Thursday, December 8, 2011

scandinavian hiatus

As much as it kills me to leave the Scandinavian countries, I have to take a short break and turn to other books for a while. I have one set in 1930s England to read, and about 5 books by Boris Akunin to pay attention to (books 6-10) for a while.  I have been sitting on the review for Claudia Pineiro's latest as well as the review for The Secret in their Eyes.  But I will return to my favorite part of the world asap.

Midwinter Sacrifice, by Mons Kallentoft

Hodder & Stoughton, 2011 (UK version)
originally published as Midvinterblod, 2007
translated by Neil Smith
440 pp.

Lately, there's been a veritable spate (I love that word!) of new Scandinavian crime fiction authors who seem to be just popping out of the woodwork -- much to my great delight.  With Midwinter Sacrifice, I've now discovered Mons Kallentoft, a writer who offers an intense story that kept me reading all day. While some of the plot was easy to figure out, the writing, the characters, and the exploration of small-town life and its secrets that permeates this solid police procedural drew me in and kept me there.  Above all, though, Kallentoft is very good at creating atmosphere and maintaining it through the end -- a quality that I greatly admire in an author.

Detective Malin Fors lives in the Swedish city of Linköping with her young, 13-year-old daughter Tove.  On a freezing cold morning, temperature minus 30, Malin and her partner arrive at the scene of a most brutal crime: a man hangs from a tree, noose around his neck, savagely beaten and finished off with a knife.  He hadn't hanged himself; it was obvious that whoever murdered him had left him there.  He is identified as Bengt Andersson, a loner unable to work due to mental health issues. He's one of those eccentric guys that everyone makes fun of; or who some see as a target for harrassment;  a man who loved waiting outside the fence at the local soccer field so he could retrieve balls that came his way.  Once he is identified, the investigation begins in earnest.  There are different theories of the crime, but the first clue the detectives uncover is a rumor that as a boy, Andersson had put an axe into his father's head.  Just who was Bengt Andersson, and what kind of person was he that someone would unleash so much violence against him? 

While Fors is busy with the case, she's also busy trying to look after her daughter as Tove moves from a little girl into a teen with her own secrets and her own life. She's a very plausible character, with family issues stemming from her childhood and her ex-husband,  trying to balance as best she can her own needs, those of her daughter, and the demands of the job.  But as a cop she's not a grandstander ; she works very well with her colleagues, who also have their own set of family and personal challenges that must be balanced against the needs of the department.  She's an interesting character, as are her co-workers, but this is the first installment of a series and characters are rarely as fully formed at the outset as they later come to be.  At the same time, the author is off to a very good start with these people. I can't wait to see their emergence once the series gets rolling.

The plot is solid and credible, and although the author offers a great deal of Malin's personal life in the telling of this story, it is not overdone to the point where the core mystery or the investigation is drowned out by too much extraneous home-life information or interior monologue.   I really hate when that happens, but for the most part, the storyline is well attended and moves at a good pace. There are a few tangential episodes that probably could have been left out without any damage, but once again, the return to the main plot was never far behind.  And throughout the entire book, a chill seeps through the skin of the reader -- not just in terms of the freezing winter, but in the uncovering of some of the more awful secrets that exist behind the closed doors of a small town, producing a darkness in tone that rarely lets up.  And this wouldn't be Scandinavian crime fiction without bringing in the social and economic issues plaguing these small towns as well, only adding to the atmosphere.

There are a couple of more things I need to deal with here:  first, the voice of the dead man that crops up here and there throughout the story.   I'm just not a huge fan of paranormal-type elements in what I would consider to be serious crime fiction. Normally when I get to the point where the dead become involved three things happen: first, there's a major eyeroll; second, an inward groan (unless I'm by myself and then it's an outward groan), and third, a debate goes on in my head as to whether or not I'm even going to finish the book.  This is just not my thing.  However, I can see why the author chose to go this route -- first, his choice to do this goes back to something Malin was once told by one of her bosses:

"An investigation consists of a mass of voices, the sort you can hear, and the sort you can't. Our own, and others. You have to listen to the soundless voices, Malin. That's where the truth is hidden."

And it is true that the dead speak -- normally, with the clues that are left behind, or in their victimology in general.  But in this book, the author takes it a step further, so that the victim in this case serves as a sort of a Greek chorus, a foreshadower of events to come, a device to move the story forward.  And I discovered that as dead set against this sort of thing as I am, it sort of works here in that way. The only time I didn't like how it was used was when the dead man's thought connected with a living person in very deep emotional straits -- a bit overdone, I'm afraid, for my taste.  I just hope this deadspeak doesn't become a standard feature in the rest of the series.  Second, although the killer's voice is heard as well in monologue,  not a new device by any means, sometimes it was a bit overwrought in tone and I felt it could have been scaled back some. My issues here are based on personal taste, so it's a matter of your own comfort zone.

Overall, Midwinter Sacrifice is a fine series opener, a good police procedural with characters that need a bit more fleshing out but which are pretty well drawn for a first series installment.  My concerns are very minor compared with the entire day I spent being transfixed with this book (and I did spend all of today reading it without doing a blasted thing otherwise), and they're largely issues that appear in many first series novels.   The translation flowed -- there were no awkward moments here whatsoever to cause any sort of pause.  If you're cool with dead men thinking out loud, then the only other thing that might give readers pause is the ending, which I will not go into -- suffice it to say it may leave some readers scratching their heads. I'll recommend it to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, but don't expect a gimmicky serial killer with lots of thrill ride attached if that's what you're into.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Soho Press, 2011
originally published as Drengen i kufferten, 2008
translated by Lene Kaaberbøl
313 pp.

The Boy in the Suitcase is the opening installment of a series featuring main character Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse and member of an underground-type network that offers help to illegal immigrants in need who have little recourse to official services or other kinds of assistance.  It's a series I will be following as the books are published in English; while Boy in the Suitcase has some "thriller"-type moments, it also continues the tradition of voicing concerns regarding social issues, most especially those facing illegal immigrants in Denmark.   While I liked this book,  I have to say that I'm not too sure about the choices Nina makes throughout the story.  Talk about a flawed character -- at the same time she is serving as the ultimate Good Samaritan for those in rather desperate situations, Nina's family life is going down the tubes largely because of the decisions she makes. 

The authors hook the reader with the very first page.  A woman is lugging a heavy suitcase down the stairs of a building into the underground parking lot.  Before she gets to her car, she decides that maybe it would be a good idea to look inside the suitcase.  Shock overcomes her as she discovers its contents: a little three year-old boy, naked and folded up "like a shirt." But the biggest surprise was yet to come: the boy is alive.  Unable to deal with the situation, she calls her friend Nina Borg, and asks her to come to a Copenhagen train station, where she has put the suitcase back into a locker.  Nina finds it, then decides to go the police. Her plans, however, change, when the station police are called to the same locker from which Nina has just retrieved the suitcase, where a man is causing a scene, violently beating on the locker.  His behavior makes Nina change her mind about the cops; she begins to wonder just what her friend Karin has gotten herself into.  She decides to deliver the boy to her friend, only to discover that she's now dead -- violently murdered at the remote cabin where she has gone into hiding.  Now the only thing Nina can think of is to find the child's mother -- worried that the boy is possibly part of the wares of a human trafficker.  But Nina's efforts in helping out her friend, and her decision to try to locate the boy's mother lead her, the boy, and others into danger.    In the meantime, a Lithuanian woman wakes up to find herself in the hospital, and discovers she's there after taking a fall while very, very drunk. The problem is that she's not a drinker.  And no one seems to know where her little boy is. She goes to the police but, dissatisfied with the pace of the official investigation, decides she needs to take matters into her own hands.  Neither woman knows what she is getting herself into -- there's the guy who paid for the suitcase to deal with, and even worse, the extremely irate man who never got his money for the delivery.  As these plotlines develop and eventually merge, the story becomes an interesting insight into each person's past life and their relationship to the present crisis.

Although Nina Borg is the main character, the most realistic character in all of this is the boy's mother, Sigita.  The authors did a wonderful job with her, as the readers feel her pain and anguish, the sheer adrenaline that keeps her on track, and her desperation to get her boy back.  As far as Nina goes, I admire her sense of urgency in getting help for people who need it, at great personal cost, but at some point, it seems to me that Nina is turning her back on the people who need her most -- her own family, a fact that can't be avoided as you read through the novel.  I'm not so sure that this is "heroic" behavior when all is said and done.

There's a great deal of fast and high-powered action here, which will be good for thriller readers; there is also a good, plausible mystery at the heart of the story which is good for people like myself who prefer getting to the bottom of the why and the who. However, I think the thrill ride outweighed everything else, and although I liked The Boy in the Suitcase, and will be among the first to line up for the next installment in the series, I didn't love it.  But that's just me...looking around on the internet at various reviews, the book gets very high star ratings, so it's one you'll have to decide about on your own.

crime fiction from Denmark

Friday, November 11, 2011

Burned, by Thomas Enger

Faber and Faber, 2011 (UK hardback edition)
originally published as Skinndød, 2010
translated by Charlotte Barslund
416 pp.

A new Nordic author has come my way -- Norwegian writer Thomas Enger, who also has a new series to watch out for. Even if I didn't know that there are already more in the works, the end of Burned literally paves the way for a sequel.  Hopefully the new entries will be translated and made available to readers as soon as possible, because if this first foray is any indication, the series is going to be a good one.

A young woman is found half buried and stoned to death in a tent with one of her hands cut off.   It is not long until the police suspect that the details of her death relate to an "honor killing," a draconian form of  punishment under Sharia law, implying a connection to Islam. It just so happens that her boyfriend is a Muslim, and it doesn't help that the a) young woman has left two messages for him about another man meaning nothing, asking for forgiveness and b) he is found trying to destroy his computer when the police come to question him.   The boyfriend is quickly arrested.  The murder coincides with the return of Henning Juul, an investigative journalist for the online news site, 1-2-3 News, "as easy as 1-2-3!"   Juul has been away for two years as a result of a tragedy that left him physically scarred on the outside and emotionally scarred within.  He's not too excited about returning to work after what's happened, but his feelings begin to change as he becomes involved in covering the case.  Sent to cover the press conference on his first day back, Juul hears what the police have to say, and isn't quite sure they've got it right.    After he goes to visit the university where the young girl was a student, he is even more convinced that there's much more to this story than meets the eye.  Helped by an informant from the police whose identity he does not know, as they converse only via instant messaging, Juul sets out to discover the truth, and as he does so, he puts his own life in danger.

There are several reasons to like this novel.  First, there's Juul himself, who makes his way back into the world of journalism only to find that it's become more dependent on titillation, sensationalism and celebrities rather than on old-fashioned reporting, and that now it's the sex and gossip columnist that is the "paper's most important news desk", and that the number of website hits is what really determines success.  It's interesting to watch Juul slowly changing as the thrill of chasing after the truth starts to help him back to his feet emotionally, but he also carries around a lot of baggage.  There's his mother, lost in an alcohol and cigarette haze; his estranged sister, who just happens to be a minister of justice, and his ex-wife, who is now involved with one of Juul's colleagues; all of this on top of dealing with past tragedy, or "That Which He Doesn't Think About," which is unfolded as the novel progresses.  The plotting is tight and very well paced, and there's a good, solid mystery at the core.  But there's something else as well -- although the plot involves elements of Islam, it never devolves into anything stereotypical or demeaning. 

On the other side of the fence, I got really tired of the character of Inspector Bjarne Brogeland, a schoolmate of Juul's, and a  "Romeo whose ambition was to sleep with as many girls as posssible."  He might be a decent cop, but the continuing sleazebaggy,  interior monologues  about another female officer that run throughout the story got really old after a while.  The first of these was just an eyebrow raiser, as in "this guy's such a jerk", but became tedious very quickly.  I can only hope that in the next novel the author either develops this bit or shelves it all together.  It's pointless, really, adding nothing to the story but contempt for a cop.  While a great many of the characters are flawed, as credible characters most often are, Brogeland was just a bit too much to take.  And as another issue, I sort of figured out the who before anyone else in the story did -- to me it was a bit obvious.

Overall, Burned is intelligent, believable (down to Juul's obsessions with matches and batteries), and at times humorous, while remaining somewhat understated in tone. These same traits also mirror those of the main character.  I like the fact that Henning Juul is not just another detective or another cop, but a journalist, who is much better than the police at putting people at ease while he's getting valuable information out of them.   I'd definitely recommend this one to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction.

crime fiction from Norway

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Death Sentence, by Mikkel Birkegaard

Black Swan, 2011
originally published as Over mit  lig, 2009
translated by Charlotte Barslund
400 pp

In Danish, the title of this novel translates out to "Over My Dead Body," and considering the content of this book, it is quite appropriate.  However, the English title, Death Sentence, is actually kind of a teaser, more of a play on words since the book is about a writer who makes his living writing horrifyingly vivid and  splatterish serial-killer fare.  Personally, I can't stand the stuff, so when I started reading this book I wasn't altogether certain I was going to be able to finish it.   But there's method to all of this madness, as I soon came to discover, and it made for very interesting, albeit disturbing, reading. 

The Danish coast and then the city of Copenhagen serve as settings for this novel. In his cabin near the coast,  crime novelist Frank Føns spends lonely days writing and sharing drinking time with a neighbor.   As the novel opens, Frank's novel In the Red Zone is about to be published, but a call from his friend and  police technical advisor Verner puts a damper on his happiness.  It seems that a woman has been found dead in a nearby marina, and the crime has been committed using his new novel as a blueprint for the deadly deed.  The problem is that the book has not yet been published, so how would anyone know what Frank wrote?  He begins to think about the limited number of advanced reading copies that were made available, and realizes that he can account for all of them except one.  So who did this? And why?  Since the method of killing was nearly identical in every freakish and grotesque detail, Frank realizes that coincidence is out of the question -- and begins to realize that someone out there is using his work as a how-to guide to murder.  But copying the crime committed in  In the Red Zone is just the tip of the iceberg -- soon the bodies begin piling up and Frank discovers that whoever killed the woman in the marina is also borrowing his other work as a killing spree ensues.  Frank decides the only way to put a stop to what he feels he started is to become a detective himself and try to catch the killer -- a solitary and dismal task at best.

Yes, yes, this scenario has been done to death, but thankfully Birkegaard puts a new slant on an old cliché or two throughout the novel.    Frank, who always knew he wanted to be a writer, once had a gorgeous wife and three daughters.  While he's working on a "real" novel, one which he hopes will garner the respect of his family and friends, his mind is busy at work, dreaming up nightmarish and bizarre scenarios inspired by things he obsesses on in his own life. These become his books -- his bread and butter, the novelistic equivalent of wide-screen splatter horror that is in high demand by the reading public.   How Frank goes from family man to drunken loner is a major part of this story, as the author unravels what is in Frank's head that causes him to write the  books he does,  as well as  the effect his writing has on those around him.    Yet, after Frank's tragic family story is revealed and Frank spirals down into personal decline,  the reader gets the sense that Frank is a guy who never really gets it, at least  until it is too late. 

Furthermore, while one of the major questions asked in this book is  whether or not authors need to take some kind of responsibility for the work they produce, it's not just about the authors.  For example, there is a scene in which Frank reluctantly tells his publisher about the death in the marina mimicking a scene in his book In the Red Zone.   The publisher's response was to see if the investigation could be held back from the press so that the release of the story would  coincide with the book launch, since the news would act as publicity and bolster sales.  The reading public is also taken to task.  And finally, there is the question of whether or not it is possible for others to keep an author's personal identity separate from his or her fictional creations.  

While there is a great deal of food for thought presented throughout this novel, and it is a definite page turner, it is also difficult not to read this book as just another work of hack-em, slash-em gratuitous violence.  It's everywhere, and Death Sentence is definitely not for the faint of heart.  The murders are graphically described, and Frank's obsessive thoughts behind his books are also rather unsettling.  And while the book can also easily fall into the crime fiction genre, the ending comes as a huge surprise. I won't divulge anything, but I walked away from this book scratching my head, thinking "what the [bleep]?" after it was all over.  

I'm ambivalent about this book. There were many things I liked about it, including the author's purposeful overuse of cliché to make several interesting points, and I thought he did a really good job with his character Frank.  I found myself turning page after page, and was unable to put the book down.  I also had a great time trying to figure out who had it in for Frank enough to do this to him, and there are many possibilities.   But on the other hand,  I am not a huge fan of graphic, shock-value violence in fiction (and this book is loaded with it), and the ending was rather weird.  I guess that one's enjoyment level is all in how you read it, so this is definitely one about which you must make up your own mind.

Friday, November 4, 2011

about Eduardo Sacheri's The Secret in Their Eyes

If you're curious, I actually finished this book before I left to go to Seattle shortly before Halloween, but left it home by mistake.  I'm home Tuesday, so I'm hoping to get to this one before the end of next week.  In the meantime, it's SUCH A GOOD BOOK I couldn't put it down.  More later, but for now, if you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Ashes, by Sergios Gakas

MacLehose Press, 2011
translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
320 pp

Ashes is set in Greece, and is a story that focuses on a country falling apart, in part due to its often morally-bankrupt caretakers as well as other forces that have sent society spiraling down into a decline from which it may or may not recover.   As a social commentary, it's a winner, and as a novel of crime fiction, it's also pretty awesome.

As the novel opens two things are going on in Athens: preparations are underway for the Olympic Games, and a rather non-descript house burns down, taking with it the lives of a young woman and her three-year-old daughter. The fire also sends a former actress by the name of Sonia Varika to the hospital with severe burns.  Sonia once played Medea, but her career began to slide as she turned to alcohol, leading her to live a more quiet and lonely life away from the crowds and former acquaintances.  When the fire is deemed to have been the result of arson, Police Col. Chronis Halkidis asks to take charge of the case, even though he works in internal affairs.  His chief owes him a favor, and grants him permission to take on the investigation.  One of the first things he does is to contact the owner of the house, lawyer Simeon Piertzovanis, who, along with Halkidis, has a personal involvement with the actress.  Both of these men have self-destructive tendencies, and while both agonize through their respective feelings of guilt,  they turn to revenge against those responsible.   The case is just starting to get somewhere when Halkidis is informed  that the word from above is that the case is over, but as he tries to discover who's put the lid on his investigation,  things actually begin to heat up. 

Told through three distinct voices -- of Halkidis, Piertovanis, and Sonia (now laying in a coma in a hospital bed), Ashes is probably the first crime novel I've ever read where the entire story is analogous to the story of a society in crisis. Certainly many authors have used the vehicle of crime fiction to vent their displeasure with the existing social and political systems of their own respective countries, but Gakas has elevated this trend into a story that transcends individual nations, relevant almost anywhere.   As the country faces a downhill slide into ruin, the forces that have sent it that far are mirrored in the novel's characters and in the story of these deaths:  drugs and alcohol take their respective tolls; Halkidis finds himself  hamstringed  as politics and corruption triumph over justice and truth; even the church is not spared and has a  role in this story; money is king and those that have it will stop at nothing until they have more, while those who don't have it seek their share by doing whatever it takes to get paid.   Seriously, change the names and the place and this could be a novel about any other nation in the current global climate.

If you're thinking about reading this one, and you're not so much into the allegory of it all, the crime aspects of the novel are also done quite well.  Each step of the case reveals new connections in the crime, and the actual solving of the case takes Halkidis, Piertovanis and a couple of other characters into some rather humorous situations that allow the reader breathing space away from all of the intensity of the personal tragedies at work here.   At the same time, the reader's desire to know who did this horrible thing and why grows at each new revelation, as does the  atmosphere of suspense crafted by the author.   And while the ending is a bit depressing, it's totally appropriate to the overall story. Although one could argue (and hope, for that matter)  that maybe all will not be as it seems, considering  alternative connotations of the word ashes -- you know, phoenix rising and all that.

I really liked Ashes; sadly had it not been on Euro Crime's CWA International Dagger eligibility list, I probably would never have read it.   What a tragedy that would have been! This book probably won't be to everyone's taste in crime fiction, but if you like a social commentary in your crime, this one will be definitely right up your alley. It's also extremely intelligently written, and could easily be appropriate for more  "literary"-minded  fiction devotees as well as for crime fiction readers.

crime fiction from Greece

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two by Håkan Nesser: The Inspector and Silence and The Unlucky Lottery

Mantle/Pan Macmillan, 2010 (UK edition)
originally published as Kommissarien och tystnaden, 1997
translated by Laurie Thompson
343 pp.

"... there was really only one foolproof method of kick-starting an investigation that had come to a dead end: drink a pint of whiskey and four beers, and when you've gone to bed it's guaranteed that within twenty minutes the phone will ring and you'll be saddled with another corpse."

I actually bought this last year and shelved it before reading it. I must have been having a bad day or something -- or one of those forgetful moments that scare the crap out of me.  When I got my copy of The Unlucky Lottery just recently, I started reading it and realized that something was off. I remember thinking "now how did we get to this point?" and the light bulb over my head clicked on.  Down goes The Unlucky Lottery, postponed until I could go back a year to The Inspector and Silence.  I must say, reading this one immediately before Unlucky Lottery was a smart choice -- the two meshed together so perfectly.

Left to man the Sorbinowo police station while the chief takes time off to get over the death of his wife, Sergeant Merwin Kluuge isn't expecting much trouble in this bit of paradise.  But it's not long until he receives an anonymous call from a woman claiming that a little girl has disappeared from a camp in Waldingen  run by the Pure Life religious sect.  The people at the camp say everyone's accounted for.  The next day he gets yet another anonymous phone call from the same woman, who threatens to go to the press if Kluuge doesn't do something.  But what sends him into a minor panic, and has him reaching for the phone to call the Mardaam police is when she says that if continues to do nothing, "they'll kill some more."  His chief had left orders not to be disturbed and to call Maardam if anything came up, because Van Veeteren owed him.  Of course, V.V. is not happy about this, since he's bought a plane ticket for Crete, but off he goes to Sorbinowo.  But when he gets to the Pure Life camp, the group will hardly give him the time of day, and swear that no one's disappeared. He's allowed to talk to some of the girls, but they're not saying much.  The next day, the body of a young girl is discovered -- she had been raped and murdered.  But Van Veeteren realizes that something's off -- he recognizes the dead girl as one of those to whom he had just spoken to the day before.   So if she had been alive the day before, how could she be the missing girl the caller warned about earlier?  So what happened to that girl? It isn't long until Van Veeteren and the police get their answer.  Complicating the issue is the fact that the small group at the Pure Life camp, with the exception of one girl who is very upset, is not talking.  No matter how much Van Veeteren and the others question them, nobody is saying a word -- or when they do, it's to extol the virtues of their religious beliefs and to put down those living in "the Other World."   The leader, Yellinek, has disappeared; no one knows anything about it -- or if they do, they're not saying anything.  Frustrated, Van Veeteren knows that this case will not be easy to crack -- first he has to break through the wall of silence. 

This is a fascinating book, actually, one that showcases V.V. at his best.  While he pleads with the members of Pure Life to offer up any information they can to help find the murder and rapist of two young girls, nobody seems to care about anything except maintaining the integrity of the sect and defending their missing leader.  Small wonder that he has his eye on trading years of police work for a partnership in an antiquarian book store -- seriously, you can sense his frustration leaping off of the pages.   Although the crimes in The Inspector and Silence are particularly horrifying, Nesser as usual uses some moments of sarcasm and humor to ease the tension.  He also continues the tradition of great characterization and a powerful sense of place, elements that never waver throughout any of his novels.  While many people said they didn't care for this book, I thought it was one of the better ones in the series.

Definitely recommended for Scandinavian crime fiction readers, but do start with book one in the series.  The Van Veeteren novels really are more on the cerebral, rather than the action-packed side, so if you're looking for someone a la Nesbø or Stieg Larsson, you won't find it here -- and this begs the question as to why on the cover of my copy there is a blurb from the Sunday Times saying "[Nesser] is being favorably compared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson."  Nesser doesn't need to compare favorably -- he has his own style which is every bit as good or even better than the authors with whom he is "being favorably compared." 

Mantle/Pan Macmillan (uk version), 2011
originally published as Münsters Fall, 1998
translated by Laurie Thompson
438 pp

"Something had come home after a long, long journey."

With The Unlucky Lottery, I've now read all of Nesser's books that have been translated into English, and I must say, they are among the finest novels of crime fiction coming out of Scandinavia. Sadly now I have to bide my time until the next one is translated and published.  This novel offers its reader an intriguing mystery or two, a compelling story and absolutely some of the best characterizations in the genre. 

The story begins when four older men realize they've won 20,000 euros in the lottery, to be split four ways.  First, though, the plan is to go out for a "knees-up in Capernaum" to celebrate.  By the end of the evening, Waldemar Leverkuhn will go home very drunk and tumble into his bed.  By  the time his wife sees him again, he'll be dead, with over twenty stab wounds in his body,  soaking in his own blood.   And just as the police are getting into their investigation, two other events of interest occur: one of the Leverkuhn's neighbors disappears and one of the original four lottery winners goes missing as well.  Munster and his colleagues have their hands full trying to sort out this case, which takes one twisty turn after another, but they are left to do it with only a minimum amount of help from Van Veeteren, who is  on a year's leave of absence. His trusty assistant Reinhart is also away on paternity leave.  It's up to those officers who previously have been more or less on the sidelines of Nesser's other novels to solve the case.

Although murder and mayhem abound, and the book's focus is on the crime and its solution, Nesser also uses this space to explore other topics, especially the toll that police work puts on his characters' lives.  Van Veeteren, of course, has had enough, and is "focused on beauty and pleasure nowadays" in a wing-backed chair in an antiquarian book store, yet he offers his help once in a while, putting his "oar in," as a friend calls it.  Münster's family life is beginning to suffer as his work keeps him away from home and his wife realizes that there has to be more to their lives.  Moreno finds herself putting work at a distance as she deals with ending a long-term ongoing relationship with her boyfriend.  Nesser also goes back to what seems to be a favorite pastime of his -- examining how past events play a role in shaping an individual's psyche, and above all, the nature of justice: what the police call murder, someone else may call retribution -- it's all a matter of perspective.

The book has a rather chilling twist, which gives the reader pause to think about deeds and consequences, about justice and about the reader's own ideas about the rightness or wrongness of one's actions given certain circumstances.  I love books like this -- far from just a series of events that take you from point a to point b, from the crime to the solution, there's another layer inserted between the lines that gives the reader pause to think about his or her feelings on the matter.  Not that I don't like a good, old-fashioned point a to point b kind of crime novel sometimes, because I do, but this extra layer of self examination elevates this book from just another novel of crime fiction out there on the shelves.

The Unlucky Lottery is absorbing, and scattered throughout is a bit of sarcastic humor, another trademark of Nesser's writing.  Getting nit-picky here, I have to question the validity of using tape recordings of psychoanalytic therapy that someone just hands over to the cops -- Maardam may be a fictional place, but it seems to me that the laws of doctor-patient confidentiality are pretty standard everywhere, so this part did not ring true at all, and it seemed to be a rather unfair ploy the author used to further the story.  And perhaps the characters' lives are a little too much in depth for most readers of crime fiction -- I like good character development, but let's move along already in some cases! Other than those minor issues that bugged me a bit, The Unlucky Lottery is another awesome book -- but I must say, I do hope Van Veeteren isn't totally sidelined in the rest of the series.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King

I'm not posting the review here, but I just finished this book and it was amazing. It falls in the historical true crime area, and if you've been considering reading this one, it's a good one.

The review I wrote can be found here; it may not be to everyone's liking, but if you're into history at all, it's definitely worth the time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

once again I am queen of the doofs -- extra copy of Hakan Nesser's Unlucky Lottery for grabs

I've been away a long time, I'm tired, my brain is overly fried from the Booker Prize Longlist and to be quite blunt, I am having trouble remembering which book I'm ordering from which online bookstore.  So now I have an extra copy of Nesser's newest book, The Unlucky Lottery.  If anyone wants it, it's free to you ... just be the first to comment.

Cell 8, by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

Quercus, 2011 (UK Edition)
originally published as Edward Finnigans Upprättelse, 2006
translated by Kari Dickson
458 pp
(not yet available in the US)

Sliding in between the Roslund-Hellstrom writing duo's Box 21 and their award-winning Three Seconds at number three in the Ewert Grens series,  Cell 8 is by far much different than anything else these authors have yet produced.   For one thing, a great deal of the action takes place in the U.S.; for another, the subject matter is extremely controversial, and will keep crime-fiction readers  debating the main issue for a long while, especially here in America.

John Schwarz is a family man, living with his wife and young son in Stockholm.  He is employed as a band singer on the Åbo ferry between Stockholm and Finland, and one night while he's at work, in the middle of a song, he sees a drunk passenger give some unwanted attention to a young woman on the dance floor.  Thinking about the two women in his life (one from an earlier time, one his wife), he sees red, loses his temper, and before he knows it, he's beating up the passenger, ending with kicks to his head, landing the guy in the hospital.  Security is called; the  Stockholm cops are there to meet him as the ferry docks in Stockholm.  He manages to avoid them and to get back to his apartment and his wife, and he knows it's only a matter of time before the police catch up to him.  When they finally have him at the station, he refuses to talk, but ultimately, routine identification procedures identify him as John Meyer Frey, an American citizen using a Canadian passport.  But there's a slight problem: John Meyer Frey died some years ago, while awaiting his execution on Death Row at a prison in Ohio.   Ewert Grens is very interested in the case, interested in seeking justice at first because he knows all too well what may lay ahead for someone suffering injuries to the brain, but later because of the sad and frustrating circumstances surrounding  the events that he had unwittingly set into motion.   There's another person interested in the Schwarz case as well -- a man who has lived an empty and tormented life  after missing the retribution he had waited on for years.

While the history  of John Schwarz is an interesting story on its own,  Roslund and Hellstrom also use this novel as a platform to explore several topics related to  state-sponsored executions: the behind-the-scenes politicking involved in fanning  the flames of popular support for the death penalty; the problems inherent with the death penalty, especially the possibility of innocence in a capital case;  the obligations of nations regarding extradition policies and the politics of the national players at the highest levels, and putting all of these components together, the human toll on both sides of the issue.  The criminals in this case, really, are the politicians; the authors spare absolutely no effort getting their points and politics across.

Cell 8 is very intelligently written.  The story flashes back to the past, alternating with the present both in Sweden and the United States.   The book has obviously been very-well researched, and some of what these authors have discovered as far as their medical knowledge was amazing.   And this is a timely story as well, with the latest US execution of someone who had been convicted of killing a cop based only on the most circumstantial of evidence at trial, and whose appeals had all been exhausted prior to his death.   My problem here is with the character of Vernon Eriksen -- I did not find him to be all that credible, and when all is said and done, even with good intentions, he's probably one of the sickest examples of humanity I've ever encountered. 

This book is guaranteed  to cause a stir when it's released here in the U.S. -- in a country so divided in its opinions about the death penalty, I'm not sure how this novel is going to be received.  Be that as it may, even though this is not the authors' usual crime-fiction fare, I liked it -- beyond the story set around John Schwarz, what really impressed me was the behind-the-scenes look at  politics involved in capital cases here in the U.S., as well as the rather dodgy actions of international governments where extradition politics are concerned. While this book may be a case of  preaching to the choir, so to speak, it's still a very worthwhile read.  Don't give up on it... when it begins it's a bit confusing for a while, but hang in there.

The Devil's Disciple, by Shiro Hamao (Hamao Shiro)

Hesperus Worldwide, 2011
"The Devil's Disciple" originally published as "Akuma no deshi", 1929
"Did He Kill Them" originally published as "Kare ga koroshita ka," 1929
   in Shinseinen, 1929
111 pp.
translated by J. Keith Vincent

The Devil's Disciple is composed of two short stories: "The Devil's Disciple," and "Did He Kill Them?"  Each story is firmly planted in the noir genre, although the stories also reflect the growing movement in art and literature of the time known as "ero-guro-nansensu," or "erotic grotesque nonsense." This movement and more about the form of the two short stories is discussed in the very well-written introduction to the book written by the translator. In The Devil's Disciple, both short stories examine the nature of guilt as well as the fallibility of the law; but on a deeper level, the stories reflect the writer's fascination with the complexity of the human psyche.

The first story is entitled "The Devil's Disciple," and is the story of a man called Eizo, charged with and facing trial for murder.  The story is a letter to a prosecutor, former mentor and lover of Eizo, Tsuchida Hachiro.  The two met in their school days, and Eizo quickly fell under Tsuchida's spell.   In fact, Eizo blames his current plight on Tsuchida, saying that "If I hadn't met you when I was a boy I would never have ended up in this place.  You didn't teach me crime. But you did give me the personality of a criminal."  Eizo sets forth the actual events of the case, telling Tsuchida that although someone did die, it wasn't really a case of murder. What follows is a tragic story, all of which Eizo says was due to Tsuchida's tutelage leading Eizo to "build up a demonic philosophy."

Story number two is "Did He Kill Them," a rather twisted tale of the bloody death of a married couple in their own home.  At the scene there is only one possible suspect, Otera Ichiro, who is arrested for the crime and refuses to speak, or even file an appeal after he is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  After Otera's death, the barrister discovers a manuscript he wrote while in jail, outlining the truth of what happened that night and why he kept his silence.   Part of the story is narrated by a barrister who is addressing a group of detective novelists, reflecting a rather postmodern approach taken by Hamao in writing this piece; the other part is told through what Otera wrote in his manuscript. 

While both stories are intriguing and capture the reader's attention immediately,  "Did He Kill Them" has a much darker tone and is much more atmospheric and psychologically complex than the first. "The Devil's Disciple" has a rather twisted ending that will lead the reader to reflect mainly on the question of guilt.  I can't really go into either story in any depth without spoiling it, but considering how short these stories are, they are very intense and provide a great deal of food for thought; they also remind me a great deal of some of the stories by Tanizaki, another Japanese author whose works I enjoy immensely.    The Devil's Disciple is one of those rare books that works well both in the field of crime fiction and outside of it; it is probably one of the most literary pieces of crime fiction I've read lately.

I'd recommend this book first and foremost to people familiar with Japanese crime fiction and who enjoy  that genre's dark atmosphere, psychological complexity and in many cases,  the bizarre twists these authors love to employ.    While much of Japanese literature has these traits (Kobo Abe just popped into my head, for example) many of the crime writers from Japan really know how to get into the darkness of the soul and transform it into a work of art. Other than that audience, crime fiction readers who are more into the psychological aspects of crime would like this; if you're looking for something cozy, cute or warm and fuzzy, this is not the book for you.  A lot of Japanese crime might be seen as "weird," and this one is,  but deliciously so. 

crime fiction from Japan

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Hand That Trembles, by Kjell Eriksson

Thomas Dunne/Minotaur/St. Martin's Publishing, 2011
originally published as Den hand som skälver
310 pp
translated by Ebba Segerberg

The Hand That Trembles is really three stories woven into one.  The first strand is the story of Sven-Arne Persson, a county commissioner who in the midst of a deep depression, takes a break in the middle of a meeting, and that's the last anyone sees of him.  Some years later he is declared dead, but in reality, Sven-Arne has been in India, where he lives a very simple life tending plants in a botanical garden.  Once a year  he returns to the same restaurant in Bangalore, takes the same seat and ponders whether or not he'd made a good decision.  For the last twelve years it's been a ritual that proceeds without incident; this year, however, he is horrified when he sees someone he knew from his life in Sweden.  And that someone recognizes him.  The second storyline begins with the discovery of a severed foot wearing a sandal.  It has washed up on a beach, and as Ann Lindell works with the Osthammar police to try to figure out who the foot belongs to, she arrives in the small community of Bultudden, where the past has left its mark on the present.   Finally, back in Uppsala,  while recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor, Berglund goes to work revisiting a cold case -- the murder of Nils Dufva, who was beaten to death back in 1993.

The three plotlines are well thought out, well delivered and although the novel starts out slow, readers should not give up.  The groundwork that Eriksson lays in the first part of the novel is necessary to understanding how the past interacts with the present; it also puts the reader into the mindsets of several key characters, many of whom carry  secrets from the past.  Underneath the crimes and the police work there is an ongoing examination of loneliness and isolation, as well as a constant reminder that the past does have a direct effect on the present.  The subplots in The Hand That Tremble are well constructed, easy to follow and all tend to come together in a believable fashion, although it does take some time for the reader to put two and two together.  I think that most readers will be a bit frustrated with the length of time that it actually takes to get to a point where something actually happens. That was my own reaction at first, to be very honest. But I came away from this book thinking that taking this attitude does a disservice to the author.

 In some cases, it's not always about the action.  Eriksson's novels, for example, are much more character driven than those of most Scandinavian writers; he's very much into developing the people who populate the story -- getting their pasts involved with their individual or collective presents -- in a very realistic way. Although sometimes I don't always agree with the amount of  development he throws into his main character, Ann Lindell (seriously...why do I as a reader care if she shaves off all of her body hair?),  character is Eriksson's forte.  He's also very good at getting underneath the politics, the social problems and their impact not only the country as a whole, but on communities and individuals as well. In this sense, he's falls more into the writing camp of Sjöwall and Wahlöö.   But I think most readers are after the action: after the popular, more action-packed novels of Nesbø, Mankell, Stieg Larsson and others, the less hectic, more character-driven stories are often written off as not being as good, or worse -- as boring.  That's not the case here, but because of the fast-paced, more gritty content  of what many readers of the above-mentioned authors  have become accustomed to enjoying, some people will not appreciate this book as fully as it should be appreciated.  That is a definite shame. There is a real variation of writing styles among authors of Scandinavian crime fiction, and that is something to keep in mind while reading. 

Other than hoping that Lindell finds someone soon because her love life issues are getting old and grating on my nerves, I actually enjoyed this novel, and I'd definitely recommend it. 

crime fiction from Sweden

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Demon of Dakar, by Kjell Eriksson

Minotaur Books/St. Martin's, 2009
originally published as Mannen från bergen, 2005
translated by Ebba Segerberg
361 pp

The Demon of Dakar is Kjell Eriksson's seventh book in the Ann Lindell series.  There are a total of ten novels in this series, four of which have been translated into English (listed in bold print below).

Den upplyste stigen (1999) /The Illuminated Path
Jorden må rämna (2000) /The Earth Must Crack
Stenkistan (2001) /The Stone Coffin
Prinsessen av Burundi (2002) / The Princess of Burundi, 2006
Nattskärran/ The Night Jar (2003)
Nattens grymma stjärnor (2004)/The Cruel Stars of the Night, 2007
Mannen från bergen (2005)/ The Demon of Dakar, 2008
Den Hand Som Skälver (2007)/ The Hand that Trembles, 2011
Svarta lögner, rött blod (2008)/ Black Lies, Red Blood
Öppen grav (2009)/ Open Grave

The Demon of Dakar is a police procedural set in Uppsala, Sweden where the author makes his home.  Ann Lindell is a detective inspector  in the violent crimes division of the Uppsala Police, and she's also a single mom of one little boy. 

Although the action of this novel takes place in Sweden, it begins with the story of Manuel Alavez, who is on his way from Mexico  to Sweden to visit his brother Patricio.  Patricio and his brother Angel got caught up in a drug-smuggling operation; Angel was killed and Patricio was imprisoned.  Manuel needs to know exactly what happened, why Angel died.  Two men, a  "fat one," and a "tall one," had come to Oaxaca to recruit  poor campesinos into smuggling drugs, tempting them with large amounts of money.  They had promised Patricio ten thousand dollars, even if he was caught, and as Patricio notes, that sum was the equivalent of over "seven thousand hours of work." Manuel wants that money; if his brother won't take it, it will go to his mother back in Mexico. Manuel discovers that the big man is the owner of a restaurant in Uppsala  called Dakar, and goes by the name of Slobodan Andersson; the tall one is Armas, his partner. 

Lindell and her team become involved when the body of a man is found. His throat has been cut, and the only evidence of his identity was in the remnant of a tattoo which had been sliced off of the body.  The tattoo nags at Lindell, who knows that its removal is an important clue.  But before she can identify the tattoo, the body is given a name -- Armas, which leads Lindell to Dakar and to Slobodan Andersson. Armas' death sparks a long chain of events, and as the police keep investigating, they begin to realize that there are connections between all of them that will lead them to the killer, hopefully long before anyone else turns up dead. The reader knows who's behind it all, and we watch, waiting for the police to find that one link in the chain to give the killer a name.

There are many good things about this novel, such as the character portrayals and the fun in waiting for the police to gather all of the information they need to catch the murderer.  What strikes me the most, however, is the question that Eriksson is asking here about the nature of justice.  I can't really go into much detail about this, but I have to say, I found myself wondering about how much I cared for the killer.  Normally I'm gung-ho  for the police to get the guy, but this time I was hoping he'd get away.  But considering all that is good about this book, this is probably my least favorite of the three Lindell novels I've read so far.  First, there is WAY too much going on in here.  Subplot after subplot after subplot wrecked it for me.  It's not as tight or concise as the other two novels and a lot of minor characters' personal lives got in the way. And then there's this: I'm reading along, enjoying the story and just after the killer's reflections on his encounter with Armas,  immediately afterwards read this:

"It sometimes happened that Ann Lindell woke up beautiful... She stretched out in bed as if to identify her limbs, and really fell that all of the parts of her body belonged together.  That it was she, Ann, who lay there, half awake, half lingering in sleep, still brushing the dram that was perhaps the source of her well-being.  The warmth under the covers did her good. She almost always slept nude, in contact with her body. Sometimes she kept her panties on, with a mixed feeling and need for protection.  She did not know how she should describe the feeling but she didn't care..." 
etc. Then a quick switch to the police station.  This threw me off track, truth be told, and I was left pondering why that little part is even in there other than for more character development.  It was very jarring, and disconcerting, and totally disrupted my reading flow. 

Overall, it's a good book, not great, and I think that the story could have been told much more efficiently and cleanly than it was. If I had to give a one-word impression of how I feel about this book -- it would be "muddled."  That is not to say I didn't like it, because I did, and I definitely recommend it. And to answer the question of whether or not I'd read another book by Eriksson, I've already started The Hand that Trembles. Many people have given Demon of Dakar a two-thumbs-up and four- and five-star reviews, so it's once again probably me. I'm discovering that I'm a very tough audience.
crime fiction from Sweden

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie!!!

In honor of Agatha Christie's birthday, and as a part of the Agatha Christie birthday celebration at Mysteries in Paradise, I offer my most heartfelt thanks to this incredible woman for making me a mystery/crime fiction lover, and for providing me with endless hours of entertainment over the course of a lifetime.  There is no other author about whom that is true.

I especially thank her for Miss Jane Marple, my favorite Agatha Christie character.  I love Jane Marple; if she were real I would probably have wanted her to be my favorite great aunt.  The things we could talk about!  But she's not real; she's just a figment (although a rather endearing one) of the incredible imagination of Agatha Christie.  So as a tribute to this fictional character, and to Agatha Christie from whose brain she emerged (and whose birthday I am commemorating),  I give you...

An Ode to Miss Jane Marple
(in limerick form)

In a village an elderly sleuth
has a penchant for finding the truth
Miss Jane Marple's her name
Human nature her game
And it's murder she finds most uncouth

With needles and yarn as a cover,
quite close to the crime she will hover
while knitting and purling,
her keen mind is whirling,
the truth she will seek to discover

At the Vicarage or Gossington Hall
or wherever a body might fall
you will find dear Miss Jane
(the cops think she's a pain)
so beware knaves and murderers all!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Pledge, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

University of Chicago Press, 2006
originally published as Das Versprechen, 1958
translated by Joel Agee
172 pp.

" many factors mess up our clear schemes, that success in in our business very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favor. Or against us."

The Pledge is my final entry (for time reasons) in my little mini-series I call "What Would Montalbano Read," based on books and authors found in my reading of Camilleri's novels.  I had planned to do more, but I have a stockpile of other crime fiction I want to get through, fun as this has been.   The Pledge is a novel of one man's obsession; it is at the same time a  critique of writers who pen detective fiction and mysteries.   There's no heart-pounding plot here, just a very smooth narrative of a detective's obsession with solving a case based on a promise he made.  And though it was written a very long time ago, it is still a novel of great quality, 5-star reading material. 

Set in Switzerland, the story begins with a writer (presumably Dürrenmatt himself) who has been invited to give a talk on the art of writing detective stories.  It is poorly attended because of a competing talk on Goethe, but one of those who came is a Dr. H., the former chief of police in the canton of Zurich.  After a few Johnnie Walkers, Dr. H. offers to take the writer back to Zurich the next day.  Once the  hair-raising ride through the fog- and snow-covered mountains is over,  and after a stop for gas, Dr. H. begins to tell his passenger that he never thought too highly of detective novels:

"You set your stories up logically, like a chess game: here's the criminal, there's the victim, here's an accomplice, there's a beneficiary; and all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy." 
Continuing, he chides the author for not taking the element of chance into account in his stories, and proceeds to relate an amazing story to make his point.  

One of Dr. H.'s best men, Inspector Matthäi,described by Dr. H. as a genius, is leaving the police department to take a job in Jordan reorganizing the Jordanian police, a  highly prestigious position for himself and a move that puts a feather in the cap of the local police.   But as he's set to leave, he becomes involved in investigating the murder of a little girl.  At his meeting with the girl's parents, he makes a promise "on his eternal salvation"  that the police will find whoever did this.  That pledge ultimately turns out to be Matthäi's undoing.    The police arrest the peddler who discovered the body, and after his interrogation, he makes a confession and commits suicide.  The case is closed.  Matthäi begins to wonder if perhaps the police had the wrong suspect and that perhaps the girl's killer is still out there.  At this point,  he gives up his promising new career to make good on his promise, sets a carefully-thought out  trap, and because of a random act of chance, his obsession turns to self-destructing  mania. (Note: this is not actually a spoiler; I'm just glossing over in an outline here).

Matthai's story  is ultimately a symbol of the futility of assuming that a) reason alone can bring order to the world and b) reason is the only vehicle for the understanding of reality.  Dürrenmatt explains  that when one's perception of reality is colored by his reason, he fails to take into account  random acts of chance that arise in any given situation.  When reality doesn't conform to one's calculations,  a line is crossed and that rationality just breaks down. But according to Dürrenmatt, in the hands of the detective novelist, Matthai's story  would ignore the random elements that exist and

"Matthai would actually find a murderer, one of your comical saints, some sectarian preacher with a heart of gold who is, of course, innocent and utterly incapable of doing anything evil, and just for that reason, by one of your more malicious inventions, he would attract every shred of suspicion the plot has to offer.  Matthai would kill this poor soul, all his proofs would be confirmed, whereupon we at headquarters would take the happy detective back into our fold and celebrate him as a genius.  That's another conceivable version."

Granted, he understands the reader's need for justice to prevail in the long run, but his point is that the detective novelist may be the greatest deceiver of all:

"You can't come to grips with reality by logic alone... You don't try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world.  That world may be perfect, but it's a lie."

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough -- anyone who reads or writes crime  fiction ought to give it a go. The device of framing a critique of detective novelists within the context of  a detective novel is sheer genius. But even better, it provides a lot of food for thought for those of us who love crime fiction -- what is it exactly we want in a good mystery or detective novel?  Are we content to accept the package all neatly tied in a bow when we know that in reality, not all things come to a conclusion? And what about those random elements of chance -- are they dealt with in the fiction we read?  The Pledge is absolutely stunning. Although it may have a bit of a philosophical bent that will be unappreciated by some readers, I think most people will find it fascinating.

crime fiction from Switzerland

Note: this book was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.

Dregs, by Jørn Lier Horst

Sandstone Press, 2011
originally published as Bunnfall, 2010
310 pp

Before I begin to set out my thoughts on this book, I have a question for publishers of Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English.  Why are English-speaking readers constantly having to start reading the works of new authors in this genre so late in the series? Dregs is the perfect example.  This is book number six in the William Wisting series set in Norway, leaving five novels untranslated/unpublished in English. I enjoyed this book but find it very frustrating that the only thing we really know about Wisting, his work associates, his daughter etc. etc. is what is to be found in this novel. There are little nuggets about previous cases scattered throughout this book, all of which sound incredibly interesting, all of which we've missed because we don't speak Norwegian.  Can someone please start publishing a series with book #1 so we can work our way through the series?  Thanks for listening, if you are.

It really is a shame to have missed the first five novels in this series, because Dregs is exactly what I look for when I'm reading a novel of crime fiction.  It has a good plot, enough suspects to keep the reader guessing, very little in the way of extraneous subplot, romance or main-character existentialist angst/crisis so that the reader stays focused on the crime and its solution. It is a brilliant police procedural which is all about getting to the root of the mystery at the heart of the story.

Set in Norway, the novel opens with the discovery of a tennis shoe which is rolling around at the edge of the shore.  Inside the shoe is a left foot, and much to the dismay of  Chief Inspector William Wisting, it is not the first left foot in a shoe to have washed up recently, meaning that the feet do not belong to the same people.  Certain characteristics of the shoes lead the group to consider whether or not these shoes have anything to do with four people who have recently gone missing. Three of them are elderly; the fourth, a paranoid schizophrenic, suffers from delusions of being watched and her home secretly searched by some sort of foreign intelligence organization.  And things get even more complicated as more shoes come to the shore and a body or two is found.  The killer has to be stopped, but this will not be an easy task: before the case can be solved, Wisting and his team are faced with having to unravel decades worth of secrets which someone really want to keep hidden.

This is not a high-adventure, on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of thriller, nor is it a fast-paced crime fiction with lots of subplots to be resolved. It is a very clean, intelligent and streamlined police procedural, very realistic and credible,  with very little in the story to come between the reader and his or her attention to the main plot and the investigation.  The author manages to offer an intriguing mystery that hooks the reader from the very first paragraph. He also smoothly integrates his thoughts about important social and political issues and reflects on the nature of imprisonment and punishment through the journalistic work of Wisting's daughter Line. It is very well written, although I must say I would have liked to have been better acquainted with the main characters' backstories before having to start with book six.  -sigh-

The lack of a gimmicky serial killer or high-speed thrills may turn off some readers who are used to that sort of thing in their Scandinavian crime fiction, but to me, this book borders on perfect. While those elements are fun, there's nothing like a serious, good old-fashioned police procedural for the true lover of crime and mystery fiction. In Dregs, there is a good mystery, a good plot, and good, well-timed and well-paced  progress through the investigation leading to the revelation at the end. 

Very highly recommended, and it will work for readers not only of Scandinavian crime fiction but for readers of serious, intelligent police procedurals as well.

crime fiction from Norway

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Dutton/Penguin, 2011
originally published as Kvinden i buret, 2007; published in the UK as Mercy
translated by Lisa Hartford
396 pp

Before I actually set down my thoughts on The Keeper of Lost Causes, recently I received my copy of Jørn Lier-Horst's Dregs, and while flipping through it, the thought went through my head that if I like it, I'm committing myself to yet another crime fiction series, so it had better be good.  This thought is not totally off topic re Keeper of Lost Causes, because it is also the beginning of yet another crime series, and it dawned on me that with all of these new books coming out and the amount of time it's going to take to read them, it would be nice if these new series openers brought something new to the table in the realm of crime fiction.  Et voilà -- after finishing Adler-Olsen's book, I can definitely say this book qualifies.  And I can also say that it's a series I'll definitely continue.

As is the case in many novels from Scandinavia, politics once again interferes with how the police do their jobs, and as Keeper of Lost Causes opens, the homicide division chief of the Copenhagen Police has been told that he's going to have to "provide a flying squad for hopeless cases" -- to look into cold cases that have long since been shelved.  And as it so happens, the homicide chief is all for it.  There's a budget attached (which the chief plans to appropriate),  and he has just the perfect person in mind to take it on: Detective Carl Mørck.  Mørck has recently returned to active duty after an ambush at a crime scene, where one cop was killed, one was left paralyzed and unable to walk, and Mørck himself was injured.  Now Mørck is back to work, but he comes in late, is constantly in a bad mood, and continues to blame himself for what happened.  Mørck's moods and his emotional baggage do not make for good work relations, so moving Mørck to the newly-formed "Department Q" solves a lot of problems.  Mørck takes on the job, and promptly moves to the basement, the home of Department Q, and proceeds not to care and to read and play a lot of Sudoku.  When he figures out that Department Q actually has a budget, he asks for and is given an assistant, Assad. Although his new helper is there to mainly make coffee and clean up the place, after getting rather bored with doing  a whole lot of nothing, Mørck decides to take a look through some of the cold-case files, and Assad is more than happy to help.  When they come across the five-year old case of the missing Merete Lynggaard, head of the parliamentary Health Committee, Mørck finds himself against his will slowly becoming interested.  Lynggaard has disappeared from a crowded ferry and with no clues coming to light, the original investigation ended.  But Mørck starts the case again with fresh eyes -- maybe  just in time, as it turns out.  The story switches from 2002, with the story of Merete Lynggaard to 2007 and the story of Mørck and the investigation into her disappearance, and the chapters go back and forth in time.

  While the story itself is quite good, very well told and contains a core mystery that will keep you flipping pages, what makes this book stand out are the characters, especially Mørck and Assad, and Adler-Olsen's attention to detail.   Mørck's personal life is really kind of out there, with Vigga, a rather flighty ex-wife to be whose latest desire is to have an art gallery (for which Morck will foot the bill), a stepson who lives with him rather than with his mother, and an overweight tenant named Morten who hasn't quite figured out what he wants to be when he grows up, and when not working at his video store, is Carl's housekeeper as well, the "best housewife" Carl ever had.    As a cop, Mørck's burnout is obvious, as is his sense of guilt and the fact that he's an outcast in his department.  But underneath it all, he's a top-notch detective and it is easy to tell that he's really eager to get back into the game despite what he says and how he acts.  Assad, on the other hand, is quite the enigma, and it's very obvious that there's more to him  than what's on the surface.  From little hints that are dropped throughout the story, he comes from Syria, has a cryptic past and the author never fully answers the question of who he really is -- my guess was either a criminal or a member of a secret police group or something along those lines. I expect that as the series progresses, more of these little hints will be given until a more complete picture is available.  Anyway, the dynamic between Mørck and Assad  develops over the course of the novel, moving from Assad as a kind of errand boy/office cleaner to Assad as a partner in Carl's investigation. Assad's little surprises and Carl's reaction to them make for some funny reading moments -- including Assad's charming attitude to one of the women working in the department whom Carl lovingly calls "the she-wolf."   Even though Mørck may roll his eyes at the paper shades over the basement lights or the smell of middle-eastern food permeating the office, eventually both of these men find a mutual respect for each other and make a connection as the exiles that they truly are. 

This dynamic between the two main characters,as well as the author's amazing characterizations of the other  people who surround Carl Mørck on a daily basis definitely make for something new and intriguing to look forward to in the next book, which I hope is translated soon.   All of the hallmarks of Scandinavian crime fiction are also found in this book -- politics, social issues, etc., but when you get right down to it, the fact that there's room here and there to laugh in and among all the seriousness rounds out the story a bit more than what you'd normally find in books from this region. I'll definitely recommend Keeper of Lost Causes not just to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, but to crime fiction readers in general.   It is amazingly good.

crime fiction from Denmark

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, by Antonio Tabucchi

New Directions Publishing, 2005
originally published as La Testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro, 1997
translated by J.C. Patrick
186 pp.

Third in my little mini-series run of What Would Montalbano Read, based on novel titles and authors found in the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri.  In this context, trying to discover why Camilleri may have injected these authors and books has proved quite interesting.  It could be that he just liked them a lot and maybe I'm trying to read too much into their being in a series about a Sicilian detective, or maybe there's something about these authors and novels that resonated with Camilleri.  As it turns out, Camilleri (via his protagonist Inspector Montalbano) and Tabucchi (both in real life and through his two protagonists Firmino and Mello Sequeiro) have a great deal in common.  More on that later. 

Set in Portugal of the 1990s, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro was inspired by  a real event: the discovery in 1966 of a headless corpse in a park.  As it turned out,  the dead man had been killed in a police station in Lisbon; his tortured body was later dumped.  The novel is at the same time a story of murder and a commentary on several social, political and philosophical issues -- none the least of which is torture and moral decay. 

 As the novel opens, a gypsy named Manolo who lives  in an encampment outside of Oporto has discovered a body with no head.  Meanwhile, in Lisbon, a young journalist writing for the tabloid  O Acontecimento (whose motto is "What every citizen needs to know")  is summoned by his editor to go to Oporto and cover the story.  The journalist, Firmino, would rather be spending the time in the library working on research for his study of the Post-War Portuguese novel, but has no choice but to do as he's told.  Off he goes to Oporto, and through the connections of a certain Dona Rosa who owns a pension where Firmino is staying, he is put in touch with Manolo the Gypsy.   The only real thing Manolo can tell him is that the corpse was wearing a t-shirt with the words "Stones of Portugal" on the front.   Following up that clue, Firmino discovers that the dead man is one Damasceno Monteiro, who has been missing for a few days.  Further investigation reveals that he was smack in the middle of a plot to rip off some heroin dealers, the likely reason he had to die. This leads Firmino to a shady disco, prostitution, and drug trafficking.  As more facts become known,  Firmino's boss wants him to make contact with a lawyer named Mello Sequeiro, aka Don Fernando -- who has dedicated himself to championing the cause of the unfortunates, those who because of upper-class families like his, have been historically mistreated and oppressed.  He's also a  a  believer in the power of the  pen as a vehicle for publicizing corruption and abuse in its many forms, which is why he is there to guide Firmino in his reporting.

While The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro is definitely a story of murder, it's not really a typical mystery.  The clues are found easily, and while Firmino is nosing out the story, his mind is on its publication rather than on himself as a detective-type figure.  The story is told largely from Firmino's point of view, although there are a few exceptions.  The discovery of the body by Manolo the Gypsy, the occasional news reports published in Firmino's tabloid, and a staticky recording of a trial toward the end all stand alone.   The characters, with the exception of a few main people, are all sort of on the periphery -- and the story is told so that there isn't much development of those individuals. But it doesn't really matter --  while the focal point that brings all of these people together is definitely the murder of Damasceno Monteiro, it's the dialogues between Firmino and Don Fernando that establish the importance of the novel.  They allow the reader to ponder the relationship between literature, the law and the reality of what goes on in those institutions that exist for the public's protection.   While Firmino wants nothing more than to return to studying literature, Don Fernando believes that literature is at its most valuable when a writer takes up his pen to take action against torture and other injustices -- to disturb people's psyches enough to let them know that these things really happen where they live. After obsessing over legal theory  for years, Don Fernando's  moved beyond study to practice -- defending those who are victims.   And it's not just the victims of torture he's defending or representing -- there are others who are on the downtrodden side of life that he cares about as well, like the Gypsies, who are victims of society's xenophobia and racism.

And this brings me full circle back to Andrea Camilleri, who put Tabucchi into Montalbano's hands.  Like Don Fernando, Montalbano often champions the underdog, and in his work, he's come across police corruption and has experienced  the reluctance of ordinary citizens to speak up and help him with his investigations.  He also has an ally in the press, which allows him to get out information pertinent to a crime.  But when all is said and done, Tabucchi and Camilleri both use their literature to express their views on corruption, the network of connections that exist that allow the wrong people to circumvent the law, and they are both against racism and xenophobia. 

As a crime novel, it's not so much a whodunit or a whydunit ...the answers to these questions  are conveyed very close to the beginning.  And there's a lot of theoretical discussion going on, so if that's not your thing, you may get very bored very quickly. But if you hang in there, there's definitely a message involved in all of this madness. 

I liked the book, and ironically, I lost the same book twice and had to order a new copy -- for a while there The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro had to stay missing until I could replace it.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the importance of literature as a medium for change or social & political awareness. 

crime fiction from Italy