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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Does anyone want a copy of Keeper of Lost Causes??

I somehow ordered two of these and only need one. If anyone would like my copy gratis, just leave a comment. First person takes it and I'm happy to mail international.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anger Mode, by Stefan Tegenfalk

Nordic Noir Books/Massolit Publishing, 2011
originally published as Vredens Tid, 2009
translated by David Evans
472 pp.

It's difficult to stick Anger Mode into a single pigeonhole.  It starts out as a murder mystery and police procedural, then adds the political thriller element, spends some time in the conspiracy-thriller category, and to top it all off, it's a cliff-hanger to be continued in the next installment of this series, Project Nirvana. The blurb in the back of the book notes that the series featuring main character Walter Gröhn is actually a trilogy, so any loose ends in the first two books may not be resolved until the very last. Normally, I tend not to choose books in the political/conspiracy thriller zones (which is also why I don't read many American writers who tend to crank this stuff out) but there's enough of a police/mystery element here that kept me reading, and I liked the main character. 

Without giving away any of the specifics, a series of deaths has the Stockholm County CID in a quandary.  The first death, noted by the head of the CID as a "real hot potato," occurs when a judge from the Stockholm District Court loses his temper and strangles his taxi driver to death with his belt. The case is handed to Detective Inspector Walter Gröhn, who has an "unorthodox mindset that often set aside legal conventions," yet manages to have a high rate of closed cases.  His maverick methods will probably keep him at the level of Detective Inspector until he retires, as his bosses see him as not "potty trained" or diplomatic enough to move up in the ranks.  There is no apparent motive in the taxi driver's death; even worse, the judge has only some vague idea of what actually happened, not being able to remember what would have set him off enough to commit such a crime.  Gröhn begins to realize that the case is ultimately going to be swept under the rug and is a bit disgusted.  But just when he gets started on the investigation, another murder with the same M.O. provides some interesting results during the postmortem exam, and the case is handed off to the National Security Service (SÄPO) and the Prosecutor's Office for reasons of national security.   But while the second and then a third murder allows Gröhn a path which to follow in terms of a pattern, he has to run a secret, parallel investigation because a) he's in the hospital after surgery to remove a brain tumor; b) he's learned that it's only a matter of time before he's going to be placed on indefinite suspension -- it seems he's broken the rules once too often; and c) his presence in the case is unwelcome as it is no longer a police matter. With nowhere else to turn, and a determination to solve the case, Gröhn has to trust de Brugge and another unlikely partner, a journalist with a propensity toward blackmail, to help him out while he's sidelined. The three have to work against the clock to stop whoever is behind all of the deaths before anyone else is killed.

On the plus side, Anger Mode has a wide range of well-drawn characters and the action never stops.  Gröhn's somewhat unorthodox crime-solving skills and his disdain for rules make him a likeable protagonist. He's a rebel who genuinely cares about keeping the bad guys off the streets, no matter how he has to make it happen. He has contacts on the street that owe him favors, a fact which allows him to operate under the radar and get the job done. His partner, de Brugge, is also an interesting character. She's the daughter of a shipbuilding magnate, drives a Porsche, but is sensitive to what others think of her.  Her transformation from rule- and procedure-oriented cop to working with Walter using his methods is fun to watch as the novel progresses.  Another positive aspect of this novel is the parallel investigation being run from Walter's hospital room -- it is good police work, albeit not too kosher in its execution, using a combination of old-fashioned detection and more modern methodologies to get the job done. Finally, there's never a dull moment; the action never lags. 

But on the flip side, the premise is a bit far-fetched and improbable; the book is a bit more commercial and more mainstream than I've come to expect from Swedish crime writers or from Scandinavian crime authors in general. Once the main thrust behind the crimes is revealed, the novel  sort of loses some measure of its credibility as a believable story.  Furthermore, when the case is handed off to SÄPO, the tone of the novel changes from a who and whydunit (although actually, the "why" is a bit obvious to the reader) to a political/conspiracy thriller complete with paid hit men, terrorist threats, rogue agents, and misappropriation of power.  I was a bit disappointed that the book started taking this path when there's a perfectly good crime fiction novel that got a bit lost to the roller coaster ride of events. 

Would I give the second installment a try? Sure -- I hate loose ends and I have to see what happens to Walter. I think this book is best suited to readers of political/conspiracy thrillers who are all about the action and the intrigue.   Of course, my own personal preference leads away from these sorts of novels, and many people have given this book four and five-star ratings, so there may be more to it than I realize. It's not my personal cup of tea, really, but I'd definitely suggest giving it a try.  I do predict that when this hits the US, it will sell well; people here seem to eat this kind of stuff up (including my husband). 

crime fiction from Sweden

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To Each His Own, by Leonard Sciascia

New York Review Books
originally published as A ciascuno il suo, 1966
translated by Adrienne Foulke
158 pp

(book #2 in my mini-series of posts called "What Would Montalbano Read")

 Just a brief note before I begin: if you have the NYRB edition, save the introduction until you've finished the book. It gives away a lot of plot elements within the story.


Italy is a country so blessed that for every weed they destroy, two spring up in its place.
It is very easy to understand why Andrea Camilleri would include Sciascia as an author read by Salvo Montalbano, and easier to understand how Sciascia's writings influenced those of Camilleri.  Actually, it is The Council of Egypt that comes up in one of Camilleri's novels, but To Each His Own highlights the author's exploration of the nexus of Sicilian identity, politics and criminality. And the real reason I chose this one is, truth be told, I already had To Each His Own in my tbr pile.  To Each His Own is only one of the author's long list of novels  translated into English; it is a literary, intelligent and yet unconventional novel of Italian crime fiction. And it's superb.

The story begins when the local pharmacist, Manno, receives a death threat in the mail:
"This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done, you will die." 
He waves it off guardedly as a joke, because he can't think of anything he's done to merit this kind of warning, but when he and his friend Dr. Roscio go off hunting the next day, they do not return. Only their dogs are left to announce their deaths.  The authorities make a perfunctory appearance, questioning the pharmacist's widow as to what kind of behavior could have built up such animosity that it would be worthy of revenge. Settling on the fact that he must have been killed by a jealous husband or lover because of some kind of adulterous behavior, a sort of collective fiction is born regarding the pharmacist's (unfounded) extramarital flirtations. Once that ball has started rolling and the rumors start flying, his "adulteries" become the "official" reason for his death among the locals.    Roscio's death is put down to him being the poor guy who just happened to be an innocent bystander; caught in a bad place at a bad time, the victim of Manno's "bad" behavior.  After the funerals are over,  having settled on a reason for the murders,  the townspeople turn their focus to the future of Roscio's voluptous widow, Luisa.

There is, however, one person, high-school teacher Professor Laurana, who is still thinking about what may have actually happened.  He picks up on an important clue about the threatening letter, noticing that the word "Unicuique" comes through the paper in the light.  Laurana realizes that the words "Unicuique suum" is one of the mottoes printed under the masthead of the newspaper  L'Osservatore Romano.  At this point, Laurana's vanity and curiosity compel him to follow his hunches, and then he "doggedly sets about doing so", unable to let the matter rest like everyone else.  At the same time, it becomes clear that uncovering the truth is a very personal matter rather than a means of  securing justice:
"...Laurana had a kind of obscure pride which made him decisively reject the idea that just punishment should be administered to the guilty one through any intervention of his. His had been a human, intellectual curiosity that could not, and should not, be confused with the interest of those whom society and State paid to capture and consign to the vengeance of the law persons who transgress and break it." 
Laurana is an interesting character: he lives a sheltered life with his mother and in the halls of academia.  He has a firm "belief in the supremacy of reason and candor over irrationality and silence...", even though he's a lone stranger within a culture that exemplifies the opposite. He lives in a society where truth falls victim to the ongoing maintenance of the accepted status quo by people "who have every interest in working to keep the impunity coefficient high." His curiosity is unwelcome in such a system, and along the way his need to know will turn his understanding of the real world on its head and even worse.

Although the crime fiction aspect of this book will keep the reader turning pages trying to figure out exactly what happened, the story operates on other levels as well. It is a commentary on the justice system, party politics, the Church, and other facets of Sicilian culture. And, as di Piero notes in the introduction, Sciascia 

"used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture -- the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily -- which he believed to a metaphor of the world."

One of the basic points the author makes throughout this book is that there are various levels of criminality in which we are all complicit, so in that sense, the metaphor is not too far off the mark.

Readers of more socially and politically-oriented crime fiction will like this book, as will readers of literary fiction.  It's intelligent, thought-provoking and frankly, is very high on my list of good books for the year.

crime fiction from Italy

Friday, August 12, 2011

Outrage, by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, 2011
originally published as Myrká, 2008
translated by Anna Yates
281 pp.

Number seven in this most excellent series created by Arnaldur Indridason following Hypothermia, Outrage provides the opportunity for one of the normally supplemental characters, Elinborg,  to step into a leading role.  While I enjoyed the story, and the long wait for this installment definitely paid off, at the same time, I didn't feel it had the edge to it of the previous novels in this series.  This is not to imply that the subject matter is something light or that the characters in the book deal with it in a less-than-serious attitude, or even that the core mystery is not downright chilling, because it is. But more of this later.

Erlendur, as faithful followers of this series know, has gone back to the Eastern Fjords where he grew up to pursue some personal matters.  In his absence, Elinborg catches the case of a man found with his throat cut in his apartment in the fashionable area of Thingholt in Reykjavik.  The dead man  was not only brutally murdered, but the police found a large amount of the date-rape drug Rohypnol in his jacket pocket, and some of the same drug in his own mouth and throat.   The only other clue is a woman's shawl with a marked smell, which Elinborg recognizes as masala, a mix of  Indian spices.  He is identified as Runólfur,  an employee of a local telecom company with no previous criminal record, who comes from a village that is so small that authorities are closing the one school there.  However, readers know from the first chapter that picking up women in bars with a supply of Rohypnol in his pocket is nothing new for him. As Elinborg, with the help of Sigurdur Oli, proceeds with her investigation, she realizes that solving this case will be difficult at best, hampered by both memory and the lack of it.

While Elinborg is not a new character, this is the first time in this series that she's really taken on the lead role.  She works incredibly hard to juggle life between work and home, and to find a place somewhere in the middle for herself without the constant nagging guilt she feels about her role as a parent and wife. Ties to family, both younger and older generation are very important (and also work as an ongoing theme in this novel).  Offset against Erlendur, who tends to live in a rut and is filled with a great deal of angst largely because of his attraction to the old ways (an ongoing theme in all of the previous novels) , and because he doesn't understand  the modern society in which his  own children exist,   Elinborg is much more up to date in her thinking, and the author spends a great deal of time on Elinborg's more current attitudes, especially, but not limited to, on work, family, and food.   For example, while sitting in her car doing some surveillance work, thinking about a past conversation with Erlendur,

"From where she sat Elinborg could see the dry dock of the old harbour, soon to make way for new residential developments on the former dockside. History would be erased at a stroke. She thought of Erlendur, who clung to the old ways. She did not always agree with him -- after all, progress demanded space. "

Yet  she doesn't get her son's need to blog about the family, leaving  their lives out there for anyone in cyberspace to read. 

She's definitely an interesting character, and Indridason does a fine job of presenting her as more of a two-dimensional character than we've ever seen before. But (and this is a totally personal observation here) sometimes the glimpses into Elinborg's personal life are a bit too many -- for example, a nearly one-page description on tandoori preparation where a few sentences about what constitutes the smell found on the shawl might have sufficed --  and for me detracted a bit from the otherwise compelling mysteries at the heart of this novel: who killed Runólfur, and why? What secrets are going to be uncovered within the scope of Elinborg's investigation? 

Overall, Outrage is a very good addition to the series, and I'm sure that Elinborg will make a repeat appearance as lead investigator in the future.  After all, there's already a mystery to solve, hinted at by Indridason toward the end when Elinborg receives a mysterious phone call regarding an abandoned rental car in Eskifjördur.  I'll be buying that book as well.  Recommended especially for followers of the series, or for people who are looking for a good series of crime fiction, especially from Scandinavia.

crime fiction from Iceland

Tattoo, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Serpent's Tail
originally published as Tartuaje, 1976
translated by Nick Caistor
232 pp.

My first entry in my mini-series I call "What Would Montalbano Read?", taken from the series written by Andrea Camilleri. 

Tattoo is actually the second book in the Pepe Carvalho series, following Yo maté a Kennedy of 1972.  Normally I have this compulsive need to begin with book one in any series, and even though I can read Spanish pretty fluently,  starting with Tattoo  is fine by me.  It's a mystery novel, skirting the edge of noir yet not as edgy as one would expect in that particular genre.  Although Montalbán is known to be one inspiration for Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, the main character, Pepe Carvalho, is much darker in character than Camilleri's protagonist, and this novel is not at all as lighthearted as Camilleri's in tone, although it does have its moments.

The basic story revolves around the discovery of a drowned man floating in the ocean and the search for his identity.  Shortly after the dead man is pulled on to the shore, he is turned over on his back, where onlookers discovered he had no face -- it had been eaten away by fishes.  Quickly turning him over once again, a child discovers a tattoo on his shoulder blade reading "Born to raise Hell in Hell."  Senor Ramon, a local hairdresser and businessman, hires Pepe Carvalho to discover the identity of the dead man, and "what he did in life." He refuses to explain why he wants to know this information, and is willing to pay Carvalho handsomely for his time.  The investigation will not only  lead Pepe to the Netherlands and to the seedy back streets of Barcelona, but will leave him black and blue in the process. 

Carvalho is an interesting character who touts himself as being "an ex-cop, an ex-Marxist, and a gourmet."  He also worked for the CIA at some point.  He's in love with a high-class prostitute named Charo, who he admires partly because she always "wolfed down her food like a growing adolescent," since Carvalho believes that "nobody who is indifferent to food is to be trusted."  He helps protect her prostitute friends, despising  their pimps. He has a library of some 3,500 books on his home shelves, and uses their pages for fire kindling.  In Tattoo, he burns Lain Entrago's Spain as a Problem and even Don Quixote, although he's sad to see the pictures go up in flames in Cervantes' work. He's also a consummate gourmet who loves food, eating and a good wine to go along.  Carvalho is a man of little, if any, ideals: he  works "enough to live," prefers work to politics, and could care less about technological advances his field and considers himself "not even neutral...aseptic" about politics.   But he has his negative qualities as well: he's a  blatant sexist and a little strange, tending toward violence  -- in one scene, for example, he bullies a woman into giving him information by threatening to stick her head into the fire, and then when she delivers, he takes her to bed.  I sense some complexity coming in future installments of this series, and I'm not yet sure what to make of this odd man.  I can applaud him for some things, but for others, he's disgusting.

The plot  is so-so, although the mystery aspect keeps the reader focused on the story, especially while Carvalho is in the Netherlands. Some of those scenes were downright funny while some prompted the reader to wonder why he goes through what he does there.   I mean, you want to keep reading and find out who the dead guy is, why he was killed, and above all, why his identity is important to the owner of a hairdressing shop.  The action moves quickly,  but it's Carvalho's outlook on life and on Spain that are the most interesting facets of this novel.  It makes for interesting and intriguing enough reading that I've already ordered the next one in the series, The Angst-Ridden Executive, which is also published by Serpent's Tail, and recently found a few more that I didn't realize I had  hidden on my international crime fiction tbr shelves.

Would I recommend it? Yes -- it's more than readable, with its lightly-plotted storyline and  the thread of mystery running through the novel, but beware of the oddness of Carvalho's personality in a few places.  He's definitely not a character for everyone. 

 crime fiction from Spain

Friday, August 5, 2011

Misterioso, by Arne Dahl

Pantheon Books, 2011
340 pp.
translated by Tiina Nunnally

"Misterioso...It's a play on words....There's an inaudible mist in the title. Behind the mystery, the mysterium, there's a mist.  When you say the word, you don't hear the mist.  It's hidden by the more pronounced mystery. And yet it's there and has an effect...The mystery is immediately apparent, intangible, of course, and yet physically manifest. The mist inside is harder to distinguish. But it's there in the mist that we go astray."

 Actually, the character in the book speaking these words is referring to the song "Misterioso" by the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, but this quotation is highly appropriate regarding Arne Dahl's novel of the same name.   Misterioso is another fine example of Scandinavian crime fiction, this time more of a police procedural with a few twists and turns along the way. There is definitely no measure of cutesiness to be found in this book -- it's police work through and through, and some of the scenes are a bit violent.  At the end of the book, there's a page that says that Misterioso is the first book in the Intercrime trilogy, but looking at Wikipedia, I see that there are actually eleven novels in this series, one prior to this one.  Hmmm.  Hell-o-o-o, American publishers: why only three???  I'm seriously considering learning Swedish for reading as this happens so often.

 The main focus of this novel is a group called (for lack of a better term) the "A-Unit," which is "top, top secret," answering only to the National Criminal Police (NCP).  Each member of the A-Unit is "in a position of higher authority" than those who come to his or her assistance, be it the Stockholm Police or the NCP itself.  The unit was formed largely because of the frustration over the failed attempts to solve the real-life case of the murder of Olof Palme after years of investigations that got nowhere for a number of different reasons.  The A-Unit is desperately needed at the moment: a serial killer is out there committing a series of crimes labeled by the press as "The Power Murders,"  so named because he or she is targeting some of Sweden's high-powered business leaders.  This is a top-priority case.  The killer leaves very little behind: two bullets, removed from the wall after the deed is done. Then he sits back on the sofa and listens to the Theolonius Monk song "Misterioso" on tape.  The A-Unit must stop the killer before he can strike again, a task easier said than done, because of the number of investigative paths the Unit is following. 

The main character of the novel is Paul Hjelm, whose career is about to be trashed after he intervenes in a hostage situation. A Kosovar Albanian  is holed up at the Immigration office, angry because after he and his family waited for years for their citizenship, he recently found out he was being deported and snapped.  Although Hjelm is hailed by the press as a hero, his department wonders if he's got a racist, anti-immigrant bent, which in Sweden's current political climate, would look bad for the police department. As Hjelm waits for the curtain to come down on his career as he is made an example of, he is snatched up by the NCP and dropped into the A-Unit, where he works with some of the best crime-fighting minds in the country.

Misterioso  is well-written, the characters are interesting with varied personalities, especially the crew of the A-Unit: they're all flawed in some way, as humans normally are and they have egos and differences that must be put aside to work together.  They learn from each other as well, especially Hjelm, who for example,  by dint of having to share an office with the only "blackhead," Jorge Chavez, he comes to realize that perhaps he's not as racially unbiased as he believes. And then there's Söderstedt, whose reports sometimes diverge into tangential revelations about the economic or political woes of the country á la Sjowall and Wahloo.  Sometimes the group members use less than savory methods to get what they want from suspects or from people they're interviewing -- the special weapon of the Unit's leader is a killer head butt -- and the members of the group often take advantage of their status as being higher in authority than everyone to get what they want. I don't know if I agree with that, but then again, the author could have made the Unit do worse things than they did to produce results. And it's probably a realistic scenario.

I liked Misterioso, and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Scandinavian crime fiction, but to anyone who likes police procedurals. If you're looking for a suspense-filled, action-packed adventure, well, there is some of that in places, but largely it's a lot of tedious police work: stakeouts, going through records, following up leads, talking to witnesses etc -- all quite well portrayed by the author.   I had just one small niggle here:  I like the team approach, but with so many characters it's hard to really engage with more than just a few of them. Not that this is a deal breaker, but outside of the main characters, you get a few snippets here and there that don't really give the reader more than a bare-bones outline of who these people really are.   And finally, not a complaint, but  if you're a bit prudish you might want to gloss over some of the racy bits, although they're not prolonged to any great length, which is always a definite plus, as I hate sex as filler or something unnecessary that needs to be in the book to sell it.

Overall, with the abundance of red herrings, the story hooks you, then lets you run and play with the bait for awhile before reeling you in at the finish.  Misterioso definitely held my interest, tempting me to stay up all night and finish it,  and I'll be eagerly awaiting Dahl's next novel.  And then the third.  And if I ever learn Swedish, 4 through 11!

crime fiction from Sweden

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Quarry, by Johan Theorin

Transworld/Doubleday, 2011
originally published as Blodläge, 2010
translated by Marlaine Delargy
409 pp
note: US release date unknown; I'm also not sure, but I think the title is also going to undergo a change to The Place of Blood. If that's bad information, could someone leave a comment, please? Thanks!


The Quarry, book #3 in Theorin's Öland Quartet, follows in the footsteps of his first two most excellent novels, Echoes from the Dead and The Darkest Room.  Once again, Theorin has delivered a winner, set on the island of Öland in Sweden. It is the Spring segment of the quartet, beginning in the month of March.

As the novel opens, Gerlof Davidsson (a recurring character in these books), currently living in a retirement home on the island, decides after watching the undertakers come to take away a fellow resident that he just wants to go home to Stenvik. He has a small cottage, he's 83 and figures it's better to be at home for his remaining years. He whiles away the time making ships in a bottle, for which he is quite well paid.  But there are a few new faces in the neighborhood on Gerlof's return: in the small cottage of his old friend Ernst now lives Per Mörner, divorced, father of two, who does market research for a living.  Per's daughter, Pernilla, is quite ill, so he makes the best of his time with the two children at the cottage until she absolutely must be hospitalized.   In one of the two new luxury homes on the eastern side of the nearby quarry live Max and Vendela Larsson.  Max authors self-help books and is currently engaged in writing a cookbook; Vendela grew up on the island and has decided that the time is right to return after having been away for a long time.

Per's only other relative is his father, Jerry Morner (a name he took on for himself earlier), but Jerry lives alone elsewhere, and has had a stroke so doesn't communicate well.  Per is estranged from his father for the most part, although he had promised his mother that he would look out for him. One day Per gets a call from his father, and driving out to see him, just happens to arrive as Jerry's house goes up in flames, clearly a move motivated to cause Jerry's death.   Although Jerry's dad comes out relatively okay, two people were left in the house to die. The police realize right away that it's a case of both arson and murder, and now Per decides to take Jerry home with him to the cottage in Stenvik.  He is reluctant to do so; their estrangement was caused by Jerry's less than savory past career as a photographer.  And from here, the storyline cuts into several directions: Per begins to investigate his father's past so as to try to figure out who would want to hurt him; Vendela's past life on the island becomes a story of its own; Gerlof Davidsson, now home, decides maybe it's time to read his dead wife's old diaries.  Theorin alternates between the three plotlines, alternating the present with the past, putting together a haunting story where all the threads come together  toward the end of the novel. 

This constant interweaving of past with present is a signature trait of Theorin's writing, and he does it well.  While you're reading in the present, you want to go back to the past and vice versa.  And all along, he envelops his reader in a dense atmosphere that becomes more palpable the further in the story you go.  Of all of the Swedish writers I've read, Theorin is the best at placing his readers into the local scene, so that you see each tree, feel the weight of the stones in the quarry and hear feet crunching in the snow.  Seriously, this author's forté is his great evocation of a sense of place, but not far behind are his characterizations.  Each and every person in this novel has a distinct personality -- with his or her own internal issues, problems, emotions -- all of which come through clearly and realistically so that it is easy to engage with all of them, rather than just a few here or there.  And Theorin's incorporation of local myth and legend is at the same time imaginative and rational, and adds another dimension to the plotlines. And let me add that the translator has done a great job -- I would imagine that it's not easy to convey the depth of atmosphere in a language change, but somehow, she's managed to do so.

The Quarry will hook the reader at page one and keep him or her reading until the book is finished. The suspense builds slowly throughout the story until you're so caught up in the story that you cannot put the book down, even though it weighs in at 400+ pages.  I should know; I stayed up an entire night until the book was over because I couldn't wait to see what the heck was going to happen next -- the action moves quickly from scene to scene so that the length of the book just doesn't matter.  You don't really need to have read the first two novels beforehand, but why wouldn't you? I'd definitely recommend this novel to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, readers of atmospheric crime fiction in general, and especially to anyone who might want to try Theorin as an author for the first time. You're in for such a treat!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sweet Money, by Ernesto Mallo

Bitter Lemon Press, 2011
originally published as Delincuente argentino, 2007
translated by Katherine Silver
223 pp.

(read in July)

You seriously could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard (from the author, no less!) that Inspector Lascano would be returning after Needle in a Haystack. There are plenty of recaps in this book which describe the action in Mallo's first Inspector Lascano novel, so I won't take the time to explain; suffice it to say, it seemed wildly improbable that there could be a sequel.  But thank goodness there is (although now I'm hard pressed to figure out how Lascano will return in a third book!), and it's a good one.

The blurb on the front cover says the following:

"1980s Argentina...In a country still ruled by corruption and violence, where can a good man turn?"

That is precisely the question, one to which Venancio Ismael (Perro) Lascano will have to find an answer. Since the action of Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires has become a different city.  State-sanctioned terror is over, talk of democracy is in the air, and sadly, denial that there was ever a "Dirty War" is floating around the country's officialdom.  Several veteran military officers have been given their walking papers in favor of newer, younger ones. A segment of the police department known as "The Apostles" (who themselves deal in the profitable drug trade)  has finally come to power by killing the man to whom Lascano owes his life. And worse -- his best friend and Eva, the woman he loves, are no longer in town, and Lascano has no clue as to their whereabouts.  Having lost his protector, Lascano is set up as a target by the Apostles, and a hit is put out on him.  While he's busy trying to save his own skin, with the help of the few friends left from the heyday of his police career, he also comes to realize that he's got to get out of town.  His opportunity comes after a bank is robbed by recently-released criminal nicknamed Miranda the Mole, who is himself eager to get out of the criminal life, just settle down and make up lost time with his family. This robbery was to be Miranda's criminal swan song.  But there's a problem.    It seems that a large sum of money has gone missing that shouldn't have even been at the branch that was robbed, and Lascano is hired to get the money back discreetly.  With the sum he's offered, he could leave and focus on finding Eva and try to start his life over.  But of course, things are not going to be so easy.

 Once again, Mallo has managed to capture a portrait of a city, as well as a country, in transition, one in which old scores still remain to be settled.  And even though there's not much room for an honest cop like Lascano, there's another person to take note of -- the Public Prosecutor, Marcelo Pereyra, who is keen to take on cases, a series of crimes committed by the military during the dictatorship that have never been brought to trial or punished, that have been bogged down in a series of laws and contradictory decrees, in many cases unconstitutional...

Marcelo is also working on cases of the children of those who disappeared -- and all roads seem to lead him to Lascano's old nemesis, Major Giribaldi.  One of the questions that arises is how Marcelo is going to provide justice within a system that is still corrupt, where he works "in opposition to the government's lack of political will to prosecute criminals in uniform."  He's a very interesting character, and at times reminiscent of the prosecutor in Roncagliolo's Red April, who also wanted to do honest work within the scope of a corrupt political environment.  The characters are all well drawn, even the bad guys, but there is just something about this prosecutor that really stands out.

At times Sweet Money is sad and even a little heartbreaking, especially when discussing the children of the disappeared, but it's also a story that has a bite, enough to satisfy anyone who enjoys the mix of crime and historical fiction.   The way Mallo puts his conversations in italics is clever, conveying the feel of real conversation without interruptions. It's punchy, to the point and the reader is drawn to it because of the way it is set apart from Mallo's regular prose. The reader is drawn right away into the story, and there are enough places within the novel that summarize the action of Needle in a Haystack so that if you haven't read it, you'd at least get the gist of it.  I personally recommend reading it before this one, especially because of the characters' backstories. Plus, it's a great crime fiction novels set during the Dirty War.

Once again, all I can say is "yay!" and I understand there's going to be one more book to feature Lascano.  Sweet Money is a very welcome addition to my crime fiction library, and it's also a good historical fiction piece as well. It's gritty, down to earth and the writing is excellent. Definitely recommended -- one you should not miss.