Written by Soren and Lotte Hammer, translated by Martin Aitken — Scandinavian crime fiction has given us some amazing strong, anti-social women as lead characters. Think of Lisbeth Salander, Smilla Jaspersen, Sarah Lund and Saga Noren, for instance. But it’s also has a reputation for quiet old men, usually with health problems. If you like Wallander, Carl Morck, William Wisting or even Martin Beck, another name to add to the list is Konrad Simonsen, head of the Copenhagen homicide squad.
In this third novel in the series, Simonsen has come back to work on reduced hours after suffering a heart attack, just in time for a shooting at a high school. He has also been asked to pick up the suspicious death of a loner called Jorgen Kramer Nielsen, who was found dead at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. Did he fall, or was he pushed? Curiously, there’s a link between the two cases. A 17-year-old witness to the shooting turns out to have been groomed by a dodgy teacher at the school, who got her to perform an unusual sexual service for the dead man. She had to parade around his house naked. No sex, just nudity.
Nielsen’s weird fetish leads to a search of his flat and a secret room is discovered. In it they find 18 poster-size prints of a young girl taken in the 1960s. Who is she, and why was Nielsen obsessed with her? After a lot of investigating – this is a book that takes procedural detail very seriously – Simonsen discovers she was Lucy Selma Davison (Lucy in the sky, it seems) from Liverpool, missing nearly 40 years.
Lucy isn’t the only ‘vanished’ girl Simonsen obsesses over. The heart attack, and this case, get him daydreaming about the 1960s, searching through his memories and emotions. He starts to wonder about his first love, a hippy girl called Rita. She was the most inappropriate girlfriend a young policeman could have. They met after Simonsen battered her while on riot duty at a demonstration. But he apologised, they fell in love, she played guitar, and he argued politics with her.
So there are two mysteries – one where a pretty young girl is likely buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Danish hinterland, and another where a pretty young girl is buried somewhere deep in Simonsen’s heart. Each is poignant, and Simonsen’s character is as rounded and three-dimensional as any I’ve read in the genre. We see him as dreamy and sentimental, grumpy and authoritarian, ill-at-ease with his past, fearful for his present, and yet quite certain of who he is.
His team are also very well drawn. There’s the recently traumatised junior investigator Pauline Berg, who constantly annoys him with her neediness, and yet whom he treats almost like a daughter at times. Arne Pedersen is his number two, and is edgy about treading on Simonsen’s toes, even though he must assume more responsibility due to Simonsen’s health. And finally we have the Countess, an independently wealthy divorced detective, who is Simonsen’s girlfriend and confidante. They argue and posture just like actual colleagues – in fact, they’re frustratingly real at times.
Again through exhaustive investigative methods, they learn that Lucy Davison met up with a group of teenage in the Danish wilderness in the summer of 69. The dead man, Nielsen, was one of them. Simonsen suspects he was killed because guilt over Lucy’s disappearance was catching up with him. Maybe another member of the group – who called themselves the Lonely Hearts Club (another Beatles reference) – silenced him before he could blab.
The tension climaxes when Simonsen’s team have rounded up the Lonely Hearts and he interrogates over Lucy’s whereabouts. It’s a gripping confrontation as our grumpy old detective browbeats a story out of them. He goes much further in his questioning than most fictional detectives, changing tack, lying, losing his temper and threatening them. It’s such a grilling you might end up hating him, even though it reveals a heartbreaking tale. The Hammers are brave enough to give us a detective who is both hard and soft, just and unjust, sweet and nasty. He is so much more than an abstract vehicle for storytelling; he’s a wonderfully real policeman holding his own in a world grief, guilt, bad memories and secrets, where someone can vanish from your life in an instant.
It’s the storytelling side of things where things unravel. The downside of the realism is that the wealth of detail and introspection slows the story. Simonsen’s reminisces about Rita, break up the main mystery nicely, and are fluidly written and touching. But the autopsy reports, a superfluous side case that goes nowhere, and descriptions of the physics falling down the stairs all tend to drag.
Still, The Vanished is more than worthwhile for its engaging characters, and its pin-sharp procedural detail. The atmosphere is suitably maudlin, though tinged with enough hope to pull you through.
We’ve previously reviewed the first book in the series, The Hanging.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars