Review of The Father by Anton Svensson

Over at Reviewing the Evidence I reviewed The Father by two men writing under the name Anton Svensson. It would be a pretty good primer for robbing banks, but mostly it’s a family saga with crime and is based on a true story.

Publishers and librarians have designated certain kinds of books as “women’s fiction.” Though the definition of this genre is fuzzy, these books are typically focused on conflicts within relationships and the emotional journey of women characters. THE FATHER is in a way very much like “women’s fiction” with a large dose of testosterone. The heart of this story is family relationships among three boys, raised by an abusive father who emigrated0751557838-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_ to Sweden from the Balkans. When Ivan isn’t working as a laborer, he’s drinking wine and training his boy to fight for their honor. The novel switches between “then” – the story of their fraught childhood – and “now” – when the three brothers and a childhood friend have formed a highly efficient team of bank robbers.

Though a great deal of this long novel is taken up with the planning and execution of a series of highly-organized and daring robberies, the emotional heart of the story is in the bonds of loyalty and closeness that grew out of a twisted view of fatherhood. In a particularly harrowing scene, Ivan takes his sons to the house where their mother had taken refuge. When she refuses to return to her violent husband, he forces one of the boy to throw a Molotov cocktail at the house. Though torn between his parents, the necessity to belong to the clan persists into adulthood when an increasingly reckless string of crimes challenges the brothers’ commitment to one another.

Anton Svensson is a pseudonym for Stefan Thunberg, a highly successful screenwriter, and Anders Roslund, an investigative reporter known for his crime thrillers written with ex-convict Börge Hellström. THE FATHER is the first in planned series with the title “Made in Sweden.” This Swedish bestseller, optioned for film by Steven Spielberg, is based on a notorious true story. In the 1990s, Stefan Thunberg’s brothers robbed several banks and became known as “the military gang.” THE FATHER is a fictional exploration of the intense relationship of three boys and their angry, explosive father that eventually led the eldest son to form a criminal gang. It’s not so much the technical execution of crimes that propels the story as the emotional relationships as the eldest son tries to create with his brothers and a friend the kind of blindly loyal clan that was his father’s ideal. Whether he can hold that group together while committing increasingly daring crimes keeps the pages turning in what is a highly masculine version of relationship-centered “women’s fiction.” It’s a shame the translator, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, isn’t named on the title page, as the translation is smooth and effective.

Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Once again, I’m reposting a review that I wrote originally for Reviewing the Evidence. I must say, I really enjoyed this book.

It’s an eerie sight: people waiting on a dark night in Reykjavik for a luxury yacht to arrive1250051487-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_ see it coming into port, but it unexpectedly scrapes alongside the harbor wall, finally crashes into a jetty. No, the captain isn’t drunk. He has vanished, along with his crew and the couple with two young daughters who were traveling home to Iceland. Nobody can understand how the ship arrived with nobody aboard. What’s happened to them all?

Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir has a difficult case to handle. The elderly parents of the missing young father need to know where he is. They’re caring for the couple’s youngest daughter, and they’re worried that social services will take the child into care. They also wonder about the generous life insurance policy that their son had taken out not long before the fateful trip. Would that money go their granddaughter? How would things ever be settled when they couldn’t be sure if their son and his family are alive or not?

This is beyond Thóra’s experience, but she gamely does what she can to establish what happened to the missing family and crew. The missing son, Ægir, had taken his family aboard at the last moment. He’d been working for a bank, settling the financial affairs of a bankrupt man who had lost everything in the crash, and decided to make a family holiday out of a work trip to Portugal to reclaim the luxurious yacht. When one of the crew got drunk and broke his leg, Ægir volunteered to take his place, so long as his wife and daughter could come with him. The last they were heard of was shortly after leaving port, apart from a garbled message about finding a body aboard. It’s all very mysterious, made even more so when Thóra searches the ship to see if she can find any documents or personal effect that can shed light on her clients’ son and catches the glimpse of a phantom child out of the corner of her eye.

Alternating the efforts Thóra makes as she tries to establish what happened to the young family are chapters relating what happened on board. At first, the family is excited to have an unexpected voyage, but soon the risks of taking two small children to sea become a concern, particularly as none of the communications equipment seems to work properly and strains appear among the crew. There are strange sounds coming from the hold, and sometimes they can smell a whiff of the distinctive perfume worn by the wife of the former owner, a flamboyant Icelandic celebrity whose whereabouts are currently unknown. Before long, things go seriously wrong.

This is a departure for Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, but in a way is consistent with her style. There has always been a very light touch of the supernatural hovering over the books in this series, though always a plausible explanation made available for skeptics. The author has also written an accomplished ghost story, I REMEMBER YOU, a horror story with elements of a mystery. Here, we have a mystery, investigated by a down-to-earth lawyer and her rude, crude, but sometimes insightful secretary Bella. We also have the creepy suspense of being with a family trapped on a ship on an increasingly nightmarish voyage where we know things are going wrong and it will only get worse.

Perhaps it’s relevant that the real-life backdrop to the story is a crippling financial crash that followed years of glittering excess for a small island nation. The illusory wealth created by crooked financial schemes turned out to be hollow, leaving the city of Reykjavik surrounded by ghost estates and the economy and many lives shattered.

Or perhaps the author simply enjoys giving readers a good scare. It’s a compelling novel, spooky and disturbing, right up to the final unsettling pages.

Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø

Another repost from Reviewing the Evidence. To be honest, I was a bit reluctant to read more Nesbø, a once-favorite writer whose work since THE DEVIL’S STAR began to seem over-long, over-plotted, and too predictably full of twists, like a carnival ride that’s trying too hard or a film where most of the budget went into special effects. I found the setting, brevity, and relative lack of fireworks in this one surprisingly satisfying, partly I suspect because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it much.

MIDNIGHT SUN
by Jo Nesbø
translated by Neil Smith

Jo Nesbø is a man of many talents. His official biography seems like a randomly-selected set of words from a careers test: musician, economist, footballer, writer. He’s best known 0385354207-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_for his Harry Hole series, in which a tortured but brilliant detective, battling alcoholism and a corrupt system, solves complex crimes in a Norway that is inexplicably overrun by clever serial killers. These are long books full of meticulous plotting, vivid characters, lots of creative gore, and emotional drama lightened with touches of humor. Recent departures from the series include THE HEADHUNTERS (a short stand-alone featuring an unlovable corporate recruiter/art thief) and THE SON (a long stand-alone in which a spiritual drug addict assassinates people who wronged his father while remaining curiously charming).

BLOOD ON SNOW launched a new series about a small-time drug dealer in 1970s Oslo who reluctantly becomes a hitman for a drug lord before becoming a target himself. As MIDNIGHT SUN opens, we meet this man who has decided to call himself Ulf, because – why not? He has taken a bus to the northernmost county in Norway that reaches across the top of Sweden and Finland to border Russia. He’s on the run and he knows there’s no place to hide, but he’ll try, in the vast, bleak emptiness of the Finnmark plateau. “It’s like Mars,” he thinks. “A red desert. Uninhabitable and cruel. The perfect hiding place.”

It’s not uninhabitable, as he discovers, meeting a joker of a Sami herder and a kind woman at a church, where he’s gone to sleep after getting off the bus in the middle of the night with the midnight sun in his eyes. There’s also her son and a preacher and various other townsfolk who make a hardscrabble living. He begins to feel at home, but it’s not a place where he can hide for long. The harsh weather isn’t as cruel as the southerners he’s running from.

This novel is the opposite of the plot-intensive Harry Hole series. Though the threat is always around the corner, “Ulf” takes a philosophic approach to his new and possibly short life, setting up camp in a borrowed hunting cabin and spending time with the woman, who belongs to a Laestadian fundamentalist sect but is chafing under its strict rules and her abusive husband. He gets to know her young son, Sami herders, and villagers, coming to appreciate the strangeness and austere beauty of this remote part of the world.

This is a short book that pays more attention to the narrator’s state of mind and the landscape than to intricate plotting (though there are plot threads that offer some knots to untangle). The hitman is actually an easy-going fellow who would rather not kill anyone and isn’t very good at it, anyway. It’s a gentler and funnier book than one might expect and, apart from one gruesome moment which is almost folkloric in nature, the violence is relatively minimal. When Nesbø leaves the mean streets for the far north, readers are in for something different – and it’s a surprisingly pleasant journey.

Hostage by Kristina Ohlsson: A Review

I recently reviewed this book for Reviewing the Evidence. Lots of fun, but it’s not something to read on a plane.

HOSTAGE
by Kristina Ohlsson and Marlaine Delargy (trans)
Emily Bestler Books, November 2015
400 pages
$16.00
ISBN: 1476734038

Kristina Ohlsson has published three police procedurals featuring academic consultant Fredrika Bergman and a team of Stockholm detectives led by Alex Recht. Her fourth novel is a departure, as she draws on her professional experience as a counter-terrorism officer for Europe’s Organization for Security and Cooperation.

Hours after a spate of false-alarm bomb threats in Stockholm, a note is found on a jumbo1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_ jet carrying 400 passengers bound for New York. There’s a bomb aboard, and the plane will be blown up if it lands without two demands being met. Sweden must reverse a decision to deport an Algerian asylum-seeker and the US must shut down Tennyson Cottage. Swedish officials aren’t sure what Tennyson Cottage is, and once they find out that it’s an American secret detention facility in Afghanistan, they can’t see any connection between it and the man Säpo (Sweden’s national security service) has just declared a threat to Sweden.

Fredrika Bergman, who has left the police and gone to work for the Justice department, is called in to help uncover whoever is behind the bomb threat along with Säpo’s Eden Lundell, a flamboyant legendary agent, and Fredrika’s former boss Alex Recht, fresh from dealing with four simultaneous bomb threats that were false alarms. They have only a matter of hours to determine whether there really is a bomb aboard the plane.

This is an admirably intelligent thriller that ticks down the hours as both Swedish and American authorities scramble to uncover who is behind the threat and what the best course of action may be. Though neither government will negotiate with terrorists, Fredrika has serious qualms about the case against asylum seeker Zakaria Khelifi. American officials refuse to share any information about their detention facility, making it difficult to see how the two demands are connected and what the motive is. Meanwhile, the pilot is stubbornly insisting that the only way to keep his passengers and crew safe is to do what the note instructs. He will fly the plane until the demands are met – or the fuel runs out.

Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht are certain that the solution is to be found in the connection between the secret American detention facility and their possibly innocent asylum seeker. Säpo’s Eden Lundell battles the Americans’ insistence on avoiding another terrorist attack, whatever the cost, while trying to figure out why the pilot is so intent on following the instructions in the note found on board. The airliner’s crew is trying to keep the passengers from knowing too much. On both sides of the Atlantic, too many people in different agencies are withholding information from one another and time is running short.

Ohlsson uses this nail-biting premise to investigate the gray areas between security and freedom, between a society governed by democratic laws and one that demands safety at all cost. Published in Swedish in 2012, two years after a suicide bombing in Stockholm shook the nation, the novel succeeds both as a brisk thriller and as a timely exploration of European and American approaches to national security in an uncertain world.

Noir in the North (Atlantic)

This just in from the Crime Studies Network . . .  sounds like a cracking good conference.

We have had an exciting range and number of submission for Noir in the North (16-17 Nov 2016) and are extending the deadline to ensure that mid-term malaise hasn’t held back anyone from submitting.  Please note the revised deadline of 10th December 2015 to noirinthenorth@gmail.com.  The event will run in conjunction with the Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival, and the conference is delighted to confirm our keynote speakers – Mary Evans (LSE), Bruce Robbins (Columbia), Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Val McDermid.

Come join us in the land of the midnight sun for crime, the northern lights, and hot springs at a conference in the cosmopolitan and friendly city of Reykjavik.

Please circulate widely to colleagues and networks –

Many thanks

The Conference Organisers

Noir in the North

16-17 November 2016

University of Iceland

The Killing, Wallander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Nordic Noir has been a dominant part of global detective fiction, film and television in the past two decades. But what are the parameters of this genre, both historically and geographically? What is noirish and what is northern about Nordic Noir? This conference invites proposals which either investigate the specifics of noir in a particular text or which interrogate more broadly the notion of Nordic Noir.

Can Nordic Noir be used to identify, for example, some aspects of the work of other Nordic authors, such as Halldór Laxness, Isak Dinesen or Vilhem Moberg? What is the relationship between earlier Scandinavian crime fiction, such as that by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and Nordic Noir? How does work like the Shetland novels by Ann Cleeves fit within the parameters of Nordic Noir?  What part has translation played in the history and global circulation of Nordic Noir?

More broadly, the conference will address the following questions: How does Nordic Noir challenge the traditional critical histories of noir? What new genealogies of noir can complicate the Anglo-American dominance of noir? Are there geographical limitations to noir and how does it function transnationally? Where does the north begin for noir? What are the peripheral boundaries in the East and West? Does noir complicate traditional literary histories modeled on geographical boundaries? What specific images of the north are associated with Nordic Noir? How do sex and gender operate in Nordic Noir? What is Nordic noir’s relationship with particular national pasts, identities, or collective and cultural memory? What connections are there be, for example, between Nordic Noir and Continental existentialism, European Romanticisms, or fin-de-siècle literatures?

This major international conference will consolidate work to date on Nordic Noir and seek to deepen our understanding of the genre, both in relation to traditional histories, but also in drawing on new theoretical and geographical understandings.

The Crime Studies Network, in collaboration with the Centre for Studies in Memory and Literature at the University of Iceland and with the University of Newcastle, will host Noir in the North in Reykjavik in November 2016. This conference is held in conjunction with the Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival (17-19 November).

Individual proposals for 20-minute papers/3 x 20 minute paper panels are invited.  We welcome proposals on novels, films, television series, graphic novels and other forms.  Send a short title, a 250-word proposal, and a 100-word biographical note to noirinthenorth@gmail.com by 10 December 2015. Applicants will be notified of acceptance by 15 January 2016.

Keynote Speakers

Val McDermid

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Bruce Robbins (Columbia University)

Mary Evans (London School of Economics)

Conference Organisers

Stacy Gillis (University of Newcastle)

Gunnþórunn Guðmundsdóttir (University of Iceland)

A Mixed Bag of Mini-Reviews

Time to blow the dust off and post something here. I’ve been under the weather (hello, endocrine system! I didn’t even know you were there). I’ve been reading a lot – just not up for writing reviews. Rather than try and catch up with full-scale reviews while relieving ARC-guilt, I’ll simply share some quick impressions of some of the books I’ve read. It won’t do them justice, but otherwise I’ll never catch up. I’m putting a * by the ones I enjoyed the most and warning you that there’s a rant ahead.

Dark BranchesDark Branches by Nik Frobenius
This Norwegian novel of psychological suspense is narrated by a writer who has stretched himself to write an autobiographical novel that exposes aspects of his past that previously he’d kept hidden. As soon as the publicity for the new book begins, he gets a newspaper clipping in the mail, unsigned, about the school fire that inspired his novel. Then his daughter’s doll is mutilated and a strange voice on the phone tells his wife the author is having an affair. Things don’t improve from there. The story is moody and dark; the narrator is not a sympathetic character, which makes it even darker, as the past he’s used for material comes back to haunt him. This nicely produced Sandstone Press book was translated by Frank Stewart.

*Open Grave by Kjell Eriksson
This claustrophobic character study may not be the best choice for readers who like action and puzzle-solving, but if you take the time to savor it, it’s very good. An elderly man living in a prestigious neighborhood has just received news that he’s going to receive the Nobel Prize for medicine. We soon learn that he may not actually deserve it, and in any case he’s a mean, demanding, self-important tyrant of his own home. The demands he puts on his loyal elderly housekeeper, the third woman in her family to work for this wealthy family, is reaching the end of her tether. In some ways this is an inside-out mystery. The series detective, Ann Lindell, appears late in the book, and so does the crime. What’s fascinating is to watch this highly traditional household slowly unravel. Translated by Paul Norlen.

The Intruder by Hȧkan Östlund
Though Swedish crime fiction is typically associated with social criticism, there’s quite a lot of it that situates fairly outlandish crimes arising out of family secrets or tortured relationships in picturesque tourist destinations. Sometimes they’re very good – Johann Theorin has written some cracking stories. But often they’re not particularly realistic or insightful and the setting feels very far from contemporary Sweden, a kind of golden age Sweden with home-grown monsters to slay. This second book in a series set in Gotland (after The Viper) involves a family living on an isolated island off Gotland that begins receiving threatening anonymous letters. The investigation exposes a marriage that isn’t ideal. I couldn’t find much to recommend this novel and it relies on breaking faith with the reader in a way that I can’t describe without a spoiler, but it’s been on every “rules for mysteries” list since S. S. Van Dine. I don’t blame the translator, Paul Norlen. He did his job perfectly well.

The Drowning by Camilla Läckberg
As much as I was underwhelmed by the previous book in this list, I actively detested this one. Family secrets and a horrible crime on a scenic island populated by Swedes who lack the diversity and complexity of contemporary Sweden – we’re in the heart of don’t-pay-attention-to-social-issues Swedish crime, which is enormously popular. Every irritating gimmick this author uses is turned on full blast. The backstory told to readers at length, but not known to police. Nearly every terrible thing a human being might do can be traced to bad mothers. Highly traditional gender roles between an earnest copper and his I-just-can’t-help-myself amateur sleuth wife, who has traded post-natal depression for being pregnant with twins. I know, next time let’s go for triplets! The amateur female lead withholds information from her cop husband, both of them withhold information from the reader, and a solution to the mystery is ripped from a 1970s soap opera. For dessert, may we offer you a completely manipulative cliffhanger that has nothing to do with what went before but is a teaser for buying the next book? It may come as no surprise that I won’t be reading any more in this hot mess of a series. To be fair, millions of readers worldwide love this The Treacherous Netstuff. I just found this overlong book (476 pages) had everything I don’t like about this series on display and nothing that I could praise other than the better-than-it-deserves translation by the talented Tiina Nunnally.

*The Treacherous Net by Helene Tursten
Now we’re back on solid ground. This latest in a reliable police procedural series combines a realistically grounded and competent female detective, Irene Huss, working on realistically sordid crimes in Sweden’s second-largest city, Göteborg. In this entry, a young girl who appears to have been lured into the sex trade through internet-based grooming has been murdered, and this murder is the tip of the iceberg. As if that’s not enough to keep the homicide detectives busy, a mummified body is uncovered as a building is being demolished. The two investigations are nicely laid out and we catch up on what’s going on in Irene’s life at home and in the workplace. I enjoy the low-key way this series addresses social issues without too much drama and a non-angsty, non-alcoholic protagonist who resolutely believes that things can be put right by good people doing their jobs well. If Swedish crime has a crowd of gloomy detectives in one corner and a bunch of unlikely crimes in picturesque settings in the other, Tursten plants her flag in the middle: in a place where most of us live. Translator Marlaine Delargy does justice to this author’s straightforward prose style.

*The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
A family in a small Norwegian community experiences a tragedy when their toddler son wonders out of house when his mother’s back is turned and drowns in a nearby pond. As usual, Inspector Sejer investigates the incident with his quiet combination of compassion and penetrating skepticism. For someone who usually finds out that terrible things lurk under Norwegians’ smiling exteriors, he is both relentlessly just and deeply kind. In this case, the question is whether a parent may have wished the boy, who has Down Syndrome, out of their lives. This book doesn’t have the strong ironic fabulism of many of the recent books in this series and it has more of a focus on the often gnomic detective’s feelings than usual, both of which struck me as good things. Fine translation by Kari Dickson.

The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen
I’ve enjoyed earlier books in this series, even though the plots involve rather implausibly complicated ways to commit crimes, but this one didn’t hold together at all. A policeman on the island of Bornholm, obsessed by a cold case, uses his retirement party as a stage for his suicide. The familiar Department Q team go to the remote island to solve the case, but the story never comes alive and nobody seems too interested in the girl who is found hanging most implausibly in a tree. There’s over 500 pages of it, too. I don’t see a translator on this advanced reader copy, but I don’t envy him or her the job.

The Girl and the Bomb**The Girl and the Bomb by Jari Järvelä
This book was a great find, and I had never heard of this author until he asked if I would care to read an advanced copy. I’m so glad he did. Though Amazon Crossing is producing a lot of translations, they don’t always get a lot of attention. In this case, the book certainly deserves it. The chapters alternate the point of view of a young black woman who feels alienated in the small port city of Kotka, Finland. Her best mate, a gifted street artist with whom she scales heights and spray-paints (aka bombs) the ugly parts of the city, is killed when a group of security guards go after them both. Metro (the somewhat feral girl of the title and a great character) decides to go after the guard who she thinks is responsible. His point of view is provided in the other chapters, and he’s the least guilty of the guards, the one most disturbed by what happened. As time goes on and Metro finds ways to call out the injustice, the small flicker of remorse and shame he feels is replace by resentment and anger. It’s both a psychological study of a man whose moral fiber is disintegrating and a character sketch of an artistically talented but marginalized teen who feels she owes it to her friend to seek justice her own way. The ending is great. It looks as if there will be a trilogy about Metro, if my Google-foo is working, and a film is being made of this one. I’ll be looking for them. Kristian London can take a bow for her his translation.

Three days ago Amazon announced they’ll be spending $10 million on translations in this imprint over the next five years. Heartening news for those of us who want more.

 

 

Review of Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

Crystal Nights - Danish cover

I got to know Dorte through her blog many years ago, first as a reviewer and then as an author. I only recently discovered that she not only writes cozy mysteries, she also writes the harder-edged ones that are my personal preference. So I was both happy and a little nervous when she offered me a review copy of Crystal Nights, a psychological suspense novel crossed with a police procedural set in rural Denmark. I needn’t have worried. I enjoyed reading it very much (and very quickly) and am only embarrassed that it has taken me many weeks to write a review.

The book opens with a passage from a familiar Hans Christen Andersen story, The Snow Queen, recounting the ending in which slivers of a broken mirror fly around the world and enter peoples’ eyes and hearts, spreading evil everywhere. I always found Andersen’s stories extremely creepy when I was a child, so I braced myself.

The next section, set in 1938, is a brief but gripping account of a Jewish woman packing up a few belongings and living in hiding in 1938 with her husband and small children, learning about krystallnacht and wondering what people are capable of. The last we see of them is traveling to what should be a safer place, but isn’t, with her little boy desperately ill and her husband too paranoid to seek help.  Crystal Nights - English cover

The main part of our story begins in 1967 in Kallum, a small Danish town where schoolboys are learning about the Night of Broken Glass and their impatient teacher isn’t willing to entertain questions about what happened to the Jews who managed to escape Nazi Germany. One of the boys would rather be learning about John Glenn and the space program. Another hasn’t even bothered to go to school. He’s too busy climbing trees and peering into neighbor’s attics. When that adventurous boy doesn’t show up for days, his friends begin to wonder, and eventually the police are called in. They are frustrated by the boy’s mother, who takes a lackadaisical approach to parenting and insists the boy is with his father, a long-distance trucker. The police are not entirely satisfied, and neither is the boy’s best friend, Niels, who knows that his friend left behind an encoded message. As it happens, this isn’t the only odd thing that has happened in Kallum in recent years, and for a few chapters we go back in time to a strange road accident in 1963 and the drowning death of another boy. It’s not until the end that we know how these pieces fit together – and how they relate to the Snow Queen’s shattered mirror. As one character remarks, “It is ever so simple to hide from the truth . . . you only have to walk through life with your eyes closed.”

Dorte’s translation of her Danish work (which won an award in Denmark) is very well done. I only once or twice noted a word choice that seemed a trifle awkward. She has a nice way with description – for example, “her busy fingers picked at the knitted cardigan like nimble mice gathering material for their nests.” I am a lazy reader, so the section that took us back to 1963 confused me for a while, but I was eager to find out what the link was between the opening pages and the small Danish community where an adventurous boy disappears. Altogether, it’s an enjoyable story with a slightly Gothic psychological twistiness to it.

The book is set in a region of Denmark that the author knows well. She has created a photo companion for the book to supply local color and background.