Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker/Random House
ISBN: 9781846552625

There's a subtle elegance to this particular story, considering it's a novel of crime fiction. There are no raging maniacs with axes hanging about, no serial killers, and no serious threats to the people of Reykjavik. In fact, there seems to be a lull in crime as this story opens, and Erlendur has some time to go back to some very cold cases. While pondering the ones that got away unanswered, he becomes involved with a new case, that of a woman who was found hanging in her vacation home. There are no signs to indicate anything other than suicide, but her friend Karen isn't so sure. Karen brings Erlendur a cassette tape of the dead woman's previous session with a medium and gets his attention. Working on his own, with no official police involvement, Erlendur works to find out why this woman took her own life. In a brief phone chat with Sigurdur Oli, when Erlendur notes that he wants to know "why she committed suicide,"  Erlendur explains why:

[Sigurdur Oli asks] " 'What's it to you?'
'Nothing,' Erlendur said. 'Absolutely nothing.'
'I thought you were only interested in missing-person cases.'
'Suicide is a missing-person case too,' Erlendur said and hung up on him."
Given Erlendur's background with the brother who was lost in a blinding snowstorm, his interest in the lost is no surprise.  And it's no surprise that he identifies with the ones left behind, for example, the grieving father who has checked in with Erlendur every year since his son vanished. For this man, time is running out because he's dying, and Erlendur wants him to go with answers. There's another missing persons case Erlendur goes back to as well -- that of a young woman who vanished one day, car and all. But it's the suicide that takes most of his time, as he gets into the head of the dead woman, just trying to figure out why.

Hypothermia is an excellent novel, and will give you pause to consider the nature of grieving and loss as you follow Erlendur throughout. Probably more than any of the previous novels in the series, place is itself a character, especially the cold and  lonely lakes of Iceland.  I loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Arctic Chill, by Arnaldur Indridason

ISBN: 9780099542322
Vintage UK

Here we are at book five of six featuring Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, and I couldn't stand the suspense of waiting for #6 in the Reykjavik Murder Mystery series (Hypothermia) to come out in the US so I bought it from the UK. But then I wonder how long I'm going to have to wait for the next one. Oh well. This series is worth it completely.

As usual, Indridason delivers another good story here...not just a good mystery, but his insights into Iceland as a place and into its problems add to the entire series as a whole.

Just a brief synopsis first: During a very cold Icelandic winter, a young boy, the son of a Thai immigrant and her Icelandic husband, is found dead in front of his apartment building, with his body stuck to its own pool of blood. To make matters worse, it seems that his older brother is missing. As Erlendur and his team (Sigurdur Oli & Elinborg) start to work on the case, several theories present themselves -- was it a crime based on racism? Or was it the work of a pedophile known to be back in the area? Or, even worse, did the missing brother have anything to do with the young boy's death? While all of this is going on, Erlendur is also battling with the case of a woman who disappeared -- and both cases are bringing back his memories of his lost brother.

As anyone who reads Scandinavian crime fiction knows, these authors incorporate their own commentary (via plotline) about current social issues & problems in their respective countries. One of the themes prevalent in this novel is that of the problems of immigration in Iceland, which Indridason handles very skillfully.  It's not just a question of how native Icelanders feel about immigration, but he also reveals the problems faced by immigrants who go there - for example lack of language skills that hinder their ability to fully become members of Icelandic society, and the fact that families bring older children into the country who tend to have problems fitting in with the rest of their peer groups because they feel out of place. Indridason shows the feelings on both sides of the issue, treating the subject with a great deal of fairness toward each.

As always, Indridason's writing, his sense of place, his character development and his ability to create well-constructed plots are all in top form here. However, while  I understand that Erlendur's missing brother is one of those dark parts of his life that make him tick and make him who he is, and explains why he's fascinated with missing persons cases, and that this case of the two brothers reminds him of his own sad past, I feel I must point out that regular readers of this series already know all of this. Is the author maybe throwing this in for people who haven't yet read these books?

Overall, another good one by Indridason, whose entire Erlendur series is highly intelligent, making him one of those authors whose works I just can't wait to get my hands on. My advice: read them in order because these characters are not static and unchanging, but rather they are dynamic and becoming more human with every installment. Recommended to people who like Scandinavian crime fiction as well as mystery readers who want intelligence in their crime.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shattered, by Richard Neely

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
1991 (reissue)

originally published as 
The Plastic Nightmare

Shattered is a work of noir fiction that begins when Dan Marriott awakes in a hospital. His wife, Judith, is by his side, and he learns that he and Judith had been in a catastrophic car accident.  Judith was thrown clear, but Dan wasn't so lucky. Most of the bones in his body were broken, his face was totally disfigured, and worse yet, he has no memory of who he is. After a series of plastic surgeries, he is ready to leave the hospital and to try to piece together his life. Judith takes him home and begins filling him in on their past life together, but little things Dan finds and remarks people make cause him to realize that something is just not right -- and after a few very strange occurrences, he finds it even more imperative to get to the truth. To say more would wreck the story.

Let's just say that this isn't the best piece of noir I've ever read, nor is it the worst. The plot is a good one, and I never guessed the ending (definitely a nice twist) but everything seems to happen so quickly. There's not a lot of time to really get into the characters, and while the story keeps you reading, it would have been better if it had been a bit more in depth.  However, I liked it well enough to pick up another book by this author -- The Walter Syndrome, highly recommended by several Neely fans.

I'd recommend it to readers of noir fiction.

sidebar: the movie based on this book is on IFC Friday night (4/16) 8:45 pm.  From all accounts it's not so hot, but I plan on watching it anyway.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Asia Hand, by Christopher G. Moore

Asia Hand, by Christopher G. Moore
Grove Press/Black Cat
July 2010

Having stumbled upon this series of novels completely by accident with a random choice of The Risk of Infidelity Index while on vacation last month, I fell in deep like with the main character of this series of books, Vincent Calvino, and wanted more. So my thanks go to Grove Press for sending me an ARC of Asia Hand, which will be published in the US in July of this year. And of course, I have to thank the author, Christopher G. Moore, who I think took pity on me after I offered to lobby in person to have more of his books published here to satisfy my Calvino cravings. After reading Risk of Infidelity Index (9) and now Asia Hand (2), I finally got around to buying the first book in the series Spirit House. As I noted in an earlier post, this is a huge deal because I am currently under a self-imposed book-buying moratorium (to deal with the nagging guilt eating at me to read more of what I already own) until the end of this month. But Calvino is worth the added sense of guilt in breaking my promise to myself. Sigh. Oh well, I digress as usual.

Asia Hand is a well-crafted piece of modern noir fiction set in Bangkok, the home of ex-pat and ex-New Yorker Vincent Calvino. Calvino makes his living as a private investigator, and he finds himself embroiled in a crime that starts with the death of one his American friends, Hutton.  Hutton is a young free-lance cameraman, a loser who doesn't get much work thrown his way, so when he is offered the chance to work on a movie at the border of Thailand and Burma, he jumps at it.  Soon afterwards, Hutton is found dead in a lake at Lumpini Park. There is only a single clue left at the scene:  a necklace made of several amulets. Calvino is summoned by his friend Pratt (Col. Prachai Chongwatana, a high-ranking police official fond of quoting Shakespeare), and thus begins his investigation into Hutton's death which  leads him down some dark alleyways and closer to home than he ever thought possible.

The crime is well plotted, intricate and intelligent, weaving up and down different paths that all ultimately converge into a clever solution.  However, what makes this book work is Moore's insights into the interactions between ex-pats/ foreigners (farangs) in Thailand and the Thai people -- not just at the level of officialdom, but also down at street level with the bargirls. There are also several funny moments in this book, especially in the chapter with the explanations of the differences between first and third shifters. I must admit that I laughed out loud reading this part.

Calvino's character is well fleshed out, considering that this is only book two of the series. While he's a very no-nonsense kind of detective, and will stick to a problem like a pit bull, he also has a heart.  Calvino lives by a set of laws (for example, this one: "Whenever someone says 'you must believe me,' the chances are greater than 50 percent he's lying through his teeth.") and he has been in Thailand long enough to understand the way things work there even though life in Bangkok is filled with contradictions.

What I've read of the series is great and beats the pants off of most crime fiction sitting on the shelves of my local bookstore. It's also very different from a lot of what's out there which is definitely a plus.  If you like noir fiction, or if you enjoy intelligent crime fiction set in an exotic locale, you might want to try this one when it's released. You also have the side benefit of learning something about Thailand its people, culture and politics from someone who lives there.  This author can write and he does it well.  I will say that if you have a problem with alternative names for human body parts or with the use of 4-letter words in books, you may not want to pick this one up. Nothing cutesy here...just down and dirty gritty crime in a steamy climate.

and now...let's get those other books published here!