwardson and Henning Mankell.)
You were a teacher. To what extent does Elmer Suurna, the headmaster in Mind’s Eye whose only ambition was “to keep his handsome red-oak desktop clean and shiny,” reflect your own disillusionment with that profession?
My disillusionment is not that big. The main problem with Swedish schools is too much administration, too little money. Most headmasters are good. I have seen one or two like Suurna, though.
You named your protagonist, Van Veeteren, for Janwillem van de Wetering, author of the Grijpstra and De Gier stories. What do you find attractive about Van de Wetering’s work? How is Grijpstra and De Gier’s world view similar to Van Veeteren’s?
Not sure. I enjoyed De Gier and Grijpstra a lot, of course, perhaps the way they sort of look in the wrong direction most of the time, not really concerned about their work. But perhaps Van Veeteren is different in this respect.
Minor characters in Mind’s Eye are named Joensuu, Mankel and Kellerman. Why those particular crime writers? And what other writers have I missed?
Well, most people like to have a name, and it doesn’t cost a lot to give knowledgeable readers some meaningless hints.
Both this book and The Return display strong sympathy with characters who have been in prison or otherwise institutionalized. What are the origins of this sympathy?
With different circumstances the good guy would have been the bad guy. It’s important to understand the motive, and to not demonize the criminal. Some murders are more understandable than others, and those are also more interesting to write about.
The great Swiss crime writer Friedrich Glauser also showed special sympathy for institutionalized or otherwise downtrodden characters. Do you know his books?
No, never read Glauser. Heard of him though.
What plans do your U.S., U.K. or Australian publishers have for issuing more English translations of your work?
See 1). Also I believe they’ve bought a fifth title from the series.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008