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

At last – an upbeat Swedish cop

Barry Forshaw
Tuesday 02 June 2009 00:00

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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