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woman with birthmark

15 september 2018

Woman with Birthmark is what I call a "bride-wore-black" story, after Cornell Woolrich's novel, which became François Truffaut's film La mariée était en noir. A woman has a little list, and the men who appear on it start to turn up dead. You wouldn't think a crime plot that specific would have its own subgenre, but it doesn't take much to make a subgenre. Two texts make a subgenre, and this one includes more than two. Within just the past few years, Pierre Lemaitre's Alex and Jussi Adler-Olsen's Journal 64 (in English as The Purity of Vengeance) also come to mind. There's something archetypal about the bride-wore-black premise. Some men need killing, and a determined woman makes a lurid avenging angel.

I haven't spoiled anything about Woman with Birthmark by placing it in its subgenre. You know about the woman, her list, and her pistol within a few pages. Once again we are in Håkan Nesser's invented country, a little like Scandinavia and a little like the Low Countries, but apparently neither. Once again, Van Veeteren's team "catches" the case, when the first of our deadly woman's victims fetches up, shot through and through.

In Woman with Birthmark, Nesser shows most clearly the influence of Sjöwall & Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels. Van Veeteren is older than Beck, more dyspeptic, more of a loner; his team is more populous and less individuated. But there is the same dynamic among the men (and one woman, here), and the same overall keynote: despair. Police procedure, for Nesser as for Sjöwall & Wahlöö, is a matter of painstaking and usually pointless attempts to organize chaotic reality. The task is futile, in the long run, and often in the short and medium runs, too. Entropy always wins out.

Entropy involves random chaos, but it's also a one-way process, and so is the plot of Woman with Birthmark. This book may have fewer twists and turns than any other detective novel I can remember reading. If it's curiously unsatisfying as drama, that marks another similarity to the Martin Beck series. But the abstract setting of Van Veeteren's world also means that Nesser ends up doing far less social commentary while he's failing to provide drama. You keep reading nonetheless. It's the rare Krimi where you don't want to find out what's fixing to happen, even if there aren't many possible outcomes.

Nesser, Håkan. Woman with Birthmark. [Kvinna med födelsemärke, 1996.] Translated by Laurie Thompson. 2009. New York: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 2010. PT 9876.24 .E76K8513

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