Pancakes and Pea Soup

Glenn Harper on Helene Tursten's "Who Watcheth."

By Glenn HarperFebruary 2, 2017

Pancakes and Pea Soup

Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten. Soho Crime. 304 pages.

IN THE 1970s, the 10 Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were my introduction to both Swedish crime fiction and the police procedural as a literary form. Sjöwall and Wahlöö (she’s a poet and he’s a writer of political thrillers) were Ed McBain’s Swedish translators, and the stylistic relationship of the Beck novels to the 87th Precinct series is clear. But despite the similarities (a team of detectives rather than noir’s solo hero, a straightforward and unmannered style of writing) there is at least one significant difference: McBain’s 87th Precinct series is set in a fictional city that, despite clearly being based in New York, is not grounded in the social reality of a city’s blocks and neighborhoods; the Martin Beck stories are solidly placed in Stockholm and other sites in the Swedish welfare state of the 1960s and ’70s. It was in fact the Swedish-ness of their books that led me to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the first place, because of my personal and academic links to that country.

Nordic noir has since taken off, but among the many examples Scandinavian crime appearing in English translation over the past couple of decades, Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Irene Huss books might be the closest heirs of the work of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, particularly in the style of Tursten’s prose and her evocation of a distinctly Swedish way of life. Tursten — a former dentist, nurse, and medical translator — writes in a clear, straightforward manner, more akin to Henning Mankell’s writing, for example, than to the allusive and sardonic style of Leif G. W. Persson or the almost folkloric prose of Johan Theorin. Tursten’s narrator speaks plainly, usually from the point of view of her main character, who is a police detective in the west-coast port city of Göteborg (Gothenburg), but occasionally through the eyes of a killer, a victim, or even — as is the case in Tursten’s newly translated Who Watcheth — a dachshund who discovers one of the victims. The novels’ alternation between straightforward dialogue, Irene Huss’s inner voice, and the narrator’s direct style effectively captures the ordinary immediacy of life and crime, Tursten’s essential subject, in the specific context of this Swedish city, not only an important seaport but also a university town and the home of Volvo.

Tursten’s books sometimes have, to an American ear, an air of innocence that is perhaps a reflection of the more convention-bound, less individualistic milieu of Sweden. Readers of Mankell’s Wallander books will remember the very heavy weight of guilt the detective suffers after a single DUI incident, a mere peccadillo compared to the alcoholic antics of many a fictional American or British cop. In The Torso, one of Tursten’s earlier novels, Irene seems more taken aback by evidence of kinky sex than one might expect of a hard-boiled detective. Very violent things happen in Irene’s world, but a patina of respectable Swedish normalcy remains a dominant backdrop (along with IKEA furniture).

In one scene of Who Watcheth, a murder victim’s boyfriend recalls that his last phone conversation with the deceased must have been on a Thursday, because “I was in the kitchen making pancakes when she called my cell phone.” The connection is immediately obvious for the Swedish reader: pancakes and pea soup are traditional Thursday dinner fare. My Swedish grandmother brought some of these culinary and social traditions with her when she emigrated, and I can attest to the importance and longevity of these bits of cultural glue. Tursten’s books are evocative and true to Sweden — a country that is both progressive and conservative, and at the same time socially conscious and placid in its relative prosperity. This is, however, the same Sweden whose still-evident ills were tallied by Sjöwall and Wahlöö 30 years ago: the calm cultural background serves to highlight the social problems and eruptions of violence and murder that occur even here.

The opening of Who Watcheth sets the tone of the book: after a brief prologue in the voice of a demented killer, and a short first chapter that describes an attempted murder, Tursten focuses on her main character at home, her rose bushes vandalized, embroiled in a tense argument with a neighbor who thinks Irene is accusing her son of the crime. Irene embodies the low-key quality of Tursten’s novels: her private life is a contrast to the troubled family life of Martin Beck and most other fictional detectives, and she is neither a depressive alcoholic nor a superhero. She is a wife and mother with a middle-class life. Though she once competed in jujitsu, she now relies on that training more for meditation than fighting. Like Beck, she's part of a team, not a solo genius and not the lone hero of noir. Unlike Beck, Irene has a relatively stable home life (in this respect more like McBain’s central character, Steve Carella). Her husband is a chef suffering a midlife crisis about his career, but is otherwise far from fatale material; their fraternal twin daughters get along with them for the most part (unlike Beck’s children, who seem to be the model for the many distressed offspring of cops in Scandinavian fiction, including the unhappy daughters of Mankell’s Wallander and Icelandic author Arnaldur Indri∂ason’s Erlendur).

When Irene is called in on her day off because a body has been discovered in a churchyard, the routines of police investigation are set in motion. A second body is discovered, and the detectives begin to triangulate the murder sites, the clues left behind by the killer, the lives of the victims, and testimony of witnesses. Suspects emerge and the narrative shifts into investigation and interrogation.

Tursten has a tendency to describe ordinary police procedures in plain detail, to the point that the prose can feel a bit flat-footed (Sjöwall and Wahlöö could also seem a little stilted at times, always referring, for example, to Martin Beck by both his names). When a chrysanthemum becomes a clue, for example, “Irene wondered whether this flower was important. Experience told her that any deviation from the norm was usually relevant.” But while these sentences can make the narrative a little stiff, they do serve to highlight the precise and repetitive routine of investigation.

Throughout the novel, the killer continues to stalk middle-aged women, and the police continue to interact with witnesses, crime techs, and medical examiners. Each of the members of the team, detectives and others, has a fleshed-out and believable personality, and their interaction is efficient but not always friendly. Irene’s relatively new boss is a woman who seems to want to slam the glass ceiling shut behind her. Not only does she shut out Irene in her meetings with the detectives, she also drives a wedge between Irene and her former partner and long-time best friend on the squad, Tommy Persson.

Huss’s murderers are often closely related to their victims, but the bad guy in Who Watcheth comes off, at first, as a true psycho killer. His monologues, which interrupt the narrative from time to time, revolve around religious fantasies about sin and retribution. He exhibits a lot of the characteristics of the “organized” serial killer, from his obsessive ramblings to his careful preparation of the bodies, the lack of clues he leaves behind, and his meticulous planning. But the newest member of Irene’s squad interprets him as a more common type — just your everyday dangerous delusional stalker.

When Irene and her team finally do meet him, he is mostly mute and unresponsive; when he does speak, his voice “sounded hoarse and scratchy, as if he had a cold. Or as if he wasn’t in the habit of using it. He spoke slowly and without intonation.” His flat affect and vocalization are in stark contrast to his voice-driven internal monologue. Here he is watching a woman he’s chosen for his next kill: “Behold, I am close to you. Now she is starting to make dinner. Aha — it’s one of those soups that you drink from a cup. You only need to add hot water. Convenient for one person.” He then goes on to fantasize about romantic dinners with her, which will never happen because like all the women he watches, she is committing sins like consuming alcohol and socializing with men other than himself, sins punishable by death. The title character in a previous Tursten novel, The Beige Man, can hide in plain sight because he’s so unremarkable; his crimes are concealed by his beige exterior. The killer in Who Watcheth is also someone we would ordinarily overlook, but whose divergence from the norm is at least sometimes more obvious.

The women he watches and subjects to violence, are simply living ordinary lives, dining on Thursday-night pancakes or soup-in-a-cup accompanied by a glass of wine. Irene muses about how they organize their closets and on the quality of the renovations in their apartment buildings. One passage, describing a victim’s apartment, has almost the tone of a real-estate brochure:

The run-down former workers’ quarter of Majorna used to be a disgrace, but a regeneration program had transformed the area into a very attractive place to live. The inner courtyards of the apartment blocks were particularly appealing, lending a cozy charm all of their own.

Such details are essential qualities of Irene’s point of view: she is not a hard-boiled detective, and her life and her work exhibit the realism of everyday life in Sweden’s second-largest city.

With increased immigration, Sweden is no longer a monoculture, but it does remain a distinctive and mostly prosperous place. Unlike Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who focused on the underside of urban Sweden and on those left behind by the welfare state, Tursten portrays the mostly middle-class, stable, Swedish context in which Irene and most of the witnesses, colleagues, and even some of the murderers live. They build their lives on seemingly stable ground, fortified with strong social norms. Of course, this foundation is violently disrupted by the crimes that Irene confronts on a daily basis. Tursten’s heroine looks in both directions — toward the norm and its disruption — a double vision that leads to the final resolution of Who Watcheth, when Irene steps outside middle-class certainty and into a murky, noir-like moral gray zone that seems all the more shocking against the backdrop of normal Swedish life.

Tursten, despite her focus on crime and her frequent attention to social problems in today’s Sweden, eschews the overt politics of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, but Who Watcheth is a prime example of a particular style of crime fiction that leads back through Sjöwall and Wahlöö to Ed McBain, a style that insists upon the alternating mundane and extraordinary qualities of everyday life.


Glenn Harper is a crime fiction reviewer and the editor of Sculpture magazine.

LARB Contributor

Glenn Harper is the former editor of Sculpture magazine and reviews crime fiction at


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