Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cold Blood: Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark

I’ve never hidden that I’m a moody reader, so I’m more than happy to explain my choice of Håkan Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark, which I read in Laurie Thompson’s translation from the original Swedish: On the morning of January 16, I posted to both my blogs then found that a technical problem prevented comments from appearing on Lizok’s Bookshelf. By the time I solved the problem, two hours later, I was cranky and hungry but ready for a stroll on the treadmill. And starting a new book. It was also very cold, which drew my eye to the Swedish detective novel corner of my bookcase. The first line of Woman with Birthmark—“She felt cold.”—felt right.

Of course I didn’t identify with that “she” for very long—we learn early on that “she” is up to something rotten—but I was happy to commiserate, mentally, about nasty wintry weather along with police inspector Van Veeteren, for a few hundred pages. Here’s what Van Veeteren thinks upon waking up at 7.55 on a Saturday morning:

If there was a month he hated, it was January—it went on forever with rain or snow all day long, and a grand total of half an hour’s sunshine. 
There was only one sane way of occupying oneself at this lugubrious time of year: sleeping. Period.

A serial killer brings Van Veeteren and his colleagues out of hibernation in Woman with Birthmark: someone is killing men who went to school together, shooting them in a distinctive way. The whodunit aspect of the book is clear from nearly the start because we know the cold woman has revenge on her mind but Nesser links her motive with a social message tied to her past. I figured that out before the end of the book, too, but was still more than happy to see how the police would solve the murders.

That’s my favorite kind of detective novel, particularly when northern temperaments and bleak weather patterns are involved. (I love bleak northern weather as long as I don’t have to leave the house.) I also enjoyed Nesser’s quiet humor, which gives us moments like these: the first victim’s wife is out of the house when her husband is shot because she is at the theater seeing A Doll’s House (their marriage doesn’t sound especially happy), a detective named Jung, and the bath-taking habits of police inspectors. An example: “It could be a coincidence, of course, Van Veeteren thought as he settled down in the bath with a burning candle on the lavatory seat and a beer within easy reach.”

Woman with Birthmark was a nice distraction during a mid-winter cold snap, particularly because I enjoyed reading Laurie Thompson’s clean and clear translation.

Up next: Joseph Roth’s Job. I think.

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