Søren Sveistrup’s “The Chestnut Man” had been one of my most anticipated reads for 2019. My fascination with Nordic noir has increased tremendously since Jo Nesbo’s “The Snowman”. I wouldn’t say I am used to the gruesome imagery abounding in crime novels because I do cringe, pause, breathe for a few seconds, at times deciding not to continue, but who am I kidding? I love the genre! The exhilarating sensation that fills me up every time I read a crime book is so palpable that I would probably have transported to the scene of the crime many times and do the investigating myself. But the brutality against the remote landscape and cold winters of Scandinavia fabricates an irony of horrors that Sveistrup’s debut novel has in store for his readers.
The Chestnut Man introduces us to its main protagonists, Naia Thulin, a young detective working under the Major Crimes Division, and Mark Hess, a seasoned detective recently discharged from Europol. Together, they go about a mission hunt for a psychopath terrorizing Copenhagen, leaving a “chestnut man” — a handmade doll made out of two chestnuts and matchsticks, at every crime scene.
The first chapter of the book ushered us into an incident that happened back in 1989. Marius, a police officer, was tasked to look into the farmhouse of a certain resident named Ørum, to discuss with him the troubles caused by some of his animals that have broken through the fence, roaming the neighbors’ field. What was supposed to be a normal police workday turned out to be Marcus’ worst ordeal. Instead of finding Ørum, Marcus discovered three lifeless bodies, brutally murdered, and that of a boy who fortunately was alive. Marcus alerted the police and asked for an ambulance when he remembered that the boy had a twin. Instinctively, Marcus searched for the girl, found her tiny shape hidden beneath a table in the corner. As he searched around the room, he began to realize what the room was used for and his discovery of countless chestnut dolls and animals, unfinished and malformed, strayed his mind from the true horror that stood before him. His last vision was that of the boy he found alive, striking an ax against his jaw. This chapter allowed its readers to delve into the battered psyche of the antagonist. The details, however, won’t be revealed until the end.
The succeeding chapters of the novel revealed present-day events as Thulin and her newly-assigned partner, Hess, trailed one murder crime after another. The victims were all women, brutally murdered–body parts lopped off with a saw, fashioned similarly to a chestnut doll. All three victims shared similar clues: a chestnut man discovered at each crime scene, and the fingerprints found on each doll, were that of a government minister’s daughter who had been kidnapped and murdered the previous year. The horrifying state of the murders, as well as the trails left by the serial killer, provoked Thulin and Hess to settle their differences in order to stop the madman and save innocent lives.
Sveinstrup didn’t fail at how he translated the depiction of gore and butchery into words. The author’s writing style was direct and blunt but perceptibly graphic and one can’t help but probably skip a few lines that were too heavy to mentally digest. The novel also delved into the politics behind certain decisions on social affairs and presented a detailed police procedural narrative, ratcheting up the tension as the motive behind the murders starts to unravel. Overall, “The Chestnut Man” clearly lived up to the hype and expectations of Nordic crime lovers–one that will make you not look at chestnuts the same way ever again.