Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Torso ~ Helene Tursten

Thank goodness!  I really enjoyed Helene Tursten's first crime novel, Detective Inspector Huss, but you know what it's like, you get a first novel that is absolutely wonderful and then the second disappoints and the author just never seems to manage to push those same successful buttons again.  Not Helene Tursten, who is without a doubt the best of the Scandinavian crime writers I've discovered over the past couple of years.  Her second book, The Torso, is every bit as good as her debut and my frustration at discovering that the library only has one copy of her third novel and that there is a long queue is immense, although not entirely unexpected.

Irene Huss and the other members of her investigative team are called in when the torso of a body is discovered on the Swedish coast line wrapped in a black plastic bag.  Not only has the body been dismembered, but it is clear from the obscenities inflicted on the remains that the victim has been horrendously tortured and mutilated.  Searching across Europe to try and identify the corpse, Huss discovers a similar crime in Denmark and so is sent by her Superintendent to Copenhagen to see if there is any evidence there as to who the body parts may have belonged to.  The information that Irene is able to pull together suggests that a necrosadist is operating in both countries, killing in order to get sexual satisfaction from the desecration of the bodies.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that the killer is aware of the police's interest in him and that he appears to have some level of access to the investigation.  A succession of people identified as having likely connections with the murderer turn up dead or are viciously attacked and the fear grows that he will target members of the team themselves.  There is also the possibility to be faced that it may be one of their own who is the perpetrator.

One of the things that I find admirable in Tursten's work is that she doesn't glory in the horrors that she has to describe.  She doesn't hold back, but there is no sense of her using the terrible scenes that are involved to draw the reader in.  And believe me, in this book she could well have fallen prey to that temptation.  The point is made on several occasions that necrosadism is extremely unusual and for that we should all be extremely thankful.  Nevertheless, while she leaves us in no doubt that the actual murderer is a monster, Tursten is also careful to explore the manner in which more 'normal' humans can find themselves drawn into the environs of such appalling practices and, for the most part, these people she depicts with a welcome level of sympathy and understanding.  It would be all too easy to judge.

As before, there are certain things about Tursten's work that don't necessarily translate well in either the literal or figurative sense of the word.  I'm fairly sure that only one translation has been commissioned and it is definitely an American one.  Even so, I think something audacious takes 'the biscuit' rather than 'the cake' in both versions of the English language and there are several other incidents of such infelicitous renditions.  And then there is the detective set up.  Do the Scandinavian police really not ring each other up after five o'clock because everyone would have gone home?  I find that rather scary.  And do they really turn a blind eye to some of the excessive drinking on duty that goes on and the behaviour towards colleagues that results.  There are a couple of Tursten's detectives who, if Quintin Jardine's Bob Skinner was to ever to have them under him, would find themselves back pounding the beat before they could blink.  That is if he didn't throw them out of the force altogether.

However, these are relatively minor points and I wouldn't want anyone to be put off this series, which I think is one of the best to come out of Scandinavia in recent years and certainly one I hope continues through many more volumes.


  1. I'll have to add Turston to my TBR list! I've yet to connect with a Scandinavian crime author, but I keep trying. :)

  2. Oh, thank goodness. I was just about to say I think I'm the only one who has never read any Scandinavian crime fiction. :)

    I agree wholeheartedly with that you say about the first vs. the second novel. I'm glad this pushed the right buttons for you! Will look for it.

  3. Eva, I'm sure you won't be disappointed. I think she is an excellent bridge between UK and Scandinavian crime.

    Audrey, as I said to Eva, I think Tursten is a good place for those who enjoy UK/US crime fiction to start where Swedish examples go. Do give her a go.

  4. I am so glad you liked this novel! I loved it. I was put off it for a while owing to its title and presumed subject matter, but I agree that Helene Tursten is an excellent crime author and sadly under-rated. Although only three of her Inspector Huss novels have been translated, a fourth is listed on Amazon as coming out in a Kindle edition later this year (quite expensive but maybe price will come down).

    You are right, she has not been translated into English English only American (we have to buy the US Soho Crime editions), and all three books I believe were translated by different people. One of the ones I read had metres translated into feet in footnotes! Do American readers really need this? No!

  5. Well, another push in the direction of Helene Tursten--not that I really needed it-just more reading time! :) I'm glad to hear she writes the violent scenes in a restrained manner. I expect it in a crime novel, but I don't like it used gratuitously.

  6. I haven't read a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction, but recently I've been enjoying Johan Theorin's books. I'll certainly give Tursten a try as well since you've recommended her.

  7. Hello Annie,

    Yet another new author to me, who has been added to my must read list.

    This list just keeps growing, whilst my reading time available keeps getting less. On that basis I shall never get to sample some of the great recommendations that yourself and many others make!!

    I have a whole shelf of various Scandinavian authors, but have yet to sample any of their work. I used to buy them for my father, but he has now decided that their style of writing isn't for him, so there are no new editions being added .... until now.

    As always,thanks for the recommendation.


  8. Maxine, that was this one! I was very nearly shouting at the book at that point!

    Danielle, I don't think you'd regret reading Tursten. She has a real feel for plot and character.

    Helen, a quick look through the library catalogue for Theorin basically came up with the word, Who? I shall have to speak nicely to the people who order.

    Yvonne, your father might just find Tursten more to his taste. She is the most 'English' of the Swedes I've read in terms of style. If you put the crimes in the UK you would never know the difference.

  9. Hmmm ... "takes the biscuit" sounds odd to me, whereas "takes the cake" sounds right. Translations must be SO challenging! :) I'm searching for the best Scandinavian crime novelist to suggest to my mystery group, and I'm always glad to have more names for the list of possibilities.

  10. Dorothy, who was it said we are two nations separated by a single language?