Hakan Nesser has been an award-winning novelist since the early 1990s in his native Sweden, where he has claimed both the Swedish Crime Writer Academy Prize as well as the Crime Writers of Scandinavia Glass Key Award. Originally written in 1994, The Return is now available in the United States courtesy of Vintage Crime, and hopefully a U.S. fan base of his fine work will shortly follow.
As translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Hakan Nesserís The Return is another book in the Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series. Van Veeteren is a veteran investigator and for much of the novel is bedridden in a local hospital following a surgical procedure he is unable to put off. This dismays him to no end as a high-profile case has just fallen in his lap. Ex-convict and former champion runner, Leopold Verhaven, is the apparent victim of a brutal homicide, found in the woods near his house minus his head, hands and feet and identified only by the fact that, like the corpse that was found, Verhaven had only one testicle. What makes the case particularly interesting is that Verhaven was twice convicted of the strangulation murder of two former girlfriends, thirty years apart from each other - crimes he insisted he was innocent of.
Was Verhaven indeed innocent of those past crimes, and was someone waiting for him to return to society to enact the ultimate revenge on him? Or was he merely the victim of a revenge plot masterminded by someone in prison who he may have wronged during his incarceration? Van Veeteren is tasked by his Commander Hiller with personally handling this case. He has no choice but to leave the initial investigation in the hands of his very able team of investigators while he studies reports from his hospital bed (while driving his nurses crazy).
Leopold Verhaven spent a total of twenty-four years behind bars, his most recent crime having taken place twelve years prior. He was released early for good behavior and returns to a world he feels is full of innocence and time. However, he does not make it more than 24 hours before someone brutally murders him. Jumping at times between 1962, 1993 and 1994, we are put inside the mind of Leopold Verhaven. Each visit allows the reader to learn more about his background to determine whether he was innocent or not of the crimes for which he was imprisoned. Even though he had a history of violence against the women he dated, there was never any hard evidence (fingerprints, semen, etc.) other than alleged eyewitness testimony to convict him. While he claimed his innocence the entire time he was on trial, he did not raise a ruckus while behind bars. During his second stint in prison, he only had one visitor the entire time he was there - a mystery women who walked with the assistance of two canes.
As Chief Inspector Van Veeteren and his team proceed with their investigation and speak with any witness they can find from both crimes going back to those still around from the 1962 incident, they begin to see a suspicious pattern that leads them to believe Verhaven was indeed innocent of the crimes he was convicted for and may have been murdered by the actual killer to tie up the final loose end in their killing spree. The question that remains is, who could that be? This is an especially hard task, since Verhaven was admittedly violent and had already been convicted in the media, making it difficult to find any unbiased witnesses.
Van Veeteren eventually checks himself out of the hospital and, though not officially back to police duty, begins a self-driven investigation on his own time to find the actual murderer of Verhaven and the two women he allegedly murdered. Even the judge who convicted Verhaven confesses to Inspector Van Veeteren that, in his thirty years on the bench, he never came across anything like the Leopold Verhaven case. When Van Veeteren is sure that he has found the actual murderer, he recognizes that he does not have any hard evidence to bring that person in. He is torn by the moral dilemma of letting the murderer go due to lack of proof or ensuring that justice is done.
Nesserís novel is truly original and the tormented Chief Inspector Van Veeteren a rare character who acts more on moral obligation than staying within the boundaries of the law. Though the murder of Leopold Verhaven was brutal, The Return never devolves into unnecessary violence and is a strong, character-driven tale where the decisions made by the protagonist are highly controversial and will challenge readers to decide whether they would have done the same thing in his place. Well done!