Select one of the keywords
Woman With Birthmark: An Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery    by Håkan Nesser order for
Woman With Birthmark
by Håkan Nesser
Order:  USA  Can
Pantheon, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

When this latest Inspector Van Veeteren mystery begins, author Håkan Nesser wastes no time establishing the tone of this Scandinavian revenge tragedy.

A twenty-nine year old woman stands alone in the freezing rain as the minister presides over the ignominious burial of the woman's mother. And rather than concerning herself with anything so useless as grief and sorrow, the drenched woman merely focuses on her mother's dying words: 'Do something, my girl. Take action.' With that single-minded focus, and with a birthmark that is both literal and symbolic, the woman dutifully obeys her mother.

With this ominous premise established, the narrative shifts its attention to Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, the Swedish policeman who might be described by his acquaintances as follows: He drinks beer, smokes cigarettes, listens to Dvorak, plays chess, and chews on toothpicks; moreover, this is a good-hearted cynic who nevertheless has little patience for society's 'maggot-ridden roots,' but he does try to temper his justifiable cynicism with an occasional attempt at humor.

Van Veeteren's less than sanguine view of society is reinforced almost immediately in Woman With Birthmark when a businessman is grotesquely murdered in his home. The modus operandi in the murder is particularly noteworthy. Then a school teacher with a reputation for too aggressively disciplining students meets a similar fate. With few clues, no suspects, no witnesses, and absolutely no motives, Van Veeteren and his colleagues attempt to move quickly but make little progress.

Then they stumble on a tenuous connection between the two ostensibly unrelated murder victims. Now, though, with a tenuous thread to follow in a complicated labyrinth, Van Veeteren is in a race against the probability of more killings, and unless he and his colleagues have a little good luck of their side for a change, things could get much worse in the city. And it does.

Remarkable for its complex characterizations and evocative settings, the highly recommended Woman With Birthmark features a paradoxically heroic murderer and thus rises far above a formulaic portrayal of law enforcement versus criminal. Moreover, as expected in a Håkan Nesser novel, readers are drawn into a richly textured tale of crimes and punishments worthy of Dostoyevsky. The bottom line is this: If you savor literary quality detective fiction, you do not want to miss this one.

2nd Review by Mary Ann Smyth:

A long ago crime that precipitated four murders was predictable from the first few pages of Woman With Birthmark. However, the methods used by the police to arrive at a solution to the murders were obviously arduous and time-consuming. Håkan Nesser's depiction of the struggle to catch the culprit before he could strike again held my attention from first page to the last.

Each of the policemen is given a life away from the station that made the whole plot come alive with real characters – some likable, some not, and some just a blur on the landscape. Their interactions in their investigations seemed mundane enough to be real. All police work cannot be the shoot-'em-up variety popular on TV shows and the cinema.

Håkan Nesser was awarded the 1993 Swedish Crime Writers' Academy Prize for new authors, the best novel award in 1994, and again in 1996 for this particular novel. He's well worth a read. Though readers might wish his protagonist Van Veeteren would take better care of his health so he can feature in numerous more stories. He has already survived colon cancer. He'd best not push his luck.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Mystery books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews