The debate as to what makes a good novel, what makes a good crime novel, is never ending. Creative writing courses and manuals talk about plotting, characterisation, upping the stakes, and all manner of other advice. There’s truth in all of this of course, but that isn’t the whole picture. Sometimes a book, TV show, or film, will come along which appears to do all this right and yet for some unfathomable reason it just stinks. Other times something will shine even though the characters aren’t great or the plot is just so-so. Personally, I think that while all the advice is worth listening to (as an aspiring writer myself, I certainly try to listen and learn) there’s a fairy dust which just touches some works, a certain something that one just can’t put one’s finger on.
A great example of this is the TV show The Killing. People have raved about the show, explained why they liked or loved it, but really I don’t think at heart the plot is that original. That said, I loved it. Why? Because it has that fairy dust. It might not have been groundbreaking per se, many stories feature killers and slain teenagers, but it was told in such a way as to make it compelling. So when I learnt that the creator of The Killing, Søren Seistrup, had turned his hand to writing crime fiction I was more than a little interested.
I have to say I was a little put off however when I learnt that Seistrup’s novel, The Chestnut Man, was a serial killer novel. Despite being a crime fiction aficionado, I’m not a big fan of serial killer fiction. To my mind, they’re an overdone trope. The reality is that serial murder is incredibly rare and those that kill in the fiendishly complex ways shown in fiction are rarer still. Yes, there have been the notorious cases like Ed Gein, who made furniture out of his victims, but most have killed their victims in more mundane ways.
It’s not just the rarity of serial killing in reality compared to it’s overload in fiction that bothers me. In crime fiction there’s also a danger of crossing into salaciousness. Recently there was a mini-furore in the crime fiction world when the Staunch Book Prize was launched. The prize sought crime fiction “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Some luminaries of the genre, such as Val McDermid, saw the prize as an attack on their craft, arguing that violence against women is a fact of life, and that their writing dealt with the world as it was. I situate myself in the middle of these two positions. I read much crime fiction (and some horror, and occasionally some dystopian titles) and don’t shy away from books which feature violence against women (or men, obviously), but equally I see what the Staunch Prize was trying to achieve. In the end it comes down to the fairy dust. Some works of fiction, like The Killing, feature a victim dying violently (whether a man, woman, or even on occasion, a child) and the story is told in such a way that it’s gripping. Other tales might be written just as well, but for some reason the gore and butchery bothers me.
So which was it with The Chestnut Man? Did this story about two mismatched detectives in the Copenhagen murder squad, desperately investigating a series of murders of women, where their limbs are hacked off with a saw, a small doll fashioned from chestnuts left mockingly on the corpse, have the fairy dust magic of Seistrup’s TV show?
Well unfortunately for me it didn’t. That’s not to say The Chestnut Man is not a well written book. It’s very well written, if one defines that as a book that has you turning the pages. I turned those pages, desperate to find out what happens. But I didn’t really enjoy this novel. Throughout, the gore and violence to the female victims bothered me. I found myself yearning to read something that might have been nominated for that Staunch Prize.
I have to stress once again that I’m no prude. I love crime fiction. But I tend towards more political works, noir such as the novels penned by James Elroy and Don Winslow. Do any of these feature women brutally murdered? Yes, of course. One of James Elroy’s most famous books was The Black Dahlia, which certainly featured the brutal murder of a woman. But reading these titles it’s clear that the murders, whether of women or men, are not the point. The violence drives the story forward, the author having bigger things they want to say. This might explain the success of The Killing, the investigation of the murder in that show leading to the expose of grubby corruption. But The Chestnut Man? I just couldn’t escape the feeling that the killings of the women were the point.
Now again, I must stress that I’m not saying this review that every novel, crime or otherwise, must have some weighty message. I have enjoyed more straight forward tales in the past, even serial killer stories, The Silence of The Lambs being a obvious case in point. But this leads me back to the fairy dust argument. If a novel such as the Silence of the Lambs has me enjoying it in such a way that the gruesome violence isn’t at the forefront of my mind, then job well done, the book works for me. If, however, as with The Chestnut Man, I can’t help but notice the violence, can’t help but wonder it’s too prurient, then to me it’s failed.
To be sure this is a novel that’s bound to be a roaring success. For a start, I’m under no illusions that there appears to be an insatiable desire for entertainment such as this, that I’m in a distinct minority amongst crime fiction fans; serial killer fiction sells, and I’m sure many reading this review will disagree with my take. And that’s OK, a review can only be a personal opinion. Secondly, written by the creator of a blockbuster TV show as it is, the author’s name alone will ensure sales. And I’m sure the publishers will publicise the title widely. And I have to admit, as I mentioned, I whipped through The Chestnut Man; it’s nothing if not compelling. That all said, if the author writes a sequel, I might just take a pass.
James Pierson 3/3
The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup
Michael Joseph 9780241372104 hbk Jan 2019