Nordic Noir: The Arrival of Van Veeteren

With Volume One of the Van Veeteren Films arriving on DVD today, Paul Risker discusses the Scandinavian detective series…

Van Veeteren

Just as Shaun Evans steps into the shoes of the legendary John Thaw to travel back in time to introduce us to a young Endeavour Morse, his time travelling journey coincides with the arrival of the newly retired Inspector Van Veeteren. From the origins of one of Britain’s most beloved detectives in television and literature crime fiction, we travel into the twilight of one of the icons of Scandinavian detective fiction.

The creation of Swedish teacher and author Håkan Nesser, Van Veetren debuted in 1993’s The Mind’s Eye (Det grovmaskiga nätet), translated into English in 2008. Nesser has since written eight Van Veeteren novels, the latest instalment of which The Weeping Girl was published in the UK only last month. Nesser is twice the recipient of the Best Swedish Crime Novel award, and his crime solving inspector is one of the staples of modern Scandinavian detective fiction, the first of two; his second inspector – Gunnar Barbarotti – was introduced to us by Nesser in his 2006 novel Human without Dog (Människa utan hund).

Over the course of the last few years Saturday evenings on BBC Four have become the home for an influx of Scandinavian crime drama, interrupted only by the French police drama Spiral, comprising of in succession Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge, Sebastian Bergman and Arne Dahl. What perhaps should be considered a delay in arriving on UK shores, the Van Veeteren Films Collection Volume One has found a home on Arrow’s Nordic Noir label.

The first of the three films in this collection is an adaptation of the second of the novels, Borkmann’s Point, skipping The Mind’s Eye to instead set out from the beginning of the long serving inspector’s retirement. This is the only one of the Van Veeteren films that Nesser would adapt for the screen, his involvement serving to bring credibility to the film series and Sven Wollter’s incarnation of Van Veeteren.

Van VeeterenThere are a well-established set of tropes for the modern detective, which lead to viewers to ask inquisitively seek answers as to why these characters should be marred in such darkness. Van Veeteren’s domestic life is fractured, tainted by divorce, his son a convicted criminal, the hypothesis of the prison psychiatrist his son shares with him, that he turned to a life of crime on order to get his father’s attention; the great chief inspector always off hot on the trail of another case. Remind you of anyone – Wallander, The Killing’s Sarah Lund or The Bridge’s Saga Norén? To be a detective it seems that just as the Priest is required to forgo certain manly desires, so the detective must suffer a fractured domestic life, the failure at home the premium cost of professional success. Turning everything to ash outside of their careers, these characters are most fittingly described as lonely souls despite their extroverted careers, this loneliness the catalyst for their true introverted identities, sitting in isolation as each case ends, often with only knowledge, art and culture left to accompany them into old age.

What ultimately endears us to these characters is the loneliness they inflict on themselves, minds designed to solve puzzles rather than spend Sunday’s with the family, founts of knowledge who perceive the world in a unique way, through a gaze exclusive to them, and one which we can only access in their company. They represent our introverted desires, that part of our personality which offsets our extroverted nature.

Van Veeteren in keeping with this tradition honours these tropes and represents the divisive inward and outward personality. Nesser’s inspector is a different breed to the recent incarnations – Sarah Lund and Saga Norén – evidenced to have more in common with his Swedish counterpart Wallander and British counterpart Morse. In contrast to this new breed, Van Veeteren, Wallander and Morse have an investment external to their cases. For Morse and Wallander it is music, and for Morse and Van Veeteren it is literature.

Van VeeterenNesser’s detective is strangely passive, not so much slow to anger; rather never to anger. Morse and Wallander are less tenacious perhaps than Lund and Norén, but in moments their anger and frustration is clearly evidenced, though Van Veeteren’s voice remains at a whisper, and physically exuding a calm demeanour regardless of personal or professional stress and tragedy. It is Van Veeteren’s composure that makes him truly unique in a long line of characters, at peace with the realisation that he cannot solve the puzzle to prevent every tragedy, but lacking the disassociation from the tragedy that drives Saga Norén’s coldness or  composure. 

Volume One of the Van Veeteren films subverts our expectations, in part through a misleading title, hastening the lead characters journey towards retirement. It is not until the sixth book The Unlucky Lottery that Nesser introduces the possibility of retirement, commencing the story with Van Veeteren on sabbatical working in a second hand bookshop. Hour of the Wolf, the follow-up to The Unlucky Lottery, introduces former Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, now the owner of an antiquarian book shop.

The adaptation of Borkmann’s Point immediately ceases upon the retirement angle, and at the conclusion of the episode Van Veeteren is nothing more than a recurring character with marginal screen time, a diametrical creative choice to the majority of crime fiction featuring a lead detective.

The Van Veeteren Collection Volume One only furthers the reputation of Scandinavian crime drama; these compelling, dark and gritty narratives are expertly divided amongst the three lead characters, Van Veeteren (Borkmann’s Point), Munster (Munster’s Case) and Moreno (Moreno and the Silence). Each of the three cases serves as an exploration of the individual characters, introducing the older and wiser Van Veeteren as both aspiration and warning, as he retreats to adopt a grandfatherly role towards his two protégés: the career driven Moreno and the family man Munster, two halves of the detective, only one of which can flourish. 

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.