Thursday, December 8, 2011

scandinavian hiatus

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

Midwinter Sacrifice, by Mons Kallentoft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

crime fiction from Denmark