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 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 of The Ravens by Vidar Sundstøl

The Ravens is the conclusion of Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, following Land of Dreams and Only the Dead. Unlike many mystery series, these books really must be read together and in order, because they all concern the same crimes which are only resolved in this final volume. And for that reason, I need to include here a . . .

SPOILER ALERT!

It’s not really possible to discuss this book without inadvertently revealing some of the surprises in the previous two.

Just so you know.

You’ve been warned.

Okay, then. In The Ravens, “forest cop” Lance Hansen continues his obsessive quest to find out whether his brother Andy is responsible for the murder of a Norwegian tourist who was camping on the shore of Lake Superior. As a forest ranger, Lance has no responsibility for investigating this crime, rumored to be the first murder in Cook County, a wooded tract of land in the northeastern tip of the state, framed by Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters, and the Canadian border. Lance’s only involvement is that he discovered the body, close to Baraga’s Cross, a local historical landmark marking the place where a Catholic missionary landed in a storm on his way to minister to an Ojibwe community stricken with an epidemic.

Because the crime occurred on federal land, it is handled by the local FBI office with the help of a Norwegian detective. An Ojibwe man whose fingerprints are on the bat used to bludgeon the Norwegian to death and who can’t or won’t provide an alibi has been arrested and is awaiting trial. Blood evidence also suggests that the killer was an Indian, not a white descendant of European immigrants. But Lance, a local historian who is more comfortable in the past than in the present, has uncovered a family secret. He and his brother have Ojibwe ancestry. He also finds a second murder victim – an Ojibwe medicine man who disappeared in 1892, just as Lance’s ancestor stumbled ashore after walking across the frozen lake, delirious and half-dead. As Lance thinks to himself “his family had spent a century perfecting the art of forgetting.”

The RavensBecause he saw his brother’s truck close to the scene of the crime, and because he knows Andy is probably gay (as were the Norwegian tourists) but ashamed of his sexual identity and has a history of committing extreme violence, Lance becomes convinced his brother may be a killer. In the second book of the trilogy, that suspicion makes a hunting expedition take a threatening turn as Lance and Andy stalk one another. Layered in this narrative is the story of their ancestor, a young Norwegian immigrant who has crossed the frozen lake and who is terrified by the Indian medicine man who is trying to help him. It’s an intense and disorienting book that leaves us hanging.

In The Ravens, the hunt resumes. Lance continues the family tradition of lying by hiding out in Canada for weeks, convincing his family he is vacationing in Norway. On his return to Minnesota, he continues to lie about his activities while gathering information, particularly from Andy’s daughter, who has been dabbling in drugs and feels oppressed by her father’s protectiveness, which has become physically abusive. Lance reconnects with a woman who he loved many years ago and wonders if it’s too late to love again. He also visits his mother in a Duluth nursing home, where she’s beginning to lose her grip on reality but still seems saner than anyone else in the family. Throughout this concluding volume, Lance is suffers from the same condition as Hamlet. He feels compelled to act, but is paralyzed by introspection.

Though in some ways this final volume has more elements of a mystery than the previous two volumes, it fuses stylistic elements of both: the deep psychological conflicts within a man who seeks the truth but feels the pressures of convention, a mixing of past and present in the figure of Swamper Caribou and what Lance has learned about his murder, moments of visionary hallucinations, and inchoate tension as two brothers circle each other, full of fury and twisted family loyalty.

Throughout the three books, the landscape plays a major role, particularly the vast frozen lake that’s always there, that seems to be without boundaries, a frozen world where figures hover in the distance and large shadows move beneath the ice.

Lake Superior - Grand Marais Lighthouse in the fog

image of the Grand Marais lighthouse in the fog courtesy of Sharon Mollerus.

All in all, I found this an intriguing, poetic, and really unusual crime fiction trilogy, well worth trying. The translation is by the always reliable Tiina Nunnally, who has done a great job. If you’re in Minneapolis tomorrow evening (April 21st) you can meet the author at Once Upon a Crime at 7 pm where I’ll have a chance to interview him. I hope to report back here.

review of Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beige Man by Helene Tursten – a review

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

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

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

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

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

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

review redux: Where Monsters Dwell by Jørgen Brekke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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