Monday, March 02, 2009

Sweden: "Mind's Eye" by Håkan Nesser: Introducing Inspector Van Veeteren

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.


Anonymous said...

I have just read this book - and submitted a review to Euro Crime. I loved it, I just got so into it. I wish I had read it first before the other two Van V books I read. And thanks for the info about his other detective - looking forward to that.

Dorte H said...

No map this time? ;)

I have read several of his books, and I definitely think Holland when I read them - both because of the environment and the names.

Barbara said...

I have only read Borkmann's Point, and the vagueness of the setting and it's polyglot names bothered me a lot. I was surprised how much I wanted to know exactly where I was.

Oddly enough, it didn't bother me so much when Olen Steinhauer set a series of books in an unspecified Eastern European country - I planted a flag in the Western Ukraine and put the book there and was fine with it because those borders have been so fluid. He managed to create a strong sense of place even though he never gave it geographical coordinates.

Anonymous said...

A minor geographical point of order:
"the towns of Kumla and Örebro, about 130 miles east of Stockholm" would, for all practical purposes, place them smack in the middle of the Baltic, halfway between Stockholm and Tallinn, near the spot where the Estonia ferry tragically went down on a dark and stormy night in 1994. The correct direction is, of course, the opposite, i.e. inland or westward, ho!

WhereDunnit said...

Oops -I blame the headcold I'm suffering from for my geographical lapse! As you point out, I meant that they are WEST of Stockholm!

Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Nesser has acknowledged that the vague settings are a kind of joke or game on his part. I see Holland, too, for the same reason Dorte does, and because the name Van Veeteren is a tribute to Janwillem van de Wetering. But I also see bits of Northern Germany in his settings.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

WhereDunnit said...


Yes, what struck me when reading it, as I said in my blog, is that the place names sound so Dutch, as of course does Van Veeteren's name. You can find a link for JanWillem Van De Wetering's Amsterdam Cops novels on my Netherlands crime fiction webpage:

Peter Rozovsky said...

And here are my interview with Nesser and some comments I posted after a
joint reading by him, Helene Tursten, Kjell Eriksson and Inger Frimansson.

Thanks for the link. I have not read some of those Dutch crime writers. You might want to add Theo Capel, whose story "The Red Mercedes" is in the Passport to Crime collection and worth reading.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

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