MIND'S EYE: AN INSPECTOR VAN VEETEREN MYSTERY, by Hakan Nesser, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Pantheon Books, 278 pages, $22.95

The work of Hakan Nesser, a Swedish novelist who has been winning European literary prizes since 1993, is finally available in the United States. His first book in the Inspector Van Veeteren series, "Mind's Eye," originally written in 1993, has just been translated and published to the great benefit of American readers.

And what a compelling and fascinating crime novel it is. Inspector Van Veeteren is a charismatic and eccentric character who should be seen as one of the more attractive literary figures to appear in print. Although he works with a team in solving murder cases, he has the annoying habit of going off on his own and engaging in maddening secrecy.

But his mind is laserlike in its focus and its ability to analyze all sides of complex issues — and his sense of humor is completely engaging.

The case the inspector faces here deals with the murder of Eva Ringmar, found one morning face down in the bathtub of the home she shared with Janek Mitter, a high school teacher and her husband of only three months. Mitter awoke that morning with a debilitating hangover that affected his ability to remember initially who he was.

Quickly, Mitter was found guilty of a drunken crime of passion and placed in a mental institution. But Inspector Van Veeteren couldn't get the case off his mind. He continued to brood and search for clues that might point in a different direction.

When Mitter himself was violently murdered in the mental institution, Van Veeteren's suspicions were confirmed, so he launched a full investigation into both murders. The style of the narrative is clean and clever, obviously owing to the gifted translator as well as the author. Each sentence and paragraph seems so carefully and artfully constructed that it fully deters anyone who may be accustomed to speed reading novels.

The reader learns much about the inspector's peculiar habits and lifestyle. Ten days of nonstop rain always depressed him, triggering his tendency to lose himself in a Vivaldi mandolin concerto. Eight months ago, his wife had left him — and now, for the fourth or fifth time, she wanted to return. He felt ambiguous about it.

Addicted to toothpicks long after a meal was finished, Van Veeteren often used them as a thinking device. His Newfoundland dog, Bismarck, was ill. Van Veeteren had a grown son and a daughter, the son in prison for drug smuggling, and the daughter married "to a man who repaired teeth" and was bringing up twins.

Unfortunately, Van Veeteren had sprained his right foot the previous day playing badminton, and he put on his right shoe with great pain. He wondered if he should have had his foot X-rayed.

Professionally, Van Veeteren was so sharp that he could often read a suspect like a book, noticing the tiniest details and interpreting them quickly. He considered it a gift rather than a reward for hard work.

As Van Veeteren followed his investigation process, picking up clues and tracking them down, discussing his findings with his staff of detectives, he became more and more tight-lipped. The case was filled with surprises, but he was making progress as he gleaned information about the two people who had been murdered and began considering a variety of suspects.

At one point the inspector became so discouraged and tired that he tried to resign so he could vacation in some exotic place where he could rest his mind and body — but higher authority would not allow it. Although this case is a fascinating one and the pieces of evidence eventually yield good answers, it is the strength of Van Veeteren as a character, and the witty dialogue that ensues with his colleagues and his sources that make this book magic.

If you feel the need to lose yourself in something totally different from your own life and you have an appreciation for brilliance in writing, get to know Inspector Van Veeteren.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com