Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nesbø in the news AND his new book, The Son

I'm sure everyone probably already knows this, but I was delighted to see (according to this article ) that Jo Nesbø's book The Snowman is slated to become a movie.  Personally, that's a movie I'd actually pay to see, but of course, that's if it doesn't get screwed up in the translation from page to screen.  I understand the limits of adaptation but let's face it: many a good book has been totally messed up after becoming a movie.  Maybe if Larry (my spouse) goes to see it when it comes out, it will make him want to read not only Jo Nesbø, but other Scandinavian and foreign crime.  Right now, no matter how much I go on about a crime novel I really liked, he won't pick up anything but home-grown or British books, saying that the foreign names confuse him.  I'm sure he notices the eyeroll I give him in return.   So anyway, the movie is something to look forward to.

And now, for Nesbø's newest venture:

Harvill Secker, 2014
487 pp

hardcover (UK)
 (US edition slated for release May 13, Knopf)

As so often happens, I can't wait the extra time for a book by a favorite author to be released in the United States, so I turn to the UK. More expensive, yes, but I've had this bad boy pre-ordered for months. I love  Jo Nesbø, started reading his books way before he became popular here, and I'm still miffed about people comparing him to Stieg Larsson. Not even close! I liked Larsson's books, but Nesbø is in a class of his own. There are only a handful of Scandinavian writers whose books I still read and Nesbø is definitely in the top tier.  Does his new book match the level of awesomeness of his others? Why, yes it does!

For one thing, Nesbø is the master of twist. He is also the best at keeping my innards tied up knots while I'm reading, hoping everything is going to come out okay for the characters I've grown attached to.  In this newest book, that trend continues. He's one of the very few authors who can write a nearly 500-page book and make it go so quickly that I surprise myself after each day's reading as to how far I've gone.  He's also one of the very few authors that can take a bad guy and before the book is through, have me rooting for him all the way.  Well, at least that's the case in this newest book, The Son, which, in case anyone is wondering, is not another installment of  the Harry Hole series.  This one is a standalone which means that if readers haven't got through Nesbø's  series books, it's okay -- relax -- no need to rush. But do read them if you haven't.

The Son is a fast-paced tale about justice, revenge, redemption, and longstanding secrets that find their way into the present. The story  begins in a prison cell, where prisoner Sonny Lofthus is doing time for a number of crimes he didn't commit.  He has an arrangement: he confesses to crimes in return for heroin to supply his drug habit, his way of coping with the suicide of his father, policeman Ab Lofthus, whom he admired very much. Sonny is  a man with a "blissful Buddha smile," and someone to whom the other prisoners can turn to for "confession," preferring Sonny over the prison chaplain:
"It was the silence. the beckoning vacuum of someone who simply listens without reaction or judgment. Who extracts your words and your secrets from you without doing anything at all."
When the chaplain enters Sonny's cell one day to tell him about another murder that he'll be taking the rap for, Sonny's on board. But things change in an instant when another prisoner, dying of cancer, enters Sonny's cell and tells him that his father's death wasn't a suicide, but a murder. The prisoner tells Sonny that the suicide note left by his dad was a deal he made with his killers: in return for leaving the note, Sonny and his mother would live. Now Sonny wants revenge, and after escaping from prison, sets out to take it.  However, the murder of the prison chaplain and the murdered victim whose death Sonny was ready to take the rap for of course cause the police to intervene -- and when other people start dying, Chief Inspector Simon Kefas and his trainee Kari Adel of the Homicide Squad in Oslo start looking for connections between the deaths, and ultimately find them. That's all I'll give way for plot because I don't want to wreck it, but the story takes a number of strange twists and turns until ultimately old, long-buried secrets slowly rise to the surface leading to some incredibly gut-twisting moments and tough choices to be made throughout the novel. 

I am one of the pickiest crime readers I know, and  I absolutely loved this book. It's one of those stories where I found myself rooting for the bad guy even though he leaves several bodies in his wake. At the same time, the actions of the "bad guy" in this book have to be measured against others who are truly evil -- and as always, Nesbø manages to create some absolutely nefarious, totally repugnant villains.  But the motivations of pretty much all of the main characters come under scrutiny at some point, even the so-called protectors of the peace, proving that there are some matters that cannot be measured in categories of black and white, good or bad. As the novel progressed, I couldn't help but want Sonny to make it -- to escape the cops, to do whatever it takes not to end up back in prison, or worse.  I don't normally take a killer's side, and I do like to see justice done, but as readers will discover, here  it's all a  matter of relativity. I can't explain it without giving things away,  but justice becomes sort of a floaty term in this novel.  There is definitely a lot of violence here but  Nesbø fans will probably be expecting this; there are a couple of personal relationship subplots that do not interfere with the overall action but rather enhance it, and overall, it's just a super terrific novel that I hated having to put down each time real life called.  My only real niggle has to do with Nesbø's decision to insert a character who lives across from Sonny's family home ... the scenes that this character were in just didn't do it for me.  Even though it is through him the reader gains some valuable insight, I think things could have been handled better and differently.  But even so, although this caused  a slight flow issue for me, overall the book is one that any serious Nesbø fan should definitely not miss --the action, the mystery at the very heart of it all, and Nesbø's excellent storytelling all win the day and come together in a truly outstanding crime novel. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough -- I'm just sad that people here have to wait another two weeks to get their hands on it!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus

Minotaur Books, 2013
originally published 2010 as Schneewittchen muss sterben
translated by Steven T. Murray
392 pp


Snow White Must Die is the fourth book in the von Bodenstein/Kirchoff series and the first one of these books to be translated into English.

The goodreads Mystery, Crime and Thriller group has a monthly group read and discussion, and I nominated this book for the April/May slot. It won; by default I became the moderator for the discussion. I'd wanted to read this book anyway, but this turn of events brought the book up to the top of the crime tbr pile.  After reading it, I think no one will ever vote on any book I suggest in the future -- despite all of the rave reviews this book is getting, for me it turned out to be not so hot. And that's putting it nicely.

Set in Germany, the novel begins with the return home of Tobias Sartorius, now 30, who has spent the last ten years in prison for the murder of two teenaged girls, Stefanie Schneeberger and Laura Wagner from the village of Altenhain. Their bodies had never been recovered, but circumstantial evidence and Tobias' inability to remember much about that night (since he'd been drinking) were enough to put him behind bars. Now he's out, and with nowhere else to go, returns to the village to his parents' home. Things at the family farm have deteriorated,  his mom and dad are now divorced and the small community is not happy about a killer being back in their midst. At the same time,  Oliver von Bodenstein, chief superintendent of the Division of Violent Crimes and  his colleague, detective Pia Kirchhoff, of the Division of Violent Crimes, are called in when some construction workers have the misfortune of digging up a skeleton at a former military airfield.  While they're waiting to hear about the forensics, they are put onto another case of a woman who had fallen  off a pedestrian bridge into oncoming traffic. The victim's name is Rita Cramer, and as it happens, this is her maiden name that she starting using after the divorce from her husband, who just happens to be Harmut Sartorius, father of Tobias. The cops are lucky on this one; they have a fuzzy surveillance photo that they show to people in Althein -- but no one seems to know the person. At least that's what they say -- Pia believes that they're all hiding something.  After the skeleton is identified as one of the missing girls supposedly murdered by Tobias, Pia thinks perhaps that case needs a fresh look.  There are any number of people with both motive and opportunity but this won't be an easy case to solve because everybody seems to have secrets.  Add to this mix a young teenaged waitress who decides that Tobias might have been framed and who does some sleuthing of her own.

If the author could have left it at the basic mysteries of this story and their subsequent unravelings, it probably would have been a good crime novel.  But no. First of all, this novel is all over the map -- each time I felt that these puzzles were about to be solved, the author felt like she had to add even more to tease the readers. Unlike the twists and turns that normally delight me as a crime reader, all of these additions just made me even more frustrated and wanting things to end.  I can't give an example without blowing things, but trust me here. Second, while I get that authors throw in the private of lives of their main characters to make them more realistic, here the inclusion of the off-work problems of the cops was way over the top. Pages are spent on Pia's zoning problems with her home; no effort is spared to relate the story of Oliver's faithless wife and his feelings about things, and then there's the saga of Pia's ex-husband and his woman troubles, all of which combined take up way too much of this novel. A mention here and there I could take, but this was like chick-lit in the middle of a crime story. Sadly, I'm starting to see this in a number of crime novels -- if the author is aiming for the widest possible audience, she's succeeding.  Personally I find it kind of a sad trend, but that's just me.  Obviously a lot of people really like it.

As I noted above, there are a lot of people who absolutely loved this book, so once again I find myself swimming against the tide of public opinion. Would I read another book by this author? Probably not. I think she has a good mind for crime, but frankly, if this book is an example of her writing style, it's just not for me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blood Always Tells, by Hilary Davidson

Forge, 2014
320 pp

arc (my many thanks to the author for my copy)

It's the perfect reading day here -- rainy, gray, overcast.  The housecleaner person has been and gone, so it's my one day that rolls around every every two weeks for doing whatever I want to do.  My choice was to finish Blood Always Tells, the newest novel by Hilary Davidson.  Quite honestly, I'm usually up to my neck in really dark noir or I'm into translated crime, so I've not read anything by this author before  and I didn't quite know what to expect.  Once I started reading, it was an easy story to get into and an even easier story to stay with.

Sadly, I can't really give more than a brief overview of this book because it would totally wreck things for potential readers, but I'll tell what I can.  Dominique Monaghan is a former model who becomes entangled with Gary Cowan, former boxer and serious loser.  He's married to a multi-billionaire who was forced to take on a husband by her father or forfeit the family fortune. He's stuck -- he can't divorce her and she can't divorce him without remarrying in thirty days, something she doesn't want to do.   Dominique knows all of this and also knows that Gary's  marriage is a total sham. What she can't forgive though, is that she's seen him in some photos with a young girl who looks like she's still in high school -- so she plans a little blackmail for revenge. But things go terribly awry, and stranded in a strange house, in the middle of the night she manages to make a call to her brother Desmond for help. Desmond, who's been her protector since she was four years old, rushes to her aid. It isn't long until he unwittingly finds himself in the middle of a strange and twisted plot that makes him a person of interest to the police and worse, a target for people who don't like him getting involved in their affairs.

It's interesting how the author structured this novel. It's written in three parts, each headed by a name of a character whose life is tied to a secret of some sort.  These characters also have to weigh whether or not the secrets they keep will put them at an advantage or disadvantage if revealed -- and sometimes the choice is a tough one because of the very human costs involved. The title is also very appropriate -- it's just too bad I can't say why, but whoever reads the book will definitely understand.

This novel is a much lighter sort of book  than  I usually pick up, so I had to approach it a little differently than normal.  Overall,  Blood Always Tells was a pretty good read, and considering my usual fare, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book.   It starts right away  with a complicated and knotty puzzle that drew me in right away; before long there are a lot more questions than answers to sift through  -- my kind of mystery.  There's an added bonus at the beginning as well -- the establishment of a creepy atmosphere with an old house out in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods, where there are no nearby neighbors and where Dominique has no clue where she might be.  While I have to admit to figuring out part of the answers before the ending, there are a number of twists that kept me guessing as to what was really going on here.  That's always a plus -- if I can figure things out easily, I'm very disappointed.   I will say that I enjoyed parts one and two much more than part three -- this one seemed a little rushed to me and not as well developed as the others either in terms of  the characters or in terms of storyline; the ending was also a bit abrupt.  I actually checked to see if there was more after the ending just because I wasn't expecting it to end like it did.   I also thought that the NYC detective guy was maybe a little typecast.  On the other hand, the author writes without having to resort to padding her book with unnecessary sex scenes, cheesy romantic moments,  f-bombs, or the usual chapters on chapters of inner turmoil that many modern authors seem to think must absolutely be part of a crime novel.  She stays on task, and is very no nonsense and to the point, something I very much appreciate.

Blood Always Tells has a solid mystery at its core as well as a few twists I never saw coming.  I think this book would be perfect for crime readers who like the police on the periphery rather than as the main focus of the story.  It's also a good choice for readers who just aren't into the overly-edgy/gritty noirish-type novels and prefer their crime on the lighter side,  meaning that it's  more of a straight-up mystery novel without a lot of sex and  gratuitous violence filling the pages.  I think there are probably many more readers in this category, so it should be a great success.

My thanks again to the author -- I enjoyed leaving my usual darkness-reading self behind for a couple of days!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto

Simon and Schuster, 2011
originally published 2010
258 pp


On the cover of my book there's a big old white circle that advertises that Nic Pizzolatto was the "creator, writer and executive producer of the HBO crime series True Detective."  I'll admit that after watching the series and loving every single second of it, I had to read this book.  So -- after a 3-week delay getting it from the publisher, I got my chance.  Galveston is one of those books I like more for the writing and the author's vision than for the crime element. Beware: there's nothing happy at all about this book -- absolutely nothing. Definitely one right up my alley.

To start this depress-fest, Roy Cady walks out of a doctor's office with a diagonosis of lung cancer. But that isn't the sum total of all of his problems. His girlfriend is sleeping with his boss Stan, a mobster in New Orleans. Going back to Stan's bar, Stan tells Cady he's got a job. He and another enforcer are to go to the home of "a president or former president or attorney for the dockworkers' local" named Sienkiewicz. The stevedores are the subject of a federal probe, and this could mean trouble for Stan and his partners. Stan doesn't want anyone to get hurt "bad;" the visit is to make Sinkiewicz "play for the team."  Cady is told not to take a gun, which strikes him as odd. It all makes sense, though, when Cady and his partner get to their target's home and walks right into an ambush. Sinkiewicz is dead, and the three men in black jumpsuits sporting ski masks turn their gun on Angelo. Luckily, Cady's prepared -- as they go to fire at him, Cady whisks out a stiletto, grabs a gun, and takes care of the three in about five seconds.  He walks out of the place with a folder filled with papers and a young prostitute named Raquel (nicknamed Rocky). Cady knows the handwriting is on the wall  -- that his boss wants him dead -- so he flees with Rocky to East Texas, his own home.   Rocky insists on making a stop and while Cady waits, he hears gunshots and out comes Rocky with her little three year old sister. Cady knows he should dump the pair and take off, but he just can't, and they move on to Galveston, holing up in a third-rate hotel filled with a strange crew of lost and misfit souls.  It's a decision that will end up costing him much more than he realizes.  This all happens in 1987; Cady relates the story from 2008, still looking over his shoulder, with hurricane Ike on the way. 

The crime in this book is downright gritty and there are a number of violent scenes throughout the novel, but for me, all of that is secondary.  It's the landscape in the backdrop and the characters around whom the drama in this book takes place that make this less-than-upbeat book so excellent.   For the most part, all of the characters are so well imagined that you can't help but want to get into their lives, even for just a minute or two.  Take, for example, the lives that  play out at the rundown off-beach Emerald Shores motel in Galveston.  Among them is the owner, Nancy, who when Cady first meets her, is listening to radio talk shows about the New World Order and the Mark of the Beast. Nancy notes that Texas will be the "ones to shoot back" when the UN invades.  Her ex-husband is Lance, who still loves her and makes breakfast each morning on his grill for the guests.  In Number 2 there's a man who came for a job on a rig that didn't exist when he got there, bringing with him  two kids "and a woman" who "gets fatter every day."  He is described as having
"a  big face, long and wide, a little skipping stone of a chin, and a fat, smooth neck that erased his jawline. his hair was longish and unkempt, a wifebeater T and stiff, smelly jeans stretched by a cannonball gut that made his back curve inward."
Even before the author tells you so,  you just know in your gut that  this family is going to come to a bad end. There's also Tray, the motorcycle rider with foil on his windows, product of a group home and  a kid who thinks he's tough, but has no clue what it really takes to be bad.  He is a junkie, though, and Cady knows that he can't be trusted.   Then there's Cady himself, who in one of the most impressive scenes of the novel goes to visit his former love Carmen, now living in a security-guarded community and on her way to her Junior League meeting as he arrives. It's through Carmen that  Cady comes to understand  that a lot of the rosy past he's been holding on to was screened through his own alcohol haze -- his vision of their past in no way matches hers. Another thing about Cady -- with the cancer death sentence hanging over him, he doesn't have much to lose. 

If you want to focus solely on crime, there's enough of that in here to satisfy, but if you're looking for genuinely good writing that focuses on inner lives and makes the outer landscape a part of the story, you'll find that here as well. This book is so well done. Even when it lags it's good, as you get an honest feel for the  people and the place before the next jarring event happens, sometimes out of nowhere.  This is a book that definitely won't be for everyone, but I really liked it and I'd be happy to read anything this author writes in the future.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier

Mulholland, 2013
originally published as Glacé, 2011
translated by Alison Anderson
478 pp


There's something to be said about using an isolated asylum for the criminally insane as a locale in a crime fiction novel -- in fact, the setting is one of the reasons I bought this book.  I know that sounds really bad, but I can't help it. I think it comes from reading all of those HP Lovecraft stories where the narrator is stuck in an asylum because he has encountered something that made his mind snap, and no one believes him.  There's nothing like that here, but in this book,  the asylum set in the French Pyrenees does house some pretty bad people.   The Frozen Dead is definitely not a cozy read; it's more of a police procedural where the cops are faced with some pretty grisly crimes.   Some of the storyline seemed a little out there at times, but more on that later. Overall, though, it definitely held my interest and the nearly 500 pages flew by because I got so caught up in it all.

On their way to a four-week stint at a hydroelectric power station, maintenance workers taking the cable car up the mountain near Saint-Martin de Comminges see what looks like a large bird hanging "above the platform, just below the cables and pulleys, as if suspended in the air." As it turns out though, this is no bird, but rather a horse. Commandant Martin Servaz from Toulouse is summoned to the scene, not knowing that the murder victim is a horse. He realizes that he's there because the animal is a prize thoroughbred owned by Éric Lombard, a wealthy man from "a financial dynasty, captains of industry, entrepreneurs who had reigned over this patch of the Pyrenees, over the département, and even over the region, for six decades or more."  Servaz is none too happy -- at home he's busy working on the case of a homeless man who was beaten to death by three teens. The scene of the crime is not far from the Wargnier Institute, an asylum for the criminally insane whose residents are there because no other institution will house them, and the crime scene unit finds DNA belonging to a legendary murderer who is now a resident there. But according to the powers that be at Wargnier, there is no possible way the man could have escaped and returned -- the Institute is well secured.  It isn't long, however, until a man is found hanging from a bridge.  The investigation into who is behind it all turns into a race to both find the killer and prevent yet another murder.   While the author delves into the mystery, he also adds in another storyline in which a psychologist named Diane Berg arrives to start her work at the Institute -- and finds out that there is indeed something very odd going on behind the walls and the closed doors. 

There are really three mysteries at the heart of this story. First, of course, is the mystery of who is behind all of the murders; second (related to the first)  is the connection that links all of these deaths together, and third is the puzzler behind what's going on at the Institute. As a whole, the book is well crafted and suspenseful  enough to keep the reader turning pages, with an added bonus of  a number of plausible suspects to keep the reader guessing.  I thought I had it figured out twice and was way off the mark both times. For me, that's the sign of a good crime writer -- if I can't guess the who or the why, well, I'm happy that the author didn't make things so easy, appealing to the armchair detective in me.  This is also a very atmospheric book -- and not just because of the inclusion of an asylum for the criminally insane. The author is very good at ratcheting tension, always maintaining an aura of suspense throughout. Plus, the story goes back in time to revisit the sins of the past and how they've come to haunt the present.  Another appealing and well-crafted aspect of this novel is the author's evocation of place -- not only  the physical locale (which made me want to bundle up and visit there in the winter)  but also in terms of the social ills of the times: senseless violence as an outlet for the younger generation, the state of mental health treatment, corporate greed, power and influence, and much more.  Turning to the niggles: the biggest one is that  while I was okay (and surprised) with who the culprit turned out to be, the ending was off somehow -- it was like the author put in so much time and detail into the overall investigation and then well, there's the end of the book. Very quick, very short, and not enough explanation to make it completely satisfying. There's also the time spent in this book on Servaz's relationship with his daughter and his past -- this is a personal preference, and I realize that authors want their main characters to come off as real as possible, but there are ways to accomplish this without clogging the main flow of the crime story.  Other people don't mind this aspect of crime novels so much -- but to me,  it just gets in the way of what's going on in the investigation. It also adds a lot of a) distraction and b) unnecessary page count. 

I have to say that even with the niggles I really liked The Frozen Dead, and I'll be eagerly awaiting the release of other books from this author.  This isn't a book for the fainthearted cozy reader, and it's much better than many police procedurals I've read in the past. It's a clever mix of mystery and suspense  that will keep the reader guessing right up until the very end.  Definitely recommended for fans of translated crime fiction and those readers who want something with much more edge than the average police procedural.