Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Snowman, by Jo Nesbø

Vintage Books, 2010
originally published as Snømannen, 2007
translated by Don Bartlett
550 pp.

The Snowman is Nesbø's fifth book to be translated into English, and once again features Harry Hole, a detective working for Oslo's crime squad.  If you want to know more about Harry Hole, the official Jo Nesbo website features Hole's CV, as well as a link to all of the books in the series.  The Snowman is a novel of Scandinavian crime fiction, and my cover has a little sticker on it that says  "The Next Stieg Larsson," but don't believe it. The two are completely different in terms of their writing styles and subjects. Plus, as I've been known to ask before, who exactly made Stieg Larsson the be all and end all of Scandinavian crime fiction? In my humble opinion, Nesbø is the better writer.

The novel begins in 1980, with a young mother having an afternoon fling at her lover's home. Then flash forward and it's 2004, and a young Jonas Becker wakes up to find that there's no one in the house.  His father had gone off to give a lecture in Bergen a day earlier; his mom Birte was there when he went to bed, but now he can't find her anywhere.  Deciding to go to the neighbor's house, he notices that the snowman that had been built in his yard (not by anyone in his family) is now wearing the scarf he'd given his mother for Christmas.  Hole gets the case, and immediately links it in his mind to an earlier case, still unsolved, where a housewife had gone missing  after dropping off her children at a nursery.  Then Harry reveals that he had received an anonymous letter two months earlier that said:

Soon the first snow will come. And then he will appear again. The snowman. And when the snow has gone, he will have taken someone else. What you should ask yourself is this: 'Who made the snowman? who makes snowmen? who gave birth to the Murri? For the snowman doesn't know.'

The mention of the Murri, at least in Harry's mind, makes him believe that a serial killer is at work, because the letter makes reference to a serial killer that Hole had once killed in Australia.  His colleagues aren't so convinced, because Norway's never had a serial killer, but when another woman turns up missing and another snowman is left behind, it begins to look like Harry was right.  The problem is that Hole and the squad have to come up with some link between the missing women that puts them into the killer's sights.  The investigation takes on several twists and turns and adds several suspects, until Harry has to finally take a step back from the feeling he's getting that someone is trying to manipulate him in terms of the case, that he is "part of someone's plan."  At the same time, Harry's got his hands full -- his apartment is going through mold and fungus abatement and his personal life is in its usual angst-ridden condition.  His professional life is right on the edge as his bosses are watching him because of his alcoholism.  Rakel is getting ready to be married.  And there's a new member of the crime squad, Katrine Bratt, who seems to be a perfect match for Harry until she starts unloading some of the unseen baggage she brought along with her.

The Snowman is definitely one of the biggest nail biters in the Harry Hole series.  Not only does the plot have some great twists, but Nesbo spends a great deal of time building up the suspense and getting into the heads of his characters, trying to discover what makes them tick. That may be my favorite part of this series -- Nesbo is great at characterizations throughout all of his novels.  There are a few gruesome scenes in the story, but nothing that seasoned crime fiction veterans haven't seen before.   It is most definitely an edgy and suspenseful book, one I couldn't put down once I started. I have to confess that I found  the ending of the novel to be a bit over the top, but on the other hand, it did  fit well with the rest of the story.  I also must say that I figured out the "who"  before the cops did, but that's okay. The fun is in the getting there, and it was a very wild ride.

  I highly suggest that readers who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Nesbø's series start with The Redbreast (not the first in the series, but the first to be translated into English) and move on from there in order.  Although The Snowman could be read as a standalone, it's much better read as part of the series, especially because of the ongoing development of the characters. If you don't end up with a "wow" going through your mind as you read through it, let's just say I'll be very surprised.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo

Pantheon Books
Originally published as Abril Rojo, 2006
translated by Edith Grossman

"This place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever"

Red April is a mix of political thriller, whodunit and a commentary on the misuse of power in a nation teeming with corruption.  It is a novel steeped in violence and death, often gruesome in detail, and takes place largely  in the city of Ayacucho, Peru. The year is 2000,  when the official line is that "terrorism was eradicated and contines to be eradicated at the present time, " referring to the ongoing series of wars between the military and the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path.  Like many other works of translated crime fiction, there's more than just a mystery at the heart of this book -- most notably, there's the question of an uncertain future for Peru and its people.

Félix Chacaltana Saldívar (Chalcatana) the main character of this novel, had requested and received a transfer to Ayacucho (which means "Place of the dead")  from Lima in his role as a prosecutor.  For most people, this would have been a step backward, or perhaps a demotion, but for Chacaltana, it's a return to his boyhood home. Leaving behind a bad marriage, he jumps into his work with gusto. Punctilious and pedantic by nature, he knows every law, is familiar with every procedure and spends his days writing reports. Normally, the prosecutor's office took care of cases of "drunken fights or domestic abuse, at the most some rape," but a  case comes up in which a man is found dead in a most horrendous manner and lands on Chacaltana's desk.  After some investigation of the case, the prosecutor makes what might be a connection to terrorist activity, but the military government wants him to keep quiet and tell no one, because despite Chacaltan's protests,  "nobody wants to hear about terrorists in Ayacucho":
Look Chacaltana, I'll be totally frank with you, and I hope this is the last time we talk about this subject. The police are controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, and the interior minister is a military man.  Doesn't that tell you something?....Our duty is to shut up and do what we're told. Is it so difficult to get that into your head? Listen, I have no interest in helping you because I don't feel like it. But even if I did want to help you, I couldn't. So don't get me involved in this because you'll fuck up my promotion. Please, I'm begging you! I have a family! I want to go back to Lima! ... Why don't you write a report and close the case once and for all? ...this is an emergency zone. A large part of the department is still classified as a red zone. Laws are legally suspended.

Not only are elections just around the corner, and there are promotions at stake, but Ayacucho is in the midst of Holy Week, which means tourists and massive celebrations.  But Chacaltana isn't to be mollified, and when a second murder is discovered, he is sent to the countryside to monitor the upcoming elections, obviously to get him out of the way.  And even though on his return he finds himself with no work to do "not even an indictment, not even a memorandum," he remains dedicated to solving the case.  The problem is that as the celebrations get into full swing, so does the killer, and eventually Chacaltana finds himself caught up in a situation where he doesn't know who to believe or who to trust.

 Red April is not a tame crime thriller that you can read, put away and forget.  The author paints his scenes with often graphic violence, and at times the reality of the situation is read as though the reader is caught up in a surreal vision.  For example, the description of Yawarmayo, the rural area to where Chacaltana is sent as an election supervisor, is as disturbing as the descriptions of the mutilated bodies.  When he arrives in the countryside, he is greeted by the sight of dead dogs that have been strung up on streetlights wearing signs that say "This is how traitors die."  Explosions in the dead of night are commonplace, along with "howls from the hills." And the reaction of the townspeople? When Chacaltana asks if this is normal, he's told "No. They're pretty calm today." In fact, the entire atmosphere of this book is rather terrifying, all the more so because of the reality beneath the fiction.

The author's depiction of the situation in Peru is bleak:

Ayacucho is a strange place. The Wari culture was here, and then the Chancas, who never let themselves be conquered by the Incas. And then the indigenous rebellions, because Ayacucho was the midway point between Cuzco, the Inca capital, and Lima, the capital of the Spaniards. And independence in Quinua. And Sendero. This place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever....Why? I have no idea. It doesn't matter.
The author has done a most excellent job of transmitting the realities of this most frightening political situation to his readers, most of whom will never be caught up in this sort of horror.

I found it to be an engrossing read that I couldn't put down.  Even though it was difficult to read at times because of its gruesome depictions and its dark and often claustrophobic atmosphere, it's a story that needed telling.  Definitely recommended, but not for readers of light crime.