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)

new issue of Mystery Readers Journal on Scandi Crime Fiction

Yay! Mystery Readers Journal has a second special issue on Scandinavian Mysteries out. Check out that tempting table of contents.

Thanks to the kind permission of Janet Rudolph, who moonlights as a perpetual motion machine, I am reprinting an essay I contributed  (also posted at Janet’s Mystery Fanfare blog).

Reparations: World War II in Scandinavian Fiction

Many readers’ perceptions of Scandinavia as a peaceful, socially-progressive region have been shaped by childhood history lessons. Sweden was neutral during World War II. Norwegians bravely resisted German occupation. Finland fought for its independence both from the Soviets and the Nazis. Danes followed their king’s example and wore yellow stars of David to show solidarity with Danish Jews. In fact, these stories are at best half-truths, patriotic narratives that helped Scandinavian countries recover their dignity as they established strong post-war societies.

The reality was messier. Sweden’s iron ore supported German munitions factories and enriched Swedes. Thousands of Norwegians fought for Germany on the Eastern Front. Finland maintained a democratically-elected government throughout the war, but was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union, which had attacked Finland and seized territory. Danes took heroic efforts to help Danish Jews escape deportation to German camps, but neither Jews nor gentiles wore the yellow star in Denmark.

Crime writers have been drawn to debunking these patriotic myths while interrogating national identities, an urgent issue as immigration increased following the end of the Cold War. Neo-Nazi nationalist movements developed strength in the 1990s. Extremist nationalism showed its most horrific face when a white supremacist systematically murdered 77 Norwegians, most of them children, in July 2011. These perturbations have led writers to probe their nations’ historic relationships with Nazism.

Kerstin Bergman writes, in her excellent critical survey, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir that many Swedish writers have undertaken this task, but their historical reckoning only goes so far.  Nazi sympathizers in fiction are never viewed as truly Swedish but rather as aberrations that need to be acknowledged and rejected. InHenning Mankell’s Return of the Dancing Master, a colleague of Kurt Wallander on sick leave investigates a case that reveals an extensive Nazi network hidden beneath the placid Swedish surface. Yet the reader doesn’t conclude that Swedish culture accommodates hateful beliefs; rather, the message is that racism is something foreign that needs to be diagnosed and rooted out, just like the detective’s potentially silencing illness – cancer of the tongue.

Stieg Larsson, who mashed together practically every popular culture trope in his crowd-pleasing Millennium Trilogy, was a left-wing journalist who exposed the doings of the neo-Nazi movement and was the subject of death threats as a result. It’s not surprising that he added to the general misogyny and warped sexual appetites of his wealthy industrialist antagonists in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a Nazi past.

More recently, Camilla Läckberg addressed the legacy of the war in The Hidden Child. Läckberg’s highly traditional and romantic series features extraordinary murders committed on a picturesque island. The murderers motives are often traced to bad parenting. Läckberg’s happily married protagonists uphold traditional family values and gender roles as they solve crimes. Though The Hidden Child addresses Sweden’s involvement in World War II, it’s sugar-coated. Decent Swedes secretly supported the Norwegian resistance while only horrid people took the side of the Germans. The mystery revolves around a diary and a Nazi medal that one of the series protagonists finds among her mother’s effects which may unlock the mystery of why she was so unloving. The story layers the present investigation and the past, depicting the war experience as if Sweden was an occupied country that bravely resisted the Nazis, not a neutral state that took in Jewish refugees while it provided significant and profitable material support to Germany. Though it’s an effective page-turner that attempts to depict the lasting trauma of war, it paints a rosy picture of Swedish patriotism in wartime.

Åsa Larsson creates a more complex story in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which also has a layered chronology. In the present, police in northern Sweden are investigating the death of two divers who were searching for a plane that went down in a lake during the war. A dysfunctional family, ruled by an odious old man and his greedy wife had made their wealth during the war when ore mined in the north was shipped to Germany. In this case, the motivations of the Swedes who worked with Germans are more thoroughly explored and the extent of the country’s involvement with the German war machine is exposed, but those involved are depicted as greedy and monstrous outliers who don’t reflect Swedish values.

Perhaps the most intriguing exploration of a Scandinavian nation’s denial of the past is found in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, which also has extensive passages set in the past following the fate of a group of Norwegians who fought the Soviets alongside the Germans during the occupation. After being wounded, one of them ends up in Austria where he falls in love with a nurse and schemes to smuggle her to safety as the world around them burns. In the present, the police are wondering if neo-Nazis will disrupt the celebration of Norwegian Independence day. Detective Harry Hole tries to connect the purchase of an illegal long-range rifle with a series of murders and discovers that the killer they seek likely fought on the Eastern Front, is an excellent sharpshooter, and quite possibly is suffering from multiple personality disorder.

At one point in the novel, a reporter asking a public official about Norway’s occupation likens it the Austrian Anschluss, a notion that the official strongly denies and finds completely puzzling. Yet throughout the novel, the patriotic notion that Norwegians generally supported the resistance is put to the test. In the world of the novel, many Norwegians joined with the Nazis and took their punishment when the war ended. Most were content to support the Nazis until it was clear they were losing the war, at which point, when it was a safe bet, they denounced the occupiers. In this analysis, the rise of neo-Nazism is not simply an aberrant response to immigration but an outgrowth of suppressed history. Eventually the killer does turn out to be two people in one body: a flamboyant Eastern Front sharpshooter coexisting with an elderly man who convinced others he had been a loyal member of the resistance. Nesbø suggests the nation itself is suffering from a split personality – a public persona that is peaceful and tolerant concealing a national identity that is too close to Nazism for comfort.

This historical reexamination of race and identity is extending into new areas. Two recent Danish novels, The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen and The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel take a fresh look at punitive ways the Danish state treated women who were deemed defective and locked away, justifying their treatment with eugenic theories as recently as the 1970s. The Nina Borg series by Leena Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis tackles the difficulties immigrants encounter in contemporary Denmark. Arne Dahl and Jens Lapidus have written ground-breaking series that explore the entanglement of Swedish society with a globalized Europe. Scandinavian writers who have challenged the accepted narrative of the wartime past have contributed to this work by exposing the historic roots of a contemporary challenge: redefining Scandinavian national identities in a multicultural world.

pardon the dust …

I’m making a few site changes here, trying to make this blog more readable by trying a new theme and putzing aound a bit with the layout and content. This is almost surely going to take a while, because I also need to update my listings of English translations which is perennially out of date. Sorry about the mess. But I hope you will like darker lettering – what’s up with all the gray letters on white backgrounds? Don’t know where that trend came from but I find it hard to read.