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