Borkmann, who is the Chief of Police when Van Veeteren joins the force, makes an observation which leaves an imprint on Van Veeteren’s mind. Borkmann observes that, “in every case a point is reached where enough information has been gathered to solve the crime with nothing more than some decent thinking. The trick is knowing when that point is reached.” Van Veeteren contemplates on this point as he tries to solve his latest case.
The latest case is of an axe murderer: a person who has killed two people using a very sharp axe, almost cutting their heads off from the body. The first person to be killed is a drug addict and drug dealer. The second person to be killed is a real estate agent. As the police try to find a connection between these two murders, the axe murderer strikes again killing a doctor. Panic sets in Kaalbringen, a small Swedish town by the sea with people refusing to come out of their houses late in the evening.
Van Veeteren, who is vacationing in a nearby town, is asked by his Chief, after the second murder, to help the Kaalbringen police force to solve this case. He arrives in the town to find that the police chief of that town, Bausen, will be retiring soon and wants to solve the case before he retires. Van Veeteren, who develops a liking for Bausen and his wine cellar, wants to help Bausen in this regard. After the third murder, Beate Moerk, a female detective of the Kaalbringen police force, leaves a message to Van Veeteren’s colleague that she has found something bizarre related to the case. A few hours later she vanishes, probably abducted by the ax murderer.
Nesser sets up the case quite well. There seems to be no link between any of the three people murdered. Yet, the murderer plans the executions so well that the police are convinced that this is not a deranged serial killer. There is a definite pattern which the police are unable to crack and this makes the plot all the more interesting. Nesser leaves a few clues behind but does it in such a way that the reader overlooks them easily. (He does leave a few red herrings too.)
The novel moves not at a breathtaking speed but oscillates between periods of activity and periods of inactivity. On one hand the murders happen, police question people and keep collating information, press conferences happen. On the other hand, Van Veeteren plays chess with Bausen while sipping on vintage wine and Beate Moerk enjoys a long run. Nesser brings out the relaxed pace of the small town, the pace reflecting on the investigation as well. The characters of the Kaalbringen police force: The chief Bausen, his pedantic junior and the inquisitive and intelligent Beate Moerk are well drawn and well fleshed out. Van Veeteren is his usual melancholic self while his colleague Munster plays the role of Dr.Watson (though he does contribute to a major breakthrough)
The success of such novels depends a lot on the denouement and Nesser does a terrific job in this regard. The climax is quite unexpected and very satisfactory. The back story is quite touching and is based on the nightmare many parents have about their children. The flashback gives an additional depth to the story and that contributes in making the whole novel a worthwhile read. The ending is so good that we do not mind the fact that the author does not explicitly explain how Van Veeteren zoomed in on the solution.
Nesser’s novels have been very uneven according to me. Some novels like ‘Inspector and the Silence’ are very ‘light’ depending a lot on atmosphere than on a great mystery. This novel along with novels like ‘The Minds Eye’ have endings which are easily guessable thus depriving us of the pleasure we derive when an unexpected ending happens. ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ is less a mystery novel and more a rumination on the dark side of human beings. ‘The Woman with a Birthmark’ is quite satisfying but it is more due to the story than due to the ending. If you are a mystery buff who loves interesting and unexpected endings, you should definitely read ‘Brokmann’s Point’.