After mentioning a few posts ago in my last Nielsen review that I would be soon reading another one by her, I have finally managed to do just that! [Yes, I did get a bit distracted by other books.]
‘A World War II freedom fighter is writing his memoirs, and it’s Mark Grant’s job to take a ship to Norway to get the contract signed for his publisher. That’s where he meets schoolteacher Ruth Atkins and Otto Sundequist, a Stockholm industrialist, both fellow travellers. But on their first excursion in Bergen, Grant suffers a weird hallucination. He sees a young lady being strangled by a man in a raincoat. He is the only one to witness this scene. In fact, there is no murder at all. When the three of them miss the boat and are forced to accept the temporary hospitality of one of Sundequist’s old friends, Mark meets Sigrid—the very same blond he had witnessed being strangled. Is Grant going crazy, or has he been given a vision of what is to come?’
Today’s story is told from the perspective of Markham Grant and the opening gambit is a more muted than the one for Sing Me A Murder (1960). Now that one really started with a bang! Instead in False Witness, we have Grant establishing his respectable hum-drum life and his dissatisfaction with it. He hasn’t done anything irrevocable yet but has been avoiding going home. I can see why Helen Nielsen choose this type of autobiographical opening, as it gives a clear message to the reader that before the book ends, Grant will encounter more excitement than he could think possible for one person!
Whilst some mysteries linger over ship voyages, Nielsen keeps this section very minimal. Nevertheless, even in this short page space she sows seed of doubts which the reader anticipates will diminish his credibility in front of others and even to himself. These seeds quickly bear fruit when upon his arrival in Bergen, Grant experiences a combination of what Mrs Mcgillicuddy saw in 4.50 from Paddington (1957) and also has memories of places and objects he has not been to before, which echoes the experiences Helen has in Sleeping Murder (1976). Suffice to say he is disorientated and distraught when he cannot get anyone else to believe him that he saw a woman being strangled in the descending car of the funicular he is using. The lack of a body doesn’t help. The experience also prevents him and two others from returning to their ship, and it also means he encounters some new people. But are they help or hinderance? So from very muted beginnings Nielsen’s story quickly picks up speed and tension, with her carefully deployed chapter ending surprises.
Yet what surprised me is that Nielsen does not keep racking up the tension. Instead having reached its crescendo the tension is then allowed to sharply drop. The ups and downs of the tension levels reminded me of the ebb and flow you can find in music. Although I have to admit some of the tension dropping sequences were not very engaging for me. However, I think the ending does deliver a level of payoff – the amount of which will be different for each reader.
Nielsen’s story offers a well plotted John le Carré-esque mystery, which has an interesting WW2 backdrop. The denouement is not stereotypically rosy, nor is it excessively bleak. It is a resting point for the characters which contains a sense of understanding, even if it is a troubled one. I have the feeling this author does not write the same book twice, nor that she will be an author who is easy to pigeonhole. So, all I can say is roll on more Nielsen!
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)