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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Chestnut Man

Søren Sveistrup

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To purchase The Chestnut Man

Title: The Chestnut Man
Author: Søren Sveistrup
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 516 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: The Chestnut Man - US
The Chestnut Man - UK
The Chestnut Man - Canada
Octobre - France
Der Kastanienmann - Deutschland
L'uomo delle castagne - Italia
El caso Hartung - España
  • Danish title: Kastanjemanden
  • Translated by Caroline Waight

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Our Assessment:

B : ultimately falls back on way too much that's familiar, but fast, good suspense

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 1/2/2019 Barry Forshaw
The Guardian . 27/1/2019 Alexander Larman
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/9/2019 Marilyn Stasio

  From the Reviews:
  • "The law of diminishing returns -- principally, familiarity with the tropes of Scandinavian crime fiction -- is at work here, but Sveistrup grants the familiar elements a series of incendiary twists. " - Barry Forshaw, Financial Times

  • "(T)his will undoubtedly make for a compelling television adaptation. The more discerning might note that there is little here that can’t be found in Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series." - Alexander Larman, The Guardian

  • "Soren Sveistrup’s cunningly plotted Danish police procedural. Caroline Waight’s gruesomely graphic translation of this disturbing account of a body-part-collecting serial killer leaves little to the imagination." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Chestnut Man begins as far too many crime novels do, with a blast-from-the-past -- in this case, 1989 -- opening chapter that describes a horrific crime before shifting to the present day (and then waiting hundreds of pages before making the inevitable connection to this earlier crime).
       The present-day finds Naia Thulin looking for something more interesting in her police career and angling for a transfer from the apparently pretty stale Major Crimes Division to join: "the twats at NC3, to use the fancy pants abbreviation for the National Cyber Crime Center". Her still superior, Nylander, isn't thrilled that he might be losing her: the young -- only about thirty -- investigator has shown some promise, but he can understand that NC3 might seem more interesting to her than tired old Homicide.
       She's just exploring changing departments, however, and in The Chestnut Man Thulin is still stuck investigating plain old murder. She's partnered up with new and temporary arrival Mark Hess, a fellow Dane who has been stationed in the Hague for a few years now, a liaison officer with Europol who must have done something wrong to find himself shipped back to Copenhagen -- though he expects that all to be sorted out soon, allowing him to be back on his way, away from his homeland that he obviously feels very uncomfortable in ("His nearly five years at Europol were no picnic, but anything is better than here"). (Obviously, something happened to this tortured soul that drove him away from Denmark, but Sveistrup long only drops a few stray hints before finally revealing the sad story, an annoying (and distracting, and completely pointless) holding back of information that he resorts to elsewhere as well.) Hess is not much of a partner at first -- more concerned with fixing up his run-down apartment so he can sell it, and getting things squared away with Europol, so he can get the hell out of here -- but, of course, he proves to be a capable investigator soon enough.
       The crimes they investigate are fairly horrific: first one, then another attractive young mother is killed -- but not before having an extremity or two sawed off. Common to the crimes is the presence of a 'chestnut man' -- a small figure that kids make out of chestnuts and matchsticks -- left by the killer.
       It is the presence of the chestnut men -- or rather, fingerprints on them -- that connects these murders with another recent crime. Minister of Social Affairs Rosa Hartung's daughter, Kristine, was kidnapped a year earlier, and a man confessed to and has been found guilty of her murder -- though he could never lead the authorities to her body, and it was never recovered. And it's Kristine's fingerprints that are found on the chestnuts .....
       The police are certain that the girl is dead. The high-profile case was a difficult one, and they're happy it is closed, and think the only reason it should be back in the headlines is because, after a year away, Rosa Hartung is now back on the job. More sensibly, Thulin and especially Hess can't help but think that this can't be just a strange coïncidence. And, while Nylander tries to keep their investigative enthusiasm in check -- trying to limit their access to Hartung (who has been through so much, and is such an important person ...) and not particularly open to some of the other avenues they try to explore -- they, of course, can't be stopped.
       The thickness of the police is a bit hard to believe: yes, the disappearance of Kristine Hartung was solved, complete with conviction, but even a cursory look at the solidity of the case beyond the confession would suggest that maybe this wasn't anywhere near as cut and dry as the authorities now prefer to believe. And Nylander not even mentioning to Thulin and Hess that the minister had been receiving threats upon her return to the job -- with the explanation: "It can't have anything to do with the killings !" -- almost defies belief.
       The murderer always seems a step ahead of them -- even to be leading them on, and on wild goose chases. A feint in one place gives him time to do his dirty work elsewhere. And if the evidence -- like that which closed the case on Kristine's confessed killer -- is all a bit too neat to credit, it certainly is good enough to satisfy most of the police as they all too dutifully follow the clues and evidence set out for them.
       So also, eventually, when the minister's other child is also kidnapped, everything seems to fall neatly into place as this situation first threatens to spiral out of control but then is surprisingly easily resolved. But there are some nagging doubts (and there really should be a whole lot more), and, a short while later, just as Hess is ready to go back into the Europol-fold, and Thulin is ready to switch jobs to NC3, it independently clicks for them, with new evidence, that there's still more to look into. They figure out who is really behind the chestnut men -- separately, and, in Thulin's case, rather inconveniently and late in the day -- and it comes down to the all too inevitable high tension life-or-death confrontations and showdowns, complete with high-speed car rides and unseasonal snowfall and just in the brink of time actions and appearances.
       The Chestnut Man has it all -- though in this case that too often means: all that is familiar. This isn't so much a by the numbers thriller as a by-the-familiar-numbers one, the pieces -- plot, approach, bluffs, twists, psychoses, sadism, social commentary, heavily-burdened-by-the-past characters -- ones we've seen (again and again and again). It says something for Sveistrup that it's still -- mostly -- engaging: he's good with the pacing and, beyond the annoying habit of hinting about information that everyone but the reader knows (the tragedy from Hess' past; some of Rosa Hartung's background; for a long while, some of the details surrounding Kristine's kidnapping and the resolution of that case), he doses out the whole story well (excepting of course the inexcusable first chapter; mystery/thriller writers really have got to find a different way of tying in long-past events with their stories -- if they really are going to insist on continuing to rely on them (and Sveistrup does need his for his resolution)).
       The thickness of the police is somewhat annoying, too; one can understand that they like to keep their closed cases closed, but when the questions and connections heap up this fast there's no way they can avoid addressing some of the issues -- as they really try to here. And then there's the fact of just how clever the mastermind here is: surely it has to dawn on people that the information and the capabilities he demonstrates strongly suggest he is in a position to be exceptionally well-informed about things that ... well, a limited number of people, in a limited number of positions, possibly could be.
       The Chestnut Man offers a lot of what one looks for in a thriller. And it is a good, fast, exiting read. It's just a shame that Sveistrup relies so much on a check-list of everything that's been stuffed into and done in (especially Nordic) thrillers over the past decade or two -- and though he does it well, he falls just short of doing it really well enough to get away with it: by the end we feel like he and we and his characters are just going through the very familiar motions leading to the all too inevitable resolution.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 September 2019

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The Chestnut Man: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Søren Sveistrup was born in 1968.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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