Two Mini-Reviews

I’m well behind on my Scandi crime reading, and even further behind on reading. Maybe I’m suffering from a bit of a reading slump; a lot of books just haven’t hit the spot for me lately, so I’m guessing it’s more me than the books. Regardless, here are thoughts on a couple of books I read recently.

1912374072-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_The Ice Swimmer by Kjell Ola Dahl, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Orenda, October 2018.

This is the sixth English translation from a police procedural series set in Oslo. For those who’ve followed the series, the ensemble of characters and their relationships is likely familiar. The lead protagonist this time is Lena Stigersand, who’s tidying up the probably accidental death of man who toppled into the harbor. A few too many drinks, a brutally cold night . . . but something’s going on, because a politician is furious when Lena asks her about the dinner she had with the victim, and the higher ups want her to back off. Meanwhile, a drug-addicted woman has died in a train tunnel, evidently a suicide that . . . isn’t. It turns out she was pursued into the tunnel, and she likely knew something about how the man ended up in the harbor. Along with putting together the case, there are some dynamics among the detectives that factor into the story, and Lena herself has quite a lot going on in her personal life.

I found the book a bit of a plod, though that was probably my mood, not the book – Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. I was also (unreasonably?) irritated with Lena for being attracted to and quickly involved with a journalist who seemed to be obviously in it for himself. It seemed immature and he was not portrayed as being so clearly attractive that I was persuaded a cop would fall for him so easily. The final pages, that explain the title, seemed different in tone and a bit tacked-on, but that’s just me being grumpy.

1250171032-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, October 2018.

My grumpiness continued! I actually enjoyed most of The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson. It introduces a new series, and apparently is a trilogy told in reverse order. In this first book, we meet Hulda Hermannsdóttir, a 64-year-old detective in Reykjavik who is suddenly told she’s retiring. Time to use up her vacation and put her feet up. That’s not at all what she wants to do. She lives in a barren apartment and has no friends or family – nor does she have good relationships with her fellow detectives. The good news is she’s a fine detective who won’t go out without a fight. She picks up a cold case – a Russian woman who disappeared from an asylum shelter – and has only a few days to solve it, even though nobody else has the slightest interest in the case.

The title is apt. It’s a really dark story – not because the case is especially gruesome or twisted (though we do get some of the story from the perspective of a Russian woman who faces danger in a snowy, remote, bitterly cold place) but because there’s nothing much redeeming in Hulda’s life. Gradually we come to learn the family tragedy hinted at throughout the story was particularly awful, so no wonder there’s so little light in Hulda’s life, but if it weren’t for her detecting, she’d be pretty dour company. The ending is a shocker – and though I can’t say much without a spoiler, I actually hated it, partly because I had just read another book with a similar ending. (I should probably add that the reviews I’ve seen think the ending is stunning. For me, not in a good way.) Hopefully it was just a chance thing, reading two books back to back that had a similar twist at the end, but if this is a trend I’m going to be really grumpy.

The next books in the trilogy step back by the decade – to a case when Hulda was in her fifties (The Island), then one in her forties (The Mist). You can read more about this trilogy in an article in The Reykjavik Grapevine.  

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Dead Girls

I’m not sure what to make of this interesting “long read,” an excerpt from a book titled Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. This essay is a mix of critical examination of the Martin Beck series and the Millennium Trilogy and memoir. I believe I have an allergy to the memoir genre, since it always makes me uncomfortable to read an author’s intimate take on their living 51mfywhdcnlfamily members, even if they’re okay with it – I feel trapped in a place where I’m overhearing a conversation I shouldn’t among people who are not fully clothed, but if I come out of my hiding place, “excuse me, sorry,” they’ll all stare after me and know that I know and I’ll feel terrible. Though in fact, it’s a public performance. They give me a sly wink, asking me to stay.  Oh dear. It’s probably why I also can’t stand most true crime – voyeurism when I’d rather feel safely involved in fiction, where I can be comfortable with the characters; they draw me in, but they aren’t implicating me in their lives in the same way.  Maybe it’s just that I’m a very private person. Maybe it’s just that it feels manipulative.

That said, this question of why there are so many dead girls in crime fiction really interests me, and her questioning of the ways dead women are treated in Roseanna and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is uncomfortably thoughtful, so it’s a book I want to read and argue with and learn from. I just wish it didn’t come in a memoir sandwich, but that’s my own problem. Here’s a quote from the essay/excerpt:

Many people have noted the marketing brilliance of changing the title of Larsson’s Men Who Hate Women for the English translation, shifting the focus from creepy men to always more salable “girls.” Men Who Hate Women could be another alternate title for my book, and I have chosen, maybe hypocritically, to sell it on girls instead. In the end, the careers of Larsson and Sjöwall and Wahlöö turn out to be Dead Man stories, where men leave their wives and collaborators to deal with their absence for decades. This female survival is probably the truer story and, I think Larsson, Sjöwall, and Wahlöö would agree, a better one, but it doesn’t have the same addictive glamour that comes with a Dead Girl. In Roseanna, one of Beck’s colleagues mentions a movie that the suspect they’re trailing goes to see. “It has a wonderful ending,” he says. “Everyone dies except the girl.”

. . . And the Winner Is . . .

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is this year’s Petrona Award winner. Congrats to both author and translator!

1590518578-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_This is a bit bittersweet just now in the United States as the subject of school shootings is a bit too raw. Another one just happened after students began a powerful movement to end school shootings.

Of course, these don’t happen with anything like the US frequency in other countries, so the dynamics are different and the focus here is on the backstory – what would lead a privileged girl to become involved in committing violence and what kind of relationships might become warped in the upper reaches of Swedish society and the tightly-wound world of adolescence? Here’s what the judges – all of them well-read and passionate about the genre – had to say about their choice.

In a strong year for entries to the Petrona Award, the judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings and the motives behind them. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events. Gripping and thought-provoking, Quicksand is an outstanding Scandinavian crime novel and the highly worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award.

I admit I found it a challenging book to read, but the voice of the narrator – a naive, irritating, obnoxious, and troubled child whose decisions have landed her on trial for murder – was well-rendered. I can only imagine it was a challenge to translate, keeping that voice as conflicted and immature as it is. If ever a reader thought Sweden is a democratic socialist paradise of equality and healthy relationships, this is quite the antidote.

 

Petrona Award – The Shortlist

16708355988_8cb3b9dd5b_oIn memory of Maxine Clarke, a brilliant science editor and crime fiction fan par excellence, the Petrona Award is an annual sorting and sifting of the year’s new crime fiction publications from the Nordic countries in English translation. Here’s what the (extraordinarily qualified) judges have concluded about Scancinavian crime fiction in 2017.

 

 

Six outstanding crime novels from Denmark, Finland and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2018 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today.

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 19 May during the annual international crime fiction convention CrimeFest, held in Bristol on 17-20 May 2018. The winning author and the translator of the winning title will both receive a cash prize, and the winning author will receive a full pass to and a guaranteed panel at CrimeFest 2019.

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia, and published in the UK in the previous calendar year.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his continued generous support of the Petrona Award.

The judges’ comments on the shortlist:

There were 61 entries for the 2018 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 33 translators and submitted by 31 publishers/imprints. There were 27 female and 33 male authors, and one brother-sister writing duo.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist sees Sweden strongly represented with four novels; Denmark and Finland each have one. The crime genres represented include a police procedural, a courtroom drama, a comic crime novel and three crime novels/thrillers with a strong psychological dimension.

As ever, the Petrona Award judges faced a difficult but enjoyable decision-making process when they met to draw up the shortlist. The six novels selected by the judges stand out for the quality of their writing, their characterisation and their plotting. They are original and inventive, and shine a light on highly complex subjects such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, school shootings, and life on the margins of society. A key theme that emerged across all of the shortlisted works was that of family: the physical and psychological challenges of parenting; the pressures exerted by family traditions or expectations; sibling rivalries; inter­generational tensions and bonds; family loyalty… and betrayal.

We are extremely grateful to the translators whose expertise and skill allows readers to access these gems of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The judges’ comments on each of the shortlisted titles:

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

Her ‘Nina Borg’ novels, co-written with Lene Kaaberbøl, have a dedicated following, but this first solo outing by Danish author Agnete Friis is a singular achievement in every sense. Ella Nygaard was a child when her mother was killed by her father. Did the seven-year-old witness the crime? She can’t remember, but her body does, manifesting physical symptoms that may double as clues. Ella’s complex character is superbly realised – traumatised yet tough, she struggles to keep her son Alex out of care while dealing with the fallout from her past.

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

In this compelling and timely novel, eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is on trial for her part in a school shooting which saw her boyfriend, best friend, teacher and other classmates killed. We follow the events leading up to the murders and the trial through Maja’s eyes, including her reaction to her legal team’s defence. Lawyer-turned-writer Malin Persson Giolito successfully pulls the reader into the story, but provides no easy answers to the motives behind the killings. Gripping and thought-provoking, the novel offers an insightful analysis of family and class dynamics.

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

Henning Mankell’s final novel sees the return of Fredrik Welin from 2010’s Italian Shoes. Living in splendid isolation on an island in a Swedish archipelago, Welin wakes up one night to find his house on fire and soon finds himself suspected of arson by the authorities. While there’s a crime at the heart of this novel, the story also addresses universal themes of loss, fragile family ties, difficult friendships, ageing and mortality. The occasionally bleak outlook is tempered by an acceptance of the vulnerability of human relationships and by the natural beauty of the novel’s coastal setting.

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

Many readers are familiar with the ‘Van Veeteren’ detective stories of Håkan Nesser, but his second series, featuring Swedish-Italian Detective Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, is only now beginning to be translated. An engaging figure who navigates his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a witty dialogue with God, Barbarotti is asked to investigate the disappearance of two members of the Hermansson family following a birthday celebration. The novel’s multiple narrative perspectives and unhurried exploration of family dynamics make for a highly satisfying read.

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

Karolina Ramqvist’s novella focuses on an often marginalised figure: the wife left stranded by her gangster husband when things go wrong. Karin’s wealthy, high-flying life is over. All that’s left are a once grand house, financial difficulties, government agencies closing in, and a baby she never wanted to have. This raw and compelling portrait of a woman at rock bottom uses the sometimes brutal physical realities of motherhood to depict a life out of control, and persuasively communicates Karin’s despair and her faltering attempts to reclaim her life.

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The grim starting point of Antti Tuomainen’s novel – a man finding out that he has been systematically poisoned and his death is just a matter of time – develops into an assured crime caper brimming with wry black humour. Finnish mushroom exporter Jaakko Kaunismaa quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects, and sets about investigating his own murder with admirable pluck and determination. The novel’s heroes and anti-heroes are engagingly imperfect, and Jaakko’s first-person narration is stylishly pulled off.

The judges are:

Barry Forshaw – Writer and journalist specialising in crime fiction and film; author of multiple books including HISTORICAL NOIR, NORDIC NOIR, DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE, EURO NOIR, DETECTIVE: CRIME UNCOVERED and the first biography of Stieg Larsson.

Dr. Kat Hall – Editor of CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI for University of Wales Press; translator and editor; Honorary Research Associate at Swansea University; international crime fiction reviewer/blogger at MRS. PEABODY INVESTIGATES.

Sarah Ward – Crime novelist, author of IN BITTER CHILL, A DEADLY THAW and A PATIENT FURY (Faber and Faber), and crime fiction reviewer at CRIMEPIECES.

Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website.

I clearly have much catching up to do, having only read one of these books, Agnete Friis’ WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS – which I admired and enjoyed. I admit I tried to read QUICKSAND but though I admired it, I couldn’t enjoy it. (So many school shootings here, so much inequality warping young lives, I just . . . couldn’t carry on though I read so many positive reviews.)  Oddly enough both books have female protagonists who are hard to like in many ways, but I was more willing to spend time with Friis’ hardluck heroine than with a teen who miserably has every advantage.  Interesting that the three books by women on this list all have something to do with defining where they belong in a life defined largely by economic realities out of their control. And given I enjoyed ITALIAN SHOES, have wondered what Nesser was doing with a character who isn’t Van Veeteren, and Antti Tuomainen’s first novel, with its vision of a near future that still haunts me, I should probably get cracking.

 

Review of A Crack in the Facade

book coverI was fortunate to get a review copy of a self-published book from a new author who goes under the name P. J. Boock. He is a a Norwegian social scientist who does research on the intersections of political economy, sociology, and psychology and is currently working in public service in the US. I can’t tell you who he is – I’m sworn to secrecy – but he’s written a cracking good mystery. It’s set in Norway and there are no monstrously clever serial killers, unreliable narrators, or gory scenes of carnage visited by dedicated if troubled detectives. If I were to give it a genre label I’d call it sociological suspense with a light dusting of political philosophy. Just my kind of Scandi Noir.

Markus Jensen, a grumpy anti-social social worker who is dedicated to his clients but can’t stand small talk at the office and finds polite and meaningless chit-chat exhausting, gets an early morning call from the police. Where is Ole Jensen? (No relation – Jensen, we learn, is the most common name in Norway, so it’s fitting that a heroin addict and his social worker have a family name in common). Markus doesn’t have much time for the police, who he refers to at one point as “monopolized violence units.” He’d scuffled with them in his activist past, and though he’s now a middle-aged public servant, protecting his clients is his first priority. When he learns Ole is suspected of murdering the new and progressive Minister of Health, he’s sure the police have got it wrong. Ole may live at the periphery of society, and has sold drugs illegally to feed his habit, but he’s not violent. Marcus needs to find Ole before the police do, especially after Ole’s friend, who came to Oslo from up north with him years ago, is found dead of an overdose that Markus is sure was not self-administered. He joins forces with a deaf man who has a useful set of not-quite-legal skills and connections, a young woman who defies the addict stereotype by borrowing philosophy books from the public library, and a journalist who is sympathetic to Markus’s quest.

This is in some ways a classic “Norwegian noir” more akin to Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum series than with Karin Fossum’s psychological fables or Jo Nesbo’s baroque thrillers. The setting is the prosperous capital of the “petroleum kingdom” where two worlds live side by side. As Markus walks his dogs he reflects:

Healthy people were zooming by us in expensive exercise gear, tuning out the rest of the world as they listened to music from electronic devices strapped to their arms. At the same time, one did not have to venture far off the trail to experience the lowest elements of the nation’s food chain. Huddled under the bridges and nearby alleyways were the paltry shadows of lost souls. Unlike the segregation between rich and poor often seen in other nations, here the two realities seemed to exist side-by-side, as one living creature. A creature that couldn’t live without its own duality – to remind us that obedience and work pay off. To make sure we are reminded that we do not have a choice.

This duality exists even at the family level. Ole has a brother who is a successful doctor. He hasn’t seen Ole in over a decade, seems to have washed his hands of him, and tells Markus and the journalist “He chose, as you know, a different path than us.” When Markus asks “Us?” the doctor clarifies he means his family, but it’s clear there’s a distinct “us” and “them” in society that even divides brothers.

Nearly every Nordic crime author is said to have ancestry in Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, but I can’t think of a writer who has so much kinship with their Marxist project of depicting the failure of the welfare state, once a vision of an egalitarian society that has given way to a comfortable, conformist bourgeois existence that excludes anyone who fails to fit in. This is most clearly voiced by Markus, especially in a conversation with Mari, the addict who can hold her own in discussing dense nineteenth century political philosophy as she and Markus head north to find Ole. It’s a didactic moment, but it doesn’t stall the momentum of the story. These moments of social critique are integral to the novel as a whole, which respects the conventions of crime fiction but also subverts them. The police are not heroes. The junkies are students who didn’t graduate but continue to ask big questions that have no easy answers unlike their more prosperous neighbors. And, though Markus and his new friends, outwit the system in the end, offering readers some satisfaction that justice can be served if good people take action, we are reminded that justice is elusive. At best, Markus and his colleagues have made a small crack in the facade.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short book (under 250 pages), but be forewarned: it’s like reading the final draft of a good manuscript that hasn’t been thoroughly copy edited. If the author shares Markus’s political philosophy, and I suspect they agree on many things, he was writing to share ideas and get things off his chest rather than create a polished commercial product. Occasionally the author, writing in his second language, uses the wrong homonym, such as “seized” for “ceased” which can give the reader pause. There are also some punctuation irregularities, but if you can overlook those blips it’s a fine, fast, thought-provoking read for those who, like me, enjoy the social-commentary side of crime fiction. It appears to be part of Kindle Unlimited so is free to those of you who are Amazon Prime members. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it definitely is mine.

 

Missing Bernadette

book and candle

I’ve neglected this blog for a while, being tied up with this and that and having my fondness of crime fiction challenged by a variety of things happening in the world. I’ve neglected my old reading community, too, partly because the group founded by Maxine Clark used a social media platform that was gobbled up by Facebook around the time that Google discontinued Reader and I never quite got back into the habit of reading blogs in their natural state. What really keeps it all together isn’t the technology, it’s the people, and after the shock of losing Maxine, I feel very much the same discovering my friend Bernadette has died.

I say “my friend” though we never met. Mostly I knew her through her book reviews, which were incisive and voluminous and always a way that I could find new books to read because we had similar tastes and a similar outlook on the world. She promoted Australian women writers and Aussie crime fiction, helped us Remember Petrona, and was a kind and frequent commenter on other blogger’s posts, including mine when I was blogging more regularly. I can’t recall exactly how I learned she was gone. I just remember it being a horrid shock, an impossibility. How could it be? I never imagined the world being a place that was without her. For some reason when you don’t really know someone in person, when you know them only online, you forget they have lives like everyone else, and things can happen that no one is prepared for. How awful for her family, and for her in-real-life friends. She must be dreadfully missed.

It has popped into my mind more times than I can count in the past couple of weeks, this combination of sadness and shock. I’d been reading her reviews now and then but hadn’t been commenting; haven’t been blogging about books much, and haven’t kept up sharing reading experiences with the community she was part of. I feel as if I’ve let a good friend slip out of my life without saying goodbye. I’m sad about that, but I’m also inspired by her generosity, and I hope to post more regularly here to talk about books. I’ll never be as good a reviewer as she was, nor will I be as energetic and kind as she was at sharing reading experiences, good and bad. But I’ll try to be a better member of the international reading community she helped to build.

Kerrie, whose own blog is Mysteries in Paradise knew Bernadette both online and in person. She compiled posts about her, as has Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot. I’m belatedly adding my own. We’ll miss you, Bernadette.

photo courtesy of Stefano Bussolon

Review of The Devil’s Wedding Ring by Vidar Sundstøl

Reposted from Reviewing the Evidence with permission

1517902800-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_THE DEVIL’S WEDDING RING
by Vidar Sundstøl and Tiina Nunnally, trans.
University of Minnesota Press, September 2017
271 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1517902800

Max Fjellanger left Norway and his job as a police officer in a small town in Telemark to become a private investigator in Florida. When he gets word that the man who had been his partner has died, he flies home for the funeral, intending a short visit. But there’s something strange about the man’s death. Why did he go back to the town where they had worked to fill his pockets with stones and throw himself into a lake? Max is also haunted by a memory: the sheriff he reported to refused to let him use an eager tracker dog when they were looking for a missing man – a man who was never found. Before long, he’s postponing his trip back to the States to put his memory to rest.

Tirill Vesterli is a university librarian who reads Swedish crime novels in her spare time after putting her little boy to bed. She finds herself intrigued by unsolved crimes, including the case of a young graduate student who disappeared on Midsummer Eve. Tirill has a theory that the student’s research about an ancient statue in a medieval stave church is the key to her fate, but when she took it to the police they laughed at her. Undaunted, she raises her theory with Max and, since the man Max and his partner had searched for had also been researching the church, they decide to delve deeper.

Sundstøl is known to American readers as the author of the Minnesota Trilogy, set on the north shore of Lake Superior. The first book in the trilogy, LAND OF DREAMS, won the Riverton Prize, Norway’s highest honor for crime fiction. This story is a more modest affair. As in the trilogy, Sundstøl is inspired by landscapes and history. In this case, the stave church and its ancient statue is a well-known historical site in southern Norway, and the story imagines the possibility that ancient rituals involving the statue have been preserved and are still practised in secret in parallel with a tamer re-enactment that is performed for tourists.

Though the ending is overly cinematic, the two detectives are well-drawn and engaging companions on this eerie journey into small-town Norway and into its darker past.