Inspector Van Veeteren, first encountered in BORKMANN'S POINT, is summoned to hospital for an operation to remove a cancerous growth in his large intestine just at a time when a body is discovered in the woods by a young child on a school trip. The irascible Van Veeteren at first has to leave the investigation to his colleagues, but soon runs out of patience and begins to runs things from his sickbed, when the identity of the body becomes frustratingly difficult to track down.
The suspense is limited by the fact that the reader is aware of the victim's identity from the start of the book. The gathering of evidence is rather old-fashioned, doubtless because the book, although published in English this year (in the usual excellently readable translation from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson), was written and originally published in 1995, before the Web had become an integral part of daily life.
I found this book less compelling than BORKMANN'S POINT. The mystery itself is not very satisfying because the circumstances are too shadowy and insubstantial. The victim himself is not portrayed as a sympathetic character and his body is discovered some time after his demise. Nevertheless, the police put much effort into finding out his identity and that of his killer for reasons summed up by one of Van Veeteren's favourite sayings: "If the murderer is holed up in Timbuktu, stop the first cab that comes along and go there. We're not a profit-making company, for Christ's sake!" Somebody asks "Where is Timbuktu?", to which Van Veeteren replies, "The cab driver will know". The police investigation is minutely described, each small step leading to a solution, which, when it finally comes, is neat enough but described in a rather perfunctory fashion.
The main strengths of the book are the descriptions of the inner thoughts and daily lives of the characters, in particular the various members of the police team, dominated by the amusingly grumpy Van Veeteren, whose tough yet vulnerable attitude to his health, life and job certainly makes him one of the more memorable detectives in current fiction. In this book, we learn more about his family life, previously just a glimpse – although it is typical that we learn about them via Van Veeteren's thoughts rather than being allowed to "meet" them ourselves. Overall, the book is well-written and shot through with dry humour: certainly worth reading for the details of the investigation – I always enjoy books where the mystery is rooted in the past – rather than for a great sense of suspense.