The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

Michael Joseph, £12.99

by Malcolm Forbes

The game-changing, award-winning Danish TV series The Killing was a potent cocktail of criminal investigation, political intrigue and family drama. Viewers in over a hundred countries tuned in not only to follow the clues and find out whodunit but also to relish the tight plotting, deft characterisation and absorbing storylines.

Twelve years on from the show’s original broadcast, its creator and scriptwriter Søren Sveistrup returns with another slice of Nordic noir, only this time in the form of a debut novel. The Chestnut Man – neatly translated by Caroline Waight – is a taut, high-octane thriller about two mismatched detectives on the hunt for an ingenious and particularly brutal killer. Sveistrup snares his reader with his house-of-horrors opening and keeps us gripped until the aftershocks of his denouement.

One October morning in Copenhagen the battered and mutilated body of a single mother is discovered at her home. One of her hands has been cut off and above her dangles a little doll made of chestnuts. Young, go-getting Naia Thulin of the Major Crimes Division – aka murder squad – is assigned the case, but to her dismay is partnered with Mark Hess, a washed-up, burned-out Europol liaison officer.

The pair set their differences aside when the fingerprints of a missing girl are found on the chestnut figure. Kristine Hartung, the twelve-year-old daughter of Minister for Social Affairs Rosa Hartung, vanished a year ago, and although a paranoid schizophrenic man was locked up for confessing to her murder, he is unable to remember where he buried the parts of her dismembered corpse.

When a second woman is killed, this time with both hands severed, the fingerprints on the accompanying chestnut doll give Rosa a flicker of hope that her daughter might still be alive. However, that hope is snuffed out after Thulin and Hess are forbidden from reopening the Hartung case and tasked with devoting their energy to halting the perpetrator’s killing spree. But the so-called Chestnut Man is always one step ahead – that is until Hess counters his next move by unearthing a dark past.

To reveal more would be to spoil all. Suffice to say that Sveistrup leads and wrong-foots us through numerous twists, turns, cliff-hangers and red herrings to an outcome which is as bold as it is explosive. As with The Killing which sprawled over twenty one-hour episodes yet didn’t lose momentum, The Chestnut Man comprises 500 pages but unfolds at a frenetic pace. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of crime novels suffered from padding, not least the characters’ umpteen breaks for coffee and sandwiches. In stark contrast, Sveistrup makes every page count.

More faint-hearted readers may disagree. In some passages Sveistrup lays the grisly detail on thick and veers close to overkill. His bogeyman demonstrates his expertise with saws, axes, awls and machetes. Hess sifts “A grotesque, sadistic potpourri” of crime-scene images. And as if a visit to one secret, soundproofed basement wasn’t enough, Sveistrup takes us down into two. “At first glance there’s nothing frightening about the room,” we are told, “apart from the sheer fact that it exists.”

Foul deeds abound, almost always against women and children. But Sveistrup’s violence has a two-fold purpose. It allows him to shine a light on the evil that men do; and it enables us to root for his detectives. The novel is at its most compelling when it focuses on them and their sleuthwork. Again and again they find themselves spurred on by warped logic, loose links and forensic discrepancies. Why are there no traces of bone dust on the blade of the weapon used for butchering? Why is there more than one blood type at a crime scene? And just what connects each victim?

Occasionally Sveistrup’s prose lets him down: he serves up metaphors that are mixed (“you’ve been yanked back into the ring to make the pill go down more easily”) or overwrought (“the question was as riddled with mines as a supply road in the Middle East”). But when he tells it straight, ups the stakes and amplifies the suspense, whether in a desolate farmhouse, an abandoned slaughterhouse, or an eerie wood, it is hard to find fault and a joy to be so immersed on the edge of a seat.