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Book Review: The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

If you find one, he’s already found you.

A psychopath is terrorizing Copenhagen.

His calling card is a “chestnut man”—a handmade doll made of matchsticks and two chestnuts—which he leaves at each bloody crime scene. Examining the dolls, forensics makes a shocking discovery—a fingerprint belonging to a young girl, a government minister’s daughter who had been kidnapped and murdered a year ago.

A tragic coincidence—or something more twisted?

To save innocent lives, a pair of detectives must put aside their differences to piece together the Chestnut Man’s gruesome clues.

Because it’s clear that the madman is on a mission that is far from over.

And no one is safe.

What is The Chestnut Man about?

Tropes

The tropes for this novel are a bit tough for me to parse. There’s a lot of traditional tropes involved in a murder mystery/crime thriller/Nordic noir novel but everything has just a bit of a spin on the end. For example, Hess–the eccentric newcomer–has all the marks of being the “mysterious, highly intelligent detective” who solves it all with a tragic backstory, but actually manages to be interesting instead of snobby and misogynistic. He genuinely respects Thulin, his partner for the case, without sexualizing her or underestimating her. For Thulin’s part, she’s close to being the “hard working single mother whose career in crime battles for priority” except she’s not. She has a mild relationship with her daughter, who doesn’t hero worship her like the kids usually do. She definitely prioritizes her career, and feels bad about it, but doesn’t want to stop doing so. Aside from the character tropes, the plot and story also reach for traditional crime thriller tropes while still managing to inject real terror, creativity, and intrigue.

Plot Beats

The story begins with a flashback to the 1980’s as a Danish police officer discovers a horrible crime scene. Without explanation, the story moves to modern day (approximately 2018) and begins introducing some of the more important players. I will say that for the first 20% of the book, I was not interested, because there was barely any plot. The chapters are very short–many of them only a few pages long–and concentrate on introducing characters such as Thulin, Rosa and Steen Hartung, and the various people they interact with throughout the story. We are also shown the first crime scene of modern day, with its signature Chestnut Man. The story rapidly evolves, showing us the plot threads of the disappearance and murder of a minister’s daughter one year prior, the tragic murders of three mothers, and the connections between these two case.

Genre

I mentioned a few genres above, but I would say this book is pretty firmly a Nordic noir crime thriller. For those unfamiliar, Nordic noir is a particular subset of the crime genre that features the distinct flair of Nordic authors (the Nordic countries are Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, while Scandinavia proper is only the geographically linked countries). These novels tend to have a bit of a darkness to them, often times in the literal physical descriptions of colder and harsher climates. This story is set in Copenhagen, which has a more mild climate than say Iceland, but the vibes of a Nordic noir novel are still there. Of course, this is a crime thriller with some elements of mystery to it, so you can expect the gory details and disturbing tragedy of those as well.

The Good

Despite its slow beginnings, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the story picked up as it progressed. I had some reservations about the characters, some of whom were introduced as almost stock characters. Luckily, each character turned out to be well fleshed out considering the shared screentime for them. I also appreciated that the killer was not given a perspective during the rotations–it really maintained the illusion, and prevented me from figuring things out too early. Obviously going into it, I expected the flashback scene from the 80’s to be connected, but I really appreciate that the mystery didn’t unravel that portion for a long time. I really loved the way Rosa and Steen’s combined grief, hope, and desperation is put on the page and made so real for the reader. I also found the chemistry between Thulin and Hess to be very compelling–unlike a traditional crime thriller where the female detective is definitely attracted to the male detective, and there’s lots of sexist language and forced scenes of flirtations, the characters were genuinely compatible and never act on any of that. It was a great tease, and honestly I would read so many books featuring the two of them just for that undercurrent of chemistry.

The Okay

There were definitely points in time where the red herrings, subplots, or side characters were kind of just dragging on. Since the chapters were so short, it wasn’t too bad having to trudge through a chapter from a perspective I didn’t care for, but I also think that because of how little impact those chapters had a few of them could have been cut out and left the novel better for it. I especially didn’t care about the subplot featuring Thulin’s semi love interest. I also think we didn’t necessarily need to read all the brief perspectives we did–I enjoyed reading some of them, but others were unnecessary or their chapter could have been from a more pleasant POV.

The Bad

Really the part of the book that was hardest for me were the first 12-20 chapters. Several of them were establishing the POVs and who each character was, but none of them did a good job of making me care about any of those characters. It took me a while to care about Thulin and Rosa and all the other side characters involved. I understand the importance of establishing the major players and giving us the background needed to understand the case and its importance, but at least a few of those chapters could absolutely have been cut.

Final Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by this book! I’m not a huge crime thriller reader, but I’m glad that I decided to make it to the 25% mark before giving up. To be honest, I read this book so I can watch the Danish show with my spouse and I was on a bit of a deadline because he’s wanting to watch it soon. I got about 10% through and thought that was going to be it, because as I say in “the bad” I wasn’t a big fan of the first few establishing chapters. Once the murders began to pick up pace, and Hess was more fleshed out as a character, I found myself enjoying the story a lot more. The ending was a little bit disappointing, for the reasons I stated above concerning Rosa and the killer’s motivation/connection to her. All in all, I think that the meat of the story is really great! It’s engaging, the chapters are short so you can pause without always having a cliffhanger, and the characters are pretty good once you get past their establishing scenes.

Thank you for reading my review of The Chestnut Man! If you enjoyed this review, feel free to follow me here as well as on social media (Twitter | Instagram | TikTok). You can also find me on Ko-Fi where I post about writing and can be commissioned for tarot readings.

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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