Borkmann's Point

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 May, 2006, 12:00am

Borkmann's Point

by Hakan Nesser

Macmillan, $165

In his home country, Swedish crime writer Hakan Nesser is one of the masters of the genre. Elsewhere in Europe, too, his name is associated with gripping crime fiction. In the English-speaking world, he's barely known.

Not any more. We've waited 12 years to read Borkmann's Point. It's an indictment of the risk-averse publishing industry that the gap since its Swedish publication has been so long. But it has, unquestionably, been worth the wait.

We can only hope that now that Macmillan has introduced Nesser's superb Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series to an English-speaking audience the more recent instalments will arrive at a faster pace. They also may arrive in the correct order, unlike the Kurt Wallander thrillers of Nesser's compatriot Henning Mankell.

Nesser, 56, who began writing while still a school teacher, has an assured and masterly touch. In Borkmann's Point, the plot is clever and compelling, his characters credible, empathetic and very real, flaws and all. The local police officers are particularly well drawn, with bumbling juniors and the uninspired Inspector Kopke, who will be the new chief of police. His colleague, Inspector Beate Moerk, is more competent and intuitive - but she's a woman, single and unhappy with her childlessness, all the more intimately drawn because she's the only one whose first name Nesser uses.

The wonderful sense of place and vivid descriptions transport the reader to the Swedish woods and mountains, to bleak stretches of beach and rain-swept seaside towns, enhancing the sense of menace.

Nesser joins an increasing number of European crime writers in English translation, coupled with a dramatic increase in sales of their work (Mankell has reportedly sold 20 million books worldwide). Commentators have speculated that their books are more intimate and have more psychological depth than their American counterparts, their police imperfect, but fundamentally decent.

All this is true of Borkmann's Point, set in the small seaside town of Kaalbringen, where a brutal axe murder some weeks earlier has been followed by another, the method identical, the victims - a drug addict, small-time criminal and a somewhat shady businessman - apparently unconnected. Van Veeteren, holidaying somewhat unhappily in a nearby seaside cottage, is asked to detour to Kaalbringen to help the police crack the case.

He's less than thrilled, but when he meets local Chief of Police Bausen, just weeks from retirement and a man who, like him, enjoys chess, beer, fine wine and good food, he decides his stay may be tolerable. And, after all, how hard can this be? Only once in the past six years has he failed to close a case.

But the Axman strikes again and, although the police information piles up, it apparently leads nowhere. Van Veeteren rashly promises the wife of a man too afraid to leave his home that he will catch the killer within days - then begins to doubt whether he will be able to keep his word.

Has he reached Borkmann's Point - a point in an investigation, named for a former superior, at which enough information has been collected and the answer lies within what is to hand?