Silence is the greatest wall anyone can encounter. Silence is what Inspector Van Veeteren encounters in this novel by Hakkan Nesser. In a remote picturesque town in Sweden, called Sorbinowo, deep in the secluded woods, a cult called ‘Pure Life’ is conducting a summer camp for young girls, aged around 12 to 13 yrs. The police receive an anonymous call from a woman stating that one girl from the camp has disappeared. When the police contact ‘Pure Life’ they say that all girls are around and no girl has disappeared. A couple of days later, the same woman calls the police and asks them why they haven’t done anything about the disappearance. The police of this town call Inspector Van Veetern to come and solve this case.
Van Veetern comes to the town of Sorbinowo, a town full of lakes and woods, and starts his investigation. He goes to meet Oscar Yellinek, the founder of the cult, who is not happy with Van Veeteren’s intrusion. He refuses to say much and when Van Veeteren starts questioning the three ladies who run the camp along with Oscar Yellinek and later a couple of girls from the camp, he is met with silence. All of them tell the same thing. No one has disappeared. As Van Veeteren is puzzled as to how to proceed further in this case, the anonymous lady calls to say that there is a body of a girl in the woods. Police rush there to discover that one of the girls whom Ven Veeteren had interviewed earlier has been raped and strangled. They also discover that the founder of the cult, Oscar Yellinek, is now nowhere to be found. The police start questioning the women who the run the camp and the girls in the camp. Once again all their questions are met either with complete silence or with answers which show that their loyalty to Oscar Yellinik is perfectly intact. How the police break this silence and solve the case forms the rest of the novel.
Hakkan Nesser explores the phenomenon of a cult and the adherence to the tenets of the cult by its practitioners. The fictitious cult of ‘Pure Life’ has its staunch adherents, who believe that they are the only ones who have found the right path by leading a ‘Pure Life’. The summer camp for young girls acts as a training ground for inducting them into the cult of ‘Pure Life’. Here they swim naked in the lakes in woods; they are ‘disciplined’ if they stray from the path, they have to follow a rigorous schedule as set down by Yellinek and no protests are allowed. How such a cult indoctrinates the young people is brought out well by Nesser. The way all of them stick together, refusing to say anything first and then, given their tender years, slowly breaking down is captured effectively by the author.
The women, who run the camp and whom outsiders consider as Yellinek’s mistresses, have unshakable faith in Yellinek. Till close to the end, they refuses to give any information to the police, frustrating them with their silence and refuses to believe anything that is told against Yellinek. Van Veeteren and his colleagues are unable to understand this phenomenon, wherein such extreme devotion makes people blind to the obvious. The parents of the children are also not perturbed when strange things happen at the camp since their faith in ‘Pure Life’ is strong and deep. Anyone studying cults can easily see that this is a natural phenomenon. (Closer home we have so many exposes of the ‘Godmen’ and yet, the number devotees keep swelling instead of dwindling.)
Hakkan Nesser also briefly touches upon two important and relevant points: the response of the general public to such cults and the need for closure in case of horrific crimes. The public cannot understand what ‘Pure Life’ is all about and believes that uncontrolled sex and other such activities take place in their ‘church’. When the scandal of the missing girl and the murdered girl happens, the public burns down the ‘Pure Life’ church. This also brings forth the other related issue of finding closure in case of a crime which is horrible and affects the public conscience. When the public discovers that young girls have been raped and killed, the anger is huge. The pressure on the police mounts since the public wants some closure in the form of punishing the guilty. This is where mistakes can easily happen and innocents can be punished, if the public believes they are guilty. Van Veeteren treads very carefully here, lest he arrests someone innocent.
Having said the above, I must also state that since this is more a mystery thriller, the issues are not explored in great depth but rather used to form an interesting backdrop for the investigation. There is not too much of investigation as such in the novel. Van Veeteren discovers the solution though a combination of doggedness and luck. Those who have been reading mystery novels regularly will see the solution from a mile. The novel has to be read more for the atmosphere it creates and the character studies than for the actual act of deduction.
Hakkan Nesser’s tone in his novels varies. In case of a novel like ‘Hour of the Wolf’, the tone is dark and bleak. In others like ‘Woman with a birthmark’ is not as dark but the tone is more serious. He adopts a very light tone in ‘Inspector and Silence’. Van Veeteren’s character is developed further from the earlier books. Here he is fed up with his investigative work of almost 35 years and is seriously contemplating retirement. The characters of his colleagues are also drawn up very well and their banter gives the book a humorous undertone. Nasser keeps the humor throughout the book, which helps in counteracting the horrific nature of the crime. This is not a classic but any stretch of imagination but if you have time to spare on your train or plane journey, you will not do wrong in picking up this book.