new issue of Mystery Readers Journal on Scandi Crime Fiction

Yay! Mystery Readers Journal has a second special issue on Scandinavian Mysteries out. Check out that tempting table of contents.

Thanks to the kind permission of Janet Rudolph, who moonlights as a perpetual motion machine, I am reprinting an essay I contributed  (also posted at Janet’s Mystery Fanfare blog).

Reparations: World War II in Scandinavian Fiction

Many readers’ perceptions of Scandinavia as a peaceful, socially-progressive region have been shaped by childhood history lessons. Sweden was neutral during World War II. Norwegians bravely resisted German occupation. Finland fought for its independence both from the Soviets and the Nazis. Danes followed their king’s example and wore yellow stars of David to show solidarity with Danish Jews. In fact, these stories are at best half-truths, patriotic narratives that helped Scandinavian countries recover their dignity as they established strong post-war societies.

The reality was messier. Sweden’s iron ore supported German munitions factories and enriched Swedes. Thousands of Norwegians fought for Germany on the Eastern Front. Finland maintained a democratically-elected government throughout the war, but was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union, which had attacked Finland and seized territory. Danes took heroic efforts to help Danish Jews escape deportation to German camps, but neither Jews nor gentiles wore the yellow star in Denmark.

Crime writers have been drawn to debunking these patriotic myths while interrogating national identities, an urgent issue as immigration increased following the end of the Cold War. Neo-Nazi nationalist movements developed strength in the 1990s. Extremist nationalism showed its most horrific face when a white supremacist systematically murdered 77 Norwegians, most of them children, in July 2011. These perturbations have led writers to probe their nations’ historic relationships with Nazism.

Kerstin Bergman writes, in her excellent critical survey, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir that many Swedish writers have undertaken this task, but their historical reckoning only goes so far.  Nazi sympathizers in fiction are never viewed as truly Swedish but rather as aberrations that need to be acknowledged and rejected. InHenning Mankell’s Return of the Dancing Master, a colleague of Kurt Wallander on sick leave investigates a case that reveals an extensive Nazi network hidden beneath the placid Swedish surface. Yet the reader doesn’t conclude that Swedish culture accommodates hateful beliefs; rather, the message is that racism is something foreign that needs to be diagnosed and rooted out, just like the detective’s potentially silencing illness – cancer of the tongue.

Stieg Larsson, who mashed together practically every popular culture trope in his crowd-pleasing Millennium Trilogy, was a left-wing journalist who exposed the doings of the neo-Nazi movement and was the subject of death threats as a result. It’s not surprising that he added to the general misogyny and warped sexual appetites of his wealthy industrialist antagonists in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a Nazi past.

More recently, Camilla Läckberg addressed the legacy of the war in The Hidden Child. Läckberg’s highly traditional and romantic series features extraordinary murders committed on a picturesque island. The murderers motives are often traced to bad parenting. Läckberg’s happily married protagonists uphold traditional family values and gender roles as they solve crimes. Though The Hidden Child addresses Sweden’s involvement in World War II, it’s sugar-coated. Decent Swedes secretly supported the Norwegian resistance while only horrid people took the side of the Germans. The mystery revolves around a diary and a Nazi medal that one of the series protagonists finds among her mother’s effects which may unlock the mystery of why she was so unloving. The story layers the present investigation and the past, depicting the war experience as if Sweden was an occupied country that bravely resisted the Nazis, not a neutral state that took in Jewish refugees while it provided significant and profitable material support to Germany. Though it’s an effective page-turner that attempts to depict the lasting trauma of war, it paints a rosy picture of Swedish patriotism in wartime.

Åsa Larsson creates a more complex story in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which also has a layered chronology. In the present, police in northern Sweden are investigating the death of two divers who were searching for a plane that went down in a lake during the war. A dysfunctional family, ruled by an odious old man and his greedy wife had made their wealth during the war when ore mined in the north was shipped to Germany. In this case, the motivations of the Swedes who worked with Germans are more thoroughly explored and the extent of the country’s involvement with the German war machine is exposed, but those involved are depicted as greedy and monstrous outliers who don’t reflect Swedish values.

Perhaps the most intriguing exploration of a Scandinavian nation’s denial of the past is found in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, which also has extensive passages set in the past following the fate of a group of Norwegians who fought the Soviets alongside the Germans during the occupation. After being wounded, one of them ends up in Austria where he falls in love with a nurse and schemes to smuggle her to safety as the world around them burns. In the present, the police are wondering if neo-Nazis will disrupt the celebration of Norwegian Independence day. Detective Harry Hole tries to connect the purchase of an illegal long-range rifle with a series of murders and discovers that the killer they seek likely fought on the Eastern Front, is an excellent sharpshooter, and quite possibly is suffering from multiple personality disorder.

At one point in the novel, a reporter asking a public official about Norway’s occupation likens it the Austrian Anschluss, a notion that the official strongly denies and finds completely puzzling. Yet throughout the novel, the patriotic notion that Norwegians generally supported the resistance is put to the test. In the world of the novel, many Norwegians joined with the Nazis and took their punishment when the war ended. Most were content to support the Nazis until it was clear they were losing the war, at which point, when it was a safe bet, they denounced the occupiers. In this analysis, the rise of neo-Nazism is not simply an aberrant response to immigration but an outgrowth of suppressed history. Eventually the killer does turn out to be two people in one body: a flamboyant Eastern Front sharpshooter coexisting with an elderly man who convinced others he had been a loyal member of the resistance. Nesbø suggests the nation itself is suffering from a split personality – a public persona that is peaceful and tolerant concealing a national identity that is too close to Nazism for comfort.

This historical reexamination of race and identity is extending into new areas. Two recent Danish novels, The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen and The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel take a fresh look at punitive ways the Danish state treated women who were deemed defective and locked away, justifying their treatment with eugenic theories as recently as the 1970s. The Nina Borg series by Leena Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis tackles the difficulties immigrants encounter in contemporary Denmark. Arne Dahl and Jens Lapidus have written ground-breaking series that explore the entanglement of Swedish society with a globalized Europe. Scandinavian writers who have challenged the accepted narrative of the wartime past have contributed to this work by exposing the historic roots of a contemporary challenge: redefining Scandinavian national identities in a multicultural world.

review of Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Here’s another review reposted from the long-running review site, Reviewing the Evidence, a good place to find over 10,000 reviews of books that in some cases might otherwise get overlooked. Thanks to them for allowing me to repost this one here.

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME
by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and Philip Roughton, trans.
Minotaur Books, February 2015
328 pages
$25.99

For such a small country, Iceland has an unusually high rate of crime – though only in fiction. In the fifth book featuring lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttor, quite a lot is going on. A young man with Down Syndrome is locked up in an institution for

Someone to Watch Over Me coverthe criminally insane after being convicted of setting fire to his assisted living home, killing five people. His mother is convinced he couldn’t have done it. So is a creepy and deeply disturbed man named Jósteinn, who hires Thóra to reopen the investigation for reasons she doesn’t entirely trust. But times are dire after the great financial crash and Thóra reluctantly takes the case.

But that’s not all! A young mother living at home with a toddler believes her house is haunted. A radio talk-show host is getting strange threatening calls on-air, a hit-and-run incident that killed a young girl has gone unsolved, and one of the survivors of the arson attack has experienced a trauma she can’t explain because she suffers from locked-in syndrome. Add to that, Thóra’s home life has grown complicated when her parents are forced to move in (to a house already crowded with her two children, her son’s girlfriend, and an unexpected grandchild). Her pleasant but unemployed German boyfriend Matthew might grow weary of life in post-crash Iceland and decide to return home.

There’s more than enough plot in this story and, while the author does a good job drawing memorable characters, there are a lot of them to keep track of. Bit by bit, Thóra gathers together the pieces of an extremely complicated puzzle. The author, fond of ghost stories (and her standalone novel, I REMEMBER YOU, is an excellent one) adds a bit more than a touch of the supernatural to this tale, but most of the plot revolves around the motivations of the assisted-living home staff, the experiences of the residents and their families, and Thóra’s growing conviction that her Down Syndrome client is truly innocent, all with the economic ruin of the small nation as backdrop.

Though the author throws too many puzzle pieces on the table, patient readers who enjoy a complex plot may well enjoy helping an appealing protagonist work through them, connecting bits together, looking for the piece that will fill that oddly-shaped hole, watching the whole picture emerge.

a few bits and bobs for the ScandiFan

Thanks to Urbanomic’s Yarnwork podcast series there’s a really wonderful in-deph interview with Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen, whose Varg Veum series is a long-running and much-beloved private detective series that gives the American PI tradition a Nordic twist. Though there were not a lot of private eyes at work in Norway when the series started in the 1970s, this character was able to solve the kinds of crimes that fit Norwegian society from then to the present, winning a pasionate audience. It’s delightful to hear from the author and also to hear him read from his books. Brilliant.

Jørn Lier Horst is joining the group blog, Murder is Everywhere, where he will join a number of writers who take us to various interesting parts of the world.

Novelist and reviewer Sarah Ward of Crimepieces compiles a good list of Scandinavian crime novels in translation for W.H. Smith booksellers.

Another novelist and reviewer, Margot Kinberg, takes a spotlight to Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, giving it a thorough and thoughtful analysis.

In other not-really-news, I’m still very slowly updating my site. So happy that there are people who are more on top of new things like Karen Meek of Euro Crime and the dynamic duo, Lucinda Suber and Stan Ulrich, who are behind the Stop You’re Killing Me Site. I don’t know what avid readers would do without you and other Internet-based forms of perpetual motion.

perpetual motion machine

Norman Rockwell Popular Science image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Beige Man by Helene Tursten – a review

The latest issue of Revewing the Evidence includes some tempting new mysteries. Be sure to check it out. Meanwhile, with the kind permission of RTE’s editor, is a repost of my latest review – a newly translated entry in the Swedish police procedural featuring Irene Huss.

THE BEIGE MAN 
by Helen Tursten and Madeleine Delargy, trans.
Soho, February 2015

Helene Tursten’s police procedural series, set in Göteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city, does a good job of straddling the line between dark, gritty realism and a more lighthearted and hopeful view of the world. That balancing act is featured in the latest of the series to be translated into English, first published in 2007.

The port city of Göteborg is trapped in a particularly nasty winter storm when two delinquents, joy riding in a stolen car, strike and kill a retired policeman. As the police pursue the fleeing pair, they find the car abandoned and follow the trail into the woods with tracker dogs, who alert to a root cellar. When they open the doors, they find something unexpected: the body of a young girl, sexually abused and strangled. She seems to have been a sex trafficking victim who had reached the end of her exploitable life. The two investigations are full of open questions: who stole the car? What was “Muesli,” the retired police officer who’d earned a reputation for being boringly unremarkable, doing on that street in the night without his coat? Who was the girl whose body was accidentally discovered on the same night as Muesli’s hit-and-run, and what is behind her tragic, sordid fate?

As readers have come to expect from Swedish crime fiction, the plot exposes and explores an unsavory aspectThe Beige Man cover of contemporary life in Scandinavia. Detective Irene Huss learns more than she ever wanted to know about a brutal international trade in sex slaves. The girl whose death she investigates (nicknamed by the team “the Little Russian” because she has no other name to go by) appears to have been brought to Sweden by a criminal gang moving girls from one country to another with false passports, never staying in one place long enough to be caught. This particular victim had been suffering from a serious infection and, no longer able to perform, had been disposed of like trash. Irene follows a lead to Tenerife, where she finds it hard to distinguish between criminal gangs and law enforcement authorities. Long-time readers of this series will recall other times when investigations have lead Irene abroad, offering a contrast between societies as well as a chance for Irene to get into real trouble.

As Irene peers into the darker depths of human behavior, she also faces challenges at home. Her daughters are leaving the nest, her elderly mother is unwell, and worst of all, her beloved dog Sammie is nearing the end of his life. These domestic threads are the weft of the series, holding stories about violence together in a reassuring and refreshingly ordinary domestic pattern. This may be drawback for readers looking for a high-tension story arc, but this intricately-plotted mix of light and darkness connects serious social problems to a world that looks very familiar, making those issues more unavoidably real.

review redux: Where Monsters Dwell by Jørgen Brekke

I reviewed this book for Reviewing the Evidence in early 2014. I just got another advanced copy – apparently it is just coming out in paperback. So in its honor, here’s the review, reprinted with permission from RTE.The tl;dr version: gory and implausible but not without talent. Another RTE reviewer, Sharon Mensing, liked it better, so you may want to read her dissenting opinion.

WHERE MONSTERS DWELL
by Jørgen Brekke and Steven T. Murray, trans.
Minotaur Books, February 2014 (paperback, January 2015)

First, the good news: Jørgen Brekke has created a couple of compelling lead characters, one a Norwegian detective in the far northern city of Trondheim who is recovering from brain tumor surgery and the other an American detective who has not recovered from a sexual assault she endured as a teenager. In addition to some well-drawn characters, Brekke can set upWhere Monsters Dwell a scene so that you want to keep turning the pages. The translation reads well.

The bad news: pretty much everything else. The story is gruesome, implausible, over-long, some of the characters make little sense, and the plot doesn’t live up to its ambitions.

The story opens with a two-page prologue about a child hiding under his bed from the man who just killed his mother and is on his way upstairs to do the same to him. (We finally find out how that connects to the story much later, making this a prime example of why many readers hate prologues.) The narrative switches to a 16th-century monk making his way home to Norway after being abroad, shopping for some very sharp knives. Then we have a grisly murder at the Edgar Allan Poe museum in Virginia in and another one in a Trondheim library. Both crimes appear to involve rare books made out of human skin – and humans whose skin is being harvested by their killer for purposes unknown but most likely quite mad. We follow all three storylines, with the present-day stories connecting long before the historical one does.

Parts of the story are fairly well done, but the parts that are original and accomplished are overwhelmed in the end by Hollywood-style villainy that makes it seem as if it’s a mixed-medium artwork: an oil painting begun and finished with crayon. Though the English title is completely different from its Norwegian original (Nådens omkrets means something along the lines of “the circumference of mercy”), it is perhaps a more fitting title. WHERE MONSTERS DWELL was also the title of a 1970s Marvel comic.

Those who enjoy a thriller and aren’t bothered by gore or non sequeturs may enjoy this story. The rest of us can wish the author, who shows promise, better luck next time.

review of Chain of Evidence by Fredrik T. Olsson

I should probably put a caveat somewhere on this blog: I’m not fond of thrillers (except when I am). So take that into account when I write a grumpy review. You’ve been warned. This review came out at Reviewing the Evidence and is reposted here with permission.

CHAIN OF EVENTS
by Fredrik T. Olsson and Dominic Hinde, trans.
Little, Brown, November 2014
432 pages

If you enjoy a good thriller featuring ancient coded messages and secretive international organizations and you don’t mind taking off your disbelief suspenders while you relax with a big fat adventure story, this Swedish doorstopper may be for you. If your eyes have a tendency to roll while reading, your ophthalmologist may advise against it.

The high concept thriller from Sweden involves two people searching for their missing partners. In one case, a reporter is convinced her depressive ex-husband, a brilliant cryptographer, hasn’t found a quiet place to commit suicide, as the police surmise. In another a brilliant young scholar’s fiancé is trying to get over her abrupt disappearance. The story cuts between their attempts to figure out what’s going on and the experiences of the two people who have been scooped up by a secret international government organization that has been trying for years to crack an ancient code that predicts the imminent end of the world.

Chain of EventsIt seems the ancients were somehow aware that our entire history is laid out in our DNA. Since their warnings are in cuneiform and in code, they need both a scholar of ancient languages and a cryptographer to decipher them. But those two have far more to decipher: what is this organization? What do they already know? What are they hiding? Is it already too late to crack the code? The answer to that last question grows pressing as a deadly and extremely contagious plague breaks out and rapidly spreads throughout Europe.

The good news is that Fredrik Olsson is a screenwriter and knows his way around disaster movies, conspiracy thrillers, action scenes, and dystopian environmental horror stories. It’s a gripping read with interesting characters – so long as you don’t pause to think.

The bad news is that his skilled storytelling is wasted on a preposterous tale about a totally secret organization located in the heart of Europe that has been trying to decode ancient riddles for decades but apparently has to kidnap people to get good help. We’re asked to believe that somehow the future of the species is written in secret code in our DNA, which was unraveled millennia before Watson and Crick. And it takes advantage of our desire to be afraid. Very afraid.

This book’s release happened to coincide with an Ebola outbreak that fired up Western anxiety about contagion, which makes the gleefully gruesome descriptions of a horrible and fast-spreading hemorrhagic plague either timely or tasteless, depending on your tolerance for fear-driven narratives and gore.

In the end, there is something of a philosophical moral to the story that is somewhat redemptive, but it takes an awful lot of special effects and explosions to get there.

pardon the dust …

I’m making a few site changes here, trying to make this blog more readable by trying a new theme and putzing aound a bit with the layout and content. This is almost surely going to take a while, because I also need to update my listings of English translations which is perennially out of date. Sorry about the mess. But I hope you will like darker lettering – what’s up with all the gray letters on white backgrounds? Don’t know where that trend came from but I find it hard to read.