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When the call comes through Inspector Van Veeteren has his mind on his forthcoming holiday in Greece, and beyond that his retirement; a green Sergeant in the sleepy town of Maardam has been tipped off anonymously about the disappearance of a girl from the residential camp of a religious sect and needs the help of a more experienced detective. Sure that the matter will be cleared up long before his holiday, Van Veeteren delegates some tasks to his junior officers and sets off to see how he can help.
A second call comes in to the station, the same caller claiming that another girl has gone missing but Van Veeteren's enquiries hit a brick wall. The mysterious Oscar Yellineck, leader of the 'Pure Life', refuses to cooperate with the police enquiries and denies that any girls are missing but he reluctantly allows the police to question three women working there, and some of the girls though none of them offer anything useful. Van Veeteren's instincts tell him that things don't quite add up but he can't quite put his finger on what is wrong. Even when the dead body of a young girl is found nearby, the members and staff of 'Pure Life' remain tight-lipped.
Van Veeteren doesn't appear too alarmed by what's going on. Away from the pressures of the city and surrounded by beautiful countryside, good food and wine and the stimulating conversation of a local retired journalist, the inspector is confident it's only a matter of time before his trusted intuition solves the mystery and he can think about his own future.
Here we meet Van Veeteren seemingly approaching the end of his career; this is the first of Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren's novels I've read but I certainly don't feel that I've missed out by not reading them in sequence but by doing so I might, I suppose, get to the heart of the way Van Veeteren's team works. What I did find slightly irksome was the plethora of names - all Swedish and therefore unfamiliar to me - that were thrown at me at the beginning of the story. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt quite so overwhelmed had I got to know their names in previous episodes.
"The Inspector and Silence" is a simple story but the silence maintained by Yellinek and his three assistants frustrates the enquiry forcing the police to be more creative in how they pursue the case. It's not just the police officers that have little to go on; there are few pointers for the reader and I found myself more entertained by the description of place and the behaviour of Van Veeteren that I was engaged in trying to guess who had murdered the girls.
The feeling of suspense is achieved masterfully. The story takes place during an unusually hot summer as the temperature climbs to stifling levels. There's a strikingly effective contrast between the darkness of the story and the light Scandinavian midsummer nights. There's also enough to create an authentic sense of place so that non-Swedish readers pick up something of the culture and custom of Sweden without a sense that the novel has been written with foreigners in mind.
Ultimately the story is a little lame. I had a feeling of "We've been here before"; the storyline of the missing girls and the religious cult has been done to death and Hakan Nesser doesn't really throw in anything novel or exciting. It's competently written but lacking in surprises and I found the characters from the sect one dimensional and predictable. Van Veeteren, though is a fine character, if a little clichéd; he's a fan of classical music, he likes good food, he's set in his ways. You could say he's a jigsaw puzzle of several popular fictional detectives yet he is distinctive and original.
Speaking as a reader who enjoys Scandinavian crime fiction I found much about the book to recommend but as a one off for a casual reader I'd be much less likely to offer an endorsement. I found Van Veeteren intriguing enough to revisit but I do hope that other novels in the series offer something more original in the way of plot.