Rounding Up the Reviews, from Yuck to Yay!

Hans Koppel doesn’t sound like Swedish writer. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it as my excuse for neglecting to include Karen Meek’s Euro Crime review of his thriller, She’s Never Coming Back, in my last round-up of reviews. She does a good job of pointing out what the author does well while making me quite sure I don’t want to read it. (Woman is kidnapped and repeatedly assaulted in a hidden location right across the street from her distressed husband and child. Though publishers usually select glowing praise to turn into telegraphed blurbs, I will choose instead what I consider key words from Karen’s more diplomatic review: “imprisoned and tortured … 400 pages … empty.”

The Independent also reviews the book, concluding it’s both “ugly and gripping.” I think the dek for the review is a bit more direct: “When you can’t sink any lower, there’s always the basement.”

For further commentary see a review at Austcrimefiction – whose reviewer found it lacking in motivation or sensible plotting, saying it’s “for somebody looking for a film-styled thriller, with some carefully choreographed graphic cruelty and sexual violence, a blatantly manipulative happy ever after ending, built around a very current day scenario.  It was a undoubtedly a very quick read.  But for this reader (actually these readers) there were so many aspects of the plot and characterisations that were simply too far a stretch to be believable, plausible, justifiable or palatable.”

Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post calls Jo Nesbo’s The Leopard “a near-total disaster” full of cheap thrills, and urges Nesbo to return to his strengths as a top-notch writer. USA Today thinks it’s “halting” in comparison to earlier books. Laura Wilson at The Guardian thinks it’s good at ratcheting up suspense, provided you don’t mind suspending disbelief – and can handle the odd nightmare or two.

A review of  The Leopard by Susan Balée in the Philadelphia Inquirer finds is both very well done and very problematic.

The writing in The Leopard is awesome. The ironic deflations, twisty plot, and grisly action keep a reader riveted to the page. But in its treatment of female characters – especially in its systematic, baroque, Byzantine dismemberment and degrading of their bodies – the novel is, perhaps unwittingly, a moral slough . . .  the book exists partly to subject women to symbolic degradation, via plot device and harrowing precision of detail. It’s brutalizing, and even in this brilliantly plotted, exquisitely researched book, I can’t escape the conviction that nothing can really justify it.

Let’s climb to some higher ground, shall we?

At Reviewing the Evidence, Yvonne Klein reviews what she calls a “philosophical thriller,” Karin Fossum’s The Caller, in which a Norwegian community is shaken by random acts and a boy’s pranks get out of hand. She regrets the book was not translated by Charlotte Barslund.

Also at RTE, Larissa Kyzer reviews Sara Blaedel’s Call Me Princess, which she finds too reliant on coincidence and with a protagonist who is not empathetic to the victims she is helping and is difficult to like.

I believe I missed mentioning a positive review of Anne Holt’s Edgar-nominated 1222 in the Washington Post. The reviewer, Carolyn See, calls it goofy but also says “I really loved this snowbound book.”

Sarah at Crimepieces had mixed feelings about 1222, finding the atmosphere and setting compelling, but the ending “lame” and she didn’t take to the prickly narrator. She found another Anne Holt novel, The Final Murder, more to her liking.

At Euro Crime, Laura Root reviews Jens Lapidus’s Easy Money, a departure from socially-conscious crime fiction in that it focuses on the fast and furious lives of black-economists who do big business on the wrong side of the law. She found it gripping, authentic, and very well translated considering its use of street patios.

At the Guardian, John O’Connell also reviews Easy Money by Jens Lapidus, who thinks it’s so Americanized it could well be America (though the justice system is too orderly for that). He advises readers to stick with it, though, as “there’s much to enjoy.”

Mrs. Peabody investigates Finland, taking a look at the very different ways the country and its culture are represented in books by expat residents Jan Costin Wanger and James Thompson. Fascinating post.

Joanna Hines doesn’t have much to say about Liza Marklund’s Vanished. Her very short review in The Guardian says the story is intricately plotted but might have been written with a stubby crayon and, while competent, would be better as a film. To which I say – huh?

Carol Thomas reviews Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds and particularly praises the translation.

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen recommends Matti Joensuu’s unusual novel, To Steal Her Love, if you are looking for something different. Sadly, Euro Crime alerted us to the fact that Joensuu – an important Finnish author of crime fiction and a police officer himself, working at both jobs for two decades before retiring from the police force – died this past December.

Happier news from Finland – Jouko Sipila, publisher of Ice Cold Crime, alerted me to the news that Amazon’s publishing program has bought the rights to Leena Lehtolaisen‘s Maria Kallio series, which I have been eager to read for years, as well as her Bodyguard trilogy (new to me). There are 14 books covered in the agreement, apparently to start appearing in the US this year.

catching up and a backlash of sorts

News from Norway: The Cockroaches (Harry Hole #2) and Headhunters (stand alone) has recently been sold to Harvill Secker in the UK, according to Jo Nesbo’s agency.

Nancy O reviews The Stone Murders by Matti Joensuu published in English by St. Martin’s in 1987. She gives it high marks, particularly as a first in a series.

The Stone Murders is not really a mystery, because the criminals are revealed right away to be young men from extremely dysfunctional families and backgrounds.  It is more of a police procedural, but at the same time, Joensuu interweaves into the story a brief look at the problems of 1980s Helsinki: child abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and teen gangs that have no respect for anyone (especially the police, who fear them), to name a few. There’s also a look at the police force itself — the ridiculous bureaucracy, the lack of officers to handle the ongoing crime problems, and the ineptitude of a few who are supposed to be in charge of others. Joensuu also offers a look into Harjunpaa’s personal life, which as things get worse for this particular case, becomes his safe haven. . . . Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction will enjoy this, as will anyone who likes a good police procedural.

Norm (aka Uriah) does some deducting of his own while analyzing the International Dagger winners over past years. Pretty charts included.

“Euroman” complains that Scandinavian crime fiction writing associations – the folks who award prizes and promote the genre – seem to be less excited about the popularity of the success of their compatriots than everyone else and have sadly neglected Websites.

And finally, the Larsson reports:

The National Post is one of a bazillion news outlets reporting that we can soon buy a boxed set of the Millennium Trilogy, a book about the books, and e-mail exchanges between author and editor. What next, Salander-themed towels and sheets?

This week court must be in session; a number of dissenting opinions on Stieg Larsson are being handed down. Two come from the Huffington Post. Ilana Teitelbaum finds it boring, poorly structured, and thinks the violence against women is exploitative thriller business as usual – and suspects the violence itself is what makes it so popular. Lev Raphael agrees, but acknowledges he’s not a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction (“they just haven’t been my beer, as the Germans say in general”) and is skeptical of books that are packaged by publishers and reps as blockbusters. And Tiger Beatdown’s columnist “the rejectionist” takes issue with the level of violence and questions whether Larsson really was a man who hates men who hates women or if he’s just a typical thriller writer making use of violence against women in a tried-and-true way.

Reading Salander as a feminist icon for our times is a pretty challenging endeavor. About the best thing you can say about her is that, unlike Larsson’s other characters, she at least has some depth.

People who write about dead ladies make a shit-ton of money (see: Patterson, James; Cornwell, Patricia; Koontz, Dean; &c ad nauseum). Even more people want to read about dead ladies than want to write about them; which, as a lady, stresses me out. I like murder mysteries and I like thrillers. But I am getting fucking tired of those stories revolving solely around rape and torture. Packaging that nastiness up as feminist is icing on an ugly cake. There are men who hate women: I am aware of this. Anyone who has ever tried living as a woman is aware of this. I don’t need a ten-page explicit rape scene to bring this point home; I need only to leave my house.

I am certainly curious, as I think are many ladies, as to why some men hate women so much; that, I believe, is a question worth exploring. And since ladies have had little success so far in answering it, perhaps it is time for the gentlemen to start doing some of the heavy lifting around here. But here’s a hint, fellows: writing a story about a father-son pair who dismember hundreds of women in a “private torture chamber [contrived] with great care” is not a successful answer to this question . . . The worst thing about this book is that it seems to be saying the only violence against women that counts is the kind that ends up with us dead. The rest of us, I guess, are just complaining.

The Mail has an excerpt from a book, Stieg Larsson, My Friend, by Kurdo Baksi, which includes the claim that Larsson was haunted by an event when he was a teenager: he witnessed a rape by a group of boys he knew, but didn’t intervene and was dogged by guilt. He also writes “Stieg’s global success has changed my life. I am often invited to lecture about him throughout Europe. It feels almost as if, in a most bizarre fashion, I have become an ambassador for Stieg. But I do it willingly and am happy to have him in my orbit in this way.” I’m not sure who is in who’s orbit, but never mind.

un-Finnish-ed business

Peter would like the Finnish writing community to get a bit more proactive about promoting their writers so we can get more English translations. He mentions the small publisher, Ice Cold Crime, but thinks there’s a lot of good stuff that we’re overlooking. Peter also recently reviewed Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love, which he think is terrific and very Finnish.

James Thompson introduces a Finnish – uh, or maybe not Finnish, a citizen of the world – Joel Kuntonen who has traveled nearly everywhere on a Finnish passport but hates snow.  Jim also points out that Stieg Larsson is dead; get over it already, and writes a love song to Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page while under the influence of painkillers, a root canal, and a migraine. It has touches of Dan Brown. Just don’t piss off his lawyer.

As we are on the subject of Finland, I must give a shout-out to Pulpetti, “short reviews and articles on pulps and paperbacks, adventure, sleaze, hardboiled, noir, you name it. Peppered with some comments on everyday life of a writer and politics (mainly in Finland) and also some very, very high-brow literature.” The author publishes, among many, many other things, the crime fic magazine Isku, not to be confused with Iskra, Lenin’s little Communist Manifesto fanzine.

And whilst I’m at it – aw shucks – sometimes in the next month or two my book, Pyhimysmurha, will be published by Nemo, translated by Pekka Makkonen. Extremely loud “kiitos” to Pekka for pulling this off. The title appears to mean “Saint Homicide.” (The original idiomatic English title, In the Wind, didn’t work.) I like this one, though I am not sure how to pronounce it. PEEhimmisMURha? I will have to light a candle to this patron saint of murder.

photo of sticker art in Tampere, Finland courtesy of katutaide; photo of the altar de muertos courtesy of uteart-traveling.

Thumbs Up, Down, and Sideways

Maxine finds some things to like about Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love, but wishes the narrative spent less time seeing the world from the perspective of a deranged synesthesiac burglar.

Yvonne Klein also has reservations about Johann Theorin’s The Darkest Room, finding all the character development and atmospherics of the slow build-up don’t pay off in the suddenly dramatic climax.

And continuing the streak of negativity, I confess to being left cold by Erik Winter in his first outing, Death Angels – which combines a gory plot with a cool and distant hero given to existential moments.

On the other hand, John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer thinks highly of Box 21.

Dark, often crushingly grim, Box 21 introduces us to a world of characters who hate what they do for a living. I count at least two police detectives, one junkie, one doctor, a welter of crooks, and at least one social servant who see the veneer peel off their careers, revealing the shabby, agonized self-deception beneath.

Heroes and heroines are here, to be sure, and in the end the book is a celebration of love. But Box 21 teaches a hard truth, forces us to admire people we cannot like, to see when we’d rather turn away. It holds us still and makes us look. . . . .

Like its Nordic noir fellows, Box 21 is profound, with much to show, much to say, much to set in play, on the human condition. It’s a novel with a heart, even if it’s a hardened heart.

And a reviewer at Book Gazette thinks Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is a terrific read.

In Betrayal, Alvtegen gets inside the minds of her characters and sometimes even describes the same scene from different perspectives. This technique helps build suspense as it allows the action to unfold gradually. The reading experience is interesting. The reader slowly pieces together the story by collecting impressions, information and important clues, coming at the main narrative from different angles.

Betrayal’s plot is powerful, yet Karin Alvtegen’s novel is as much about individual histories and relationships as it is about what actually happens. The multiple betrayals give rise to dynamics that, as a reader, you just know must end in disaster. How, when, for whom, however, are unknowns. There is little violence, but still the suspense is continuously building. Action drives action. There are no punishments and no rewards, there are only consequences.

 

 

links from friends

I know I rely entirely too much on the FriendFeed Crime and Mystery Fiction room for the tidbits I harvest for this blog. It’s far more productive than the Google alerts I have set up. But really, if you want to know about Scandinavian crime fiction – and every other kind of crime fiction – you should sign up. It’s addictive.

Norm (aka Uriah) comments on Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow, saying. “the sharp use of language and metaphor in Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow to depict a bleak loveless world is quite brilliant. It might have a little bit to do with the translator McKinley Burnett.” A few posts later, he provides a full review.

This is a complicated and complex novel which paints a very bleak picture of humanity with its cast of socially damaged characters . . . The book succeeds on many levels but especially as a lesson that once you take that first shaky step away from the straight and narrow you have no idea where it may lead. This book like the other Alvtegen novel I have read Betrayal is brilliantly written and plotted; but it is very dark definitely not a cheerful read.

He also provides a much-appreciated service by putting Harry Hole in order (particularly useful given the books have been translated out of order – though Harry himself would probably resist anyone trying to organize him).

The Brothers Judd review Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled, pointing out that the hero, Kurt Wallander, is not the subject of the title; they find the story a bit didactic.

The Spectator reviews a handful of mysteries, including My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, saying it is “spooky and gruesome . . . both chilling and witty — an agreeable combination.”

Cathy of Kittling Books reviews an intriguing book that is more speculative fiction than mystery, but it certainly sounds interesting – The Unit by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, which deals with biomedical ethics in a dystopian world. (Incidentally, one of the things Cathy does in her review that I love is quote the first line.) She also provides her take on Anne Holt’s What is Mine, saying “this book is an ardent commentary on parenthood and an absorbing mystery with a nice little twist at the end.” She also says, “try as I might, I just can’t ignore these wonderful mysteries that keep coming my way from Scandinavia!” Hey, to paraphrase P.D.Q. Bach, if it reads good, it is good.

Maxine has an excerpt from Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love that includes a rather endearing image of a man apologizing to a rabbit: “each time the rabbit finished eating its dandelion leaf Harjunpää quietly apologised and fetched him a fresh one growing by the wall.” And she adds another excerpt, with a promise of a Euro Crime review forthcoming.

Euro Crime has an update on the Dagger polls – you’d think it was the Booker Prize in the old days, making book on books.

Peter reviews K. O. Dahl’s The Last Fix – a bit pedantic for his tastes, but with some good psychological insights and dry humor, all well translated by Don Bartlett.

DJ reviews Liza Marklund’s Studio Sex, apa Studio 69. She reckons it’s perhaps her best.

With friends like these, I’ll never run out of things to read next.

at the Finnish line – and more

Glenn Harper reviews Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love at International Noir Fiction, pointing out that the vagaries of translation have really hampered access to this Finnish writer’s work: “of Joensuu’s 10 novels, we have only the ones written at 10-year intervals.” But he looks on the bright side: “However unfortunate it is that we have to wait, and that there are 7 of Joensuu’s novels featuring Helsinki detective Timo Harjunpää still untranslated, we are lucky to now have To Steal Her Love, which succeeds on every level.” It features the p.o.v. of an unusual criminal who sees the colors of tumblers as he pickes locks and animates everything in his environment. “He names everything that is important to him: each of his feet has a name, his flashlight and knife have names, and he gives his own names to the women whose apartments he enters when they are asleep.” He concludes: “This is a book that deserves a wide audience, much wider than Joensuu has up to now received in the English-speaking world.” I’m sold.

Speaking of Finnish writers, an English translation of Jarkko Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall has just come on the market from a small publishing start up in my home state of Minnesota. Since the publisher shares the same last name, it’s quite possibly a family affair. In any case, Finland has a lively crime fiction scene, so more translations are always welcome.

If you’re in a betting mood, you can predict who you think will win the international dagger at Euro Crime – or vote for the book you wish would win – or take a poll on which ones you’ve read at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise (on the right-hand side of the page). Norm (aka Uriah) calculates the odds based on translators and their past credits (fascinating!) while wondering where all the German and Dutch books are.

Sunnie has a review of Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher up on her blog. She found it full of good twists and turns and seamlessly translated.

Ed Siegel reviews Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes for the Boston Globe and finds it both almost comically morose (the main character has a dreary life and even his cat is on the verge of death) but also a surprisingly good read, and better than other of Mankell’s standalones.

And finally,Mike Goodridge at Screen Daily opines that the success of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy may predict a new sort of pan-European blockbuster based on the appeal of Lizabeth Salander.

So what makes Millennium special? It is, after all, 152 minutes long and in Swedish. Perhaps the 14 million readers around the globe of the late Stieg Larsson’s three novels know the secret – principally the title character, a twentysomething sociopath called Lisbeth Salander who is also a brilliant computer hacker.

In Salander, audiences have found a thoroughly original heroine or anti-heroine. Prone to violence and anti-social behaviour, she is pierced, tattooed and bisexual. Played in the film by newcomer Noomi Rapace, she is also a crusader trying to clear her name and a righteous defender of women against the abuses of men.

The character is not too distant from Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s James Bond – ruthless, homicidal kind-of-good guys out for blood.

Only female. Bisexual. Wounded. Quite a variation on the theme, but the most popular figure in a whole crop of kick-ass outsider women who have cropped up in the genre lately (and for the most part written by male authors such as Tim Maleeny and Greg Rucka), an interesting development in the gendering of crime fiction.

More than Mankell

The UK is revelling in Wallander, thanks to the BBC version of the series launching with Sideswiped. Boyd Tonkin of The Independent calls attention to other Scandinavian writers who are worth a look. Stieg Larsson’s second book in the Millenium Trilogy is due in January, a new Mari Jungstedt is coming to bookstore shelves, and Tonkin points out books by Norwegians Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbo, Icelander Arnaldur Indridason, and Finland’s Matti Joensuu, who has just had a volume of his Timo Harjunpää series re-released. He also gives a shout-out to the gifted translators who are making these works accessible to English-speaking audiences.

No reader should mentally confine the writers of the North to a life of crime. All the same, many gifted novelists have chosen to adopt the form and push its boundaries. Social satire, historical investigation, the psychology of the killer or abuser, a recurrent concern with the fate of damaged youngsters betrayed by a mighty welfare state – most readers expect more from this region than cliffhanging plots in rugged terrain.

A sign of the times? The Wallander television episode attracted six million viewers; a Britney Spears program that aired the next evening was watched by a mere 400,000.