Håkan Nesser, “Woman With Birthmark”

“The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt.”

I just like just the sound of that title.  It’s a song that plays a key role in “Woman With Birthmark,” by Håkan Nesser.

Coming across the title sent me scurrying to YouTube.  I’d heard of The Shadows (hey, 69 charted hits in all) but, for some reason, not that song.  It’s a highly-polished, highly scripted instrumental.  The black and white clips from the 1960’s and the color videos thirty years later from The Shadows’ reunion tour are strikingly similar.  (Most of ’em spell it ‘Flingel,’ not ‘Flingle’ like the video above; it’s also ‘Flingel’ in the book.)  The goofy little dance steps are the same, too.

If you’re a guitar geek, you have to agree Hank Marvin was a marvel on Stratocaster.  Check the spiffy lead on “Flingel Bunt” and try not to wonder if Mark Knopfler’s clean lines and sweet runs didn’t owe a bit to Marvin’s touch.

Like “Flingel Bunt” there’s something effortless and neatly scripted about Nesser’s plot, too. The song’s role is to be played over the telephone by a woman who is stalking various men.  The men hear the song but nothing else.  Later, another call and the song.  Nothing else.  Soon, the men are cornered and shot in violent and intentionally up-close-and-personal ways.  Two bullets in the chest and two bullets—as the euphemism goes—below the belt.

Sorting things out is Inspector Van Veeteren and his myriad associates.  This is reminiscent of Kurt Wallander, sure, and many other fictional detectives.  Van Veeteren is the orchestra conductor but for much of “Woman With Birthmark” he’s not even sure there is music to play.  Readers are slightly ahead of Van Veeteren in at least figuring out the probable motive.  That’s fine. The tension revolves around the race to track and catch the murderer before she acts again.  As the book picks up steam, Nesser lets us see more and more of the murderer and her underlying motives. The ending is a shift away from predictability (and I hope that’s not a spoiler).

“Woman With Birthmark” has plenty of dark Scandinavian vibes to it (though the specific country isn’t named and the cities are made up) and Van Veeteren is perfectly jaded.  He’s sick of the dark winter.  “If there was a month that he hated, it was January—it went on forever with rain or snow all day long, and a grand total of half an hour’s sunshine.”

He’s seen it all. He’s not opposed to a cold shower in the winter. He loves Bach, a dark movie theater, a game of badminton and beer.  Mostly, he makes it clear he won’t go to too much trouble until it’s apparent that it will be worth it to go to too much trouble.

When he’s given the details of the first murder (and even though it’s the first murder since the beginning of December “despite the holidays”), Van Veeteren has priorities.  “He poured himself another cup of coffee, and started studying the week’s chess problems. Mate in three moves, which would presumably involve a few complications.”

When he’s offered the opportunity to check the spot where one of the victims was found, he declines. “The technicians and crime-scene boys had run a fine-tooth comb over both house and garden, and for him to imagine he would be able to find something they’d missed would be to overestimate his abilities.”

When he’s developing a next step in the overall investigation, he’s fully aware that the strategy is resoundingly loose. “The only thing to do was to cast bread upon the waters. That was always a possibility. Call on anybody who had any kind of link with Malik—neighbors, business acquaintances, old and new friends—and ask them questions, in accordance with the proven method used with pigs searching for truffles;  i.e., if you continue rooting around in the ground for long enough, sooner or later you’ll come across something edible.”

Because Van Veeteren relies on a team and because he’s perfectly reasonable and real about the challenge at hand—not the breathless, gotta-save-the-world-tonight detective—there’s a gentle, unassuming realism to “Woman With Birthmark” that adds weight.

The victims are from a large group of men—35 in all—who share a common past.  And the stalker is efficient.  “There was something impressive about her,” thinks Van Veeteren.  “And frightening, of course. The feeling that she had full control over what she was doing was incontestable. Her way of striking and then withdrawing, over and over again, suggested both coldness and decisiveness.”

Sure, this sounds familiar. Even occasional mystery readers have been down this road before. But “Woman With Birthmark” is a story well told. It hums along.

PS: Anyone know if there was a real Flingel Bunt?


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