Two Takes on Borkmann’s Point

I am finally reading Borkmann’s Point because episodes of the Swedish TV show that was based on Håkan Nesser’s Van Veeteren series are, conveniently, being screened at the Scandinavia House this summer. Being a big fan of detective shows (of the BBC variety—not so much CSI-type dramas) and of Scandinavian crime novels, this presented a nice opportunity to not only read the much-lauded Borkmann’s Point, but also compare and contrast two different tellings of the same story.

The basic premise is this: Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren of the (imaginary) city of Maarsdam is vacationing in the nearby seaside town Kaalbringen. Although he’s scheduled to go back to work, he’s recruited to stay in town and join forces with the local Kaalbringen police after a man murdered with an ax is discovered. Shortly after, there is another murder—similar in method, although the victims have nothing apparent in common. While he quickly bonds with the members of the Kaalbringen police force (particularly the clever inspector Beate Moerk and DCI Bausen), Van Veeteren sees no solution, even as the case drags on for two months and results in yet another murder.

In all honestly, I can’t say that either the novel or the TV version is all that successful, although if I had to pick, I’d probably opt for the show. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a good ‘list review,’ so here are some general observations about problems in the novel, and the oddly pointless changes that were made in its TV adaptation.

The Novel

1.  Borkmann’s Point now has the dubious distinction of introducing the most transparent killer since my Mary Higgins Clark reading days. I honestly guessed the killer on page 59 (the book is 321 pages total) and while there were moments throughout that were meant to telegraph the murderer’s identity to the reader, it’s clear that the big reveal at the end is supposed to be a shocker. But it isn’t, except perhaps to Van Veeteren, who for months has been dispensing sage advice and telling people that he’ll “only have to set eyes on [the murder’s] type” and then he’ll know whodunit. If this is supposed to be ironic, it doesn’t come across at all.We are later supposed to believe that Van Veeteren was actually on to the killer much sooner, but Nesser purposefully cloaks his hero’s thoughts—and much of his investigative work—in secrecy. We’re told that VV makes calls to follow up on hunches, but we don’t know to who or what he finds out. He takes trips to check out clues, but he doesn’t tell us (or his underlings) where he is going. It’s like reading an Agatha Christie novel, but without the charm. The only thing that makes this any more bearable is that the police inspector who joins Van Veeteren from Maarsdam—Münster—frequently notes that his boss is “sitting there, playing the asshole and being mysterious again,” which does provide a nice bit of relief from The Great Detective’s ego.

2.  Nesser is awful at writing women. There is a chapter in which inspector Beate Moerk is at home, contemplating the case, her weight, and her status as a single woman and a female detective, during which Nesser writes, “She started soaping her breasts…still firm and bouncy; another recurrent thought was that one day she would start to dislike her breasts—the whole of her body come to that. But naturally, that was a trauma she shared with all women.” Ugh.

Later, Van Veeteren meets a woman in the course of the case and makes an empty promise about how long it’ll take him to crack it. The woman leaves, comforted, and VV snickers to himself: “How easy it is to fool a woman…a woman you’ve only known for five minutes.” Again, there might be some underlying irony here—Van Veeteren is arrogant about fooling ladies all while he’s being fooled himself. But even so, the sort of easy chauvinism here only made me like him less than I already did.

3.  These people are investigating a serial ax murderer and yet, not much investigating seems to really happen. Even if there aren’t a lot of clues, it seems to me that it’d be worth spending far more time tracking down former associates, lovers, flat-mates, etc. to get more insight into the lives of the victims. Find possible connections. Right? As is, everyone spends the day kinda-sorta talking about the case at the local pastry shop and they all go home at the end of the day with a bit of a shrug. Van Veeteren spends night after night with DCI Bausen playing chess, eating rich gourmet dinners, and sampling multiple bottles of fine vintage wine from Bausen’s private collection. No one really seems all that fussed, honestly, except for Münster, the skeptical inspector from Maarsdam who wants to go home to his wife and kids. Which makes me think that maybe we’d all be better served if the book was about Münster—who cares even a little about the outcome of the case—as opposed to Van Veeteren.

(For two other takes on the novel, check out Yvonne Klein and Sharon Wheeler‘s reviews on Reviewing the Evidence. Peter at Nordic Bookblog also reviewed it rather favorably.)

The TV Adaptation

There were a number of problems with the novel, but none of them were really addressed by the changes made to the TV adaptation. Rather, the TV adaptation was more successful because it has a slighter scope. It’s an 80 minute police drama—you anticipate that there will be plot holes and smoothed-over characterization. Here are some of the odder choices for adjustment:

1. Van Veeteren is retired.

He does actually retire within the novels, but not in this book. By bumping up the retirement, VV becomes truly inconsequential to the case. He just hangs around, pointing out things that make the local police look dumb. During the show, an up-and-coming Kaalbringen inspector kicks him out of a meeting in frustration one day, and rightly so: ‘What are you even doing here?’ he asks. ‘You’re a civilian.’

2. The victims are actually beheaded, with a normal ax.

The book makes a point of saying that all of the victims probably could have been beheaded if a little less finesse had been used by the murderer. But they are specifically *not* beheaded. Also, Nesser makes a point of saying that the ax used has very unusual dimensions and wouldn’t be easy to purchase in a normal store. To change these details really just simplifies the whole thing and makes it even easier than in the book to suss out the killer. Also, it’s just more gruesome, which is pretty much unneeded in a story about ax murders.

3. The victims are all restrained before they die and made to look at a photograph, the impression of which is found in blood at each crime scene.

In the book, Nesser makes a point of telling us that the victims are all caught unaware by the killer and die almost instantaneously. So again, we’re just making this more graphic. As for the photograph—that’s supposed to help fill in the killer’s motive, but it isn’t in the book at all and is pretty much a cheat. And the fact that Van Veeteren can look at a square indentation in some congealed blood and figure out that it was made from a photograph, well, that just tests the suspension of disbelief a little too much for me.

There were more changes—characters switched around, a whole plot line where the murderer attempts to frame someone else, chronologies changed, but none really for the better. I think I’ll give the rest of the series—both the novels and the TV show—a miss.

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