a belated roundup of reviews and news

It’s been quite a busy semester and a long time since I’ve updated this blog. There has been no shortage of reviews and news in the interim . . .

UrbanIndianWoman is a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction and at her blog, Indian Feminist 101, she sometimes muses on its feminist aspects. (This is something I’m also very interested in, so yay!) She has recently shared her thoughts on Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson and also posted a round up of women detectives asking “Is it the densely dark atmosphere and snowy landscape and morose environment? Is it the fact that since in reality there is so little crime there that the Scandinavians’ imagination is more fertile when it comes to fictionalising it? Is it their innate sense of justice and fairness that finds voice in crime fiction?” Whatever it is, she likes it.

Reading is a popular pursuit in all of the Scandinavian countries, but according to the BBC, writing may be more popular per capita in Iceland, which has a thriving book culture for its small population of roughly 300,000. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book, according to the story, and the biggest genre at the moment is crime fiction. Sales double those in other Scandinavian countries, which also have healthy sales. What is particularly insteresting to me is that Arnaldur Indridason had virtually no company when he began to write crime stories not too long ago. He told me that his series tapped a thirst for crime fiction which had barely been published in Icelandic and with an Icelandic setting, though mysteries in English were popular among Icelanders. Takk fyrir, Arnaldur, for your books and others coming from your small island.

Euro Crime’s Laura Root reviews Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams. I abosolutely concur with her conclusion that some readers who expect resolution may be disappointed – but others (including Laura and me) will simply want to read the rest of the trilogy. 

Glenn Harper also reviews The Land of Dreams at International Noir Fiction, finding it repetetive at times (but not in an aggravating way) and, like me, is interested in what comes next in the trilogy.

Kerrie in Paradise reviews Derek Miller’s Norwegian by Night which takes an American to Norway. She gives it high marks and suggests it would make a cracking film. It was the winner of the CWA new blood dagger this year, so she isn’t alone in thinking it’s a good read.

At Petrona Remembered, Jose Ignacio Escribano features Gunnar Staalesen’s Cold Hearts, He recommends it highly and wishes the author was better known. Do you have a mystery you enjoyed and would like to share? Why not submit it to the site? It’s a celebration of Maxine Clarke aka Petrona, who loved a good mystery and is much missed.

At Crime Scraps, Norman reviews Liza Marklund’s The Long Shadow, warning readers that it’s important to read Lifetime first. This entry in the Annika Bengtson series takes her to the Costa del Sol and is not, in Norm’s estimation, the best of the bunch. I’m afraid I find her taste in men deeply irritating! Flawed heroines are right up my alley, unless they have a soft spot for controlling idiots. Is “stupid” a flaw? If so, not the kind I like.

One of Sarah’s Crimepieces is Anne Holt’s Death of the Demon. She found it a bit disappointing compared to other books in the series, with a not-terribly-gripping or complex plot. (I’ve just finished it myself and found it more of an issue-driven book than a real mystery, featuring a troubled child who we get to know a lot about but not to understand.

She felt more positive about Jo Nesbo’s Police, which is a “huge” book with complexity to spare. There is a plot strand she found annoying – and (having just read it myself) I was annoyed, too.

Marilyn Stasio at the New York Times says its nervewracking and disturbing and you really ought to read the previous book in the series, Phantom, first. She applauds Nesbo for taking Harry off stage and letting other characters have a chance to shine.

At Novel Heights, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s ghost story, I Remember You, gets middling marks for characters (who tend to get into scrapes more often than they should) but top marks for tension – and for its clever resolution.

There you will also find a recent review of Quentin Bates’s Iceland-set mystery, Frozen Out (apa Frozen Assets) which has a lot going on but a terrific lead character. (I’ve just started reading the third in the series and am enjoying spending time with Gunna Gisladottir.)

Barry Forshaw reviews several mysteries, including Arnadludr Indridason’s Strange Shores and Arne Dahl’s Bad Blood.  He thinks Erlendur’s return is well handled, but reports that it’s the final book in the series, which makes me sad. Arne Dahl, he says “writes crime fiction of genuine authority with a sinewy, uncompromising structure.” To be honest, I’m not sure what it means, but I think it’s a compliment.

Karen Meek, the heroic mastermind behind Euro Crime, reviews Karin Fossum’s I Can See in the Dark. It’s not in the Sejer series, but rather is a psychological crime novel rather in the mode of Fossum’s recent work. Not one of her favorites.

She also reports the intriguing news that a UK publisher has acquired a new novel by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen. I enjoyed The Healer quite a bit.

Another Norwegian author is also due to appear in English, according to Crimficreader’s blog. Tom Johansen’s Blood on Snow is due in 2014 and will be followed by a sequel. Both will no doubt have an instant following, given that Tom Johansen is a pseudonym for the very busy and popular Jo Nesbo.

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.

Frozen Out by Quentin Bates – A Review

Please don’t take my tardiness in posting this review as any kind of oracle. I’ve simply been busy at work so, even though I gobbled the book greedily, it has taken me far too long to explain why I enjoyed it so much.

Frozen Out (titled Frozen Assets in the US) opens when a man who appears to be drunk or drugged is helped out of a car and over the parapet of a quay into the chilly waters of an Icelandic harbor. By page two, we meet the cop who will investigate the “accident” – Gunhilder Gisladottir, known to all as Gunna the Cop. She is a middle-aged widow, the mother of two, and a thoroughly capable detective who has been posted to Hvalvik, a backwater town outside the capital.

Her first task is to find out who fell into the water, then to figure out how he got there. Her search takes her to the headquarters of a public relations firm involved in the controversial construction of an aluminum plant and to the offices of government officials who are also caught up in the financing of the plant. She’s accompanied by a wet-behind-the-ears reporter who is writing a profile of her. Though he’s told to look for “a big fat lass with a face that frightens the horses” he sees Gunna as a woman with an “angular, handsome face” and an authoritative presence that she uses to pursue a case that nobody seems terribly interested in seeing solved.

Gunna makes an appealing and down-to-earth heroine, determined to do her job and able to organize her limited resources ably. The story, with backdrops in the police investigation and in a newsroom, is punctuated by posts from an anonymous “Skandalblogger” who dishes dirt on the close ties between Icelandic businesses, banks, and the government, always ending his (or her) dispatches with a cheery “Baejo!” The snarky blog posts chronicle the moment in time when overheated deals, lax government oversight, and dubious banking practices are taking the country into a crash that will shake the country to its core and be felt around the world.

That said, this isn’t a financial thriller, it’s a police procedural grounded in the kind of fair-play decency and good sense that is currently Iceland’s greatest asset. The author, who lived for many years in Iceland, has done a good job of bringing the setting alive and making not just the landscape but the social context very real. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, due to be released in January. You can learn more about Quentin Bates and Iceland in an interview with the author.

I bumped into this fantastic photo of the author taken by Tony Brackley-Prower at his photography tutorial site.

Quentin Bates: An Interview With the Author of Frozen Out / Frozen Assets

I was lucky enough to get a chance to throw some questions at Quentin Bates, who lobbed back answers with great speed and gusto. (I’ll bet he plays a dab game of tennis, too.) I recently read a copy of his excellent mystery, Frozen Out (titled Frozen Assets in the US, and will be posting a review of it here soon. Meanwhile, I was curious about his relationship to Iceland and his take on the recent financial meltdown and how it has changed the country. Fascinating stuff

You chose to write a book set in Iceland. What about the country seized your imagination? What surprised you about it when you first moved there and what do you feel is most interesting about the landscape and culture? How have you kept in touch since moving away?

When I went to Iceland first (in the late 1970s), it was a very different place to what it is today. It was remote. There were no faxes or emails. Letters and newspapers didn’t reach the Westfjords for a week or more at a time in the winter, and making an international phone call was a major undertaking.

The landscape largely speaks for itself – mountains, fjords, glaciers, etc, but there is so much about the culture that is fascinating. There’s strange a blend of world view and small-town attitudes that sit uncomfortably together. I found it fascinating that the place was so small and informal, with even government ministers listed in the phone book, and it was a very compact society with one phone book for the whole country. Back then it was very close to being a very equal society. Nobody was obscenely rich, while there was no abject poverty either. Of course, that’s all changed now and watching the changes take place has been an intriguing process.

We left in 1990 and have return regularly for visits – extremely expensive flights permitting, but that has improved considerably since the main airline finally found itself with some competition. Right up to the Crash in 2008, every summer saw a fairly steady flow of relatives and other visitors from Iceland, but with the króna having lost a lot of its former value, overseas travel is more of a problem for Icelanders and the flow of visitors has slowed to a trickle.

I was the first one in our street here to have internet access sometime in the mid-1990s, which was at the time primarily so that we could read online Icelandic newspapers, which then were text-only versions, but still invaluable. It has been a lot easier to stay in touch since airfares became more affordable and the internet expanded. Skype is a big help and despite my reservations about it, Facebook is something that has become an essential in Iceland.

Your protagonist is a woman. Why did you decide to write from her perspective, and what makes her heroic (however you want to define that term)?

Right at the very beginning when I was tinkering with what became Frozen Out/Assets, Gunna wasn’t supposed to be the main character. But she practically jumped off the screen, fully formed, demanding attention and as she came to life, Gunna just became more and more interesting. On a purely technical level, I wanted to see if I could meet the challenge of writing convincingly from a female perspective. There are several male protagonists from female authors and I wanted to see if I could do it as well.

I’m not sure how heroic she is, although I keep piling problems on her. I suppose that the heroic part is that she does cope with all the flak that comes her way and all the brickbats that life in general throws at us. I certainly didn’t set out to make her a heroic figure – although what I see as heroic is to take a stand and not follow the herd. Demanding answers to the questions that others don’t think or want to ask is heroic in my eyes.

English-language readers of mysteries have had the chance to read two popular but very different Icelandic writers in translation: Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Are you familiar with their work? What do you think of it? – and any other Icelandic literature you might be familiar with.

I’ve read most of Arnaldur’s books and some of Yrsa’s. In fact, years ago a British publisher had clearly gone to pains to find an Icelandic-speaking Englishman and commissioned me to write an appraisal of Arnaldur’s first book. I reported back that the book was interesting, in spite of what I felt was its far-fetched ending, and that this guy was someone to watch. As far as I know, that book never appeared in English, but that publisher is still publishing Arnaldur in English today.

I certainly enjoy Arnaldur’s and Yrsa’s books. Even if I don’t get round to reading it straight away, I am one of those who wait for the new Arnaldur to appear on the 1st of November every year. This has become a fixture in Iceland and for the first week or two in November there’s a lot of discussion of ‘the new Arnaldur.’ ‘Is it as good as the last one…?’ ‘What d’you think happened to Erlendur, then…?’

The latest one is called ‘Furðu Strandir’ (something along the lines of ‘Strange Shores’) and I’m keeping it back for a suitable opportunity, like a long flight, to find out what did happen to Erlendur.

I also enjoy the books of Árni Thorarinsson and Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, and there are now a good few Icelandic writers of thrillers and crime stories who have not (yet) made it into English translation.

Incidentally, Arnaldur and Yrsa both had the tremendous good fortune to be translated into English by the mighty Bernard Scudder, who did a magnificent job – to the extent that their books are as good, if not better, in English than in Icelandic.

I agree with you there. He was one of those translators who readers really appreciate, and we were terribly saddened when he passed away. Are there other crime fiction authors you particularly enjoy reading?

The Scandinavians I’m particularly fond of are Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Matti Joensuu, Arnaldur Indriðason and Henning Mankell. But the detective I keep returning to who never goes stale is Maigret.

Recently I’ve also been reading Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books – and can’t help but be deeply envious of just how well those two write.

I have to admit that although I have the books here in the constantly growing ‘to be read’ pile, I still haven’t yet found time to read Stieg Larsson.

The spectacular financial meltdown is a backdrop to your story, as are environmental issues, yet neither really takes the foreground or takes over the story. How have recent events in Iceland influenced the direction your writing is taking? How well do you think Iceland is recovering from the years of excess and the banking crisis?

When the banking crisis happened (and I was in Iceland that week when the banks admitted that they’d gambled other people’s money and lost the lot), Frozen Out was close to being complete, but was re-written to make full use of events.

To be brutal, Iceland is still in turmoil following the crisis as things lurch from one crisis to another and new revelations are still coming to light. In all honesty, Iceland isn’t recovering. Ordinary working people are getting extra taxes heaped on them while education, healthcare, law enforcement and pretty much everything else is being cut to the bone. At the same time, those responsible for the present situation don’t appear to have lost out in the least. There is, understandably, a huge amount of bitterness directed at the present Icelandic government who took over an absolute unholy mess from their predecessors, the business sector and the financial sector in particular, as well as the former leaders who were supposedly at the helm in the run-up to the Crash. The IceSave issue is huge at the moment, with plenty of fury directed at the UK and Dutch governments. But in all fairness, there are bigger issues that are getting little attention and I guess it suits some people to have all that anger channelled against some bogeymen in Amsterdam and London.

Public life is in chaos as political games and vendettas are being played out at the expense of actually getting to grips with the realities. The government is largely hamstrung and not capable of taking big decisions, and is getting a vast amount of criticism for it. The whole thing is quite complex, with all kinds of bizarre loyalties along party lines, deep cronyism, a great deal of unobtrusive corruption, etc.

The crisis (or the Crash, as it’s referred to) has become an absolutely pivotal event and will remain in the national psyche for decades to come. Everything changed over the course of a matter of weeks, the rulebooks went out of the window and there was a vast blow to national pride that people are struggling to come to terms with – and probably will continue to struggle with for years to come.

I admit to what might seem a ghoulish curiosity about how Arnaldur will describe events in future books. A rather trivial question: do you prefer the UK or US title? What about the different cover art?

The original title was Frozen Assets, and I was dubious about it as one of the former Icelandic bankers, or banksters, had used the same title for his memoirs.

In the event, the UK publisher decided to change it shortly before publication. A new author doesn’t get a lot of input into these things… and the cover art was also the publishers’ decisions. My own preference is for the UK title and the US cover.

What’s next for Gunnhildur?

The second book, Cold Comfort, is in the copyediting process now and is due to be published in January 2012. This one sees Gunna dealing with the murder of a fitness guru with a murky past and back in her old territory in Reykjavík that has changed a great deal since the Crash. We have corruption, greed and self-interest, as well as both new and old murders. This time there are some of the original characters, plus a few new ones.

A third book, provisionally entitled Chilled to the Bone, is now about three-quarters written and this takes Gunna out of the city and back to her roots in the western fjords of Iceland – although I’d prefer not to give to much away at this stage.

I guess we’ll just have to wait, then – but it will be worth it. Thanks so much for an absorbing glimpse into your work and its world.