Håkan Nesser – “Borkmann’s Point”

“Borkmann’s rule was hardly a rule; in fact, it was more of a comment, a landmark for tricky cases.”

Borkmann is an old cop, one of the few that Chief Inspector Van Veeteren respects. Van Veeteren is thinking about Borkmann while he’s sitting in the tub, three bottles of brown ale in a bucket of cold water on the floor “and a dish of fat olives within easy reach.”  It’s going to be a long soak.

In every investigation, Borkmann maintained, “there comes a point beyond which we don’t really need any more information. When we reach that point, we already know enough to solve the case by means of nothing more than some decent thinking. A good investigation should try to establish when that point has been reached, or rather, when it has been passed; in his memoirs, Borkmann went so far as to claim it was precisely this ability, or lack of it, which distinguishes a good detective from a bad one.”

As he sucks the olive stones, Borkmann weighs his woes. Three murder victims, all slain with an ax. And now a missing fellow inspector, a woman.  And it’s possible all the details he needs are already before him. He just has to solve the case.

Borkmann’s Point is serene. It’s a thinker. Van Veeteren is no action hero. He’s an analyst and a chess player. He likes to be well fed and doesn’t mind a glass or two of fine wine.  “We all work best on a full stomach—think best, at least,” he asserts.

Deliciously, Håkan Nesser lets us know that Van Veeteren is has observed the killer in a seaside restaurant.  We have just left the killer’s point of view and know he is reading the newspaper and watching a “solitary trawler” in the harbor. The killer has noted the “glazed-in” terrace. When Van Veeteren sits down in the same eating establishment one scene later, he casually notes the “solitary gentleman with the newspaper by the picture window” and the moment delivers the kind of creepy-cool chill that seems perfectly matched to the gray drizzle that follows this plot around through the fictional fishing village of Kaalbringen.

Slipping in scenes from the killer’s point of view is such a tricky business: how much to reveal, when to reveal it. Is the writer being fair to the reader by letting us have a peek into the killer’s stream of consciousness?  Obviously, much is held back (at least at first).  And the whole technique runs the risk of cliché, but Nesser holds back. It’s that Scandinavian cool.

The killer in “Borkmann’s Point” believes he is “beyond reach and beyond punishment” and of course we know better.

Hats off to Nesser for not overdoing the killer point of view, keeping him down to earth (if that’s possible) and, well, somewhat ordinary. He’s not chewing the scenery or foaming at the mouth, which makes him scarier.

Meanwhile, Van Veeteren heads up an exhaustive and tireless search, broken by the chance to reflect and of course eat (and drink).  The pace here is steady but it’s not footraces and speeding cars, it’s the cumulative weight of earnest detectives (Van Veeteren has a stable of help from the locals) doing their best.  Nesser switches points of view throughout Borkmann’s Point and it’s fellow detective who observes they are their way “yet again, for the nth time, to assemble around the oval table in the bilious-yellow conference room at the police station, to sit down and roll up their shirtsleeves for yet another discussion of who this madman might be.”

Borkmann’s Point stays within itself. There’s restraint and calm as tensions heighten, nothing more than the relentless footsteps of detectives making their way along the uneven cobblestone steps, analyzing and reanalyzing the clues they have already found. Finally, of course, the vague outlines take on real shape and the “flickering and shadows” become the madman, right under Van Veeteren’s nose.  And ours.

(Previous review of Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark)


2 responses to “Håkan Nesser – “Borkmann’s Point”

  1. Had to stop by and say how much I appreciated this insightful review, Mark. I’m a fan of Nesser’s work, and think Borkmann’s Point is among his best. I reviewed the book at Patti Abbott’s blog a while back, though not in the same depth you do here.

  2. Many thanks, Anita…Much appreciated. I am going to work my way through the other Nessers, too. He is good !

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