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.

"...so 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