rounding up the reviews

What a lot of reviews appear in the weeks since I last compiled them! And a very interesting mix, too.

India has its aficionados of Nordic crime. Among them is Anantha Krishnan, who reviews for a number of online sources. A recent example is this review in Midwest Book Review of Camilla Lackberg’s The Stonecutter.  Ananth feels Lackberg’s strengths are in character development and setting more than plot. (I have to agree.)

Maxine Clark reviews Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom’s new thriller, Cell 8, finding it disappointingly ham-fisted in its treatment of an issue, capital punishment. She found the lead character unappealing and the use of coincidence and thin character development in the service of Making a Serious Point less than satisfying. She does point out that fans of political thrillers looking for a fast read may enjoy it.

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise had a different experience reading Cell 8 – she found it well-paced and ingeniously plotted, with a nice ironic touch at the end. She also has done a bit of digging and points out that this book was published after Box 21 but before Three Seconds.

At the Independent, Barry Forshaw is also generally positive about the book, noting its strong political message, but concluding “the duo never lose sight of one imperative: to keep the readers transfixed with a mesmerising crime narrative.”

At Euro Crime, the founder and genius-in-chief,  Karen Meek, reviews the latest in Kjell Ericksson’s Ann Lindell series, The Hand that Trembles. Though she finds the series uneven, this book was largely enjoyable after a sluggish start set in India and should appeal to those who prefer depth of characters over pacing and thrills. Unfortunately the production leaves much to be desired, with many problems a good proof-reading would have fixed.

Glenn Harper reviews Jo Nesbo’s standalone, Headhunters, and found it good fun except for the disgusting bits. It sounds very different than the Harry Hole series.

At The View from the Blue House, Rob Kitchen praises Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage, which he finds layered, philosophical, and reflective while doing, as usual, a good job of mixing mundane daily life with a police investigation.

At Murder by Type Beth reviews Hakan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery which she finds a solid character-driven novel that explores what happens when friends win a lottery and it opens up a can of problems.

Three reviews for the price of one at Killer Reads – where readers comment on James Thompson’s Lucifer’s Tears, a Finnish mystery I enjoyed very much.

Keishon reviews Asa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt and gives it – and all of her books – high marks, though she found the ending a bit predictable.

At Crimepieces, Sarah reviews Jorn Lier Horst’s Dregs, which she feels has the qualities that she most enjoys in Scandinavian crime fiction – while sharing the unfortunate fate of being translated out of order.

Bernadette also reviews Dregs at Reactions to Reading and encourages publishers to give English-speaking readers more volumes in this smart, enjoyable series.

Beth at Murder by Type reviews Sara Blaedel’s Call Me Princess which she enjoyed, but cautions readers that it is being compared to all the wrong books; it’s much lighter fare than Stieg Larsson, though like the Millennium Trilogy, it’s about violence against women. If approached on its own merits, Beth thinks it’s well worth a read.

She also reviews The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, which she enjoyed very much, but which has an off-puttingly violent first chapter. Sounds like one to read with your eyes closed – or as she puts it, “the first chapter is unforgettable, which is why I wish I hadn’t read it. ” The other 94 chapters make up for it.

NancyO reviews Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft, which she finds very good and atmospheric, though she’s not convinced that the device of including the voices of the dead is particularly effective. (Or, as she puts it in the comment stream, “the series has potential to be very good but LOSE THE GHOSTY stuff!”

Kerry at Mysteries in Paradise listened to an audio version of Roseanna, the first in the Martin Beck series and finds it “a masterpiece of suspense and sadness.”

Norm at Crimescraps undertakes a reading of The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan and describes the experience with a great deal of humor, while providing a review. (Far too much backstory and subplotting in a doorstop of a book hides a good 300-page story hidden among 536 pages.)

And at Reviewing the Evidence I review Arne Dahl’s Misterioso, which seems to me closer to the Martin Beck series than any other Swedish crime fiction that is said to be inspired by Martin Beck. Though it seemed slow to start, I ended up enjoying it very much, and found the context – Sweden’s 1999 financial crisis – to be almost eerily topical and Dahl’s take on it spot-on.

The Euro Crime blog brings the good news that Maj Sjowall has been awarded the Big Caliber Prize of Honour at the International Festival of Crime Fiction, in Wroclaw, Poland. And well deserved it is, too.

The blog also provides a public service by alerting readers to a completely unnecessary and confusing title change. (Camilla Lackberg’s The Stranger = The Gallows Bird. Don’t be fooled into buying it twice.)

On the film and television front, Martin Scorsese will be directing a big screen version of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman.

Much excitement is mounting over David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, thanks to which it’s back on the New York Times‘ bestseller list. The New York Times just ran a profile of Fincher and his thoughts on the film. I won’t try to capture the buzz around the film, as that avalanche would quickly bury everything else here.

Though not actually crime fiction, we might as well mention that Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes is being directed by Kenneth Branagh and will feature Judy Dench and (possibly) Anthony Hopkins.

But for sheer silliness, it’s hard to beat the clash of British and Scandinavian policing in the Hürda Gürda Mürder.

Review: Lucifer’s Tears by James Thompson

Lucifer’s Tears, the follow-up to Snow Angels, Thompson’s first mystery to be published in English, once again showcases the author’s considerable strengths, not the least of which is excellent writing. Both stories are narrated in the first-person voice of Inspector Kari Vaara, a troubled but deeply moral cop facing difficult odds. It again has a vividly realized (and very cold) Finnish setting with cultural interpretation provided by Vaara’s American wife, who is adjusting to an unfamiliar society. And in this book, as in the first of the series, Vaara is investigating a vicious and violent sex crime. But while I found great strengths in the first book, particularly in the setting and the stylish writing, I am even more deeply impressed by this book, which has all that plus an absorbing and well-constructed plot paired with engaging character development.

The title comes from the opening passages, in which Vaara reflects on his home: “Finland. The ninth and innermost circle of hell. A frozen lake of blood and guilt formed from Lucifer’s tears, turned to ice by the flapping of his leathery wings.”

He has moved from the rural north to Helsinki. Though he misses his hometown, north of the Arctic Circle, his wife was offered an opportunity to advance her career and live in a place less isolated. He has been promised a spot on Helsinki’s homicide squad, though he has been sidelined for months, awaiting the opportunity to be part of a crack team that has successfully closed every case for nearly two decades. When he finally gets his chance, he gets a double-barreled shot at failure. Just as he and his intelligent but immature sidekick Milo get to investigate a gruesome crime that is more complicated than it seems, he has also been asked to talk to an elderly military hero who is at risk of extradition over alleged war crimes. Vaara is chosen for that bit of quiet diplomacy because his beloved grandfather was in the same unit as the hero. But he soon learns something that is disturbing: both men fought on the side of the Nazis against the Russians and were involved in executing Jewish prisoners in a camp located in a part of Karelia that ended up in Soviet hands. Finnish officials hope Vaara can make it go away. They don’t want their hero’s reputation tarnished—nor does the public want to confront their own complicated past.

In addition to these two intriguing plot lines, Vaara’s American wife is pregnant again after losing twins. He doesn’t want to worry her, but he’s been suffering from excruciating headaches. Another pair of headaches arrive in human form, his brother- and sister-in-law, visiting from America. His wife essentially raised them after their mother’s death, but they have grown into strangers, her brother turning into an extravagant alcoholic, her sister a repressed and judgmental Christian. Their collisions with Finnish culture – and with each other – add an extra dimension of conflict to the story, which moves along at a smart clip.

The two plotlines twist and twine together, offering the reader a look at Finland’s complicated past, in which Finns fought fiercely for independence, trapped between Nazis and Russians, between their own pro- and anti-communist factions. Now the Soviet menace is gone, but corrupt thugs from the New Russia require a new balancing act from the country that has long absorbed the shocks between Russia and the West. For non-Finnish readers, the book offers and absorbing peek into the history and turmoil that has shaped Finland; for Finns it may well rip off the scabs of the turmoil that formed the nation. The character of Arvid Lahtinen, the 90-year-old war hero, is a marvelous invocation of the complicated, cunning, and shrewd politicking that underlies Finnish independence. The conclusion of the book weaves together the plots and the emotional threads in a manner that is both exhilarating in its brio and quietly but profoundly moving.  Highly recommended.

James Thompson is an American-born writer who has long lived in Finland and was first published in Finnish translation. You can read an interview with the author here. Cathy has also reviewed the book at her blog, Kittling: Books.

Interview with James Thompson, Author of Lucifer’s Tears

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Jim Thompson’s second Inspector Vaara novel, a follow-up to Snow Angels. I will be posting a review here soon–and in case you’re wondering, I loved the book–but meanwhile, Jim kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a resident of Finland. What draws you to the country?

It’s a common tale. I came here with a Finnish girl. The relationship didn’t last, but by that time my life was here: work, friends, I had just been accepted to The University of Helsinki. It’s a world class university and tuition-free for residents, and I wanted an education. I didn’t really have anything in the States to go back to, so I just stayed. By the time I finished my Master’s degree, a decade had passed. Now it’s been thirteen years. I’m married to a Finn. Making my home here was never really a conscious decision. I just sort of came here and never left. Now, culturally, I’m more comfortable here than anywhere else and have no desire to leave.

Your first book was set in the north of Finland during “kaamos” and had a very atmospheric, remote setting. Lucifer’s Tears moves Inspector Vaara to Helsinki. Why the change in setting?

It was largely a practical decision. Kittilä, where Snow Angels is set, has a population of less than six thousand people. If the series continues for some years, I would have to kill off about half of them, and that’s not realistic. Also, so much more happens here in the capital. It gives me a chance to explore more about Finnish culture than just small town life.

The books are in the first person from the perspective of a Finnish man married to an American woman, which provides American readers a chance to learn a bit about Finland. Do you find that Finnish readers respond to the books differently than American readers? Have you encountered differences in the things they particularly grab hold of?

Snow Angels and its sequel, Lucifer’s Tears, to be released in the U.S. on March 17th, have sold to publishers in about ten countries, eight or nine languages, and I guess you can buy Snow Angels in twenty countries or more, so I get feedback from the perspective of readers from many cultures. Yes, Finns and people from other countries filter the books differently as they read. I’m introducing Finland to international readers, whereas for Finns, I’m writing homegrown literature. In fact, the Finnish editions are slightly different (Lucifer’s Tears will be my fourth novel released in Finland). All the exposition about Finland that everyone here knows is cut out of the novels, so I don’t bore them to tears. I think Finns tend to read my novels with a more critical eye, because I’m a foreigner, always asking themselves if the story details ring true to them, call to mind their own life experiences. In this, I feel like I’ve been successful. Snow Angels sold very well here, and many people have told me how much the book has reminded them of their own lives. Occasionally, I get complaints that I’m portraying Finland as a nation where everyone is drunk or crazy, which is of course not the case. I write dark, noir fiction. I don’t work for the Finnish Board of Tourism. Sometimes, people here fail to understand that.

Lucifer’s Tears involves delving into history in a way that does not necessarily cast Finland’s leaders in a good light and challenges Finns to think about a past many have deliberately forgotten. Do you think raising these issues so pointedly will be controversial in Finland? Is this a debate already in the air there?

The Second World War is considered by many the crowning moment in Finnish history. It has developed into a mythological event. For Americans, this is something that may be difficult to understand, since that nation has been at war more or less since its inception, but Finland hasn’t been in a war since WWII, and although technically, it lost the war, little Finland fended off the mighty Russian bear, and the country is justly proud of it. I’ve written nothing in Lucifer’s Tears that hasn’t previously appeared in academic works, mostly read by few, but to my knowledge, the issue hasn’t been addressed in fiction, in an accurate yet critical way. I expect that my treatment of the subject may infuriate a great many people. I didn’t write this revanchist history for that purpose, but because after digging in researching, I found the issues raised fascinating, and I think others, both here and abroad, will share that fascination.

As in your first novel to be published in English, a sexually promiscuous woman is murdered gruesomely. Have you thought about killing a guy next time? Just wondering.

In the second book in the series, Lucifer’s Tears, the primary crime is also the murder of a woman. However, I’m now finishing the third in the series, tentatively titled True Finns, several murders take place, and most of the victims are male. There are female victims of crimes, but the story isn’t focused on solving the murder of a female to the extent that it is in both Snow Angels and Lucifer’s Tears. True Finns, more than anything else, revolves around high level political corruption.

In Lucifer’s Tears, family relationships for both the hero and his wife play a role. To riff off Tolstoy’s famous quote that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own ways, how would you describe the problems these families have, and in what way do these characters draw out cultural differences between Finland and the US? (sorry, that sounds like a book group guide question.)

I’ll leave it to the reader to discover the problems that the protagonist and his wife have with their own families. When their families meet though, the cultural differences between Americans and Finns cause the two families to clash, and those cultural differences are exposed, I think, quite poignantly.

You were contracted for another two books in the series. But (without giving spoilers) the ending of Lucifer’s Tears caught me by surprise. What’s next for Vaara?

In Book 3, True Finns, Vaara’s boss realizes that Kari Vaara has talents that could best be utilized outside of Helsinki homicide, and he moved Vaara to a division of the police similar to the American FBI, and placed in charge of his own team. He has a great deal of autonomy—answers only to the national chief of police—and the challenges that he must face in his new position often can’t be solved by methods that are strictly legal.

Thanks for indulging my questions. I look forward to reading True Finns!

For those who want to know more about the books, check out Jim’s Website. To know more about Finland and how to mix a drink also named Lucifer’s Tears, check out his blog.