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.

 

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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.

Reading Round-Up

Diction, a translation service based in Copenhagen has created an infographic showing the ten most translated Danish authors. Hans Christian Andersen tops the list. A bit further down, crime fiction fans will see a a familiar name . . .

The 10 most translated Danish writersI imagine we may someday see other crime fiction authors making the grade. (Jussi Adler-Olsen? Sara Blaedel?) I wonder who where Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö or Henning Mankel or even Camilla Läckberg might appear on a similar Swedish list – or Arnaldur Indriðason for Icelandic translations.

And now onto a variety of reviews appearing in recent months . . .

Becky who reads a lot of books and is part Finnish enjoyed The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto and hopes more books in this series will be turned into audio books. In 15cd4ef0649476b597339476e67444341587343particular she found the protagonist to be a “great character.” (I read it, too, and quite a lot of the story sticks with me as the Serbian woman who now works as a police detective in Finland goes home, has her purse stolen, and gets into a lot of trouble as she insists on finding out more than the local police want to know about the Roma people they despise and the refugees who aren’t wanted. It makes for an interesting commentary on Finnish culture, too, as the protagonist contrasts her Finnish assumptions with her homeland’s.)

Cathy at Kittling Books thought the prologue to Karo Hämäläinen’s Cruel is the Night was fantastic. Alas, the rest of the book did not appeal to her, given what she found were unlikable characters and a glacial pace. She hopes you might feel differently (though I admit, I didn’t care for it either).

She had similar issues with Agnete Friis’s What My Body Remembers – a slow pace and a character who doesn’t endear herself to the reader. (I quite liked the book, but Cathy had encountered one too many unlikable protagonists in a row.)

Margaret Cannon, who reviews mysteries for the Toronto Globe & Mail, had feelings closer to mine about Agnete Friis’s novel. “This is an excellent character study of a woman in extreme crisis,” she concludes.

At Euro Crime, reviewer Lynn Harvey introduces us to the first crime novel by a Danish journalist with a British connection – Fatal Crossing by Lone Theils. She deems it “an accomplished and exciting crime novel” that kept her up all night. Raven also gives the book a thumbs-up review, writing “With an intriguingly dark, well-plotted investigation, and the shadow of a notorious serial killer looming large within Sand’s quest for the truth, there were enough twists and tension to keep me reading.”

1910633275-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Raven has also read the latest by Kjell Ola Dahl, Faithless, and deems it “flawlessly plotted, with a beautifully nuanced translation” and urges us all to pick it up immediately.

Carrying on with her Scandinavian reading selections, she finds Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark quite stunning if darker than the previous books in this long-running series.

Staalesen’s Where Roses Never Die was the recipient of the 2017 Petrona Award, and Bernadette at Reactions to Reading says it’s well-deserved, even if PI sleuths in the American hard-boiled tradition aren’t generally her favorite. “Everything else about the book was terrific . . . Staalesen does a great job of peeling away the layers of secrecy that might easily build up in any group of people and result in an impossible to predict disaster.” Kerrie who reads mysteries in paradise (which is located not far from where Bernadette shares her reading reactions) also gives it a strong review. Obviously I must catch up on this series.

Bernadette found herself “completely hooked” by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s standalone, Why 151a6891f27803e596732566e67444341587343Did You Lie, in which the author subtly builds suspense as three seemingly separate plot strands develop toward connections.

There’s lots of suggestion and doubt and misdirection too so that even the savviest of crime fiction readers will not be able to predict everything that happens . . . The psychological thriller label is used too often but in the case of WHY DID THEY LIE? it is apt. It is unsettling rather than bump-in-the-night scary but that’s just what I like.

This book is going right on my TBR list just as I’m reminded that Bernadette is one of the best reviewers on the planet.

Of course, it helps that our tastes align so well. She had very much the same reaction as mine to Samuel Bjork’s I’m Travelling Alone” which to her “seemed as if it had been penned by someone more familiar with a “10 tips for great thriller writing” checklist than actual crime fiction of the kind I like.” The difference is that she had the stamina to actually finish it, whereas I bailed early.

But no worries – I now have a list of several books to add to my TBR, and hope you discover some, too.

 

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.