Hour of the Wolf

I bought Hour of the Wolf, by Håkan Nesser, as a spur-of-the moment purchase when I was at Bookmark in Spalding, because I had not come across this author before.  The novel was first published in 1999 in Sweden, but was first translated into English in 2012.  Despite this thirteen-year gap, it has not dated at all.

Though it is in some respects a typical Scandinavian crime thriller (i.e., full of unrelieved gloom throughout – as my son once said, you only have to go there in the winter to see why they write such depressing books!), there are also some unusual qualities about this novel.  One of them is the identity of the killer, which the reader gets to know about two-thirds of the way through.  I won’t spoil it by identifying him myself, but suffice it to say that, as the novel begins, he is a pillar of society.  I don’t mean that he is one of those establishment figures who frequently appear in fiction, who use their position to conceal acts of violence and depravity.  He really is a ‘good’ man, but with a fatal flaw which causes him to kill one person accidentally and then embark upon a terrifying murder spree in order to cover this up when he falls victim to a blackmailer.   Nesser’s message, if not ‘there but for the grace of God …’, certainly seems to suggest that calculated blackmail is as heinous an offence as murders committed as a result of panic.

Without having read the original (not having the understanding of Swedish that would allow me to do this), I can still see that there are some shortcomings in the translation.  Almost every character says ‘Why the hell…?’ or ‘What the hell?’ every other sentence.  Sometimes this expression just seems unsuitable; on other occasions it bores with its predictability.  In the original, it would appear to be a commonplace Swedish colloquialism that would have benefited from being translated by a more varied range of equivalent English idioms.  However, the power of the writing mostly comes through by dint of the author’s skill: the short but graphic portrait of the first death – we are told several times that the ‘blood dripped into his [the dead boy’s] hood’ – instils more sense of horror than a longer account would achieve and the description of the murderer’s sister’s casual duplicity also hits home.

Hour of the Wolf is an enjoyable read that just about held my attention throughout.  However, I found that my interest began to wane towards the end, when it became apparent that the murderer had (as I had assumed all along) killed the blackmailer as his fourth victim and then fled the country.  I had been half-anticipating some further twist of the plot – say, that the blackmailer had killed the murderer and then impersonated him in order to escape.  Perhaps I’ve read too much crime to be satisfied with the entirely plausible plot that Nesser creates; or perhaps this ending was just a little too predictable.