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Himmel över London Håkan Nesser, Himmel över London (Skies over London)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2011. ISBN: 9789100125868

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2012:1

Håkan Nesser’s peripatetic writing life continues: his spell in New York produced a quirky mystery, and the result of recent months in London is a witty, metafictional confection combining a thriller plot with many other strands. We begin in classic thriller mode with a set of individuals summoned to a mysterious seventieth birthday dinner. It is 2010: wealthy Leonard Vermin is dying and wants to go out in style; he pays for hotels and travel so all can assemble in London for a meal and the reading of his will. The guest list begins with his one-time therapist and long-term partner Maud and her son and daughter: spendthrift womaniser Gregorius, and obsessive-compulsive Irina. The others are Leonard’s lawyer and Milos, an obscure young New York accountant of East European decent, oblivious of the existence of his ‘benefactor’ until now.

Like Nesser, Leonard spent some years in London in the swinging sixties. Leonard was drawn into John le Carré-style Cold War espionage when recruited as a courier by a beautiful young Czech woman called Carla. A high-adrenalin life of passion and subterfuge ensued. The record of those years in Leonard’s yellow notebook has an elegiac, valedictory air. The traditional spy novel ingredients are there: assignations in remote parks and coffee bars, coded messages in dusty volumes at a secondhand bookshop, briefcases handed over at Trafalgar Square and Speakers’ Corner.

A dramatic storm rages while the plot zips along on two parallel time planes with the promise of an exciting denouement and enlists a cast of memorable characters. We seem to be in standard Nesser territory, with Vermin and his family hailing from that faux-Flemish Euroland familiar from the Van Veeteren novels. But Nesser gives signals that he is playing different games here: the choice of ‘Vermin’ as Leonard’s surname should raise the alarm from the outset. Keen-eyed readers will also notice errors creeping in, far too many to be coincidental, in place names, spellings and factual research.

A new voice is introduced: Lars Gustaf Selén is a retired Swedish taxi driver writing a novel set in London. Selén has storytelling in his genes from a mythomaniac father, but had considered his life essentially over when a London visit together with some schoolmates ended with a friend poaching his girlfriend Carla, and the young couple dying in an accident in the underground. We gradually discover that the cast and plot of the novel’s first section are figments of his imagination, attempts at a therapeutic rewriting of events to atone for a failed life. However, the membrane between fact and fiction becomes increasingly porous. Leonard finds himself inhabiting Selén’s mind every time he goes to sleep, there are other strange leaks between the two realities and by the closing chapters, the characters seem to have hijacked the plot.

The Selén device affords us fascinating insights into the writing process. There is an obvious temptation to read them autobiographically, but Nesser never lets us forget that Selén is a mediocre writer, his work cliché-ridden, derivative and full of defective research. It is a high-risk and perhaps rather self-indulgent strategy of Nesser’s to imitate the work of less accomplished colleagues who have given London the Swedish treatment over the years, but this does nothing to detract from his novel as a ripping yarn with a big twist.

I sensed echoes of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and was vividly reminded of Kerstin Ekman’s Pukehornet (The Devil’s Horn, 1967), in which a novel about an accidental crime turns out to be concurrently recorded by one of its minor characters. Swedish reviews of Nesser’s novel were enthusiastic, though its multiple layering caused some bafflement. Several critics felt the novel ended too abruptly; the set-up is so involved that a touch of melodrama to wrap it up may well have been unavoidable. It is in some senses a shaggy dog story – Nesser is a fan of canines, which feature quite prominently in the novel – but it is also a hugely clever and enjoyable romp. It would be excellent to see this inventive author’s stand-alone titles in English, alongside his crime fiction.

Also by Håkan Nesser

Other reviews by Sarah Death

Other reviews in SBR 2012:1

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