Translated by Laurie Thompson. WOMAN WITH BIRTHMARK, the fourth in the Inspector Van Veeteren series (originally published in 1996 but only just translated into English), is a bleak delight. The book opens with the funeral of a woman at which there is a lone mourner – her daughter. The daughter regards her own life as over (although she is only 29); she vows terminal revenge on those she considers responsible for her mother's sad life and lonely death, and sets out on her grim purpose.
After this mysterious opening, the narrative shifts to an account of Ryszard Malik, a relatively successful businessman who has recently been the subject of some unsettling phone calls – the calls, some answered by Malik's wife, simply consist of a snatch of music, played repetitively. Malik has a minor car accident, reflects on his life and his boring marriage to a nagging wife, then suddenly one night he is shot to death in his house. The splendidly splenetic Van Veeteren and his team are called in to investigate, but they can find no clues or suspects, and have to give up – being pilloried by the press in so doing. Then, a second man is killed in a similar way, and Van Veeteren knows that all he and his team have to do is to find a connection between the victims and the solution will become apparent. It isn't quite as easy as that, because these crimes have been very well planned. Nevertheless, the detectives do soon find a rather large group of men of which the victims were part, so next are faced with the problem of how to warn, and more impossibly, to protect them all.
Not only is the story of this book, if extremely depressing, very well constructed and told, but the great dry humour and byplay between the detectives is hilarious. I can't imagine how the author manages to make the reader laugh out loud so often while telling such a ghastly tale, but he does it. It's also worth noting that no gruesome descriptions of dead bodies or other pathological details are used in creating this excellently compelling, lean novel, very ably translated by the ever-dependable Laurie Thompson. An incidental point: readers interested in discovering in which (if any) country these novels are set will find a clue in this book. Other readers, like myself, will be content just to enjoy the books without worrying about the precise geography.
Hakan Nesser has written ten Van Veeteren novels, but only the first four have been translated at time of writing this review. The rest are on-track to follow, thankfully; I also very much hope that the author's other series (Inspector Barbarotti) will see the light of day in the English language before too long.