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Woman With Birthmark by Håkan Nesser

I was busy posting my final reviews for my August read and even finished my draft on August wrap-up when I picked Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark up and finished it within 2 days!

What is it with some crime writers that they decide upon a title that give the clues away? The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell and now this, now we know that the murderer is likely be a woman and with a birthmark. 😀 Funnily enough most of the crime novels I read are all set in wintry months, I just love those crime novels with book covers of snow white landscape.

I first must take my hats off from for the translator Laurie Thompson. Very seldom people acknowledge the effort a translator does to bring a good story from one language to another. I am not sure in this case is it Håkan Nesser’s writing or Laurie Thompson’s translating? but the book flows smoothly like a quiet brook without resistant and I must say much, much smoother than Jo Nesbø’s The Leopard .

This is the fourth novel featuring Chief Inspector Van Veeteren and his colleagues.

A 29-year-old woman, buries her mother. Before her mother die, she made her daughter promised that she will redeem her. So the daughter (obviously the woman with the birthmark) sets out to fulfil this grim purpose, not without meticulous planning.

Ryszard Malik, reflects on his life, a nagging wife and a son who seeks his own independence whom he had not seen for ages. Malik led a quiet, dull life. Soon he receives a series of unsettling phone calls in which an old song is played down the line, evoking an eerie sense of both familiarity and unease. Then suddenly Malik is shot in his front door. Two shots on the chest, and two on the crotch, under the belt with a Berenger .75. No clues, no print, no witness, no trails at all.

Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in to investigate, but they can find no clues or suspects, and have to give up. Then, a second man, Rickard Maasleitner, is killed in a similar way, and Van Veeteren and team has to find the connection between the two and after a good effort they found out that they belong to the United Millitary Services class of 65 and there are 35 of them. As they eliminate those who are abroad, those who are dead, there are still 25 men left.

Who will be the next? And how could the police force protects them all without incurring huge taxpayer’s money on the case?

I thought the book built up tension brilliantly. A surprising twist at the end is when the hunted became a hunter himself. When a public tip-off and a domestic error led all parties to one location, I feel as if I couldn’t breathe and I would have missed my train and catch the next one just to finish the book! This is my first Nesser book and I don’t know Inspector Van Veeteren very well but he is elderly, divorced and felt a little old and tired on his job.

Such as now. Good deeds? Van Veeteren thought as he walked home after the showing. How many people are there living the sort of lives which don’t even have room for nostalgia?

Is that why she’s murdering these men? Because she never had a chance?

And room for good deeds? Was that really always available? Who exactly decided on the proportions? And who started off the relentless hunt for a meaning in everything? In every deed and every happening?

Things occurs, Van Veeteren thought. Things happen, and perhaps they have to happen. But they don’t need to be good or evil.

And they don’t need to mean anything.

I’m an old sod, an old, tired detective who’s seen too much and doesn’t want to see much more, he thought.

I find Inspector Van Veeteren’s methods very conventional and pragmatic; most likely close to methods a real-lifepolice force would have deployed. While the recent crime novels have injected a lot more of Hollywood dramas into the package, i.e. eccentric, rebellious computer hackers that provide intimate details of the suspect, inspectors who risk himself and ended up being tortured by the psychopath in the process, explosion and avalanche, and a martial art kick for an escape to add on the drama etc. But not Inspector Van Veeteren. Inspector Van Veeteren  gave orders for his team, Reinhart, Munster, Ewa Moreno to name a few, to go out and do good old fashioned interviewing, recording, put out ads for public information, they make witness look at photos, remember faces, face sketching and matching, acting on public tip-offs. Van Veeteren pursues his subject across the country, wading through a pile of outrageous leads and fruitless tips and the trail had turned cold, several times. The book is written in a very understated way, it makes me feel like this is the way crime is investigated with the team and with dry humour and their daily going and comings, I warm up to them easily.

By the middle of the book the reader would know the motive of the murder and you would find yourself in dilemma. Whether you will cheer on the murderer or hope that the hunted one is spared? The story is very well constructed and elegantly told. I feel that Nesser has an empathetic view for women and there is a heart wrenching tale behind the mission to kill.

If a crime novel can make me think this hard and lingers on in my mind long after I put down the book that would mean I strongly urge you to pick this book up and read it!

This is the very first time I took the side of the murderer. It is a book about a female murderer. A very smart and a focused one. She kills for a justified cause and when she did, you will be 100% behind her if and when she finished her mission.


I’m reading this for Scandinavian and Mystery and Suspense Challenge.

Paperback. Length: 327 pages. Publisher: Pan Books 2009. Source: Reading Battle Library. Setting: Sweden. Finished reading at: 31st August 2011. Translated brilliantly from Laurie Thompson from Swedish.

Other views:

Murder by Type: There are no clues, no suspects, and no indication of a motive.

Dancing with Skeltons: The men she hunts are discovering that actions can have consequences very much after all thought of them had gone, they struggle to understand just how utterly their lives have been torn asunder. A must read.

About the writer:

Håkan Nesser was born on 21 February 1950, and grew up in Kumla, Örebro County; he has lived most of his adult life in Uppsala. His first novel was published in 1988, but he worked as a teacher until 1998 when he became a full-time author. In August 2006, Håkan Nesser and his wife Elke (a psychiatrist) moved to Greenwich Village in New York. A few years later the couple packed their bags and moved to London since it was easier for his wife to find work there.

Woman With Birthmark is originally published in 1996 (15 years ago!) but has only just translated into English in 2009.

Håkan 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. We hope that the author’s other series (Inspector Barbarotti) will see the light of day in the English language before too long.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


19 thoughts on “Woman With Birthmark by Håkan Nesser

  1. Of course, I’ve heard about this writer and he’s medium popular in the Netherlands. Since you gave this book such high marks, I will look out for this book (or another by this writer)!

    Posted by Leeswammes | September 3, 2011, 8:18 am
  2. Nice review, I like this series – this is the first one (they were translated out of order). I’ve just read #6 as a matter of fact! The title point you make – Nesser said at a book event that he has no control over the titles used in the various translations of his work. And the one I have just read – well the UK title is different from the original Swedish – the Swedish title gives quite a lot away but the UK title not only does not it is a bit of misdirection. I hope this comment does not constitute a spoiler!

    Posted by Maxine | September 3, 2011, 5:01 pm
    • Maxine,
      So I heard that it is translated out of order. Thanks for the info, oh … isn’t it annoying to have one’s book translated into a ‘different’ title?!! I saw your review on Eurocrime it was great! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | September 4, 2011, 7:08 am
  3. This is a very good book. Nesser doesn’t write the big, broad-sweeping sagas that go all over the map with lots of plot lines, characters, actions. He writes tight stories focused on one murderer and is a somewhat conventional police procedural. But — they aren’t conventionally told. They use no extra words. They’re terse, every word is necessary, somewhat in the style of Sjowall/Wahloo who did not add in extra story lines, characters or words. One thing to point out is Van Veeteren’s humor — about himself mainly, but occasionally about the case he’s investigating. A witty comment or thought is found right in the middle of a page about something serious about the investigation. And the wit just knocks the reader for a loop … unexpected, but right on target.

    I’ll read all of his books eventually, but like Sjowall/Wahloo I’ll parcel them out like a fine dessert, so that there are more to look forward to reading.

    Posted by kathy d. | September 3, 2011, 6:14 pm
    • Kathy,
      Thanks for being here for the first time!
      I like conventional procedure over the layered plot, characters and actions. It’s like if I have to choose between Hollywood movies and European movies, I’ll go for the latter, if you know what I mean. I also find humour in every way and his mood changes. Inspector Van Veetern is so human and it doesn’t even matter if he fail to nab the killer (oops! is that a spoiler as well?)

      Thanks for such an insightful comments. Appreciate it.

      Posted by JoV | September 4, 2011, 7:12 am
  4. Wonderful review, Jo! I have to really start reading Hakan Nesser’s books soon! It is interesting that we the readers will end up liking the murderer! It looks like a revenge thriller to me, and I can’t wait to get this book! Thanks for this wonderful review!

    Posted by Vishy | September 3, 2011, 7:33 pm
  5. I hadn’t heard of this author or book, but sounds great!

    Posted by jessicabookworm | September 3, 2011, 8:20 pm
  6. I’m really curious about Scandinavian mysteries, they are everywhere! 🙂 Looks like you are turning into an expert, let me know once something remotely cosy turns up 🙂

    Posted by Bina | September 12, 2011, 4:52 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a Wrap! August 2011 « Bibliojunkie - September 2, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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