More Reviews and Some New Writers on the Scene

Jan Wallentin is a newly translated author who undergoes torture at the Guardian where reviewer John O’Connell describes Strindberg’s Star (published in 2010 and apparently popular in Europe) as “post-Da Vinci Code assemblage of ancient artefacts, Norse myth, nazism, travelogue and secret societies.” He  finds the characters “almost as preposterous as the plot” and he’s not enthusiastic about the translation, either.

The site Crime Fiction Lover lives up to its name by loving it, however, saying it’s dark, unsettling, and compelling.

Glenn Harper reviews Ake Edwardson’s Sail of Stone and does a remarkable job of describing why he likes this author’s style so much. Since I have always had trouble describing Edwardson’s very particular style, I can’t resist quoting him:

The two stories hardly seem weighty enough for a crime novel, despite the considerable parallels between them, but in Edwardsson’s hands there is considerable tension and forward motion, as well as a pair of unconventional climaxes. A good deal of the novel is carried forward in oblique dialogue that’s frequently comic in its indirectness. Along the way there’s considerable discussion of music (Erik is a jazz fanatic who doesn’t care about any other music, while the other detectives have their own soundtracks) and vivid evocations of Göteborg/Gothenburg in Sweden and Scotland from Aberdeen to Inverness. We also get lively glimpses of Erik’s and Aneta’s private lives, without descending into soap opera.

Edwardsson is one of the best writers in the Swedish crime wave.

And I will add that Harper is one of the best reviewers.

He’s been quicker than I am to review one of the new Stockholm Text books, Anna Jansson’s Killer’s Island. He wasn’t taken with the writing style, but found it improved as the book went on. It has the same setting as Mari Jungstedt’s series and a preoccupation with personal lives of the characters that reminds him of Camilla Lackberg. He recommends the television series based on these books if you are lucky enough to catch it .

Philip at To Be Read … reviews one of my TBR books, The Murder of Halland by Danish author Pia Juul. Though it is fiction that includes a crime, he wonders whether it’s a mistake to consider it crime fiction as it is circuitous and more of a literary approach to a woman’s trauma than the sort of plot-oriented investigation crime fiction fans anticipate. I guess I will find out in due course how I come down on this issue. The review itself is intriguing, so I hope to enjoy an intriguing novel, whatever its genre.

He also reviews Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode, which sounds like a great deal of intelligent fun.

Bill Selnes reviews Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss at Mysteries and More and is eager to read more in the series. (So am I!)

Norm at Crimescraps enjoyed Jo Nesbo’sPhantom, but thinks (having set himself a very high bar) it’s not the author’s best. It does sound like quite a detailed ethnography of drug addition in a large European city, as well the development of Harry Hole’s paternal side.

He also reviews Hakan Nesser’s Hour of the Wolf, a Van Veeteren series book that won the Glass Key in 2000. He recommends it highly. Jose Ignacio also gives it high marks at The Game’s Afoot. Even though I’ve not yet read this book, I wholeheartedly agree with one line of the review: “Reading becomes an addiction.”

Margot Kinberg puts Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess under the spotlight – particularly focusing on the small town setting and how that affects the story.

W. J. H. Read reviews Lief G. W. Persson’s Another Life, Another Time at I Love a Mystery, saying it is “compelling, suspenseful and at times very funny,” recommending it highly. In general, this seems to be a more accessible book than the first in the series. It also confirms that the author likes long titles.

Fleur Fisher (aka Jane) thought very highly of the book, and does an excellent job of explaining why, summing up by saying “I was impressed by the tightness of the plotting, and that though the story was complex it was not at all difficult to follow … I was held from beginning to end, by a very capable piece of crime writing, set in a very real and wonderfully evoked world.”

Kimbofo is favorably inclined toward Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage, finding the focus on Elinborg rather than the usual protagonist, Erlendur, more pleasing than she expected and pointing out that it wouldn’t be a bad place for readers new to the series to start. Maxine in the comments points out that the next in the series, Black Skies, takes place during the same period of time and focuses on Sigurder Oli who makes a more interesting protagonist than expected.

Book Geeks reviews Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s The Day is Dark, finding it solid, but not exceptional, with many interesting features but pacing that is . . . oh, no, I feel a terrible pun coming on, given it’s largely set in Greenland. Never mind.

In the most recent issue of Swedish Book Review, Paul O’Mahoney offers a translated snippet from Kjell Westo’s novel, Don’t Go Out Alone Into the Night. Westo is known to crime fiction readers as the author of the psychologically suspenseful novel Lang. This issue also reviews new fiction in Swedish, including a novel by Johann Theorin, Sankta Psycho, that is not set on the island of Oland, but rather takes place in a psychiatric facility connected to a preschool (!). Marlaine Delargy is translating this book which will be titled in English, The Asylum.

If you’d like to learn more about Eva Gabrielsson’s relationship with Stieg Larsson, she was interviewed on WHYY’s Fresh Air program. I realize many of you would prefer not to.

Mrs. Peabody investigates Harri Nykanen’s Nights of Awe. She wasn’t all that impressed by the convoluted plot, but really liked the way the Jewish-Finnish lead character was developed.

Sarah at Crime Pieces reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path, which (confusingly) has just been published in the UK, though it precedes Until Thy Wrath be Past.  She feels it’s quite good, but the backstory gets rather heavy-handed and the ending “out of proportion with the rest of the narrative,” which means our feelings are practically identical. I do like this series, though, even when it’s not at its top form.

She also has an excellent essay on how the Sjowall and Wahloo novel The Man on the Balcony and Marco Vichi’s Death and the Olive Grove manage to deal with a difficult topic – abuse and murder of children – without the usual missteps, but rather with insight and understated respect.

And carrying on with Scandinavian crime, she reviews Thomas Enger’s Burned, which she picked up after hearing the author speak at CrimeFest. She thought it was very good, particularly for its depiction of the non-stop contemporary news business. (I liked that part, too.)

Good grief. The New York Times has had some silly ledes lately (“Men invented the internet” for example, “Men with pocket protectors” and with powers that make them invisible to fact checkers and skeptical editors) but it’s nevertheless a bit embarrassing to have them tell us “Norway has Noir” as if it’s, you know, news or something. Jo Nesbo spoke at Book Expo America. He was pretty funny, according to my Twitter informants. The Gray Lady should perhaps pay more attention.

Kerrie reviews Johan Theorin’s The Quarry, which she gave high marks. (I did, too.) Another book she has reviewed recently is Next of Kin by Danish author Elsabeth Egholm, whose sleuth is a journalist. Kerrie recommends it as a good read.

Mons Kallentoft’s second book in English, Summertime Death, gets Sarah’s attention at Crimepieces. She praises his writing style and found most of the book well-paced, except toward the end. It sounds a bit “once more with feeling” but still a good one – though Sarah hopes he’ll try for more variety in future books. The book is also reviewed favorably in the New Zealand Listener, where Bernard Carpinter declares it “complex and excellent.”

Kerrie adds another thumbs up to the general praise for Jorn Lier Horst’s Norwegian police procedural,Dregs. How about translations of the entire series? And a US release, while I’m being demanding? She had a bit of trouble getting into Anne Holt’s The Final Murder, but once into the swing of things enjoyed the Stubo/Vik story. Incidentally, Holt’s 1222 has just been nominated for a Macavity award, with the winners to be announced at Bouchercon this coming October.

Speaking of CrimeFest, Karen of Euro Crime did some wonderful on-the-fly reporting, including a detailed report from Death in a Cold Climate – a panel moderated by Barry Forshaw featuring Asa Larsson, Thomas Enger, Ragnar Jonasson (sadly, not yet translated into English), and Gunnar Staalesen, as well as Roslund and Hellstrom interviewed by Janet Laurence.

I should take this opportunity to thank Karen and her partners in crime reviewing. The Euro Crime site now has 2,303 reviews, bibliographies for 1,793 authors, and information about close to 10,000 books. That’s an awesome achievement, and all done for love.

A Scandinavian Tour in Reviews

It has been a month since I made the rounds to see what has been reviewed lately. I thought I’d better organize them somehow, so have listed them by country. Sweden, I’m afraid, gets the lion’s share of attention. My Norwegian grandfather could have predicted that.

Finland

Bernadette reviews Harri Nykanen’s Nights of Awe, finding the lead character intriguing but the plot a bit too Hollywood.

Peter Rozovsky also reviews it for the Philadelphia Inquirer and also questions the plausibility of the story, but enjoys Nykanen’s wry humor.

I am looking forward to getting my hands on a new translation of one of the Raid novels, also by Harri Nykanen, as well as Seppo Jokinen’s Wolves and Angels, which will be coming out next month from Ice Cold Crime. It’s always wonderful to have authors leave my “wanted” page once they are published in English translation.

Iceland

The Day is Dark by Yrsa Sigurdardotter was a bit slow for Sarah Hilary’s tastes, writing at Reviewing the Evidence, with an interesting take on masculinity but, she feels, too much exposition that slows momentum.

At the San Francsico Chronicle’s book blog, P.G. Koch finds Yrsa’s Ashes to Dust an intricately plotted thriller with the thought processes of an anorexic woman particularly chilling. Kirkus also gives the book a strong review.

Norway

Kerrie reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Phantom, which she finds bleaker and darker than previous Harry Hole books. She writes, “an interestingly structured, but very noir book, with the dominant narrator a boy who is already dead. And a rat with a problem.” I would add, a review that intrigues.

Mary Whipple also reviews The Phantom, finding it complex, full of plot twists, at times over the top, but certain to appeal to fans of the Harry Hole series as it builds on all the groundwork the author has laid in creating his brilliant and troubled hero.

And to round it out, Maxine reviews it at Petrona, finding Hole a bit too much of a superman, able to leap implausibilities with a single cinematic bound, but praises the book for its compelling and relatively uncluttered plot and what it has to say about the wages of addiction.

Kerrie gives Karin Fossum’s The Caller top marks and reckons that if you haven’t read any of the Konrad Sejer series before, this is a grand place to start.

Margot Kinberg puts Fossum’s Don’t Look Back “in the spotlight” finding it an unsettling and realistic depiction of the effects of a tragedy on a small community.

Sweden

Vicky Albritton takes a fascinating look back at an early crime novel, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas, a 1905 novel about science, sexuality, and an ethical bind created when a woman tries to escape the sexual oppression of her odious husband. Albritton mentions that a 2002 edition of the English translation has an introduction by Margaret Atwood,  an excerpt of which was published in The Guardian. She wrote, “Doctor Glas is one of those marvellous books that appears as fresh and vivid now as on the day it was published.”

Closer to the present time, Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series is tempting Sarah at Crimepieces to drop everything and read. She reviews the 1966 novel, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, in which Beck travels to Hungary in search of a missing journalist.

At Euro Crime, Rich Westwood reviews Camilla Lackberg’s The Stranger which is a new title for the previously-published Gallows Bird. He thinks the domestic bits are more convincing than the murder bits and prefers the original title.

Bernadette found Lackberg’s The Drowning disappointing, with a predictable plot that was not as interesting as in previous books, the cozy domestic scenes and ho-hum mystery formulaic. Since she has enjoyed other books in the series, she hopes this is a temporary aberration.

Sarah reviews Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment at Crimepieces, saying it was “a very interesting, albeit slow read where the isolated, icy community dominated the narrative descriptions.” It seems a good sign that the story stayed with her long after she put the book down.

She also reviews Hakan Nesser’s Hour of the Wolf, a very good entry in the series in her estimation in which a drunk driving incident triggers a string of violent acts. Though the wry humor of the series is not as much in evidence as usual, the tone is appropriate for the events of the story.

Nancy O tries to find nice things to say about She’s Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel, but dealing with a story that involves an imprisoned woman and repeated sexual assault is an uphill battle that ends up with an exasperated “jeez!  Enough already.” Or perhaps way too much.

Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End gets a mixed review at To Be Read . . . as character development and pacing takes a back seat to its broad canvas examination of Sweden’s recent history, though the reviewer finds it on the whole successful.

Shannon Sharpe thinks Persson’s approach to complex plotting with unsavory characters and lashings of dark humor lifts the novel far above the more popular Millennium Trilogy.

Laura Root reviews the next book in the series at Euro Crime. Another Time, Another Life is a complex and skillfully crafted novel with a dry narrative style and characters that are more sympathetic than those in the first book.

At Nordic Bookblog, Peter reviews Liza Marklund’s Vanished (previously published in a different translation under the title Paradise. He recommends it as a fast-paced story with an intriguing lead.

BookGeeks reviews Dark Angel by Mari Jungstedt, finding it “a well written and superbly plotted mystery” that does a good job balancing thriller elements and social background.

The Local (Sweden’s News in English) has a profile of defense lawyer Jens Lapidus, whose trilogy beginning with Easy Money focuses on the lives of criminals.  He is particularly interested in the parts of Stockholm where the residents are not blond and blue-eyed and in the perspective of people for whom crime is just another line of work.

In a review of Easy Money at Reviewing the Evidence, Chris Roberts calls it “a remarkably accomplished debut,” with a well-paced plot but characters who are not easy to like.

Peter of Nordic Bookblog reviews Ake Edwardson’s Sail of Stone, which he feels is an excellent entry in the excellent series, particularly strong for character development and writing style.

I also reviewed the book at Reviewing the Evidence. If you’re looking for fast-paced action and a tightly woven mystery to solve, look elsewhere. But if you can take the scenic route, this well-written and well-translated novel might fit the bill. I agree with Peter that “character study” is an apt description of Edwardson’s style.

Five Books, Two Interviews, and Several Reviews

Photo courtesy of teosaurio.

At The Rap Sheet, Ali Karim interviews. Barry Forshaw about his guide to Scandinavian crime and asks him to recommend five books for the busy reader who wants to know what all the fuss is about. Jose Ignacio gathers alternative suggestions at The Game’s Afoot. Having given it a bit of thought, here is my list of five:

  • Anne Holt – 1222, because it’s fun and interesting and a bit outrageous. Also, very cold.
  • Liza Marklund – The Bomber, because this series offers a good example of the journalist as detective (though not sure this is the best of her books to read, as I’ve not read them all yet; maybe the newly translated Studio Sex, now known as Exposed would be a better choice).
  • Helene Tursten – The Torso, because it’s one of an excellent series of procedural mysteries and has a nifty cultural comparison of Sweden and Denmark.
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir – Last Rituals, to demonstrate that Nordic writers can be gently funny and because of the Icelandic landscape.
  • Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis – The Boy in the Suitcase, which is narratively complex and socially aware, while also a fast-paced thriller about contemporary Denmark.

I could just as easily come up with five more lists of five! But I’ve been thinking about  women writers in particularly because I’m working on an event showcasing women crime writers from Scandinavia to be held in Minnesota next September if everything comes together.  Wish me luck!

Other commentaries on Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate can be found at Maxine Clarke’s Petrona and Martin Edwards’ Do You Write Under Your Own Name?

And Norm at Crime Scraps offers his list (now, with women!)

Catching up on reviews that have appeared in recent weeks . . .

Karen Meek of Euro Crime fame reviews Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst, giving it high marks (as has every reviewer I am aware of): “a very well thought-out plot, which keeps the reader and police baffled until the very end. The widowed Wisting is a steady, thoughtful detective with a wry outlook on life” – and she hopes there will be more in the series translated into English.

Karen also reviews The Phantom at the Euro Crime blog. I’m pleased to learn that it’s more like his earlier books than like The Snowman or The Leopard.

KiwiCraig also reviews The Phantom at Crime Watch, finding it “mesmerizing … Gripping, fascinating, highly recommended.”

And Sarah at Crimepieces rounds out the reviews with another thumbs up. The theme of the book, she writes, is the damage drugs can do, and the story pulls together many of the series’ threads.

At the Euro Crime blog, Karen notes a collection of Stieg Larsson’s journalism has been published in a volume titled The Expo Files.

At Euro Crime, Maxine reviews the latest Mari Jungstedt mystery, Dark Angel, which is a strong entry int he series, though with a somewhat wobbly ending.

At Reviewing the Evidence, Yvonne Klein finds Irene Huss a detective worth watching as she appears belatedly in the second of her series by Helene Turnsten. Night Rounds involves a ghost, a mysterious disease, and uncertainty about which victim was the murderer’s main attraction. Yvonne thinks the English translation is serviceable but thinks the series would have been better served if there wasn’t a different translator for each volume.

Norm reviews the new translation of Liza Marklund’s Exposed (formerly known as Studio 69 in the UK and Studio Sex in the US; he hopes this new version captures new readers for a series he considers a “must read.”

Per Wahlöö’s non-Martin Beck mysteries are not terribly well known; catch up by reading reviews of two of these political dystopias, Murder on the Thirty-First Floor and  The Steel Spring at To Be Read. Quite honestly, it sounds as if his writing is improved when liberally mixed with equal parts Sjöwall. There is an informative biographical sketch of the author, drawing parallels with Stieg Larsson (including, sadly, his untimely death) at The Independent.

Glenn Harper reviews Nights of Awe, the first in a new series by Harri Nykänen, featuring a Jewish detective, Ariel Kafka, working in Helsinki on a politically sensitive murder case, finding in it the same wry humor as in the Raid series. RebeccaK at the Ms. Wordopolis Reads blog, also recommends the book, though thinks Kafka has some irritating sexist habits; otherwise he is an interesting character in a story that sheds light on Finland and its relationship to Israeli/Palestinian affairs.

NancyO reviews The Torso by Helene Tursten, which she feels is the best of the series so far. She also reviews Tursten’s The Glass Devil. I heartily concur with her instructions to Soho, Tursten’s US publisher, when it comes to the yet untranslated entries in the series: nod nod, wink wink.

Jose Ignacio offers a bilingual review of the Spanish translation of Asa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt (apa The Savage Altar), which has elements like the first in the series, but is in the end quite different, and very good.

Bernard Carpenter of The New Zealand Listener has short reviews of several mysteries, including Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice and the new translation of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber.

Beth at Murder by Type reviews Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted, which she finds a strong debut in a series worth watching. She also has high praise for Helsinki White, Jim Thompson’s third entry in the Kari Vaara series.

At Book Geeks, Mike Stafford has a thoughtful and appreciative review of Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, warning readers it’s not an easy book to read, but ultimately is an impressive work. “While it places colossal demands on the reader,” he writes, “this is a book breathtaking in scope and majestic in execution.”  He concludes that it’s a trilogy that could rival Stieg Larsson’s – though I wonder if it might be better compared with the television series The Wire, with it’s broad canvas, vast cast of characters, and which could also be considered a complex “story of a crime” writ large.

And now, for a couple of interviews:

First, one with Denise Mina, who is working on a comic book adaptation of the Millennium Trilogy, which I must say was an awesomely smart decision.

Second, an interview with Jo Nesbo conducted by Craig Sisterson (aka KiwiCraig) published in a major magazine, New Zealand Listener. No surprise that it’s up to Craig’s usual high standard.

yes, we have more links

Matthew Seamons is not impressed by Lars Keppler’s The Hypnotist, which he finds populated by flat and unsympathetic characters. The plot is clever, but the execution, he feels, lets it down.

At January Magazine, Tony Bushbaum disagrees, saying it adds up to more than the sum of its parts, has razor-sharp writing, and will be the book everyone is talking about this summer.

NancyO splits the difference with a very reasoned and thoughtful review.

CNN interviews the authors, who are planning a series of eight books. They say they originally tried to write anonymously but were found out by the media. They also say “we really need a kind of inner calm to be able to write, so we’re actually trying hard not to think about the success. ‘The Hypnotist’ has sold to more than 36 countries and has been a best-seller wherever it’s been published.” Hmm . . . maybe you need to work on that inner calm thing.

In non-hypnotic news, Peter Rozovsky has had several posts about Scandinavian crime fiction lately at his globetrotting blog, Detectives Beyond Borders. e uses a couple of quotes from Jarkko Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall to introduce a question: what characteristics, if any, are common to Nordic crime fiction – and he gets lots of answers. He links to his review of The Snowman in the Philadelphia Inquirer and posts highlights of an interview he did with Jo Nesbo. And he takes some notes as he reads Harri Nykanen’s Raid and the Blackest Sheep, which he finds dark with a sprinkling of deadpan humor.

Among other mysteries, Marilyn Stasio reviews Hakan Nesser’s The Inspector and Silence, which she finds drier than most thrillers coming out of the north, with a morose and quirky hero in Van Veeteren.

Keishon reviews Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis at her blog which is (despite the name) not “just another crime fiction blog,” but a very good source of thoughtful reviews. She also recommends Johann Theorin and Arnaldur Indridason to readers who haven’t yet discovered them.

Kerri reviews Mari Jungstedt’s The Killer’s Art from her perch in paradise and finds it a bit flatter than other books in the series, but it still gets a pretty high score.

Fleur Fisher reviews The Gallows Bird and uses the occasion to unpack what it is she loves so much about Camilla Lackberg’s series and it’s “real people with real emotions.”

Maxine has early reports from Johan Theorin’s The Quarry and has made me exceedingly jealous.

Glenn Harper at International Crime Fiction reviews Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, which sounds quite unusual. Not as odd as sentient stuffed animals a la Tim Davys, but with the point of view of a corpse who apparently has not had a pleasant time of it.

Mediation’s To Be Read blog features an attempt to map Carl Mork’s Copenhagen, which has less definitive markers than Mankell’s Ystad or Larsson’s Stockholm. Still, he manages to illustrate it nicely with photos.

Stickers? We don’t need no stinking stickers, but the last one is priceless.

so many books…

Norm (aka Uriah) reviews Red Wolf by Liza Marklund, a follow-up to The Bomber that has finally been translated. He thinks, like Maxine, that if anyone deserves the “next” nod following the Larsson success, it’s Marklund.

Norm also turns to the Martin Beck series for a pick-me-up and describes the pleasure of reading Murder at the Savoy. A quote he provides to illustrate the rule that one needs a good plot, a solid cast, and descriptions of food is making me very hungry.

Glenn Harper reviews Camilla Lackberg’s The Stonecutter and concludes that, though she is not his favorite Swedish writer, it’s well constructed, with a nice contrast between the “cozy” setting and the dark storyline.

Jose Ignacio wonders which of his Scandinavian crime fiction books to read next. The general consensus seems to be “read them all.”

Maxine reviews Harri Nykanen’s Raid and the Blackest Sheep which is now available in the UK as a Kindle e-book. She enjoyed it very much, particularly the police side of the story, though Raid is a trifle superhuman (yet still likeable).

Bev Vincent reviews the extra volume tucked into the Millennium Trilogy boxed set coming out from Knopf in time for Christmas, which appears to have some interesting material from his publisher, an editor (including e-mail exchanges between Larsson and her), and a friend and co-worker who knew him well. Only 96 pages, but worth a read. Apparently Larsson took well to being edited, only insisting on keeping the original title for the first volume, Men Who Hate Women.

In an interview with the director of the Swedish films of the trilogy, Niels Arden Oplev discusses the appeal of Lisbeth Salander.

When we screened it for the first time, during the scene where Lisbeth gets raped, you could hear a pin drop in the theater. Then when she goes and rapes him back, I swear to God it was like being in the stadium when Denmark scored in the World Cup. I didn’t know that many women could whistle like that. It was a war cry.

Mary Bor, one of the Curious Book Fans, raves about Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, writing “neither fine writing nor solid characterisation have been sacrificed to make room for hard-hitting authenticity. The action is at times painful but always compelling; the sense of drama is superb.”

Maxine Clarke enjoyed K.O. Dahl’s The Man in the Window, which like many Norwegian novels revisits Norway’s past under German occupation. She gives the translator, Don Bartlett, high marks, too.

Translator K. E. Semmel interviews Ake Edwardson for “Art and Literature,” a blog associated with Raleigh’s Metro Magazine. It’s a good interview, which includes this:

You know, there is not any genre but crime fiction where anybody anywhere can stand up and generalize and say anything, “crime fiction is this, crime fiction is that”… Everything put into the same mass grave. A lack of nuanced perspective.

Having said that, I do believe there are a lot of bad and cynical crime writers out there who are only in it for the money. To hell with them. I have written 20 books of fiction, roughly half of them crime novels, and I will say that writing a good crime novel is about the hardest thing. It’s not in the first place the plot, though a crime novel is about the last epic still standing in contemporary fiction. No, the challenge is about the attitude of the writer: Why am I writing this, why am I writing about crime, how am I writing? You know, if the writer doesn’t put in a sound of empathy and humanism in the story, then it will only become cynical and cold entertainment . . . the simple way of the absolute and excessive evil, where the writer doesn’t take any responsibility for the writing . . . I have spent all my writing years contemplating evil, and one thing I do know is that it isn’t something in its own, like a “thing.” It is very complex behavior, and it always has to do with humans, with people. Nuances. The overall “truth” of my crime novels is that you can never escape the shadows of your past; they will track you down wherever you hide. And it’s all about human behavior.

Right now there is a kind of Klondyke-like flood of crime writing and novels around, especially from Scandinavia, and I can only hope that readers will find the good stuff and that the bad stuff will fall to the ground and turn to dust and blow away in the wind.

Review: Raid and the Blackest Sheep by Harri Nykanen

Raid is a criminal who slips back and forth across the Swedish/Finnish border, toying with the police, carrying out work for hire but adhering to his own moral code. In this entry in a long-running series that’s popular in Finland, the first to appear in English, Raid is assisting a fellow con, Nygren, who is old and sick and has scores to settle. He starts by accosting a preacher who manipulates the innocent for cash, informing his congregation  that their pastor is a fraud, “a ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing” and giving a sermon like none they’ve ever heard before. “Try not to be so gullible. The world is full of false prophets from the same stock as myself and this black-souled brother Koistinen. Be skeptical, but don’t stop searching. Maybe you’ll find a good shepherd yet. Remember that the tree is known by its fruit, and a bad tree bears no good fruit.”As he tells Raid afterward, “I didn’t read the Bible in prison for nothing.”

The pair moves on to put a violent drug dealer out of business, and tracks down a man who Nygren wronged many years ago to set things right. As they trek northward, toward the arctic circle, they are pursued by a couple of thugs and an ambitious and hard-nosed narcotics detective. Along the way we learn something about who Raid is through his dealings with both Nygren and with a police officer he trusts (whose story is interwoven with Raid’s). The hitman who is a deadly and competent killer as well as a man of conscience is something of a cliche, but Nykanen does a good job of bringing this stock figure to life. At one point, when a drunken Nygren tells his companion that he, too, will one day face a day of reckoning, Raid takes a shotgun outside to prowl the perimeters of their hideout, then lies on his back in an orchard and listens to the night, remembering how much he loved thunderstorms as a child. We never entirely get inside his head – he is an aloof and cautious man, not likely to let anyone inside – but the author manages to suggest there’s much more there than  the competent tough guy with a code. And he does it modestly, in spare but effective prose.

This new publication from a tiny publisher, Ice Cold Crime, brings another Finnish crime writer into orbit of the English-speaking world with a fine translation by Peter Ylitalo Leppa. I haven’t read enough Finnish crime fiction to draw sweeping conclusions, but what I have read suggests that Finns are interested in the dance between cops and criminals – not in the ghoulish “step into the mind of a serial killer” mode, or in the larger-than-life struggle between good an evil, but in  the people whose job it is to pursue criminals, the human beings who commit crimes, and the damage they do to society and to themselves. There’s a fascinating balance of sympathy and hard-headed realism in this story that I find refreshing.