(posted by Evan)
The Chestnut Man is a murder-mystery thriller in the classic serial killer vein. The killer leaves a calling card at the murder scene which are little chestnut men or chestnut dolls, which look like this:
If that isn’t scary to you then you’re probably Danish.
The killer, who comes to be called The Chestnut Man by the press, has a certain gruesome signature in that he likes to amputate the limbs of his victims while they are still alive. He contacts the police and other authorities, albeit in indirect and misleading ways. He also has a certain target victim – women, whose children have suffered abuse and neglect, though not necessarily by the mothers. This may or not have something to do with the killer’s motive, because it doesn’t make sense to punish the mothers in cases where it is not they who harmed their children. But then again, amputating limbs and then murdering people isn’t exactly a rational process. But this part from the first murder (2nd chapter so not really a spoiler) has held my intrigue:
“Are you okay, Laura?” Its tone is soft and affectionate and much too close to her ear. But the voice doesn’t wait for an answer. For a moment it removes the thing that was stuck in her mouth, and Laura hears herself begging and pleading. She doesn’t understand anything. She’ll do anything. Why her - what has she done? The voice says she knows perfectly well. It bends down very close and whispers into her ear, and she can tell it has been looking forward to exactly this moment. She has to concentrate on the words. She understands what the voice is saying, but she can’t believe it. The pain is greater than all her other injuries. It can’t be that. It mustn’t be that… She’s known it for a while, yet somehow not – and only now, as the voice whispers it to her, does she understand it’s true.
Intertwined with this developing series of murders is the story of a member of the Danish parliament, Rosa Hartung, who is just returning to work after taking a year off, a leave that stemmed from her daughter being abducted and eventually declared murdered. A man confessed and was convicted for her death, though her body was never found. But the fingerprints of her supposedly dead daughter are found on the chestnut men left at the scene of the serial murders. Oh, and Hartung herself is receiving threats.
Two detectives are working to solve the case, one of them, Naia Thulin, is eager to move from the Major Crimes Division to the National Cyber Crime Center, while the other, Mark Hess, is an exiled member of the Europol who got booted back to Denmark for some sort of misbehavior. He is mainly concerned with trying to get back to his old position until he becomes obsessed with the case. He also has two different color eyes. Hess’ obsession is well revealed in one particular instance: When Thulin comes to his apartment to bring him news about an important upcoming interview for the case (with Rosa Hartung), she enters through his unlocked door and finds newspapers taped all over his walls with lines and notes scribbled all over them and also the walls of the otherwise very bare apartment in red pen, trying to connect the dots. I imagine it must have felt to Thulin upon entering the room, a little something like this:
Mystery novels are always very good for book club’s because, even for lack of anything else to discuss, you can always get a good conversation going about who you think the killer is. I haven’t read many mystery’s in my days but as Madison reminds us, you usually meet the killer in the first 100 pages or so. We all seem pretty clueless, which I think is a sign that the book is well-written. As Andy remarked, we have as many theories as there are characters. It’s also very suspenseful. Most of the time it’s a page-turner, aided on by short chapters that make it easy to always read one more.
Adding to the experience for me personally is that Stephanie and I are both reading it on the Kindle she got me for Christmas. We take turns moving a little bit further in the book, so when we get to a particularly revealing (or at least seemingly revealing) or really messed up part, we can look at each other and exclaim or gasp about it. Then, when one catches up to the other, we go through the different possibilities about what we just read may mean in terms of who the killer might be. It’s been fun, and I would recommend this activity to you married couples out there, but only if you like your spouse.
The book is pretty messed up. I wouldn’t say it’s descriptively gory and nasty to the point of being difficult to read, but in addition to the nature of the murders, the element of child abuse delves into the deeply darker side of humanity. As even Detective Thulin thinks:
… the whole thing is incomprehensible. Previously, she’s only read about this sort of case or seen reports about them in the news and it strikes her that until today they seemed unreal.
I think this is relevant to the book, and you can’t beat it as a Shocktober musical interlude
About the Author: (from bookseriesinorder.com)
Author Soren Sveistrup was born in Denmark in the year 1968. He was adopted as a baby, and went to live with his new parents, both of whom were teachers on Thuro, the isolated island in the south of Denmark.
Here’s the trailer for The Killing:
A little in his own words:
Happy Reading! And don't forget to check your house for chestnut men before turning out the light!
(Posted by Evan)
In my previous blog about the first half of the book I made the prediction that it was Kanya, Jaidee’s lieutenant, that set him up. And I was right! Then again, it turned out that everyone in Book Club made the same prediction. So, either I am not as clever as I thought, or everyone in Book Club is also very clever. I’ll go with the latter.
After Jaidee is sent into exile, he decides to seek justice on the members of the Trade Ministry who kidnapped his wife. He is caught in the act and after a very fun and action-packed fight scene, he is killed. The loss of a main character in the middle of the book is handled well by Bacigalupi though, as the sub-narrative that had centered on Jaidee continues seamlessly centered on Kanya. Furthermore, we don’t lose Jaidee completely, as he follows Kanya around in the form of what I at first thought were guilt-driven delusions but then came to realize was Jaidee’s spirit or phii, providing us with a nice character foil. There are many references to the religion of the inhabitants of our future fictional Bangkok and in particular to reincarnation.
Jaidee says something interesting to Kanya about her worshipping two gods. The main religion is Buddhism and she performs ritual blessings consistent with this religion, but she also wears the amulet of Phra Seub. I am no expert on religions and I wasn’t going to do a deep dive to be able to speak about this intelligently, but I did find this clarification from a blog, and believe me when I say, you can trust everything that you read on blogs:
§ The Phra Seub amulet presumably pays homage to Thailand’s renowned environmentalist, the late Seub Nakhasathien. A wildlife conservationist, today Sueb’s eponymous foundation still pursues his legacy. In reality he is not revered like a deity as the book suggests.
The page is short and mentions a little bit more about some of the names Bacigalupi uses in the book. Her dual belief system is consistent with her dual loyalty to both the Environment and Trade ministries as well as her sabotage and respect for Jaidee. The Grahamites, a group of Christian-like religious westerners (in the book) are similar in this regard.
One of the most interesting parts of the book in my opinion is the character development of Emiko, the windup girl. She is initially enticed by the idea of escaping her job as a sex-bot who is brutally degraded for entertainment in a night club. This gives her hope that she can work her way to safe passage out of the city and to the village of the New People. In addition to the internal struggle between her training to be subservient and her human-like need for self-respect, she consistently shows a strong drive for self-preservation. In the city she is an illegal being; the Environment Ministry (white shirts) will kill her if she is discovered. Her employment and life are sustained by bribes. As the sense that she is being misled about the eventual possibility of buying her own freedom and even that the city of the New People exists grows with time, her natural(?) need for self-preservation and self-respect overcomes her impressed subservience. She takes revenge against the night club owner and a few of its clients who had a good time violating her. The latter end up being the Queen’s protectors, well-trained body guards, but she absolutely destroys them (another good fight scene). We had seen glimpses of her superhuman strength and quickness before in some escapes from danger, the genetic benefits of her ilk. Importantly, this makes interested and sparring political factions think that she is a military windup serving at the behest of the other party and sparks a full-on civil war (Well, nearly does, but that’s complicated. Read the book. I’m leaving a lot of good stuff out after all). Anyway it is neat that the political factions misinterpret this because they cannot conceive of a non-military windup committing such an act. Never underestimate the power of desperation in self-defense.
Musical interlude – Green Day, from the era before they decided to take themselves seriously. The song that is, not the movie. Ahh to be 10 years old again.
One of my other favorite parts is a meeting between Kanya and Gibbons, the former calorie man of the west who is the genius behind the Thai Kingdom’s successful seedbank of virus resistant produce. As a cheshire, the windup version of cats, softly mews in his lap, he lays out his philosophy of nature, equilibrium, and evolution with regards to his genetic engineering:
“The ecosystem unraveled when man first went a-seafaring. When we first lit fires on the broad savannas of Africa. We have only accelerated the phenomenon. The food web you talk about is nostalgia, nothing more.”
It is interesting that we as human animals tend to define that which is natural as that which is not created by us human animals. I often think of ants and the way they build mounds, compared to a city full of skyscrapers. Is it possible for a product of nature to do things unnatural? This is not a new topic for Book Club; I remember a similar conversation as we discussed The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, which points to a wave of extinctions of other species of animals as being the result of human endeavors, mostly through the cross-pollination of our ancestors’ penchant for travel. It also brings to mind a beautiful story I recently read in The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley, a book I suggested for Book Club but that wasn't chosen. In ‘How The Flower Changed The World,’ Eiseley talks about how the flower, in the broad sense of angiosperm, spreads its seed by luring animals to devour its pollen or eat its fruit, allowing the animals to spread the seed farther than earlier species of plant could on their own by dumping plant sperm into waterways or by exploding pods. This in turn led to grass, which in turn led to grazing animals, which in turn led to humans. And is that really such a bad thing? I am inclined to think not. On the other hand…
Well, that’s all for September's book. I hope you enjoyed it. If you read it, give it a rating in the survey below, and maybe drop a comment as to what you liked and what you didn’t. And whether you read or not, whatever you do, do it with sanuk.