Review: Woman with Birthmark

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 7:23 am, Saturday, May 16, 2009

What is it with Sweden and mysteries, eh? And it’s not just Henning Mankell. (Btw, I found the English-language televised version of Mankell’s mysteries, Wallander — which debuted last weekend — a bit disappointing.) Other Swedish authors just keep pumping out dark, dramatic, literary page-turners populated with unforgettable characters.

One of these authors is Hakan Nesser, a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel award. Woman With Birthmark, his latest to appear in English, involves a series of middle-aged men being murdered in an identical fashion: shot in the heart, then shot in the testicles.

Hey, it happens. At least it happens in fiction. Nesser sets his novels in a weird generically European country that is never named. With its double A’s and with characters named De Bries and Van Veeteren, it sort of evokes the Netherland. But unlike most mystery authors, who focus intensely on location — name-checking local hangouts and natural wonders — Nesser makes a point of never saying where his books take place. This is deliberate, based on his vision of the future.

As Swedish mysteries go, I’ll read a Nesser when one comes my way, but I much prefer Mankell, Asa Larsson, Ake Edwardson, and some of the others. Nesser’s protagonist, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, somehow fails to engage or compel: He’s tired, he’s aging — but so is Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and Mankell somehow makes that fascinating. A tell-not-show dullness hamstrings Nesser’s Van Veeteren novels, despite Laurie Thompson’s always-elegant translations.

Nonetheless, the killer — whom we meet early on, and meet again via deft cross-cutting — is a tight bundle of craft and cunning and iron will who gives the reader much to ponder as details emerge. The reader is left wishing, by the end, that we’d learned a bit more.

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