It's a given - Swedish author Håkan Nesser's acclaimed Inspector Van Veetering stories are set in Sweden, surely? That's certainly what I assumed last summer when I read Borkmann's Point – the 2nd in the series, though the first to be translated in English. I enjoyed that book, despite some obvious plot twists. So I was surprised to discover last week, reading the first in the series Mind's Eye, that the books aren't set in Sweden at all, but in an unnamed European country that could be Holland, Poland, Germany…….. with the locations sounding distinctly Dutch.
Janek Mitter wakes up one morning after a mammoth drinking session to find his wife of three months Eva Ringmar dead in the bath. Arrested for her murder he tells his lawyer and DCI Van Veeteren that the only thing he recalls of that night is that he did not kill her.
Van Veeteren is introduced as a man despondent when the weather is poor, separated several times from his wife, depressed by the prospect that they might be getting back together, and responsible for a sick elderly dog. He is distant from his adult daughter Jess, and his son Erich is serving a prison sentence for drug-smuggling. He rarely smiles – though he has a dry wit – and at one point compares himself to a posturing male gorilla when he unexpectedly catches sight of himself grinning.
He is sustained on a daily basis by a supply of wooden toothpicks and the ambition of beating his colleague Münster at badminton. As possibly the best interrogating officer in the country his attempts to resign from the police are consistently refused by Chief of Police Reinhart.
Van Veeteren prides himself on his ability, in 19 out of 20 cases, to tell with accuracy whether an accused is guilty or not. But Janek Mitter is the 20th, and Van Veeteren's not sure. Without the accused's co-operation, though, Van Veeteren is unable to take the investigation in any new direction before Mitter comes to trial.
Mind's Eye is a little slow to get going, and Van Veeteren is hardly the first disaffected, middle-aged curmudgeon of a detective in crime fiction, but he is entertaining in his mordant moodiness and his persistence in spite of the inefficiency and incompetence which sometimes surrounds him. It's a very enjoyable read, with a puzzle I didn't decipher until the end.
As for the locations, although Maardam is a fictional town and the made-up northern European country where the stories are set is never named, many believe that Nesser took his inspiration from the towns of Kumla and Örebro, about 130 miles west (thanks, Anonymous!) of Stockholm. As Kumla is where Håkan Nesser was born and grew up, this would hardly be surprising.
The TV series featuring Van Veeteren was filmed in the south of Sweden, and for the first three programmes, a great deal of attention was paid to making the locations culturally neutral, by using non-Swedish registration plates on the cars, and non-Swedish police uniforms. The later three films are less scrupulous in this regard.
In 2006 Håkan Nesser created a new detective: Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish police inspector of Italian descent, and this time, although he has created another fictional city - Kymlinge - the location is firmly in Sweden.