Friday, 29 May 2009


My review of Hakan Nesser's impressive Woman With Birthmark is up at Crime Time, you can link to it here. Or read it below, with a small amendment to reflect its title...

Woman With Birthmark

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 form an ensemble. There's not a lot presented about most of them, but the romance of Reinhart and his English girlfriend is carried out in a sometimes amusing way, and her insights, as an outsider, 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. It is also useful to have such a character in a setting whose identity, as we shall see, is crucial.

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, albeit one 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. And here I also admire Nesser's choice of title, which reflects the story is an understated by effective way.

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 that society, and its 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.

Woman With Birthmark by Hakan Nesser Macmillan, £16.99, ISBN 9780333989876

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