Well, it’s nearly the big day. I hope you’ve got everything ready. Today is probably going to be manic (it certainly will be in my house) but I want you to take just a few minutes to yourself. Grab a cuppa. Sit back and read the opening extract from The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup, the creator of The Killing – the hit TV series from Denmark. Think of it as a little early Christmas present from me and publisher, Michael Joseph. Enjoy! (But maybe don’t read it late at night!)
One Tuesday in October, Rosa Hartung is returning to her job as minister for social affairs following a year’s leave of absence – granted after the dramatic disappearance of her twelve-year-old daughter. Linus Bekker, a mentally ill young man, confessed to her killing, but is unable to remember where he buried the various parts of her dismembered corpse.
On the same day Rosa returns to Parliament, a young single mother is found brutally
murdered at her home in the suburbs of Copenhagen-she’s been tortured, and one hand
has been cut off. Thulin and Hess, the detectives sent to investigate the crime, arrive at the address to find a figure made of chestnuts hanging from a playhouse nearby.
When yet another woman is murdered-this time with both hands missing-and another
chestnut figure is found, Thulin and Hess begin to suspect a connection with the
Hartung case. But what is it?
Thulin and Hess are racing against the clock, because its clear that the murderer is on a
mission that is far from over…
Tuesday 31 October 1989
Red and yellow leaves drift down through the sunlight onto the wet asphalt, which cuts through the woods like a dark and glassy river. As the white squad car tears past, they’re spun briefly in the air before coming to rest in sticky clumps along the edge of the road. Marius Larsen takes his foot off the accelerator and eases up for the bend, making a mental note to tell the council they need to come out here with the sweeper. If the leaves are left too long they’ll make the surface slippery, and that sort of thing can cost lives. Marius has seen it many times before. He’s been on the force forty-one years, senior
officer at the station for the last seventeen, and he has to prod them about it every single autumn. But not today – today he has to focus on the conversation.
Marius fiddles irritably with the frequency on the car radio, but he can’t find what he’s looking for. Only news about Gorbachev and Reagan, and speculation about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s imminent, they’re saying. A whole new era may be on its way.
He’s known for a while that the conversation has to happen, yet he’s never been able to screw up his courage. Now there’s only a week until his wife thinks he’s retiring, so the time has come to tell her the truth. That he can’t cope without his job. That he’s dealt with the practical side of things and put off the decision. That he isn’t ready yet to settle on the corner sofa and watch Wheel of Fortune, to rake leaves in the garden or play Old Maid with the grandkids.
It sounds easy when he runs through the conversation in his head, but Marius knows full well she’ll be upset. She’ll feel let down. She’ll get up from the table and start scouring the hob in the kitchen, and tell him with her back turned that she understands. But she won’t. So when the report came over the radio ten minutes ago he told the station he’d handle it himself, postponing the conversation a little longer. Normally he’d be annoyed about having to drive all the way out to Ørum’s Farm through fields and forest merely to tell them they need to keep a better eye on their animals. Several times now, pigs or cows have broken through the fence and gone roaming the neighbour’s fields until Marius or one of his men made Ørum sort it out. But today he isn’t annoyed. He asked them to call first, of course, ringing Ørum’s house and the ferry terminal, where he has a part-time job, but when nobody picked up at either place he turned off the main road and
headed for the farm.
Marius finds a channel playing old Danish music. ‘The Bright Red Rubber Dinghy’ fills the old Ford Escort, and Marius turns up the volume. He’s enjoying the autumn and
the drive. The woods, their yellow, red and brown leaves mixing with the evergreens. The anticipation of hunting season, which is just beginning. He rolls down the window, the sunlight casting its dappled light onto the road through the treetops, and for a moment Marius forgets his age.
There’s silence at the farm. Marius gets out and slams the car door, and as he does so it strikes him that it’s been ages since he was last here. The wide yard looks dilapidated. There are holes in the windows of the stable, the plaster on the walls of the house is peeling off in strips, and the empty swing set on the overgrown lawn is nearly swallowed up by the tall chestnut trees encircling the property. Littered across the gravel yard are leaves and fallen chestnuts, which squelch beneath his feet as he walks up to the front door and knocks.
After Marius has knocked three times and called out Ørum’s name, he realises nobody will answer. Seeing no sign of life, he takes out a pad, writes a note and slips it through
the letter box, while a few crows flit across the yard and vanish behind the Ferguson tractor parked in front of the barn. Marius has driven all the way out here on a fool’s errand, and now he’ll have to stop by the ferry terminal to get hold of Ørum. But he’s not annoyed for long: on the way back to the car an idea pops into his head. That never usually happens to Marius, so it must be a stroke of luck that he drove out here instead of heading straight home to the conversation. Like a plaster on a cut, he’ll offer his wife a trip to Berlin. They could nip down there for a week – well, at least a weekend, say, as soon as he can take time off. Do the drive themselves, witness history in the making – that new era – eat dumplings and sauerkraut like they did before in Harzen, on that camping trip with the kids far too long ago. Only when he’s almost reached the car does he see why the crows are settling behind the tractor. They’re hopping around on something pallid and formless, and not until he gets closer does he realise it’s a pig. Its eyes are dead, but its body jerks and shivers as though trying to frighten off the crows, which are feeding from the gunshot wound at the back of its head.
Marius opens the front door. The hallway is dim, and he notices the scent of damp and mould, and something else he can’t quite put his finger on.
‘Ørum, it’s the police.’
There’s no reply, but he can hear water running somewhere in the house, so he steps into the kitchen. The girl is a teenager. Maybe sixteen, seventeen. Her body is still sitting in the chair by the table, and what’s left of her ruined face is floating in her bowl of porridge. On the linoleum on the other side of the table is another lifeless figure. He’s a teenager too, a little older, with a gaping bullet wound in his chest and the back of his head tilted awkwardly against the stove. Marius goes rigid. He’s seen dead people before, of course, but never anything like this, and for a brief moment he’s paralysed, until
he takes his service pistol out of the holster on his belt.
Marius proceeds further into the house as he calls Ørum’s name, this time with his pistol raised. Still no reply. Marius finds the next corpse in the bathroom, and this time he has
to clap his hand to his mouth so he doesn’t throw up. The water is running from the tap into the bathtub, which has long since filled to the brim. It’s spilling onto the terrazzo flooring and down the drain, intermingled with the blood. The naked woman – she must be the teenagers’ mother – is lying tangled on the floor. One arm and one leg have been separated from the torso. In the subsequent autopsy report, it will emerge that she has been struck repeatedly with an axe. First as she lay in the bathtub and then as she tried to escape by crawling onto the floor. It will also be established that she tried to defend herself with her hands and feet, which is why they have split open. Her face is unrecognisable, because the axe was used to cave in her skull.
Marius would have frozen at the sight if he hadn’t glimpsed a faint movement out of the corner of his eye. Half hidden beneath a shower curtain dumped in the corner, he can make out a figure. Cautiously, Marius pulls back the curtain a little. It’s a boy. Dishevelled hair, about ten or eleven. He’s lying lifeless in the blood, but a corner of the curtain is still covering the boy’s mouth and it vibrates weakly, haltingly. Marius swiftly leans over the boy and removes the curtain, picking up his limp arm and trying to find a pulse. The boy has cuts and scratches on his arms and legs, he wears a bloody T-shirt and
underwear, and an axe has been dropped near his head. Finding a pulse, Marius leaps to his feet.
In the living room he grabs feverishly at the telephone beside the full ashtray, sending it tumbling to the floor, but by the time he gets hold of the station his head is clear enough to deliver a coherent message. Ambulance. Officers. Asap. No trace of Ørum. Get going. Now! When he hangs up his first thought is to hurry back to the boy, but then abruptly he remembers that there must be another child: the boy has a twin sister.
Marius heads back towards the front hall and the staircase up to the first floor. As he passes the kitchen and the open basement door, he stops short. There was a sound. A footfall or a scrape, but now there’s silence. Marius draws his pistol again. Opening the door wide, he shuffles gingerly down the narrow steps until his feet find the concrete floor. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, and then he sees the open basement door at the end of the corridor. His body hesitates, telling him he ought to stop here, wait for the ambulance and his colleagues; but Marius thinks of the girl. As he approaches the door he can see it’s been forced open. The lock and bolt are discarded on the ground, and Marius enters the room, which is lit only dimly by the grime-smeared windows above. Yet he can still make out a small shape hidden well back beneath a table in the corner. Hurrying over, Marius lowers his gun, bends down and peers underneath it.
‘It’s okay. It’s over now.’
He can’t see the girl’s face, only that she’s shaking and huddled into the corner without looking at him.
‘My name is Marius. I’m from the police, and I’m here to help you.’
The girl stays timidly where she is, as though she can’t even hear him, and suddenly Marius becomes aware of the room. Glancing around, he realises what it was used for. He’s disgusted. Then he catches a glimpse of the crooked wooden shelves through the door to the adjoining room. The sight makes him forget the girl, and he walks across to the threshold. Marius can’t see how many there are, but there are more than he can count with the naked eye. Chestnut dolls, male and female. Animals, too. Big and small, some childish, others eerie. Many of them unfinished and malformed. Marius stares at them, their number and variety, and the small dolls on the shelves fill him with disquiet, as the boy steps through the door behind him.
In a split second Marius realises he should remember to ask Forensics whether the basement door was broken down from the inside or the outside. In a split second he realises something monstrous may have escaped, like the animals from their pens, but when he turns towards the boy his thoughts swim away like tiny, puzzled clouds across the heavens. Then the axe strikes his jaw, and everything goes black.
Now that’s what you call a beginning! If you want to read in then I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. The Chestnut Man is due to be published on 10th January 2019. You can pre-order here.
Thank you to Jenny Platt at Penguin Random House for inviting me to take part.
Søren Sveistrup is an internationally acclaimed scriptwriter of the Danish television phenomenon The Killing which won various international awards and sold in more than a hundred countries.
Søren Sveistrup (born 1968) holds a master of Literature and History from the University of Copenhagen and has graduated as script writer from the Danish Film School.