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Håkan Nesser, Kära Agnes! (Dear Agnes!)

Bonniers,  2002. ISBN: 910058004X

Reviewed by Stig Olsson in SBR 2003:1


There is a spring to the sentence structure and a conversational, almost chatty fluency to the narrative. “This is a novel of correspondence. It is also a crime story. Perhaps even something else”, says the author on the dust jacket. Agnes and Henny, well-to-do middle class women now in their forties, live somewhere in Germany. They were intimate friends, although perhaps not bosom-buddies after all, in childhood and adolescence but now twenty years have gone by without any contact between the two. The death of Agnes’ husband initiates their correspondence and the planning of the assassination of David, Henny’s husband. Interspersed between the women’s letters to each other are enlightening passages, personal reflections on their early lives, families, friends, school days and careers. They are both well educated, Agnes teaches English literature, and their marriages brought financial independence and security to both of them. Agnes now lives alone in the big estate with her beloved dogs trying to work out how best to meet the legitimate inheritance claims of her two stepchildren (whom she hates) without selling the big, comfortable house. Her husband’s demise hasn’t left her heartbroken. He was quite a few years older than she and after all, she didn’t marry him out of passion. Indeed, reflecting on her new circumstances immediately after the funeral Agnes had “a feeling of suppressed satisfaction, as if something long foreseen was about to materialize.” Henny and her husband also lead a comfortable life, with two healthy children and no financial worries. So, in her third letter to Agnes, Henny reveals David’s adulterous affair with another woman. She expresses her disappointment and calmly suggests to Agnes the decision she has reached. “My husband must die, and I want your help”, she writes. She appeals to Agnes not to put the letter aside but to hear her out. Some time ago I read an American crime story about two strangers who meet on a train and in their conversation they realize that it would be mutually beneficial if a person close to them died, Henny continues. They were talking about two separate people, she writes, two victims. The risks involved for the two strangers should they decide to murder their respective victim themselves would be considerable. But if they swapped victims? A “criss-cross” of mutual benefit? Agnes is shocked and appalled, but Henny asks her to think it over, to consider the financial benefits for her. She would be handsomely rewarded for murdering David and the money could be used to settle the stepchildren’s inheritance claims. The reader who followed the development of the American version of film noir in the1950s probably recognizes Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Strangers on a Train (1951) starring Robert Walker and Farley Granger. The novel Henny refers to above was written by Patricia Highsmith, by the way. Is Håkan Nesser’s crime story also a thriller? Barely, but enjoyable and hardly predictable.

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