Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, has been showering encomiums on a younger crime writer: Håkan Nesser. Dexter has said that Nesser’s Swedish copper, Inspector Van Veeteren, seems "destined for a place among the great European detectives". On the evidence of Van Veeteren’s third outing, Woman with Birthmark, it’s hard to disagree. The timing is good: the taste for crime fiction in translation is on a roll, with book charts in the UK and Europe showing breakthroughs for such writers as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. It’s surely just a matter of time before Nesser joins this company.

Nesser’s skills have shone in such books as The Mind’s Eye, particularly in establishing Van Veeteren as one of the most distinctive of non-English detectives. Cheerful, well-read and sardonic, he’s unlike other, more downbeat Scandinavian coppers – and his positive qualities (while a touch muted this time round) are more than welcome in the markedly dark narrative of this new book.

A young woman is given a grim deathbed revelation by her mother. Slowly, calmly, she begins to draw plans for a bloody campaign of revenge. Her first victim is shot at point-blank range, first in the chest, then in the groin. Within a fortnight, there is another victim, and Van Veeteren is up against a baffling crusade of slaughter. His task is made more pressing when it becomes apparent that there are a possible 30 targets in the murderous woman’s gunsights.

If there’s a caveat about Woman with Birthmark, it’s that the dialogue does not read as idiomatically as in earlier Nesser books. Perhaps the admirable translator Laurie Thompson might have been more radical in rendering the Swedish dialogue into something that sounded more pitch-perfect in English. This is sterling fare, nevertheless, and one hopes that Nesser appreciates Colin Dexter’s praise, rather than making it clear that he’s here to sweep the old guard away.

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Woman with Birthmark, By Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson


This was my introduction to Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren series, though it was originally published in Swedish in 1996, and the series itself is firmly established. At first glance, Van Veeteren would seem to fall neatly into that picture of the Scandinavian detective as a morose loner, unable to maintain meaningful contact with humans in the real world, and glumly pursuing further confirmation that the world is a place far more flawed than we prefer to think about. But for all that Van Veeteren is a lonely cop, seeming to prefer chess pieces to people, that comparison may be superficial.

First, because, like most police procedurals, the cops here are an ensemble. There’s not a lot presented about most of them, but the romance of Reinhart and his English girlfriend is presented in a sometimes amusing way, and her insights provide a glimpse into all the cops; Reinhart seems to acquire added humanity as the book progresses, and Nesser handles this

with a delicate touch.

But more importantly, the real focus of this novel is not on the police at all, but on the criminal.

It starts with the killer at one funeral, and ends with another, and although the story hesitates at times, the final sections provide a real sort of suspense, which is for the most part resolved off-stage. Normally, that would be a drawback, but here we’re talking about revenge, for a crime which also occurred off-stage, and whose details we learn only at the end. So the process becomes the story: the killer extracting revenge paralleled with the police trying to extract the motive. As ever in police procedurals, the author can choose a fact to reveal at almost any time, and Nesser picks his moments pretty well. In the meantime, we learn about each victim in some detail, and none of them elicit out sympathy; there is a very real sense that all these men are successful in a society that allowed them liberty to abuse.

Which brings me to the most interesting facet of this novel, which is the indeterminate setting.

Nominally, it appears to be Dutch, but there are echoes of Swedish society, and maybe even German habits in this amalgam of a country; apparently Nesser’s original Swedish uses words from all three languages in order to blue any distinction one might make. In this sense, it reminds me of Per Wahloo’s solo novels, like The Generals or The Lorry, whose settings were almost identifiable as a country, but with slight differences which drove home the point that this was not so far from home after all. I have the feeling that is the point Nesser is driving home in Woman With Birthmark, and, in the end, he drives it home powerfully.

Michael Carlson

Woman With Birthmark

Hakan Nesser

Macmillan, £16.99, ISBN 9780333989876

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