Almost every crime-fiction reviewer the world over is starting to sound like a broken record, but I'm afraid it's time to say, yet again, here is another wonderful European export: this time Swedish author Håkan Nesser. Borkmann's Point is Nesser's third novel, winner of the Swedish Crime Writers' Academy Prize for best novel, and the first to be translated into English. The first of many, one can only hope, on the evidence of this stylish, warm novel of detection.
The novel is part of a series featuring Inspector Van Veeteren, who rather bucks the trend for Scandinavian detectives in that he's warm, funny, and likes good wine and good company. Oh, and he owns an antique book store. Apparently (it's not mentioned in this early book). At the beginning of the book we find Van Veeteren on holiday in a - presumably - Swedish province; just as he's about to return home, a wealthy real-estate businessman is brutally murdered, with an axe, in a nearby town. It is the second such murder in as many months, so when this second killing suggests a serial killer may have begun his hellish work, Van Veeteren's bosses tell him to stay on in the nearby town and lend his services to the investigation which seemingly has produced no clues and two completely unconnected victims. Van Veeteren insists he isn't here to "take over" the investigation, but instead works alongside them, following his own ideas and hunches in the face of an almost complete lack of information, still remaining convinced that something more is going on than a random spree. Even as the victim count goes up.
It's amazing how each new import from foreign climes seems to be even better than the last. Nesser with one book leaps almost to the pinnacle where Mankell, Indridason and Vargas sit. Indeed, Nesser seems, on this showing at least, to have much in common with Vargas's style of crime fiction. He inverts conventions in a similar way, turning what seems on the fact of it to be a serial killer novel into something rather different, and the informal, jocular tone is similar. This latter device makes the novel warm, charming, a complete pleasure to read, the tone a juxtaposed relief from the stark violence of the crimes. The sometimes light-hearted tone is largely thanks to Van Veeteren and Nesser's ability with quick, fun dialogue between his characters. The relationship between Van Veeteren and Bausen - the top-cop of the town he is sent to - provides a fun centre to the book, as at the close of each day the meet to discuss the case, their lives, their wives, play chess and drink fine wines from Bausen's extensive cellar. It's a serious book - of course it is - but it's not oppressive in its seriousness, as Nesser knows just how much levity to balance it with.
On top of that, Nesser plots so well, creates tension so well, moves the story on so well. It's suspenseful, intelligent, and pleasingly different. The final solution is completely unexpected, even if it's somewhat of an old horse, (but we should remember the book was first published in 1994, so in its right time it was actually pretty pioneering). Overall, it's a rewarding payoff, as it must be if the crime novel is to be considered wholly sucessful. And this one is. I will gladly be spending more time with Nesser and Van Veeteren again next year, come the next translation.