Detective Inspector Huss

by Helene Tursten

translated by Steven T. Murray

Published by Soho Press

2003, 372 pages

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Northern Lights

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins


As cultural quartets go, the British Isles and the Scandinavian countries have a lot in common. Yes, they're all chilly, damp places where the citizens are famous for their polite reserve. But among themselves, a curious hierarchy prevails. The English, the Scots and the Welsh may all poke fun at each other, but they will drop those differences in a heartbeat to deride the Irish. And the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes follow a similar pattern, ribbing each other routinely but saving their greatest disdain for the Finns.

True, geographers don't always count Finland as part of Scandinavia, and the Finnish language -- a Hungarian cousin -- is unintelligible to other Scandinavians. But the interplay of mutual discomfort and curiosity that defines interactions between Finns and the rest of Scandinavia bears the unmistakable stamp of longstanding kinship.

This cultural dissonance is just one of several that surface in Detective Inspector Huss, Helene Tursten's first mystery novel to appear in English. (It was originally published in Sweden in 1998.) Like many contemporary Swedish crime writers, including Henning Mankell (One Step Behind) and Åsa Nilsonne (Thinner than Blood), Tursten concocts police procedurals that address social issues. Naturally, there's a murder here (several, in fact, by the end) and plenty of careful, routine police work in its wake, but that's just the simple path; all around, the landscape is rustling with societal tensions. Finns marry Swedes and try to sweep their Finnishness under the rug; Finns are outcasts, employed as illegal housecleaners; Finns are cops, respected but also mistrusted by their colleagues. And that's before we get to the drug-dealing Hell's Angels bikers, teen-bashing neo-Nazi skinheads, violently sexist drug addicts and casually sexist cops.

To her credit, Tursten seldom sensationalizes any of this. In Detective Inspector Huss, society's dark underside -- a staple of the modern crime novel -- is a definite threat to the warm culture of mainstream Sweden, but it's a danger that Tursten is willing to confront. It's a relief, in fact, to read a novel in which the detective tries to live a normal bourgeois life, instead of sinking completely into the abyss. Irene Huss, Tursten's eponymous protagonist, is a 40-something wife, mother, cop, detective and judo expert. She doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of her job, but neither does she exactly embrace them. She's a metaphor, in fact, for Tursten's vision of modern Sweden.

"I'm never astonished by what kids are doing," says Tommy Persson, one of Huss' oldest friends and fellow cops, lamenting the existence of teen gangs in Sweden. "I'm just terrified at what kind of society we're creating for our kids."

Because Huss, like Persson and several of her other colleagues, is an ordinary person with loved ones, her job isn't something she does because she's tough, or glamorous, or obsessed. She's a cop, not a crusader, and she just wants to improve her world a little bit at a time.

In the opening scene of Detective Inspector Huss, a cold, icy rain is falling on the city of Göteborg as frazzled commuters head home in the dark. A man falls through the night and lands on the pavement. Did he slip from his balcony? Jump? Or was he pushed?

He turns out to be a famous financier, Richard von Knecht, who leaves behind an unhappy wife, a brooding son, a miserable daughter-in-law and a clique of fellow high-society cronies who aren't very forthcoming about von Knecht's personal life. Huss and her associates in the Violent Crimes division of the Göteborg Police Department are both fascinated by this glimpse of the upper crust, and even more disgusted than usual by the demands of their job. During the initial police inspection of von Knecht's palatial apartment, Huss can't help but be distracted:

In her many years on the police force, she had passed through hundreds of stairwells, most of them depressingly dilapidated ... The police are seldom called to stairwells with marble inlay on the floor and Carl Larsson paintings on the walls.

And Huss, who is both proud and embarrassed to admit that her home décor comes straight from IKEA, finds herself feeling both unsure and impatient about the case. Her eight-person team -- not including a couple of technicians, bosses and the imperious forensic pathologist on the case -- has its hands full trying to interview family, friends, neighbors and witnesses. Like all good police procedurals, Detective Inspector Huss devotes most of its pages to the plodding work of going door to door, asking the same questions over and over again. Tursten manages to keep this routine consistently engaging, but when she combines it with her large cast of characters and the pileup of ever-more-dramatic events -- two bombs, four additional deaths and a stakeout gone awry -- the swirling drama can at times feel overwhelming. It's a measure of her skill that this book's conclusion feels both logical and natural.

Tursten has now written four novels about Huss over the last five years, of which Detective Inspector Huss is only the first in the series. So, with any luck, some of this book's weaknesses -- chiefly, the lack of character development -- may be dealt with in future translations. What originally prompted Huss to become a judo expert, and then a cop? Why isn't there more tension between Huss and her family (two energetic teenage daughters and a patient chef of a husband) over her dangerous career choice? What's the personal story behind Huss' enigmatic but talented Finnish coworker, Hannu Rauhala, the police department's vital link with Göteborg's Finnish community? How will her much-tried boss, Superintendent Sven Andersson, deal with the undercurrents of resentment some of his male cops feel towards their distaff colleagues? All of these issues are mentioned without really being addressed. But they're the kinds of ongoing dilemmas and relationships that a series can take its time developing.

The one unusual choice Tursten makes in Detective Inspector Huss is the plot line that follows Huss' family. Jenny, one of her daughters, falls in love with a boy who happens to be a skinhead in a punk band. When Huss discovers Jenny listening to racist lyrics and sporting a newly shaven head, she's less than thrilled. But instead of the usual family blowup, things take a strange turn. Huss tells her friend Persson about her daughter's insistence that the Holocaust never happened, and Persson, in turn, takes it upon himself to change Jenny's attitude by revealing the tragic story of his own, secret Jewish forebears.

All the discussion of Nazi history, and the neo-Nazi movement in Scandinavia, feels at first like a heavy-handed digression from the main plot of crime investigation. But the two activities turn out to be one and the same: exercises in interpretation. How do you form a theory of the past based on what you know, or think you know, about it? Jenny's struggles with European history are the same as her mother's problems with sorting through the mess of a criminal investigation. In the end, neither of their solutions necessarily makes them feel better, but at least they have a sense of knowledge of the truth.

Tursten's Sweden may not be a rose-colored land, but neither is it a place of unrelenting gloom. It has its troubles, like anywhere else, but from the point of view of Irene Huss, it's also a most worthwhile place to be. And if the rest of her books make the leap to English, it'll be good to see more of Huss' world.  | February 2003 


Caroline Cummins is a Berkeley, California, resident and frequent contributor to January Magazine.