Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two by Håkan Nesser: The Inspector and Silence and The Unlucky Lottery

Mantle/Pan Macmillan, 2010 (UK edition)
originally published as Kommissarien och tystnaden, 1997
translated by Laurie Thompson
343 pp.

"... there was really only one foolproof method of kick-starting an investigation that had come to a dead end: drink a pint of whiskey and four beers, and when you've gone to bed it's guaranteed that within twenty minutes the phone will ring and you'll be saddled with another corpse."

I actually bought this last year and shelved it before reading it. I must have been having a bad day or something -- or one of those forgetful moments that scare the crap out of me.  When I got my copy of The Unlucky Lottery just recently, I started reading it and realized that something was off. I remember thinking "now how did we get to this point?" and the light bulb over my head clicked on.  Down goes The Unlucky Lottery, postponed until I could go back a year to The Inspector and Silence.  I must say, reading this one immediately before Unlucky Lottery was a smart choice -- the two meshed together so perfectly.

Left to man the Sorbinowo police station while the chief takes time off to get over the death of his wife, Sergeant Merwin Kluuge isn't expecting much trouble in this bit of paradise.  But it's not long until he receives an anonymous call from a woman claiming that a little girl has disappeared from a camp in Waldingen  run by the Pure Life religious sect.  The people at the camp say everyone's accounted for.  The next day he gets yet another anonymous phone call from the same woman, who threatens to go to the press if Kluuge doesn't do something.  But what sends him into a minor panic, and has him reaching for the phone to call the Mardaam police is when she says that if continues to do nothing, "they'll kill some more."  His chief had left orders not to be disturbed and to call Maardam if anything came up, because Van Veeteren owed him.  Of course, V.V. is not happy about this, since he's bought a plane ticket for Crete, but off he goes to Sorbinowo.  But when he gets to the Pure Life camp, the group will hardly give him the time of day, and swear that no one's disappeared. He's allowed to talk to some of the girls, but they're not saying much.  The next day, the body of a young girl is discovered -- she had been raped and murdered.  But Van Veeteren realizes that something's off -- he recognizes the dead girl as one of those to whom he had just spoken to the day before.   So if she had been alive the day before, how could she be the missing girl the caller warned about earlier?  So what happened to that girl? It isn't long until Van Veeteren and the police get their answer.  Complicating the issue is the fact that the small group at the Pure Life camp, with the exception of one girl who is very upset, is not talking.  No matter how much Van Veeteren and the others question them, nobody is saying a word -- or when they do, it's to extol the virtues of their religious beliefs and to put down those living in "the Other World."   The leader, Yellinek, has disappeared; no one knows anything about it -- or if they do, they're not saying anything.  Frustrated, Van Veeteren knows that this case will not be easy to crack -- first he has to break through the wall of silence. 

This is a fascinating book, actually, one that showcases V.V. at his best.  While he pleads with the members of Pure Life to offer up any information they can to help find the murder and rapist of two young girls, nobody seems to care about anything except maintaining the integrity of the sect and defending their missing leader.  Small wonder that he has his eye on trading years of police work for a partnership in an antiquarian book store -- seriously, you can sense his frustration leaping off of the pages.   Although the crimes in The Inspector and Silence are particularly horrifying, Nesser as usual uses some moments of sarcasm and humor to ease the tension.  He also continues the tradition of great characterization and a powerful sense of place, elements that never waver throughout any of his novels.  While many people said they didn't care for this book, I thought it was one of the better ones in the series.

Definitely recommended for Scandinavian crime fiction readers, but do start with book one in the series.  The Van Veeteren novels really are more on the cerebral, rather than the action-packed side, so if you're looking for someone a la Nesbø or Stieg Larsson, you won't find it here -- and this begs the question as to why on the cover of my copy there is a blurb from the Sunday Times saying "[Nesser] is being favorably compared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson."  Nesser doesn't need to compare favorably -- he has his own style which is every bit as good or even better than the authors with whom he is "being favorably compared." 

Mantle/Pan Macmillan (uk version), 2011
originally published as Münsters Fall, 1998
translated by Laurie Thompson
438 pp

"Something had come home after a long, long journey."

With The Unlucky Lottery, I've now read all of Nesser's books that have been translated into English, and I must say, they are among the finest novels of crime fiction coming out of Scandinavia. Sadly now I have to bide my time until the next one is translated and published.  This novel offers its reader an intriguing mystery or two, a compelling story and absolutely some of the best characterizations in the genre. 

The story begins when four older men realize they've won 20,000 euros in the lottery, to be split four ways.  First, though, the plan is to go out for a "knees-up in Capernaum" to celebrate.  By the end of the evening, Waldemar Leverkuhn will go home very drunk and tumble into his bed.  By  the time his wife sees him again, he'll be dead, with over twenty stab wounds in his body,  soaking in his own blood.   And just as the police are getting into their investigation, two other events of interest occur: one of the Leverkuhn's neighbors disappears and one of the original four lottery winners goes missing as well.  Munster and his colleagues have their hands full trying to sort out this case, which takes one twisty turn after another, but they are left to do it with only a minimum amount of help from Van Veeteren, who is  on a year's leave of absence. His trusty assistant Reinhart is also away on paternity leave.  It's up to those officers who previously have been more or less on the sidelines of Nesser's other novels to solve the case.

Although murder and mayhem abound, and the book's focus is on the crime and its solution, Nesser also uses this space to explore other topics, especially the toll that police work puts on his characters' lives.  Van Veeteren, of course, has had enough, and is "focused on beauty and pleasure nowadays" in a wing-backed chair in an antiquarian book store, yet he offers his help once in a while, putting his "oar in," as a friend calls it.  Münster's family life is beginning to suffer as his work keeps him away from home and his wife realizes that there has to be more to their lives.  Moreno finds herself putting work at a distance as she deals with ending a long-term ongoing relationship with her boyfriend.  Nesser also goes back to what seems to be a favorite pastime of his -- examining how past events play a role in shaping an individual's psyche, and above all, the nature of justice: what the police call murder, someone else may call retribution -- it's all a matter of perspective.

The book has a rather chilling twist, which gives the reader pause to think about deeds and consequences, about justice and about the reader's own ideas about the rightness or wrongness of one's actions given certain circumstances.  I love books like this -- far from just a series of events that take you from point a to point b, from the crime to the solution, there's another layer inserted between the lines that gives the reader pause to think about his or her feelings on the matter.  Not that I don't like a good, old-fashioned point a to point b kind of crime novel sometimes, because I do, but this extra layer of self examination elevates this book from just another novel of crime fiction out there on the shelves.

The Unlucky Lottery is absorbing, and scattered throughout is a bit of sarcastic humor, another trademark of Nesser's writing.  Getting nit-picky here, I have to question the validity of using tape recordings of psychoanalytic therapy that someone just hands over to the cops -- Maardam may be a fictional place, but it seems to me that the laws of doctor-patient confidentiality are pretty standard everywhere, so this part did not ring true at all, and it seemed to be a rather unfair ploy the author used to further the story.  And perhaps the characters' lives are a little too much in depth for most readers of crime fiction -- I like good character development, but let's move along already in some cases! Other than those minor issues that bugged me a bit, The Unlucky Lottery is another awesome book -- but I must say, I do hope Van Veeteren isn't totally sidelined in the rest of the series.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King

I'm not posting the review here, but I just finished this book and it was amazing. It falls in the historical true crime area, and if you've been considering reading this one, it's a good one.

The review I wrote can be found here; it may not be to everyone's liking, but if you're into history at all, it's definitely worth the time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

once again I am queen of the doofs -- extra copy of Hakan Nesser's Unlucky Lottery for grabs

I've been away a long time, I'm tired, my brain is overly fried from the Booker Prize Longlist and to be quite blunt, I am having trouble remembering which book I'm ordering from which online bookstore.  So now I have an extra copy of Nesser's newest book, The Unlucky Lottery.  If anyone wants it, it's free to you ... just be the first to comment.

Cell 8, by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

Quercus, 2011 (UK Edition)
originally published as Edward Finnigans Upprättelse, 2006
translated by Kari Dickson
458 pp
(not yet available in the US)

Sliding in between the Roslund-Hellstrom writing duo's Box 21 and their award-winning Three Seconds at number three in the Ewert Grens series,  Cell 8 is by far much different than anything else these authors have yet produced.   For one thing, a great deal of the action takes place in the U.S.; for another, the subject matter is extremely controversial, and will keep crime-fiction readers  debating the main issue for a long while, especially here in America.

John Schwarz is a family man, living with his wife and young son in Stockholm.  He is employed as a band singer on the Åbo ferry between Stockholm and Finland, and one night while he's at work, in the middle of a song, he sees a drunk passenger give some unwanted attention to a young woman on the dance floor.  Thinking about the two women in his life (one from an earlier time, one his wife), he sees red, loses his temper, and before he knows it, he's beating up the passenger, ending with kicks to his head, landing the guy in the hospital.  Security is called; the  Stockholm cops are there to meet him as the ferry docks in Stockholm.  He manages to avoid them and to get back to his apartment and his wife, and he knows it's only a matter of time before the police catch up to him.  When they finally have him at the station, he refuses to talk, but ultimately, routine identification procedures identify him as John Meyer Frey, an American citizen using a Canadian passport.  But there's a slight problem: John Meyer Frey died some years ago, while awaiting his execution on Death Row at a prison in Ohio.   Ewert Grens is very interested in the case, interested in seeking justice at first because he knows all too well what may lay ahead for someone suffering injuries to the brain, but later because of the sad and frustrating circumstances surrounding  the events that he had unwittingly set into motion.   There's another person interested in the Schwarz case as well -- a man who has lived an empty and tormented life  after missing the retribution he had waited on for years.

While the history  of John Schwarz is an interesting story on its own,  Roslund and Hellstrom also use this novel as a platform to explore several topics related to  state-sponsored executions: the behind-the-scenes politicking involved in fanning  the flames of popular support for the death penalty; the problems inherent with the death penalty, especially the possibility of innocence in a capital case;  the obligations of nations regarding extradition policies and the politics of the national players at the highest levels, and putting all of these components together, the human toll on both sides of the issue.  The criminals in this case, really, are the politicians; the authors spare absolutely no effort getting their points and politics across.

Cell 8 is very intelligently written.  The story flashes back to the past, alternating with the present both in Sweden and the United States.   The book has obviously been very-well researched, and some of what these authors have discovered as far as their medical knowledge was amazing.   And this is a timely story as well, with the latest US execution of someone who had been convicted of killing a cop based only on the most circumstantial of evidence at trial, and whose appeals had all been exhausted prior to his death.   My problem here is with the character of Vernon Eriksen -- I did not find him to be all that credible, and when all is said and done, even with good intentions, he's probably one of the sickest examples of humanity I've ever encountered. 

This book is guaranteed  to cause a stir when it's released here in the U.S. -- in a country so divided in its opinions about the death penalty, I'm not sure how this novel is going to be received.  Be that as it may, even though this is not the authors' usual crime-fiction fare, I liked it -- beyond the story set around John Schwarz, what really impressed me was the behind-the-scenes look at  politics involved in capital cases here in the U.S., as well as the rather dodgy actions of international governments where extradition politics are concerned. While this book may be a case of  preaching to the choir, so to speak, it's still a very worthwhile read.  Don't give up on it... when it begins it's a bit confusing for a while, but hang in there.

The Devil's Disciple, by Shiro Hamao (Hamao Shiro)

Hesperus Worldwide, 2011
"The Devil's Disciple" originally published as "Akuma no deshi", 1929
"Did He Kill Them" originally published as "Kare ga koroshita ka," 1929
   in Shinseinen, 1929
111 pp.
translated by J. Keith Vincent

The Devil's Disciple is composed of two short stories: "The Devil's Disciple," and "Did He Kill Them?"  Each story is firmly planted in the noir genre, although the stories also reflect the growing movement in art and literature of the time known as "ero-guro-nansensu," or "erotic grotesque nonsense." This movement and more about the form of the two short stories is discussed in the very well-written introduction to the book written by the translator. In The Devil's Disciple, both short stories examine the nature of guilt as well as the fallibility of the law; but on a deeper level, the stories reflect the writer's fascination with the complexity of the human psyche.

The first story is entitled "The Devil's Disciple," and is the story of a man called Eizo, charged with and facing trial for murder.  The story is a letter to a prosecutor, former mentor and lover of Eizo, Tsuchida Hachiro.  The two met in their school days, and Eizo quickly fell under Tsuchida's spell.   In fact, Eizo blames his current plight on Tsuchida, saying that "If I hadn't met you when I was a boy I would never have ended up in this place.  You didn't teach me crime. But you did give me the personality of a criminal."  Eizo sets forth the actual events of the case, telling Tsuchida that although someone did die, it wasn't really a case of murder. What follows is a tragic story, all of which Eizo says was due to Tsuchida's tutelage leading Eizo to "build up a demonic philosophy."

Story number two is "Did He Kill Them," a rather twisted tale of the bloody death of a married couple in their own home.  At the scene there is only one possible suspect, Otera Ichiro, who is arrested for the crime and refuses to speak, or even file an appeal after he is tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  After Otera's death, the barrister discovers a manuscript he wrote while in jail, outlining the truth of what happened that night and why he kept his silence.   Part of the story is narrated by a barrister who is addressing a group of detective novelists, reflecting a rather postmodern approach taken by Hamao in writing this piece; the other part is told through what Otera wrote in his manuscript. 

While both stories are intriguing and capture the reader's attention immediately,  "Did He Kill Them" has a much darker tone and is much more atmospheric and psychologically complex than the first. "The Devil's Disciple" has a rather twisted ending that will lead the reader to reflect mainly on the question of guilt.  I can't really go into either story in any depth without spoiling it, but considering how short these stories are, they are very intense and provide a great deal of food for thought; they also remind me a great deal of some of the stories by Tanizaki, another Japanese author whose works I enjoy immensely.    The Devil's Disciple is one of those rare books that works well both in the field of crime fiction and outside of it; it is probably one of the most literary pieces of crime fiction I've read lately.

I'd recommend this book first and foremost to people familiar with Japanese crime fiction and who enjoy  that genre's dark atmosphere, psychological complexity and in many cases,  the bizarre twists these authors love to employ.    While much of Japanese literature has these traits (Kobo Abe just popped into my head, for example) many of the crime writers from Japan really know how to get into the darkness of the soul and transform it into a work of art. Other than that audience, crime fiction readers who are more into the psychological aspects of crime would like this; if you're looking for something cozy, cute or warm and fuzzy, this is not the book for you.  A lot of Japanese crime might be seen as "weird," and this one is,  but deliciously so. 

crime fiction from Japan