A woman walking her dog along the beach makes the grim discovery of a rotting human torso inside a black refuse sack. Inspector Irene Huss of the Goteborg police is assigned the case. As in the previous book, DETECTIVE INSPECTOR HUSS, Irene's colleagues help out via the daily "morning prayers" meeting and with a range of tasks, but Irene is the main focus of the story, not least when the investigation becomes very personal for her.
The clue of an unusual tattoo on the victim's body eventually leads the police to the case of a similar, unsolved murder that took place a couple of years previously, in Copenhagen. Irene is duly dispatched to collaborate with the Danish police, but upon arriving she is puzzled and suspicious by the reception she receives. Could one of the Danes be involved?
I was initially put off this book by its ghoulish theme, but I am very glad I overcame my reluctance. Although the case becomes more and more repellent, the straightforward writing style, not shying away from anything but with no hint of sensationalism, is utterly absorbing. After it was written (in 2000, the book was not translated into English until 2006), a similar true-life case in Germany caused international revulsion when it reached the courts. THE TORSO's calm yet detailed dissection of a horribly dark motivation is all the more effective for avoiding hyperbole and hysteria.
I particularly like the integration of the detectives' lives into the story: Irene is faced with the disgusting finding, yet at the same time she is thinking about her domestic duties at home and how to cover them while she works extra hours on the case. And her colleagues turn out to have their own concerns also: two are about to get married to each other, another is revealed as an alcoholic. Irene constantly has to juggle the normal day-to-day trivia of life (one daughter is involved in a car crash) with the increasing malignancy of the crimes, as more victims are found and the dangerous ways of life of a group of people emerge.
Irene is the epitome of an independent woman, applying her observational skills not just to the case but to everyday life. This is particularly effective in Copenhagen, where she is repelled by the various perversions on open display and the way in which they objectify and abuse women. Yet despite her exposure to all life's unpleasantness, Irene is a caring mother, as well as always fair and sympathetic to the people she meets during her investigation, even when their lifestyles do a bit more than raise eyebrows. The person with whom she feels most in tune is Tom, an ex-Sumo wrestler who owns a gay sex shop in Copenhagen; and although she's happily married, she's uncomfortably in touch with her own response to one of the Danish cops.
The story is assured and absorbing. I was relieved that it is told entirely from the point of view of the police investigators and does not include any perspectives "from the mind of the killer", as has become so common these days in crime-fiction. I don't know whether the account of the investigation is realistic, but it certainly reads almost like a scientific documentary, with the eventual discovery of who and what is behind the killings being very believable. Further, the author never loses sight of the basics that create a good story: the detection skills of Irene and her colleagues lead to a gripping denouement, in which Irene has to face an uncomfortable truth about why she has felt empathy with Tom.
THE TORSO, which is an American edition, has a different translator to the first book. Although I found the text sympathetically translated, I do not think American (or any other) readers need asterisks and footnotes to tell them how many centimetres there are in a foot, etc. These irritating details detract from the flow.
THE TORSO is a truly excellent read: the first two books that have been translated in this series are right at the top of my list of the best police-procedurals I have ever read. The true-to-life stories of the domestic lives of the detectives (which are best appreciated here if one has read the scene-setting DETECTIVE INSPECTOR HUSS); the personal compromises they have to make to get their jobs done; together with the dissection of every detail of the investigation, are a powerful combination. The shocks and thrills don't come from special effects, but from what is uncovered about human nature.