No Echo by Anne Holt

Another repost from Reviewing the Evidence.

1501123459BEYOND THE TRUTH
by Anne Holt and Anne Bruce, trans.
Scribner, December 2016
320 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 1501123459

The English-speaking world met Hanne Wilhelmsen first in a classic locked-room mystery, 1222, in which the ex-detective was stranded at the top of a mountain in a blizzard with a murderer, a body, and a trainload of suspects. Norwegians had gotten to know the prickly but gifted detective over the course of seven previous novels, now all available in English translation. BEYOND THE TRUTH, the seventh in the series, closes the gap with Holt’s usual mix of an intricate puzzle of a mystery and the longer arc of the complex protagonist’s life story.

The novel begins when a stray dog who has been skulking around a wealthy neighborhood for years, living off scraps and his wits, finds an open door into a warm place, where a meal is waiting for him: four dead bodies, smelling deliciously of fresh meat. It’s typical of Holt’s style that we see the action from the perspective of the homeless dog, so we come on the murder scene from a disorienting perspective.

Hanne is not far away from the scene of the crime. She’s back on the job after a sojourn in an Italian convent, prompted by the death of her beloved long-term partner. In the previous book in the series, NO ECHO, she had met and moved in with a new lover in the wealthy neighborhood, joined by an aging formerly homeless prostitute who insists on creating the kind of domesticity that Hanne has never experienced. The detective is relieved to escape from pre-Christmas preparations to investigate a quadruple murder.

And quite a tangled investigation it proves to be. Three of the victims were members of a dysfunctional family in which everyone has reasons to want their relations dead. They are a epically awful family, and the survivors are no exception. The fourth victim, a publishing consultant, seems to have simply arrived at their apartment at the wrong time. Given the publicity around the gruesome murder and the approaching holiday, everyone is eager to close the case. The evidence is shaping up nicely for a conviction. The only one who isn’t quite sure is Hanne, who has a feeling the fourth victim’s involvement isn’t as accidental as it seems. Or perhaps she is simply extending the investigation to avoid the people at home who want to surround her with love in ways that make her panic. By the time she solves the crime, she has also come to terms with her own difficult family’s past and the shadow it has cast on her life – until the story takes a sudden turn.

Those who read the series as it was originally published may have felt stranded by the ending of this entry, but those arriving late can immediately find out what happens next by reading 1222. Then all they will have to do is wait for OFFLINE, the ninth and penultimate book in the series, to be translated.

The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl

Well, this is embarrassing. I’ve really let things go around here. You’d think I turned into a hermit. Well, in keeping with that notion, here’s my review of Danish author Thomas Rydahl’s first  novel, reposted from Reviewing the Evidence.

1780748894THE HERMIT
by Thomas Rydahl and KE Semmel, trans.
Oneworld, November 2016
469 pages
$21.99
ISBN: 1780748894

Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, skimming through recent translations, may be thinking it’s nothing but clones of Mankell and Läckberg, a too-familiar choice between gritty social problem procedurals or convoluted crimes committed on scenic islands – yawn. Thomas Rydahl has written something different.

First, there’s no snow. THE HERMIT is set on one of the lesser-visited of the Canary Islands. That’s not entirely original; Mari Jungstedt has set a new series there, too, among the large Swedish expatriate community. But Rydahl’s protagonist is not your typical detective. Erhard Jorgenson lives in a shack with two goats for company, drives a rattletrap cab, and lives on next to nothing. He’s no longer connected to his native Denmark, where he left behind an estranged family and one of his fingers. (How exactly he lost that finger is a tease from the opening pages – but not particularly relevant to the plot, like so very much in this book.) There are police, but they are not dogged investigators so much as public servants sensitively tuned to the need for tourism and quickly-closed cases. And there isn’t any CSI wizardry. Not only does our hero lack access to forensic labs, he doesn’t know how to use a cell phone or a computer. He has left the world behind, apart from picking up fares when he feels like it, tuning pianos occasionally, and drinking with a happy-go-lucky couple.

Three things go wrong early on. First, Erhard comes on a fatal car accident where a pack of wild dogs is making a meal of the dead driver. Then a car is found on a beach, which has in it the body of an abandoned infant in a cardboard box, nestled in torn-up Danish newspapers. Finally, Erhard loses his drinking pals when the man disappears and the woman lapses into a coma after a savage beating.

Erhard’s response to these events is as peculiar as he is. He takes a finger from the man killed in the accident to replace his missing one. He thinks the police are covering something up about the dead infant, so he kidnaps the prostitute who is their prime suspect and holds her in chains to compel her to tell him the truth. And when he realizes his friend is gone and his wife is unconscious . . . well, explaining how he handles that conundrum would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, this is an unusual book with an eccentric hero who wants very badly to know how that child ended up abandoned and, through a combination of persistence and intelligence, manages to untangle a complicated story.

This novel suffers from the acute global shortage of red pencils in the publishing world. Hundreds of pages relate Erhard’s shambolic daily life in detail, and the dialogue would be less exasperating to read if it were in quotation marks instead of being signaled with a literary dash, Cormac McCarthy-style. That said, readers who stick with it are likely to find themselves caught up in Erhard’s offbeat world view and in his quest to discover how that car and its tragic cargo ended up on a remote beach. S.E. Semmel’s translation of the first debut novel to win Scandinavia’s top award for crime fiction is excellent. Whether its enormous popularity in Denmark will travel is yet to be seen, but it certainly adds something new to the Nordic noir palette and is, in its weird way, compelling.

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)