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.

 

an update – with a little help from my friends

Jane at the Madison (Wisconsin) public library reviews Jussi Olsen-Adler’s Keeper of Lost Causes (published as Mercy in the UK) and says it’s “a suspenseful, sometimes darkly funny, mystery thriller that is my number one book so far this year.”

Shelf Awareness dedicates an issue of its “maximum shelf” to it as well.

NancyO reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage, finding it a good addition to the series though, with its focus on Elinborg as the detective this time, she finds the domestic bits a tad overdone.

She also reviews Arne Dahl’s Misterioso, and recommends it, though it won’t deliver edge-of-the-seat thrills so much as solidly-assembled ensemble procedural work conducted by a large cast of police. She plans to read as many in the series as she can, though it has taken ages for this first English translation to actually appear.

Glenn Harper is not mesmerized by Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist.

Peter, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past, the fourth book in her series about lawyer Rebecka Martinsson and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella. It also gets a thumbs up at The Bookbag, which says it’s “not strictly a police procedural, as we know pretty much what has happened from early on, but more of a psychological thriller and an intriguing mystery as to why two young people died.”

There’s an interview with Asa Larsson in The West Australian, in which she says her own past not only involves growing up in Kiruna and being a lawyer, like Rebecka Martinsson, but also a period of time involved with a fundamentalist church, which is interesting in view of the themes of her first two books.

He also gives Jarkko Sipila’s Nothing but the Truth high marks, saying it is “a very entertaining, suspenseful and excellently plotted crime fiction novel” that raises important questions about the role citizens play in criminal justice. I just recently finished this myself, and agree – review to follow soon.

Jose Ignacio Escribano thinks that Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions is not the best of her books, but still worth a read, being disturbing, intense, and intelligent.

He also gives Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices high marks for being humane and well-written, as well as complex, dealing with the theme of stolen childhood sensitively.

Karen Meek reviews the audio version of Camilla Lackberg’s The Gallows Bird, which she feels has a rather disappointingly hole-prone plot but is nevertheless an entertaining story, nicely narrated by Eammon Riley.

Maxine Clarke thinks very highly of Johan Theorin’s third book in the Oland quartet, The Quarry, which is no doubt going to be a strong contender for the CWA’s International Dagger.

Quentin Bates has lived in Iceland, but is not an Icelander, yet makes it his fictional home. Crimeficreader (Rhian Davies) enjoyed his mystery, Frozen Out, particularly enjoying the strong female lead, ‘Gunna’ Gunnhildur Gisládottir.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen traveled in the opposite direction; this Danish author’s ebook mystery, The Cosy Knave, is set in Yorkshire, and has been discussed by two Australian readers, Kerrie and Bernadette, who has been in on the mystery from the start.

Bernadette also reviews Thomas Enger’s Burned, a “solid debut” that didn’t have its plot entirely under control, but has strong characters, even those that are not at all likeable.

Rohan Maitzen has a nice essay on the Martin Beck series and how it challenges those who persist in thinking crime fiction is good only when it “transcends the genre.”

Despite the persistent assumption that some literary forms are inherently more formulaic than others, all writing relies on genre markers, and “genre” itself is a notoriously unstable term, invoking categories that are both permeable and endlessly mutable. The real issue — the critical issue — is how form is used, what it enables us to discover. We shouldn’t ask whether crime fiction needs to transcend its traditional forms, but rather how those forms have evolved, and what they have made possible. . . . Sjöwall and Wahlöö are among those who show that, in the hands of visionary and capable writers, crime fiction can simply be great literature. The only transcendence required is the reader’s.

Norm and the new translator of the Annika Bengtzon series untangle the series order for us. It’s a bit unusual for a publisher to spring for all new translations of a previously translated work, unless you are Tolstoy. But, to stick to publishing tradition, they are giving books new titles to make it all more exciting to shop and are keeping the US and UK publications out of sync. Good to know they aren’t breaking all the rules.

Looks as if Leif G. W. Persson’s series about Evert Backstrom is destined for the American small screen.

Peter Rozovsky, always on the lookout for humor, finds some in Three Seconds. He also notes a lot of border-crossing going on in Swedish crime fiction that harkens back to the old days of the Hanseatic League.

Laura DeMarco rounds up lots of Scandinavian crime at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a nicely detailed piece, with a sidebar on “ten essential authors.”

And finally, I’ve mentioned it before but I owe the Crime & Mystery Fiction friendfeed group, founded by Maxine Clarke, an enormous debt for finding and commenting on so many fascinating links related to the genre. Not only is it a good place to find out what’s going on, it’s inhabited by charming and well-read fans of the genre.

Leopards and Seconds and Danes, Oh My!

Time for another round of catch-up.

At Euro Crime, Karen Meek reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Leopard, which she found absorbing, thrilling, and full of twists and turns. Meanwhile, Peter provides an update on Nesbo’s writing and film projects at the Nordic Book Blog.

Also at Euro Crime, Maxine Clarke reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s standalone thriller, Operation Napoleon. She reports it’s a fast-paced adventure yarn that contrasts the reliance on technology of (mostly villainous) Americans at a base in Iceland and Icelanders who are more reliant on their wits and understanding of a challenging landscape.

Declan Burke reviews Anne Holt’s 1222, finding it rather derivative, but with vivid weather and surprising staying power.

Glenn Harper reviews Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom at his International Noir Fiction blog. As usual, it is a thoughtful, intelligent, and detailed review of the sort you rarely find in print these days. The sort version: it’s a very good book, well worth reading.

Peter also reviews the thriller at the Nordic Bookblog. He concludes:

And as very good books do – along the way it raises some pertinent, important and exceedingly difficult questions in a painful way, by shining that brilliant light which art can shine on some quite unsettling facts we all know but prefer to not think too much about. This is a serious, one-of-a-kind crime fiction novel. Three Seconds is one of the best crime five fiction books in English in 2011. You can take my word for it: It is stunning.

And so as not to be left out, I review the book, as well, at Reviewing the Evidence. (Though I am a bit out of sync as I found Box 21 more involving.)

Incidentally, Three Seconds has spent four weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, currently taking the 15th spot. Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest has been on the list for 36 weeks, currently at number two. (The first two volumes of the trilogy are on the paperback list.)

Also at Reviewing the Evidence, Susy Puggioli reviews Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, which she describes as “a study of guilt, guilt and compassion.”

Laura Wilson reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Leopard at The Guardian and admires the pacing and plotting but recommends suspending disbelief to enjoy the ride.

Paul Binding at The Independent also reviews the book, praising its intricacy and fast pace, but finds the events a bit too thrillerish, arguing that Nesbo really doesn’t need to resort to crowd-pleasing antics. He writes

Nesbø’s imaginative preoccupation with division, above all in the individual, makes him a distinctively Norwegian writer. His mentors – Ibsen, Hamsun – have magisterially contrasted the wild with the harmonious, the lover or explorer with the conscientious citizen, the stern moralist with the easy-going hedonist. This distinguishes him from the Swedes Mankell and Larsson, to whom he is so often compared.

A reviewer for the Irish Independent reports “Nesbo writes smart blockbuster fiction but with a melancholy and intelligent edge.”

Popular blogger Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, whose new e-book of humorous flash fiction, Candied Crime, has just been released, is getting some local press coverage (in Danish). She may release a somewhat darker second volume – if we’re lucky. (Just don’t make the mistake of calling her Dørte. That’s for Clint Eastwood.)

There’s a new website on the block – Scandinoir – that describes itself as

the site dedicated to Scandinavian crime novels, where all those who love reading thriller books will find useful information and interesting news from the amazing world of Scandinavian detective novels. On our site you will find continuous updates on the latest news from the exciting world of Scandinavian crime novels. In the “news” section you will find information about the latest published or translated books, the last award-winning writers and so on.

It’s a multi-lingual site so in some cases includes materials not normally found in places like . . . uh, this blog, which is less well-versed in languages other than English.

Zach O’Yeah, India-based Swedish author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, gives his list of favorite crime novelists – both world-wide and Scandinavian – at the Tender Leaves blog. (I must say, I wouldn’t peg Zach O’Yeah as a Swedish name.)

There’s a lengthy article about Stieg Larsson the journalist and chronicler of the Swedish right wing in The Walrus, a Canadian magazine. Paul Wilson visits Stockholm to see the Expo offices where Larsson worked and compares the laws relating to journalism in Sweden and Canada. Sweden, it seems, has a long tradition of protecting journalists and their sources – dating back to 1766.

According to the Nordic Noir Book Club blog, Gunnar Staalesen will be in London on March 3rd, appearing at the Willesden Green public library, which is also holding a writing competition to determine who might be the next Mankell or Larsson, all part of their Scandinavian Camilla Ceder has written the opening lines for the story. The blog also gives a bit of a preview to an English translation of Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen, whose Department Q series is massively popular in Denmark but also in Germany, where his books have held the top three spots on the bestseller list for weeks. His first book in English translation should appear in the UK this coming May.

Becky Toyne of Open Book Ontario describes the way that the popularity of the Millennium Trilogy has led to a “crossover” effect – people who don’t usually read crime discovering not just Larsson but Mankell and others. She quips that she almost expects local Canadian authors to be listed in catalogs as “Linwöød Bårclay and Giles Blönt.”