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.

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.

 

review roundup

At Crime Scraps, Norm reviews Liza Marklund’s latest Annika Bengtzon thriller, Borderline which involves international intrigue and a hostage situation. Does it make me a bad person to be pleased that Annika’s annoying ex is a hostage? It sounds very good (and not just because Thomas is in trouble.)

At Petrona Remembered, there’s a fascinating email exchange/converation between Neil Smith and Liza Marklund about The Long Shadow and its translation and possible reception by English readers. Fascinating! And it ends on a cliffhanger . . .

The Guardian credits the popularity of Scandinavian crime for a boom in translated fiction in the UK.

Crime Fiction Lover provides a lovely tribute and overview of the Martin Beck Series written by Jeremy McGraw

At Crime Review, Tracy Johnson reviews Aren Dahl’s To the Top of the Mountain, who feels the humanity of the characters adds to their appeal.

At Reviewing the Evidence, Yvonne Klein unpacks the multiple plot strands and global locations for Jussi Alder-Olsen’s latest entry in the Carl Mørckseries, The Marco Effect, making it sound very well worth reading.

She makes a reference to an interview with the author in the Huffington Post, which is also worth a read. The author mentions that in addition to a Danish film version of the first in the series, there’s talk of a U.S. television adaptation of the characters, possibly s Hmm…

Ms. Wordopolis reviews an earlier book in Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, Voices. She finds it’s not the best in the bunch, but it’s still a favorite series. “It’s a reminder to me to spend less time on new releases and catch up on older books.” I’m so glad you feel that way!

Ms. Wordopolis also thinks the second volume of the Minnesota Trilogy, Vidar Sundstol’s Only the Dead, is a much tighter, very different sort of book from the first. I agree with her that it will be interesting to see what the third and final volume is like.

Laura Root also reviews the book at Euro Crime, finding it both unexpected and gripping. (Ditto.)

Staci Alesi (“the Book Bitch”) also reviews that book for Booklist and says though it is short – almost a novella – it’s dark, beautifully written, and suspenseful.

Jose Ignacio Esrcribano reviews (in two languages!) Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, which finishes the Erlunder series (chronologically, at least). He enjoyed it very much, as did I.

At International Noir Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Jo Nesbo’s Police, in which Harry Hole is off stage for a good bit of the action, and speculates whether the end is really the end – or not.

Sarah Ward reviews Black Noise by Pekka Hiltunen at Crimepieces and wonders whether it qualifies as Scaninavian crime, given it’s set in London. She finds it has a promising story about social media that unfortunately goes awry, becoming quite implausible. She hopes for better next time.

She also reviews Elsebeth Egholm’s Three Dog Night, a Danish novel about a recently-released convict who moves to a remote community only to meet a prison mate who is, unfortunately, dead. She says it has a well-constructed plot with a good ending though some of the characters in the fraying community can be hard to keep straight. She’s looking forward to the sequel, coming out in the UK soon.

Karen Meek reports on hearing two Danish authors interviewed by Peter Guttridge – Elsebeth Eghholm, Lene Kaaberbol, at the Manchester Literature Festival. Lots of insight into the authors and being translated, here.

Mrs. Peabody investigates a French thriller set in Norway, Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow, likening it to M. J.McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series set in the Canadian artic. It’s a “cracking debut” that illuminates nomadic Sami culture in a world with borders.  It sounds like a strong nominee for the Petrona Award. Mrs. P. links to an interesting  interview with the author.

Gary Jacobson reviews Karin Fossum’s I Can See in the Dark and finds it creepy, chilling, and effective at portraying the inner life of a very unpleasant man who is guilty of many crimes except for the one he’s accused of.

At Euro Crime, Lynn Harvey reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the fourth in the Finland-set series, but the first she read.  She says it stands on its own, but she’s ready to go back and read the rest. She concludes, “if you love the mystery of character as much as the mystery of crime – set in a wintry Scandinavian landscape – then I think you will savour [it] as much as I did.

review roundup and a new version of Macbeth

Ms. Wordopolis reviews the first book in Mari Jungstedt’s Anders Knutas and Johan Berg series, Unseen, finding the series characters and their stories more interesting than the fairly predictable serial killer storyline. All in all, she reckons it’s time to read something other than police procedurals.

Previously, she reviewed the latest in the Carl Mørck Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance, which left her with mixed feelings: “I feel strange saying that the book was written well or that I was interested in the ongoing storylines of Mørck and Assad when the main plot was so horrible to women,” she writes, Like the first novel in the series (The Keeper of Lost Causes, also published under the title Mercy), the plot focuses on people who hate women. How that focus is handled (and for what purpose) is one of the biggest open questions in this genre, in my opinion.

She was also not entirely satisfied by Helene Tursten’s The Fire Dance, but for different reasons. She felt there just wasn’t much in the story to grab her interest and hold it, concluding it was a so-so entry in a series that promises more.

The Indian Feminist, who has written about Scandinavian women detectives in the past, was likewise disappointed in the latest English translation in the Irene Huss series, The Fire Dance,  which she found slow paced and uninvolving.

The Fire DanceNancy O. had a different reading experience with this book, as she explains at The Crime Segments. She counts Tursten’s series as one she deeply enjoys, and a Scandinavian author who stays on her to-be-read list as others disappoint and drop off. Her verdict: “for those who enjoy solid police procedurals with a personal twist.” She still counts The Torso as her favorite in the series, being “edgy and solid.” This entry, while a solid police procedural, has a bit less edge.

Meanwhile, in paradise, Kerrie enjoyed reading the previous book in the series, The Golden Calf, which she felt had a nice balance of action, the personal lives of the series characters, and police procedure. She sums up the series as “basically police procedurals, planted in a modern world, with plenty of human interest.”

Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Leif G. W. Persson’s tome, Free Falling as if in a Dream, part of a series drawn from the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. Though it’s very long, he says it’s “gripping all the way through, as well as comic in some sections, through the ironic and simultaneously arrogant and self-deprecating voice of Johannson and the appearance of the ridiculous detective in many of the author’s books, Evert Bäckstrom.” However, he doesn’t hold out much hope for the US television adaptation that’s out next year. In his review, he looks at how this novel and Magdalen Nabb’s The Monster of Florence handle actual unsolved crimes, finding that both propose in their fiction plausible and disturbing solutions.

He also reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, and has a great description of its trajectory: “meditative rather than propulsive in terms of its pacing.” He considers the non-linear, poetic approach a plus, but knows it’s not for everyone: “For me, the moody pace works, but it could be frustrating for some readers.” This story brings the series’ Turku detective, who is looking into the murder of an unidentified woman, together with Helsinki investigators looking into a series of murders, with several narrative threads that, in the end, are knitted together.

Traveling to yet another Nordic country, Harper reviews Quentin Bates’s Chilled to the Bone, the latest in a series focusing on an Icelandic investigator, Gunna Gisladottir, and it in his opinion the best in the series. Among its virtues, “lots of ethical and literary ambiguity, a plot that moves rapidly along, and a cast of interesting characters.” Though he considers it less dark than Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, it’s both grim and entertaining.

At Euro Crime, Rich Westwood reviews Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, advising those looking for a new Scandinavian crime series to give it a try. The main plot, about man who endured horrific bullying as a child and the various violent ways in which his former schoolmates are being murdered, seems less compelling to him than a subplot about one of the police team who believes she’s been drugged and raped after a casual encounter and is determined to find justice. Westwood thinks the admixture of personal stories of the investigating officers will remind readers of Camilla Lackberg, mixing violent murder and cozy scenes of domestic life.

Also at Euro Crime, Michelle Peckham praises Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, the eleventh novel in the Erlendur series. We and Erlendur finally grapple with the detective’s Strange Shorespersonal quest to understand how he survived being lost in a storm that killed his brother. He approaches this quest by investigating another event, the disappearance of a young woman he learned about as a child. He probes the secrets and memories of those still alive who can help him put the pieces together. She calls the book powerful, emotional, and a beautiful exploration of how trauma can shape a life.

Amanda Gillies also uses the term “beautiful” for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, a novel that makes her fall in love with its prickly 82-year-old protagonist. Though it had a slow start for her, she pronounces the story about an American Jew haunted by his wartime experiences and his son’s death in Vietnam who sometimes is confused but manages to evade villains to save a small boy, “quite simply brilliant.” 

Mrs Peabody investigates some dystopian crime fiction, including Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which she finds “a gripping and quietly powerful read” which interrogates (as dystopias do) how people find meaning in situations where social structures have broken down and disaster is impending – in this case a poet searching for his missing wife, a journalist who has been writing about a Finnish eco-warrior who is taking violent action as climate change changes everything. Like Bernadette, she finds it a curiously uplifting read.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (also published as Calling Out for You), in which a naive Norwegian man impuslively travels to India to find a bride. When she arrives in Norway, she disappears. And Fossum’s quiet menace does the rest. As Jose Ignacio observes, “she is able to develop a particular atmosphere that can become frightening, using only elements taken from our daily lives.” Here, in this small Norwegian town, the well-meaning and wholly wholesome Scandinavians seem all too comfortable seeking silence when the subject of race enters the picture – and Fossum is not willing to leave us content with the knowledge that justice, in the end, will be done.

At the Independent, Barry Forshaw reviews Hans Koppel’s You’re Mine Now, which once again You're Mine Nowfeatures a man who hates women, though this time the woman confronted by a stalker is in a better position to fight back than in his previous novel (which Forshaw puts in a nutshell: “ritual sexual debasement and torture visited upon the luckless heroine, kept captive in a house where she could still see her distraught, unknowing family,” Yes, that’s wny I didn’t read it.) Koppel is apparently very good at ratcheting up tension, not so good at giving us any reason why we shouldn’t just give up on the human race altogether.

Keishon is avid about reading Asa Larsson’s mysteries, but found The Second Deadly Sin disappointing in the end. There are various timeframes and one becomes a bit of a slog. Office politics among the main characters is about as appealing as . . . well, office politics. And the pacing overall, she felt, was off in an over-long novel. She recommends her other books, though.

Norm, at Crime Scraps, reviews Mari Jungstedt’s The Double Silence, a new entry in the Anders Knutas series set on Visby Island. In addition to a crime, the story involves the lives of its ongoing cast of characters. While Norm recommends this series, he felt this story jumped too often from one point of view to another and often left him mystified in ways the author likely didn’t intend.

And now for something completely different, The Wall Street Journal reports that Jo Nebso has been signed on (along with other authors) to write prose versions of Shakespeare’s plays running up the bard’s 400th birthday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he will be taking on Macbeth and, in an interview, ponders whether he’ll make him a man vying for the position of police chief in a throughly corrupt city in the 1970s. That cauldron the weird sisters are stirring? It just might be brewing some kick-ass meth. The story is likely to keep relationships and themes but perhaps not much else. I must say I’m particularly intrigued about what Margaret Atwood might do with The Tempest. 

weird sisters and cauldron

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to be in northern California on February 2, Janet Rudolph invites you to join her and fellow fans for a lecture on Swedish crime fiction by my fellow Minnesotan, Jim Kaplan. He’s very wise to be somewhere other than in the Polar Vortex that keeps on turning the upper Midwest into an arctic knockoff.

p/review of Death of a Nightingale

I’ve added the P because this book won’t be on the market until November, but having read an advanced copy, I wanted to make sure that those who will be interested have this release on their radar. So here’s a preview-review.

DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
By Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Soho, November 2013

The prickly, principled, and not-very-personable nurse, Nina Borg, who featured in The Boy in the Suitcase and Invisible Murder appears again in a story that not only crosses borders (as Death of a Nightingalethe previous stories in this excellent Danish series did) but time periods. The authors have carried off this difficult task with brio. How two writers can put together the many pieces of such a tricky narrative suggests they’re very good at plotting and at the finer-grained finishing work of sanding and smoothing the edges so that they are imperceptible. They respect their readers enough to assume we can play a part in putting the pieces together, too.

Nina Borg has a penchant to put her patients’ welfare above her family’s needs, partly because she’s strongly and rather irritatingly principled but largely because she is emotionally unable to allow herself to connect with her husband and children; she inevitably lets them down so that they will reject her and she won’t have to confront her own vulnerability. As this story opens, she’s living apart from her family but seeking a bit of human company with a co-worker who is as messed up as she is.

But wait a moment: it actually starts with the transcript of an audio file. Someone is interviewing an elderly woman about something that happened in the past, something painful. She’s irritated by his eagerness to probe into the pain, but decides to tell it as a fairy tale, a grim and dark tale about jealousy, vengeance, and violence visited on entire generations of a family. It’s a fairy tale, she says, from Stalin land. This scene is brief, but is the first bit of a strand that threads its way through the novel.

There is another short scene before we get to Nina. A woman named Natasha is being taken by kind and boring Danish policeman to a building where eventually her fate will be decided and she will most likely be sent back to Ukraine, but not just yet. As she climbs out of the police car she overhears two men speaking her language and, with little warning and a lot of cunning, manages to attack her police escort and make a run for it.

Natasha’s daughter is staying at the Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross camp for asylum seekers and detainees awaiting deportation. She has been separated from her mother, who had put up with abuse from a Danish fiance until he made moves on her daughter, at which point she stuck him with a knife and landed herself in prison and her daughter in official limbo.Nattergalens død

Natasha wants her daughter with a visceral, mother-tigerish passion, but so does someone else, someone willing to do violence to the girl. Nina finds herself, once again, responsible for a child whose safety is imperiled and who cannot count on the state’s protection because her status as a non-citizen leaves cracks for her to slip through.

Another story unfolds in parallel to Natasha’s desperate efforts to be reunited with her daughter. It’s a disturbing, difficult story about a painful part of history we’d rather forget or measure out in safely dispassionate numbers: six million, maybe seven. Or perhaps that’s an exaggeration, maybe only 2.5 million or 3.3.

In this story, we don’t know about millions, we only know a few of these people, Ukrainians who have little to eat, who are instructed to shun those who have fallen afoul of Stalin’s rules and have been declared “former human beings,” a designation that renders them insignificant as they starve to death in their midst, outcasts for political reasons.

It would be so much easier if we were allowed to take a wide-angle view where people become small, mere specks in a set of numbers. We see it from the perspective of a girl who has known no other way of life, whose sister is a true believer, whose father gets caught up in the brutal machinery of power, whose family is torn apart while facing starvation. At times the story seems from centuries ago, or from one of the grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, where suffering is epic and retribution unabashedly brutal. There’s something folkloric, yet inescapably horrifying about these 20th century  experiences that force us to acknowledge on a human scale the suffering of some of the millions of Ukrainians who were condemned to starvation because of ideology.

In modern Denmark, an asthmatic child, a principled if neurotic nurse, a single-minded mother, a compromised Ukrainian journalist, a Danish law enforcement officer, and an old woman who posesses mythic properties all play out their roles in a conflict that has it origins in the human costs paid by two sisters during a cruel and epic tragedy that played out not so long ago and not so far away.

Kaaberbøl and Friis have taken as their series subject the ways that conflicts in European history reverberate in the present as the borders are erased and redrawn. They introduce us to people who experience prejudice, poverty, and desperation in a modern European state where people expect comfort and safety and are weary of being hospitable to strangers who bring trouble with them.

For all the painful reality this novel explores, it does so in a way that doesn’t lecture and doesn’t forget that stories matter. How can I put this? It seems wrong to say it’s entertaining or a pleasure to read, because it will make you sad and angry and ache with sympathy. Yet it’s a story that you will care about and the plot will propel you forward.

Perhaps the most accurate words for it are “thrilling” and “unforgettable.”  It’s a very good book.

recently reviewed . . .

It has been ages since I tallied up some of the new reviews appearing here and there. While I am too full of beginning-of-term tasks to do a full round-up, here are some recent ones.

Cold Hearts coverAt irresistible Targets, Michael Carlson reviews Gunnar Staalensen’s Cold Hearts, finding Varg Veum more like Ross Macdonald’s hero Lew Archer than Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The theme of the book has to do with Norwegian social institutions being ill-suited to addressing serious crime and the chilliness of many Norwegian’s inner souls.

He also reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, which sounds like a tour de force as Erlendur returns as protagonist. He comments that while many works of Scandinavian crime fiction concern the shift from a general social sense of responsibility to individualism, opening a gap through which crime can slip through, there is also a long tradition of exploring an individual “battling alone in a dark and cold world.” Which is a tradition our traditionalist Erlendur honors regularly.

At Euro Crime, Lynn Harvey does a brilliant job reviewing Savage Spring, the fourth book in Mons Kallentoft’s seasonally-themed police procedurals featuring the troubled Malin Fors. She finds it a compelling book, though the Alice-Sebold-like inclusion of the voices of the dead is something that might not suit every reader. (This time, it’s two children who have been killed in an explosion.) Fractured family relationships are examined keenly. As Harvy puts it, “like debris from the explosion in the square,fragments of parent/child relationships are examined throughout the book . . . [which] turn it from a police procedural into a much deeper story which is precisely what drew me to read Scandinavian crime fiction in the first place.”

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading wonders if she’s read too much crime fiction – or if Jussi Adler-Olsen is seeing just how far he can push cliches and readers’ patience with his latest, Redeption (apa A Conspiracy of Faith). Too much action, drama, and shallow psychological trauma; too many coincidences, too many pages! Though she enjoyed the first in the series, she may be giving this one up.

At International Noir Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews two books that take on the increasingly porous borders between Scandinavian nations and greater Europe. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis look at the present-day legacy of the painful history of Ukraine in a tightly-plotted, tense, and dark mystery, Death of a Nightingale. Less successful in his estimation is Strange Bird by Anna Johnsson, a newly-translated entry in the Maria Wern series which concerns an epidemic of bird flu that has entered Sweden via Belarus.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Finnish author Pekka Hiltunen’s Cold Courage, a pschologicalcold courage cover thriller set in London, the first in a series. Though a fairly compelling read, he found aspects of the plot (which concerns sexual violence, human trafficking, and the rise of far-right political parties) far-fetched and had some reservations about ethical issues addressed in the conclusion,

And at Crimepieces, Sarah reviews German author Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the latest in his Finnish-based series which she admires very much, calling it “a slow but reflective series” that may not be for everyone, but is from her perspective among the best in the genre.  She certainly makes me want to give it a try.