Helene Tursten, Night Rounds (SinC25)

My final contribution to the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge is a post about Helene Tursten, who (hurrah!) is being translated into English once again. I’m reposting here what I wrote on my personal blog.

My final author for the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge represents for me a kind of women’s writing that I enjoy and sometimes don’t appreciate enough. These are series of books about working women who balance their home life with a difficult and demanding job, who are quietly professional though sometimes have to do a little more than their male colleagues – and bite their tongues at times, who bring compassion with them when they go to a crime scene, and who carry on case after case. They tend to operate in a fictional world peopled with characters and settings drawn on a human scale, rather than running a marathon through high-concept plots with lots of drama and gore. They don’t have a lot of angst because they have work to do and families to go home to. They are a lot like us, only more interesting.

I am so pleased that Soho Press is releasing another book in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss series set in Göteborg. The series began in 1998 with Detective Inspector Huss (published in English five years later). Translations of two more books in the series – The Torso and The Glass Devil – were published in 2006 and 2007. Then nothing . . . until 2012. Night Rounds, the second book in the series, will come out in English this March.  As anyone who enjoys reading translated series knows, we often have to be detectives and assemble characters’ lives from what we can gather after the fact, putting together the series arc like a puzzle. Can I hope that the next five books in the series might someday be translated?

Night Rounds draws on Tursten’s life experience as a nurse and is set in a private hospital where a power failure leads to the death of an elderly patient in intensive care. The ICU nurse has vanished and is later found murdered, sprawled over the failed backup generator. One of the staff reports that she saw a figure on the grounds just after the lights went out: a woman dressed in an old-fashioned cape and cap. She is certain it is Nurse Tekla, who hanged herself in the hospital attic in 1947. All of the staff know the story, and many believe they have seen glimpses of the ghost before.

As always, Irene investigates systematically, teasing out the relationships of the hospital employees and tracking clues into the past. Her workmates operate as a team, with occasional sparks. A young female detective is being harassed by a colleague who sends anonymous pornography; when he’s caught, he’s merely transferred and Irene finds herself trying to mentor the young woman, who isn’t inclined to bide her time or bite her tongue. There is a sympathetic portrait of mentally ill homeless woman who lives on the grounds of the hospital; social issues – racism, family dysfunction, the sex industry – are present in all of Tursten’s books, though never didactically.

And as usual Irene’s family plays a secondary role in the story, as one of the detective’s twin daughters gets involved in the animal rights movement and finds herself in over her head with activists who are willing to use violence to make their point. One of the real pleasures of this series is the interludes of ordinary family life. Irene is happily married (to an even-tempered man who is an excellent chef! perhaps that’s a bit of wish fulfillment) and has two children who get up to the usual drama that adolescents go through. There’s a nice balance in the books of police work and everyday life, without too much domestic detail; just enough to give readers a realistic and engaging portrait of a capable detective who has a life outside the job.It’s refreshing to encounter a detective who doesn’t flinch from the grim realities of police work but still manages to be present for her children and keep a firm hand on her own emotional tiller. In many ways, this portrait of a woman police officer is a feminist one, demonstrating the way a woman can be herself in a traditionally masculine culture.

The Swedish television series starring Angela Kovacs , made by the ubiquitous Yellow Bird Studios, is quite good, though its dramatization of The Torso seemed to me far more graphically gruesome than the book. My favorite aspect of that novel is the contrast drawn between Danish and Swedish cultures, particularly in terms of attitudes toward the sex industry. I’m not sure what Danes think of it, but it shed a lot of light on Swedish attitudes for this American reader.

Now for the part that has turned out to be much harder than I expected – three women writers who are in some way similar:

  • Mary Logue, whose Claire Watkins seems like a remarkably sane and balanced police officer in rural Wisconsin and who always has time for her daughter
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who does a nice job of weaving in her heroine’s family life with a light touch
  • Leena Lehtolainen, who I can’t say much about because her series has not been translated into English – but I wish someone would! From what I’ve heard from Paula Arvas, a Finnish scholar who was a speaker at last spring’s Stieg Larsson symposium at UCLA, her work is not considered as “important” as harder-edged books by men mainly because she doesn’t write about society’s underbelly and focuses instead on more ordinary people. She has twice won the award for best crime fiction in Finland and has been nominated for the Glass Key award. There are apparently 11 books in the Maria Kallio series, the most recent published in 2011. But it’s not too late for someone to get cracking and translate this series, since Lehtolainen got an early start – her first novel was published when she was only 12 years old!

By the way – it’s not too late to enter the Challenge. The firm deadline is “whenever.” I will be rounding up various contributions to the Challenge soon, but can add in others as they appear.

SinC25 Challenge #3 – Karin Fossum (repost)

[I’m reposting here a post from another blog where I’ve been taking a challenge that I perversely set to write about ten favorite women crime fiction authors and suggest similar women writers. This is in honor of the 25th anniversary of Sisters in Crime.]

I recently had to overcome my indecision in trying to choose just one woman writer from the Nordic countries in Norm’s poll at Crime Scraps. (This sure beats voting for political candidates, when I am usually choosing the lesser of evils.) I ultimately chose Karin Fossum, though there are lots of writers in that poll whom I admire greatly. But Fossum is … well, she’s a bit unusual. And while not all of her books work totally for me, they are memorable and often make it to my tops of the year.

Fossum’s books tend to be set in small communities in Norway, where everyone knows one another – or so they think. When a crime is committed, everyone is shocked, but before long you realize there’s a great deal bubbling along under the surface, and the placid belief that things are just fine is challenged on many fronts. This sounds a bit like Cabot Cove or British village cozies, where the thoroughly unpleasant deceased conveniently racks up lots of enemies (so as to provide loads of red herrings) and once the detective has examined the clues and exposed the culprit, the natural order of the peaceful community is restored.

No, Fossum invites you into a peaceful community, peels back the illusion of wholesome goodness, makes you (and the characters themselves) realize that there are a lot of unhealthy situations flourishing under the surface that are actually nourished by everyone eagerly maintaining an illusion of tranquility and decency. She makes us uncomfortable in a quiet and subtle way.

Her series characters, Konrad Sejer and Jacob Skarre, are the sort of police officers you would want to show up in a crisis because they are patient and good listeners and invariably kind while maintaining a well-calibrated moral compass. They tend not to get excited or act macho and don’t make much of their authority, yet it is indisputably there in it’s pure moral state. They get the job done and restore order.

But we readers aren’t allowed to feel complacent. In the final pages Fossum almost always adds one last ambiguous twist, one touch of uncertainty that leaves you unsettled and uncomfortable. Her purpose is not to confirm that rural Norway is a safe and tranquil place but rather to remind us that a communal agreement to ignore problems is dangerous and all too common.That violence that erupted and was settled by the police is still there, just out of sight.

The first book in the Sejer series, Don’t Look Back, is a masterful and very quiet story that unfolds as the detectives wonder why the girl who was murdered and left beside a lake had grown so moody before her murder. It turns out that she had become aware of an impulsive act of violence that a truly caring community would have prevented, if they weren’t sustaining an illusion of peace through mutually assured indifference. In The Indian Bride, a lonely man who travels to India and finds a wife gets interrupted when he is supposed to meet her at the airport. She is murdered before she can find her way to her new home. It turns into a fascinating exploration of how an isolated community responds to an outsider and the lengths to which her intended husband will go to lie to himself. I was also very impressed by the short novel, The Water’s Edge, which tackles the sensational topic of pedophilia in a very muted and sensitive way while also raising questions about how society in general treats its children. I reviewed it for Mystery Scene and concluded “As Sejer and Skarre probe into the life of the missing child they demonstrate a fundamental law of Fossum’s universe: Nobody is blameless; everyone is capable of cruelty. The author handles the most despicable of crimes with restraint while uncovering the hidden violence of ordinary lives.” I tend not to recommend When the Devil Holds the Candle because I found it so deeply disturbing that I could hardly bear to read it. It’s certainly memorable, though! If you like a chilling bit of psychological suspense, it might be just the thing for you. (Shudder.)

Three somewhat similar women authors . . .

  • Ruth Rendell (whose non-series books can be as psychologically acute and as creepy as Fossum; her Wexford novels not so much)
  • Karin Alvetgen (a Swedish author who also focuses more on psychological insight than on social critique, though both she and Fossum could earn honorary degrees in social psychology)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes (who, I should confess, I haven’t read much – but In a Lonely Place published in 1947 has some of the same psychological creepiness and elaborate but convincing self-deception that Fossum does so well.)