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.

call for contributions to Mystery Readers Journal

Janet Rudolph has just issued a call for contributions – reviews, short essays, or author reflections – for a forthcoming issue on Scandinavian crime fiction. Here are the details:

The next issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Volume 30:4) will focus on Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Looking for reviews, articles and Author! Author! essays. Books can be written by Scandinavian writers or set in Scandinavian countries (or both). Reviews: 50-250 words; Articles: 250-1000 words; Author! Author essays: 500-1500 words. Author essays should be first person, about yourself, your books, and the ‘Scandinavian connection’. Think of it as chatting with friends and other writers in the bar or cafe. Add a 2-3 sentence bio/tagline. Deadline: January 10. Send to: Janet Rudolph, Editor. janet@mysteryreaders.orgMRJ 2007 cover

I’m sure some of this blogs’ readers have good things to share. If you’re not familiar with this publication, you may want to browse past issues or check out the 2007 issue devoted to Scandinavian crime fiction.