Friday, March 30, 2012

listen up, American peeps! It's TV time again

Image with my thanks to New Times Blogs, Broward, Palm Beach
The Killing is back! If you haven't  yet heard, Season Two starts Sunday night. I was a bit disappointed with last season, since they dragged it out all season and never solved Rosie Larsen's murder at the end.  So hopefully, with all of the complaints the network got, the powers that be will get it solved this time around.  Sadly, I don't get to watch the first episode this weekend, since I promised not to watch without my husband who got addicted to last season.  It's okay -- I'm recording the entire series to DVR so I won't miss a second.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Dark Valley, by Valerio Varesi

MacLehose Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Le Ombre di Montelupo, 2005
translated by Joseph Farrell
246 pp
(hardcover ed.)

"Something ugly was unravelling, beneath the appearance of normality."

The Dark Valley is book number two in the Commissario Soneri mystery series and Varesi's  second book to be translated into English.  This book captured and held my interest throughout the story, not only because of the mystery and crime components, but because of Varesi's mastery of atmosphere and the way he captures a generation of people in a small village so perfectly. And kudos to whoever created the cover -- rarely does the outside of a book so perfectly capture the spirit of what's inside the novel.

Commissario Soneri has reached peak stress level due to certain changes at his work, and by November, his partner Angela convinces him that he must get away.  His choice is to return to the village of his childhood, a small place in the Appenines. While there he plans to  hike into the woods on the slopes of Montelupo and hunt for mushrooms , an activity that he and his father used to share when he was a boy. He also hopes for some "peace and stability" there, thinking back to times when he would be with his father, "gathering chestnuts, firewood or mushrooms" and "the perfect understanding achieved between them with glances or gestures." But the idyllic setting soon becomes a hotbed of activity after he arrives.   Someone has been putting up posters that say that a missing man has been located, a fact Soneri reports to Angela  during a phone call. Although the man, Paride Rodolfi is apparently back home safe and sound, no one has really seen him since his return.  Angela suggests that Soneri should investigate; he only wants to get up to the mountain woods and look for mushrooms.  But it isn't long before Paride's body is found in those woods after having been shot; shortly afterwards his father Pamiro  is found hanging from a noose, an apparent suicide, committed after he'd shot his dog.   Paride's death was no suicide -- so who killed him?

Although Soneri is there to find mushrooms, he can't help but to get involved.  As one character notes, "everything is linked to the pig-farming business, and even politicians come out smelling of pork and salame."  The same is true for the savings of many of the people who lived there:  Pamiro, the local pork manufacturer and leading source of employment for the most of the people in the area since the war,  has been scamming money from the locals for years. He had been promising them a better return on their investments than the bank could offer them.  But  before his death, Paride has been running the business, and the people fear that they will never see their money again, and for most people, it means a loss of their retirement funds.  It is  definitely a motive for murder, and the Carbinieri have a suspect:  a man called the Woodsman, a crack shot and  former childhood friend of Pamiro, who also invested money with him. The Woodman's wife died because he didn't have the needed money to get her help.  Soneri's not so sure; after all, there is a town filled with suspects, not to mention Paride's unhappy wife.

There is little to nothing on the negative side to say about this book.  Varesi is a master of atmosphere; from the village piazza to the swirling mists that rise on the mountain to envelop a solitary hiker, this book sets the reader firmly in the Appenine valley and mountain forests as winter is approaching.  The valley is a place where long-time resentments and secrets are buried, but really only just beneath the surface, still simmering in the minds and memories of the people who live there.   His character portraits rise above the usual -- especially in the old men of the village, for whom the valley has and always will be home and who lament their childrens' exodus to the city, as they wonder if their way of life is fast approaching an end.  Varesi also does a splendid job in capturing the personality of Soneri as a loner and introvert who just doesn't want to get involved, but who can't help himself when it comes to seeing justice done.  Soneri's personality emerges much more fully in this novel than it did in River of Shadows.   The book also has consistently good pacing, the plot is credible and the ending is appropriately revealed considering the rest of the story.

I liked River of Shadows, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed this second book of the series.  Varesi's forte is definitely setting and atmosphere and both books convey his talent in this area, but he's also managed to create a lead character in Soneri  that here more fully establishes him as a person.  Crime fiction readers who prefer a good mystery, intelligent writing and atmosphere in their reading will definitely like this one.  If you're looking for a thriller-type novel, this isn't it, move along.  I look forward to more of Varesi's books in translation -- after all, not all of the good crime fiction these days comes just from Scandinavia.

crime fiction from Italy

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

Soho Press, 2012
originally published as Suri, 2009
translated by Satako Izumo and Stephen Coates
211 pp
(hard cover ed.)

It's always interesting to see how different writers around the world do crime fiction; recently I reviewed two books by Paulus Hochgatterer in which I  noted the idea that perhaps it's time to reconsider my own approach to reading in this genre.  If ever there was a case for this idea to be put into practice, it's here in this book, The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura.  Glancing around at reviews after setting down my own thoughts, many people in cyberspace noted the lack of action or the lack of a compelling hook to draw the reader in and keep him or her interested.  Not so, I counter... it seems a shame that readers get stuck on particular formats or (let's get real here) similar formulaic constructions in their crime fiction reading.  Is there a lack of open-mindedness going on or what's the story? If it doesn't read like a "normal" mystery, suspense or crime story, is it any less readable or enjoyable? Or is it that readers are getting lazy and don't want to read books that are designed to make you read between the lines?

The Thief is a very good read, intensely satisfying with a great deal of psychological depth to go along with the crime elements of the novel. The central character is a pickpocket named Nishimura (whose name is only stated once) who has sharpened his skills to an elite level over the years to the point where he can easily remove a wallet, sift through its contents and sometimes return it to its owner, all without the victim's knowledge. He takes money and leaves the rest of the contents, always clever enough to avoid holding onto anything that would attract police attention.  He plies his trade in crowded places,  subways, trains, etc., possessing an uncanny ability to blend in well no matter where he finds himself; conversely, he lives anonymously and has very few human ties.  He had a girlfriend once, and he has a friend, Ishikawa, who was wanted in connection with fraud.  Avoiding the warrant issued for his arrest, Ishikawa left for the Phillipines, Pakistan (where he officially "died")  and Kenya before returning to Japan to assume the identity of a dead man.  Complicating matters, our narrator becomes involved with a mother and son whom he first meets in a supermarket, where they make an inept attempt at stealing food.  Even though he is a complete loner, he begins to feel a bond with the boy, whose path he crosses more than once since the boy is often sent out on shoplifting missions by his mother, a prostitute and drug addict.

With Ishikawa back in Tokyo, the narrator is drawn into the darkest circle of Tokyo's underworld scene, where he comes across a sociopathic crime boss for whom power seems to be the acme of earthly existence. He gets caught up in a home robbery which goes very badly, not solely  for the owner of the item the narrator and his cohorts are recruited to steal, but also for some of the criminals involved.  As a result of his participation, the narrator finds himself in an impossible situation with an untenable outcome:  either he faces a nearly-impossible challenge of his criminal lifetime or he loses the one valuable thing he has.

While the crime elements are all neatly in place in this book, it works on a deeper level as well, touching on the notions of psychological and social isolation (ongoing themes in many other Japanese crime novels as well as literary fiction),  as well as the machinations of power and fate. Always present in the narrator's life is a tower, looming ahead, just out of his reach; a metaphorical construct quite possibly relating to a life he might once have had, although its meaning is really up to the reader's interpretation. 

The Thief is an intense read, although it may disappoint some readers because of its lack of clear-cut standard formulations to which people have become accustomed in their crime fiction.  There is a wonderful "story-within-a-story" segment within the novel dealing with both power and fate, turning the reader's attention to issues beyond the crimes committed in this book.  It does take some getting used to, but once you get into it, the author amps up the pace without using any gimmicky literary devices, letting the suspense build until you have to keep turning pages just to find out what's going to happen.

Nakamura's work may not be everyone's thing, but if like myself you aim for intelligent crime fiction that sheds light on what makes people who they are, or that reflects issues that seem to be common among people all over the globe, you might actually enjoy it.  Kudos to Soho for bringing this book to the reading public.

Phantom, by Jo Nesbø

Harvill Secker, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Gjenferd, 2011
translated by Don Bartlett
451 pp
(hard cover ed.)

"Norway is a little fairy-tale land. But I've spent the last two years in the real world...And the real world is driven by two types of people. Those who want power and those who want money. The first want a statue, the second enjoyment."
I'd quite forgotten how tense I get while reading one of Nesbø's Harry Hole novels; a little while into the novel upon  Harry's return to Oslo and it all came back to me.  Harry is a character I've become rather attached to over the years, but I've also become used to things not going so well for him over the course of the series. Phantom is the ninth installment of this series and the seventh to be translated into English; if you've been a faithful follower of Nesbø's novels, you definitely do not want to miss this one.   If you are just beginning with Nesbø, do not, I repeat, do not make this your first experience.

A few years have passed since Harry Hole was last in Oslo;  when we last saw him he was on his way back to Hong Kong, where he retreated to clean himself up and deal with the demons plaguing his life, having to do mainly with his relationship with Rakel.  Now he's back and it's personal: Rakel's son Oleg is in prison, after being incarcerated for killing a heroin addict named Gusto.  Everything points to Oleg as the shooter; Harry doesn't believe it and returns to clear his name.  Having been officially warned to stay away from this particular case by his former colleagues, Harry being Harry is not content to sit idly by and finds himself in the middle of his own private investigation that leads him into the murky depths of drug addiction and production, gang wars, corruption and a reclusive but powerful Russian known as Dubai. Dubai, "a kind of phantom ... like the wind, impossible to catch," has worked to corner the market on a new drug called Violin, which offers its users a prolonged euphoria, making it the newest high of choice among heroin users, a "junkie's dream," "stronger than heroin, longer effect, and little chance of OD'ing." 

The story is related through different viewpoints, one of which is from a dying Gusto.  It is here where the reader discovers how Oleg becomes involved in events that will ultimately lead him to prison.  Normally I dislike the "voice from the grave" approach, or actually in this case the "as I lay dying"  device, but here it is engaged to provide necessary backstory and it works as a focal point for bringing together the various storylines  as they are played out individually throughout the novel -- at least, up to a point.

Phantom is an intensely bleak read -- from the sadness of the addicts on the streets doing whatever is necessary to score to the final moments of the novel, the atmosphere Nesbø creates is one of sheer darkness, alleviated here and there with some humorous moments, including a neck wound held together by duct tape, or the running gags about his one and only suit.   And Harry's back with his trademark angst, this time ruminating over his shortcomings with Oleg who looked on him as a dad in years past, and the "curse" he's carried with him in which he realizes that all of those he loves eventually suffer at his hands.

 At the same time, it's a very compelling read; so much so  that it's easy to overlook a few other standard Nesbø trademarks, including the sometimes over-the-top verbosity, sometimes clunky dialogue, scenes that could have been easily shortened with no damage to the overall story, and related plot lines that capture your interest then sort of fade out.   The second half of the book is where the action really picks up and where the story becomes its most intense, with many twists and turns that I never saw coming, and writing that maintains a tightly-strung tension, literally up until the very last moment.

Die-hard Harry Hole fans should consider a kleenex as a necessary accompaniment to this  novel, and you'll seriously feel the need to put the book down, get up, go outside and find some sunlight as you get into the story.  I'm happy to see that the Stieg Larsson comparison is gone from the cover (yay!); Nesbø has no need of putting his work up against that of anyone else -- his standing in crime fiction, Scandinavian or otherwise, needs no bolstering by setting his work against that of others.   Do not miss this book if you are continuing the series, and as I noted above, you should absolutely NOT start the series with this story.  To the book's naysayers I can only answer with the following: this is not great literature, but it's a hell of a ride.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Glass Devil, by Helene Tursten

Soho Press, 2007
originally published as Glasdjävulen, 2003
translated by Katarina E. Tucker
311 pp
(trade paper ed.)

The Glass Devil  is the final translated installment of Helene Tursten's series to feature Detective Inspector Irene Huss; fortunately, according to com  she has another five books already written, hopefully waiting to be translated. (Dear Soho Press: hint hint wink wink.)  This is a most excellent series; while the previous book The Torso  was my favorite of the four, The Glass Devil is also quite good, and here Tursten takes a bit of a different tack in storytelling, focusing much more on the work of Irene Huss and less on the usual Göteborg team effort or on family life than in her previous novels.

On a cold March night, a young schoolteacher, Jonas Schyttelius, drives up to his cottage, removes his gym bag, lunch box and groceries from his car, and walks into his house. Out of nowhere, a shot rings out and he's dead. Not far away, his mother and father, the rector in a church in the small community of Kullahult, are also killed in the same way.   At both crime scenes a pentagram, painted with the victims' blood, is left behind on the victims' computers.  The Violent Crimes Unit is called in on the case, with very little to go on.  They interview a circle of people acquainted with the pastor, unearthing very little in the way of motive but quite a bit in the way of nastiness as the competition heats up for the dead pastor's job; Irene also encounters a cantor whose spirituality takes more of a new-age format.  What she manages to find out is that Jonas has a sister, Rebecka, living in London, to whom the family had once turned for research on Satanists; now Irene wonders if Rebecka is also in danger since the murderer seems to have focused his attacks on the Schyttelius family.  Even if she  is not, she may be able to shed some light on the killer's motives, which remain unknown.   The problem is that Rebecka has had a nervous breakdown and is unable to come to Sweden.  Irene decides that she must go to London to get any help she can in the hope of solving this most baffling  case.

The story moves along at a brisk pace, with very little going on in the Huss homefront. The biggest problem facing Irene and her family this time is the death of a neighbor's cat by their dog.  On the work side, the team is caught up in other crimes, leaving Irene to work mainly by herself on the Schyttelius case until she reaches London, where she meets her counterpart Glen Thompson. There are also some tempting red herrings scattered here and there, but what it comes down to are two very intriguing mysteries:  first, who killed Jonas and his parents and why, and second, why is Rebecka's business colleague trying to thwart Irene's attempts at talking to her? 

As intense a read as this book is, as chilling and bleak as the ride is to the end turns out to be, there is a moment when the show is practically given away, or at the very least, where anyone following along closely enough might be able to figure out what's going on.  Although this may be a bit frustrating, it's certainly not a deal breaker because there is enough left for the reader to still try to put it all together.  What comes out of this story is so heartbreaking that this early nod  toward the solution doesn't even scratch the surface of the ultimate revelations to be found in this tragedy. 

There are some books where the author asks you to consider certain underlying questions, and this is one of those. First there is the nature of justice;  second, the workings of fate; but most importantly, the blinding nature of evil in its most fundamental form.   Irene Huss says it all here:

"A glass devil is a person in whom evil becomes transparent. People simply don't see it, despite the fact that it's there all the time."
Another of Tursten's novels that is decidedly not for weak hearts or fitting fare for people who need an uplifting ending,  I definitely recommend The Glass Devil, as well as all of the books in the Inspector Huss series. I just love these books!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Inspector Erlendur on the big screen

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, as Erlendur -- is this how you pictured him?

Yesterday my husband left for California on business for a week; the only good thing about him having to be gone so long is that I have lots of time for watching movies.  Last night there were two: one called Deep Red, a film in the giallo genre of the 70s; and Jar City (Myrin), made in 2006, both streamed  from Netflix.

I wasn't expecting the Erlendur of the film, although once I got used to him it sort of worked.  More along the lines of how I pictured them in my head while reading were the characters of Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg:

especially Sigurdur Oli.

"A typical Icelandic murder ... messy and pointless." 

Directed and written by Baltasar Kormakur, the movie opens with a dad (Orn) at the side of his daughter in the hospital, where just as he's singing her a lullaby, the scene switches to a cemetery where the same lullaby is being sung by a chorus at her funeral.  Her death sends Orn into a deep depression; he's also obsessed with tracking the genetic trail of her disease, doing so below the radar, hacking into the new and controversial national genetics database (which, by the way, exists and is controversial in real life). In the meantime, Erlendur, along with Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, is investigating the death of a smarmy lowlife whose body was discovered by two little boys.  What captures Erlendur's attention is a picture of a grave, and it is this picture that will ultimately lead him back to the past and find the killer.  As Erlendur and his colleagues are on the trail, he also has to contend with his daughter Eva.

If you've read the book there are no surprises; what really takes center stage in this movie is the Icelandic landscape. From the city to the most isolated house next to the sea, Iceland is at the same time beautiful and bleak, and is shown from several views. Just watching this movie made me want to bundle up in a warm blanket, and the wind is a constant background noise. 

Only a couple of minor niggles here: the movie might have had more punch without all of the background music.  The choral music at the beginning and the end of the film is beautiful, but during the film it takes away the drama in many of the scenes where no music would have equally sufficed.  I also got a bit confused with the flashbacks -- I normally love flashback scenes but they're sort of just cut in here in weird spots.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on because the flashbacks seem like they're happening in current time with nothing to signal the change.

Otherwise, there's very little to get in the way of the plot, and there are even brief moments of humor. It's an enjoyable film, noirish in tone and gets right into the nitty-gritty of police work and solving the crime. I liked it.

Next up: the Irene Huss movies; I'll be interested to see if my picture of her matches what shows up on the screen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Torso, by Helene Tursten

Soho Press, 2006
originally published as Tatuerad Torso, 2000
translated by Katarina Emelie Tucker
341 pp (trade paper ed.)

The Torso is to date my favorite book in the Irene Huss series; it is much darker in tone than either of the previous two novels (Detective Inspector Huss and Night Rounds), the plot is very well constructed, and the investigation takes center stage, with little else to distract from the main storyline. Frankly speaking, I couldn't put this book down.

Tursten captures the reader's attention within the first three pages with the discovery of a human torso inside of a garbage bag.  Already busy with two major cases, the police in the Göteborg Violent Crimes Unit have their hands full, and adding to their burden is the fact that the torso yields little in the way of clues to help them out. All they have to go on is a strange tattoo which ultimately leads them to Copenhagen, where their counterparts in the police there are also dealing with a similar crime. Irene Huss also takes on the case of a friend's missing daughter; her trail also leads to Copenhagen, so Irene goes looking for her while she's  there. After returning home, various events lead Irene to believe that she's being followed, and that her presence in the two police investigations has led the unknown murderer to strike again.  This is no ordinary murderer, but rather someone who takes great delight in not only killing, but dismembering and disemboweling the victims as well.  The focus in this book is on the two-pronged investigation, with the two police teams pulling together to chase down a vicious killer.  Huss is, however, wary of sharing too much information with her Danish colleagues after a source in Copenhagen reveals that there might possibly be a cop involved. Aside from the police investigations, Huss has to deal with her teen daughters, a colleague whose work may be leading him toward alcoholism, and the personal aspects of her investigation into her friend's missing daughter. Tursten also uses the opportunity to examine attitudes toward homosexuals, women who work in prostitution and the sex industry in general. 

If ever there was a book not for the faint of heart, this is it.  There is a great deal of description involving decapitations, dismembering, removal of inner organs, and necrosadism which may lead you into wanting to put the book down after a while. But don't. First, while some parts are incredibly graphic, they're not written in a sensationalistic fashion, nor is there anything in these descriptions that doesn't belong in terms of the story line. Second, although the nature of the crimes may be abhorrent, what elevates this book is the police investigation -- this is one of the best police procedurals I've read this year. It is well conceived and well plotted, taking unexpected twists and turns along the way, topping anything Tursten has done in the previous two series novels.

I heartily recommend The Torso with zero reservations -- definitely a must for Scandinavian crime fiction readers, for crime fiction readers in general and for people who like their crime on the darker side.  What a good book!!!!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Paulus Hochgatterer x 2: The Sweetness of Life and The Mattress House

In both The Sweetness of Life and The Mattress House, crime takes a back seat to psychology; no surprise there if you consider that the author of both of these novels is a  child psychiatrist.  It should also come as no surprise that children feature heavily in these books, as does a shrink who specializes in pediatric psychology. While there are some pretty gruesome crimes in both novels, the author takes a roundabout way to their solutions while revealing  psychological portraits of not just victims or perpetrators, but of several denizens of the town of Furth am See, the fictional setting  in Austria in which the two main characters live and work.  Psychiatrist Raffael Horn is constantly questioning himself, as is Criminal Commissioner Ludwig Kovacs, while they both try to understand what makes people in the town do what they do.  While most novels of crime fiction afford the reader a glimpse here and there into the private lives of the good guys and often get into the psychology behind criminal actions, Hochgatterer does something different with these novels. Whereas most crime fiction stories focus on the crime and its solution, he starts out with a crime, starts the investigation rolling, and then intersperses both of these aspects throughout several chapters that center on the people involved directly, peripherally, and sometimes to throw you off the trail, not at all -- in the long run, it's really the reader's job to sort it all out.   This is not to say that the crimes he dreams up aren't heinous or that there's a lot of needless psychobabble between the covers of these books; what Hochgatter delivers is just a different variation of what most readers are used to in terms of crime fiction.  I'm not sure yet if this rather unorthodox  approach works for me or not as a crime reader, but it is different, and worth looking into as a reader in general.  It also makes me wonder if it isn't time to start looking at crime fiction in a new way.


MacLehose Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Die Süiße des Lebens, 2006
translated by Jamie Bulloch
248 pp
(trade paper ed)
The Sweetness of Life has one of the most eerie beginnings I've read in a long time. A little girl and her grandfather are in his home, playing Ludo (an American equivalent would be the game Sorry) while the snow falls outside in the night.  A knock comes on the door, the grandfather opens it, and steps outside. Thinking she'd play a trick on her grandfather when he came back, she takes two pieces off of their squares.  But the grandfather doesn't return, and the little girl goes outside to see what's going on. Eventually she makes her way to the barn, where she makes a horrifying discovery: the grandfather is laying dead in the snow, his head flattened and bloody.  She doesn't tell her parents what happened -- her father will find that out the next day. Still clutching the game pieces, she makes her way across the property to her home, and when it is time to go to bed, her mom tries to take them away. That's when the screaming began; since then she hasn't uttered a single word.

Enter Ludwig Kovacs and Raffael Horn; Horn to try to help the little girl recover from her trauma and Kovacs to figure out exactly what happened and who would do such a grotesque thing.  Horn is married to Irene and has two sons, the eldest of whom has moved out. Horn spends a great deal of time pondering his move to Furth am See, as well as his relationship with his family, but he is also quite preoccupied with his patients and their respective psychoses. He has a habit of thinking out loud, but he's a good psychiatrist and cares deeply about his job.  Kovacs is divorced, and has an arrangement with a woman named Marlene in a relationship based on sex; he works with a team of detectives who are all very sharp, but this crime has stymied them.  He needs Horn's help -- the little girl was the only witness, and she's not able to say a thing.

The story is told through various points of view including those of Horn and Kovacs, but there is also a priest who runs and who is never without an Ipod, even during church services, and a boy who dresses up like Darth Vader whose brother has just returned from prison. As the story progresses, their stories expand little by little in alternating chapters, and the reader gets to know bits of their life stories and how they are connected not only to each other, but to the town as well.  Along the way there are other interesting side stories that emerge, especially those of Horn's patients, and some of them are so unsettling that you may periodically have to put the book down and walk away.

In terms of crime, as I noted above, the author has definitely taken a new approach here. Solving the crime is actually less of a concern than revealing what lies beneath the psychological surface of this small town. Although the investigative set up is pretty standard and police procedures are described much like those in other works of crime fiction, as the story drifts from perspective to perspective, it takes a while for clues and other helpful elements to emerge.  Although the motive for the crime is ultimately intriguing, neither it nor the criminal emerge until the very last few pages and then the book is over. But at least the murderer had a motive; that is not always true in the case of others in this story who have committed terrible acts of violence, or even those who know what's going on and refuse to get involved and let these horrible things happen.

This approach may not be to everyone's liking, but it is worth giving a try.  If you are inclined to judge it solely in terms of other crime fiction novels you've read, you may be disappointed, but if you stop and really think about what you've just read and that Furth am See just might be representative of other towns in other countries, it will add another dimension to your reading experience.


MacLehose Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Der Matrazenhaus, 2010
translated by Jamie Bulloch
246 pp
(trade paper ed)

Once again Paulus Hochgatterer uses his unconventional storytelling methods in his latest novel centered around a most horrendous and appalling crime to pry loose the secrets in his fictional town of Furth am See. I thought the crime in The Sweetness of Life was bad; this one is so much worse that I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get through the book. This time he explores crimes committed against children, my least favorite topic in any kind of novel. One thing before I get into my review: on both book covers there is a very misleading statement, telling the reader that each book is a "Kovacs and Horn Investigation," but this is not actually true. While the police do go to Horn for help, it's not like the two ever team up with Kovacs handling the police end of things and Horn offering possible profiling advice or psychological insights. I realize that in some crime fiction this sort of partnership exists, but it is not the case here. So dispel yourself of that notion immediately.

This installment of the series finds Horn busy with policy changes at his workplace, friction at home between himself and his rebellious son, spending time thinking about his wife Irene and the staff at the hospital.   In the meantime, Kovacs' sexual arrangement has gone a bit awry as he finds himself falling in love with Marlene; his daughter, whom he hasn't seen for quite a while is also coming to town, he's temporarily missing one of his best detectives, and he also spends quite of bit of time pondering his colleagues. In between all of the respective personal issues, Kovacs and his staff are working on some rather odd cases: a few children have turned up beaten and bruised somewhere between their homes and school and are refusing to talk, and the only thing they will say is that is was the Black Owl that did it; a death occurs on a scaffold and no one is certain whether or not it was an accident.  Meanwhile, Horn is busy with his patients both on the wards and in a therapy group, while dealing with their  family members as well.  He is also asked by the police to work with the children who suffered the beatings in an effort to get them to talk about their ordeals.  But what neither of them are aware of is a young girl living in a house where the most unspeakable things occur.

Once again the story is told via alternating perspectives, those of Horn, Kovacs, and  now a teacher (who has her own issues) who has become the love interest of the running priest with the Ipod from Sweetness of Life.  Added to these is the voice of a young girl named Fanni, who exists with an eye to escape and  making other preparations for when the time is right. She is there when a very small child is brought to the house, and the sad story of what is happening there is spread throughout the novel in bits & pieces.  As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Hochgatterer's agenda this time is child abuse and violence toward children in any form.  While the beatings bring the two main characters to wonder whether or not they ever struck their children, adding  to their list of things to ruminate about, Kovacs'  missing detective is off working with a group working toward combating child pornography and child violence. 

There is a great deal of pondering going on in this novel, so much so in fact that at times it interrupts the narrative flow and the going can get boggy.  In all fairness, since Hochgatterer's focus is on what's beneath the surface, having his main characters do a bit of self-analysis and deepthink is definitely in line with what he does with the other characters; after all, this is part of his approach to writing.  The problem is that maybe there's a little too much reflection going on when other things are happening in the story, and especially in Horn's case, his personal reflections seem to detract from the kind of  intense attention he displayed with his patients in the first novel. They also go on and on when the rest of the story is waiting to be told; truth be told, it's a bit annoying. 

At the heart of this book you will find a very haunting story,  but around it Hochgatterer's examination of society and its secrets is also well constructed.  Again, it's not the usual linear point a to point b resolution that is expected in most crime fiction, but rather a look at what drives people, what secrets they're hiding, and how your next-door neighbor might be showing you one face while harboring an inner, more monstrous life you never would have imagined. Add to those ideas  the interconnectedness among these people and others within the framework of a town and you get an idea of what he's trying to accomplish.    This author is taking a great deal of risk in writing crime fiction this way, and other than a few minor little issues, I think he's succeeding. 

The style does take some getting used to, so I'd start with Sweetness of Life to get the feel for the author's writing and because there's always value in starting with the first book of any series. I liked it although I came away from it with feeling  a bit on edge, not due to the author's writing or any other fault, but because the core story was just so incredibly sad, and because I know that the reality behind it exists everywhere.  Just an FYI: there are enough graphic details in the story that put a picture into your head, so be warned. This book is NOT for the fainthearted, nor is it a light read at all.  I had to go do something fun after reading it just so I wasn't thinking about it all day and making myself depressed.

crime fiction from Austria

Friday, March 9, 2012

Nights of Awe, by Harri Nykänen

Bitter Lemon Press, 2012
originally published as Ariel, 2004
translated by Kristian London
252 pp (trade paper ed.)

The bodies certainly pile up in Nights of Awe, Harri Nykänen's first foray into the series featuring Ariel Kafka of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit.  Nykänen is no fledgling writer -- he has several books under his belt, including his Raid series, which was the basis for a TV show  in Finland, which I found totally by accident while researching European television shows to watch, leading me to check out Nykänen's work, which ended up sending me to this book.  Funny how that works.

Nights of Awe
is a good series opener, a very serious police procedural where the solution doesn't unravel until the very end.  It's a  no-nonsense story, with a different approach to Scandinavian crime fiction  that takes place during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur known as  Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe.  The main character is Ariel (Ari) Kafka, 40, unmarried, Jewish,  first and foremost a policeman, then a Jew.   As he notes,

"If Rabbi Liebstein was right and the world was falling to pieces, an unpleasant role had been reserved for me. It was my job to gather up all of the gears that were flying off and repair the clock so it would work again."

And considering that by the end of the novel there are eight people laying dead, all connected to one case, he's got his work cut out for him.  The first two bodies are discovered at the railyard in Linnunlaulu, one having been shot and the other had fallen or had been pushed from a bridge onto the  top of a passing train. All kinds of theories are put forward as to the nature of the killings, but Ari knows it's much to early to think on the theoretical side.  There are few clues at the scene other than a cell phone needing a password to unlock it and a map from Hertz. As the detectives begin their investigation, more bodies turn up, and it isn't long until an inspector from the Security Police (SUPO) gets involved, much to Ari's dismay.  The clues lead to an Iraqi refugee, his co-worker and his cousin, a known drug dealer, but the tabloids are linking the killings to terrorism either on the part of Israeli political extremists or Arab terrorists. In the meantime, Ari's brother and a spokesperson for the Helsinki Jewish congregation believe that the deaths are linked to a terrorist plot to blow up the synagogue during the High Holy Days, during which, coincidentally, the Israeli foreign minister is paying a visit, a theory bolstered by the involvement of the head of security of the Israeli embassy.  Sorting  out these theories and getting to the truth  in the face of pressure being heaped on Ari  from several directions is going to be difficult at best. 

Nights of Awe
is ambitious, to say the least, but it's a good start to what will probably be a good series to follow.   The writing is straightforward with little to get in the way of the plot -- no long sessions of interior monologue expressing the main character's angst, for example, but at times it can get a little confusing as body after body piles up and new plot developments are revealed little by little. Ari's character is portrayed realistically, but some of the supporting characters are kind of just there in the background. This isn't necessarily a drawback, but rather a reflection of a first novel in a series where the lead character is the focus.   And while there is a lot of action, it's sort of secondary, where the crime has already happened rather than say, a car blowing up in front of the cops' noses. 

I have to admire how the author handles two major issues: first, in the treatment of Jewish attitudes toward Israeli politics, he notes that there are some who have misgivings about Israel's policies toward its Arab neighbors,  but he also takes at look at things from Israel's point of view.  Second, the author gives a fair treatment of the Muslims in this novel, especially when the police turn to the Imam of the local Islamic center for assistance, rather than accusation.

I do have a couple of niggles: first, there is very little in the way of sense of place here.  Maybe it's just me, but after all of the Scandinavian crime fiction I've read, very little of it takes place in Finland, so it would be nice if the reader was able to absorb some of the local scene.  A sense of place adds a bit more credibility as well as another dimension to any story; this is one aspect of the novel where the author fell short. I'm sure that will be rectified in coming installlments and it's definitely not a deal breaker as to whether or not I'll pick up more books by Nykänen in the future, but it is worth mentioning. Second: Mossad? Really?

In spite of my minor complaints, I'd recommend it to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, but with the caveat that it's not the usual Nordic fare that most readers have already experienced. It's also dark and very serious  in tone, so it's definitely not for cozy readers or readers that are looking for something lighthearted.  I don't mind dark, and I'll definitely be ready and eager to read the next book when it's translated.

crime fiction from Finland

Monday, March 5, 2012

Budapest Noir, by Vilmos Kondor

Harper, 2012
originally published as Budapest Noir, 2008
translated by Paul Olchváry
291 pp
(trade paper ed.)

Budapest Noir  is currently the only work of crime fiction from Hungary on my bookshelves; actually, the only modern Hungarian crime fiction in translation that I'm aware of, although I hope Harper will see fit to publish the rest of this series at some point.   It is also the author's first published novel, and the first of six planned installments of the Budapest Noir series featuring main character crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon.  The novel also works well as historical fiction, offering a glimpse into Hungary's political and social issues between the two world wars.  It is a dark and twisted story, with interesting characters, a well-evoked sense of place, and a good mystery at its core.

The year is 1936.  Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, who had once boasted to Hermann Göring  that he would "reshape Hungary within two years and would preside over the new state as its dictator" by applying Germany's fascist principles, has just died, and all of the local newspapers are out in force to cover the funeral.  The reporter from the Evening, Zsigmond Gordon, is one of the reporters assigned to this task, but as the story opens, he is working on a story involving a detective accused of accepting a bribe from a stock exchange agent who'd reported being swindled out of  a large sum of money. Gordon doesn't believe in the detective's guilt, and he drops in on his friend and contact Chief Inspector Vladimir Gellért of the police to try to get more information for his story.  Gellért is on duty, involved in handling security and other preparations for the state funeral, and Gordon decides to wait for him in his office.  He sits at the Inspector's desk, where a drawer has been left open. As Gordon looks in the open drawer, he sees a file folder with a photograph sticking out of one edge.  There are actually two photos of the same young woman, one of them completely nude except for a pair of shoes, with the girl wearing a "forlorn  and flirtatious" expression, with a touch of defiance and even sadness in her eyes.  He notices that she has a small birthmark under her left arm. Later, after he returns to his office at the newspaper, he receives a call from one of his police contacts, who tells him that a young girl has been found dead in the local red-light district.  He has the opportunity for a scoop so travels to the crime scene, where the police tell him that all they have to go on is a few shreds of paper and a "Jewish book" on the girl; otherwise, there is absolutely nothing to identify her.  When Gordon gets a chance, he takes a look at the body, and to his great surprise, it's the same girl from the photos in the Inspector's office.  Now there are a multitude of questions to be asked and answered: Who was this woman? Why did the Inspector have her photos in his desk before the crime was even reported? Why, when Zsigmond starts taking a deep interest in this crime, are people trying to stop him from getting anywhere on the case and even going so far as to threaten his girlfriend to keep him away? 

In answering these questions, the author takes his protagonist from the coffee shops and dark alleys of Budapest up into the wooded alp-like mountains and lakes of Hungary in search of the truth.  He also takes his readers into the Hungary of the 1930s, where an air of uncertainty hovers over its people as they wait to see which direction the new government will take and with whom its leaders will side internationally.  There's a secret state security commando unit in place under the security minister, Schweinitzer, who will eventually become the head of the Political Police, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head as many businessmen are involved in trade with Hitler's Germany and are reading the portents of the future to come in terms of making their fortunes; as readers, we already know what's going to happen so there is a kind of pall hanging over the story as the characters discuss the possibilities for Hungary's future. 

The main character, Zsigmond Gordon, is as noted above, a crime reporter with close police contacts. His girlfriend, Krisztina, is an illustrator and has been offered a job with Penguin in London, and is waffling about whether or not to take it. She doesn't understand why Gordon is involved in the girl's death; after all, he is just a reporter and he shouldn't be doing the job of the police.  Gordon's father, a retired physician, spends his days concocting various jams, but also has contacts of his own and Gordon often takes advantage of them in his reporting. Zsigmond is not easily frightened, and sticks to a story like glue.  He understands that the story of the dead girl is something he won't be able to write about, but he sticks with it because he also knows he wouldn't be able to look himself in the mirror if he didn't try to do something about it.   There are many shady characters in the book as well; the murderer is one of the most despicable excuses for a human being I've encountered in a crime novel so far. 

The overall tone of Budapest Noir is just that -- noir -- in its connotation of dark or black. There are a few humorous moments but these are rare, as the author focuses on the darkness invading the country and that in the souls of some of his characters.  As a mystery-series opener, it's very good; there is only one section dealing with boxing where there's a lag of any sorts and I skimmed through it quickly to get back to the main action. That's probably a personal thing -- I don't happen to like physical contact sports -- but that section does turn out to be relevant later.  And there's one expression I questioned in terms of translation and anachronism: did the expression "a light bulb went off in your head" really exist in the 1930s? One more thing: the Hungarian word for greeting women is "Csókolom"; and while it is short for the phrase meaning "I kiss your hand," it's usually translated as just "Hello."  Here it is translated out in the full "I kiss your hand," which is awkward English.  Otherwise, I found no issue with the translation.   I found the historical value on par with the crime element in this novel -- not too overdone in terms of period detail like some other works of historical crime fiction, but at the same time it's very obvious that the author has done a great deal of research.  This novel is definitely not for fans of cozy fare, nor is it at all uplifting at the end -- in fact, it is quite sad in a way.  Another thing -- you don't have to know anything about Hungary's interwar-period history to feel comfortable with this book.  It helps, but the author provides enough information via his characters so that you won't feel lost. 

I'd recommend it to readers of crime fiction who like their mystery and mayhem more on the intelligent side rather than what I like to call the "gimmicky serial killer" fare; readers of historical fiction, especially regarding Europe during this time, will also like it.  I'll look forward to the next book and just hope hope hope that some American publisher will pick it up soon.   Budapest Noir is a good first installment of a mystery series, and I don't often say that about a first novel.

crime fiction from Hungary