Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum

Harvest Book/Harcourt
295 pp.

Don’t Look Back is the second novel in the Inspector Sejer series behind Eve’s Eye (Evas øye), which has not yet been published in English.  Whether or not I missed anything because I  do not read Norwegian is not a big deal;  I still enjoyed Don’t Look Back . I’ll just consider it the first in the series for now.
This novel is a police procedural set in a small village in Norway.  As the story opens, Inspector Konrad Sejer is called out when a small child goes missing.  While investigating that case, the naked body of a teenaged girl named Annie Holland is discovered at the edge of the lake.  Sejer takes that case and brings along his colleague, Skarre.  As the two of them interview the locals  to find out more about the victim, they cannot seem to find any reason at all for anyone to have wanted to kill this girl. She was well liked by everyone.  The only thing Sejer has to go on is that Annie had recently seemed to have become very withdrawn, but hadn’t told anyone why.  Sejer and Skarre will have to dig deeper and deeper until they come up with an answer to why Annie died.

Fossum’s writing is very simple and uncomplicated, without a lot of inner monologues  and angst from the main character.  She is quite good at developing an atmosphere of suspicion and anxiety, setting the tone for the overall investigation, and keeps you reading with prose like this, the answer to a question posed by Sejer to Annie's mother:

There's supposed to be a sea serpent in the fjord here. It's a legend, a story from the old days. If you're out rowing and hear a splashing sound behind your boat, that's the sea serpent rising from the depths. You should never look back, just be careful to keep on rowing. If you pretend to ignore it and leave it in peace, everything will be fine, but if you look back into its eyes, it will pull you down into the great darkness." (49)

The characters are all believable, especially Sejer, who is a grandfather, recently a widower, but someone you know will do the job and stay on it like a pit bull until the case is over.  The plot is straightforward, and the focus is always on the investigation without the author straying off or getting sidetracked, and she throws in a few red herrings along the way to keep the reader guessing.  While the book moves at a very good pace, the story is never hurried and the investigation and solution were both realistic, and I never saw the end coming,  which is a plus because I often do.

Fans of police procedurals, Scandinavian crime fiction and crime fiction in general will like this book.  I have all of the other Inspector Sejer novels lined up, ready to read, so that must tell you something.

 fiction from Norway

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Murder Farm, by Andrea Maria Schenkel

181 pp.
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

The Murder Farm begins with a few introductory words from an unnamed narrator:
I spent the first summer after the end of the war with distant relations in the country.
During those weeks, that village seemed to me an island of peace.  One of the last places to have survived intact after the great storm that we had just weathered.
 Years later, when life had gone back to normal and that summer was only a happy memory, I read about the same village in the paper.
 My village had become the home of 'the murder farm' and I couldn't get the story out of my mind.
And the narrator is correct: you won't get the story out of your mind any time soon. The Murder Farm  is one of those novels that once you begin reading you shouldn't plan to do anything else until it's over.

The book is set in the 1950s, after the end of World War II in Germany and the American occupation.  The central focus of the novel is the Danner family, who live on their isolated farm in the woods.When they are not seen for a few days, a few of the villagers go to the farm to check things out and find the entire family dead -- someone has taken a pickaxe and killed the entire family -- Mr. and Mrs. Danner, their daughter Barbara, her two small children, and a young maid who has just begun to work at the farm. Throughout this dark and gloomy book, the unnamed narrator mentioned above gathers the stories of the people who live and work in the village, and through their narratives  it becomes quite apparent that the family was not popular and not very well-liked. But there are some things that not even the narrator is privy to -- interspersed with the testimonies of the villagers are other third-party narratives which leave you to wonder a) how much you're reading is simply gossip and how much is the truth, and b) who might have wanted this entire family dead.

It is truly difficult to believe that this is Schenckel's first book.  The bleak tone of the novel is set at the beginning and although the prose is sparse, it only accentuates the air of gloom that follows through the entire novel. The Murder Farm offers a psychological portrait of a family living in isolation as well as a brief glimpse at how the war affected the people in the village. But what it offers most is a crime which is at once both  realistic and believable, making it all the more creepy the further you go into the story.

Very atmospheric and bleak, The Murder Farm is a very good read, one I would recommend without hesitation to any reader of crime fiction.  It will keep you turning pages until the very end.

Fiction from Germany

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Informer, by Craig Nova

Shaye Areheart Books

A few posts ago I commented on the general lack of respect on the part of people who will go to a bookstore, order a coffee & a chocolate chip cookie and then proceed to leave evidence of their presence on the pages of a brand new book. As noted, I had the misfortune of discovering this nasty habit while at my local B&N, when I went to buy a copy of The Informer, by Craig Nova. If you don't want to go back & read the post, the long and short of it is that there was only one copy available in the store, and not only were there chocolate fingerprints on it, but the first page had been torn as well making it totally unbuyable. Aaargh. Shortly after I made that post, a knight in shining armor in the form of Mr. Stephen Will, a publicist at The Hendra Agency, took pity on my plight and offered me a copy. Mr. Stephen Will I offer my most hearty thanks.

I liked this book -- it appeals to the part of me that loves intelligence in the written word. As a work of historical fiction, it is very well written.

The Informer is set in Berlin at the end of Germany's Weimar Republic (1918-1933) and Germany's politics are fractured among the lines of three main political groups: the Communists, the various right-wing groups (including but not limited to the Nazis), and the prevailing Socialist government. On the streets these divisions often play out as brawls and skirmishes between rival factions, each with its gang of thugs, and this fracture continues on up into city and governmental bureaucracies where thuggery is more or less official yet clandestine.  Everything is played according to where one's loyalties lie.

Without going into the plot, at the center of this well-written novel is Gaelle, the disfigured 22 year old prostitute and "The Informer" of the story.  Gaelle is protected as well as pimped out by Felix, a 16 year old boy who lives on the streets with his ears to the ground. She often supplements their earnings by selling secrets she learns from clients, which works well for the two of them until she happens upon some intelligence regarding a man who works at the Soviet Embassy and spies on the Red Front for the Brownshirts. While all of this is happening, Armina Treffen,  a police officer in Inspectorate A (a division of the kriminalpolizei  that investigates homicide),  is seeking a serial killer who is stalking young women in the Tiergarten park area. Armina is a professional and cares about  her work, but she has her own personal issues which are compounded by the politics of her boss Ritter, which hamper her work on the case.

The Informer is not your average "Berlin noir" type of novel like Jonathan Rabb's series (beginning with Rosa),  nor is it like Kerr's Berlin novels, both of which are both more plot driven. It is more character driven, with its atmosphere of place and time acting as the headliner. From the very beginning, the book draws you into the  "malice" (the author's word) pervading the streets and the very air, not to mention the uncertainty of what is to come. In this sense, the suspense aspect of the novel permeates throughout -- not so much as an aspect of the novel's plotline, but in terms of  the future of the German people. There are several scenes in which the author offers a brief foreshadowing of the future -- a line of people at the local vet having their dogs killed as a solution to their inability to feed their pets because of the high rate of inflation, and the description of Armina going daily by the children from the "special" school -- both send a shiver up the reader's spine because we know exactly what these scenes allude to in only a matter of a few years hence.

The dustjacket blurb calls the book a "literary thriller," but the scales tip heavily in favor of the literary side, and to label this book merely a "thriller" is really to cheapen it. This is my first novel by this author, but definitely not the last.  Highly recommended.