review roundup and a new version of Macbeth

Ms. Wordopolis reviews the first book in Mari Jungstedt’s Anders Knutas and Johan Berg series, Unseen, finding the series characters and their stories more interesting than the fairly predictable serial killer storyline. All in all, she reckons it’s time to read something other than police procedurals.

Previously, she reviewed the latest in the Carl Mørck Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance, which left her with mixed feelings: “I feel strange saying that the book was written well or that I was interested in the ongoing storylines of Mørck and Assad when the main plot was so horrible to women,” she writes, Like the first novel in the series (The Keeper of Lost Causes, also published under the title Mercy), the plot focuses on people who hate women. How that focus is handled (and for what purpose) is one of the biggest open questions in this genre, in my opinion.

She was also not entirely satisfied by Helene Tursten’s The Fire Dance, but for different reasons. She felt there just wasn’t much in the story to grab her interest and hold it, concluding it was a so-so entry in a series that promises more.

The Indian Feminist, who has written about Scandinavian women detectives in the past, was likewise disappointed in the latest English translation in the Irene Huss series, The Fire Dance,  which she found slow paced and uninvolving.

The Fire DanceNancy O. had a different reading experience with this book, as she explains at The Crime Segments. She counts Tursten’s series as one she deeply enjoys, and a Scandinavian author who stays on her to-be-read list as others disappoint and drop off. Her verdict: “for those who enjoy solid police procedurals with a personal twist.” She still counts The Torso as her favorite in the series, being “edgy and solid.” This entry, while a solid police procedural, has a bit less edge.

Meanwhile, in paradise, Kerrie enjoyed reading the previous book in the series, The Golden Calf, which she felt had a nice balance of action, the personal lives of the series characters, and police procedure. She sums up the series as “basically police procedurals, planted in a modern world, with plenty of human interest.”

Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Leif G. W. Persson’s tome, Free Falling as if in a Dream, part of a series drawn from the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. Though it’s very long, he says it’s “gripping all the way through, as well as comic in some sections, through the ironic and simultaneously arrogant and self-deprecating voice of Johannson and the appearance of the ridiculous detective in many of the author’s books, Evert Bäckstrom.” However, he doesn’t hold out much hope for the US television adaptation that’s out next year. In his review, he looks at how this novel and Magdalen Nabb’s The Monster of Florence handle actual unsolved crimes, finding that both propose in their fiction plausible and disturbing solutions.

He also reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, and has a great description of its trajectory: “meditative rather than propulsive in terms of its pacing.” He considers the non-linear, poetic approach a plus, but knows it’s not for everyone: “For me, the moody pace works, but it could be frustrating for some readers.” This story brings the series’ Turku detective, who is looking into the murder of an unidentified woman, together with Helsinki investigators looking into a series of murders, with several narrative threads that, in the end, are knitted together.

Traveling to yet another Nordic country, Harper reviews Quentin Bates’s Chilled to the Bone, the latest in a series focusing on an Icelandic investigator, Gunna Gisladottir, and it in his opinion the best in the series. Among its virtues, “lots of ethical and literary ambiguity, a plot that moves rapidly along, and a cast of interesting characters.” Though he considers it less dark than Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, it’s both grim and entertaining.

At Euro Crime, Rich Westwood reviews Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, advising those looking for a new Scandinavian crime series to give it a try. The main plot, about man who endured horrific bullying as a child and the various violent ways in which his former schoolmates are being murdered, seems less compelling to him than a subplot about one of the police team who believes she’s been drugged and raped after a casual encounter and is determined to find justice. Westwood thinks the admixture of personal stories of the investigating officers will remind readers of Camilla Lackberg, mixing violent murder and cozy scenes of domestic life.

Also at Euro Crime, Michelle Peckham praises Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, the eleventh novel in the Erlendur series. We and Erlendur finally grapple with the detective’s Strange Shorespersonal quest to understand how he survived being lost in a storm that killed his brother. He approaches this quest by investigating another event, the disappearance of a young woman he learned about as a child. He probes the secrets and memories of those still alive who can help him put the pieces together. She calls the book powerful, emotional, and a beautiful exploration of how trauma can shape a life.

Amanda Gillies also uses the term “beautiful” for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, a novel that makes her fall in love with its prickly 82-year-old protagonist. Though it had a slow start for her, she pronounces the story about an American Jew haunted by his wartime experiences and his son’s death in Vietnam who sometimes is confused but manages to evade villains to save a small boy, “quite simply brilliant.” 

Mrs Peabody investigates some dystopian crime fiction, including Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which she finds “a gripping and quietly powerful read” which interrogates (as dystopias do) how people find meaning in situations where social structures have broken down and disaster is impending – in this case a poet searching for his missing wife, a journalist who has been writing about a Finnish eco-warrior who is taking violent action as climate change changes everything. Like Bernadette, she finds it a curiously uplifting read.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (also published as Calling Out for You), in which a naive Norwegian man impuslively travels to India to find a bride. When she arrives in Norway, she disappears. And Fossum’s quiet menace does the rest. As Jose Ignacio observes, “she is able to develop a particular atmosphere that can become frightening, using only elements taken from our daily lives.” Here, in this small Norwegian town, the well-meaning and wholly wholesome Scandinavians seem all too comfortable seeking silence when the subject of race enters the picture – and Fossum is not willing to leave us content with the knowledge that justice, in the end, will be done.

At the Independent, Barry Forshaw reviews Hans Koppel’s You’re Mine Now, which once again You're Mine Nowfeatures a man who hates women, though this time the woman confronted by a stalker is in a better position to fight back than in his previous novel (which Forshaw puts in a nutshell: “ritual sexual debasement and torture visited upon the luckless heroine, kept captive in a house where she could still see her distraught, unknowing family,” Yes, that’s wny I didn’t read it.) Koppel is apparently very good at ratcheting up tension, not so good at giving us any reason why we shouldn’t just give up on the human race altogether.

Keishon is avid about reading Asa Larsson’s mysteries, but found The Second Deadly Sin disappointing in the end. There are various timeframes and one becomes a bit of a slog. Office politics among the main characters is about as appealing as . . . well, office politics. And the pacing overall, she felt, was off in an over-long novel. She recommends her other books, though.

Norm, at Crime Scraps, reviews Mari Jungstedt’s The Double Silence, a new entry in the Anders Knutas series set on Visby Island. In addition to a crime, the story involves the lives of its ongoing cast of characters. While Norm recommends this series, he felt this story jumped too often from one point of view to another and often left him mystified in ways the author likely didn’t intend.

And now for something completely different, The Wall Street Journal reports that Jo Nebso has been signed on (along with other authors) to write prose versions of Shakespeare’s plays running up the bard’s 400th birthday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he will be taking on Macbeth and, in an interview, ponders whether he’ll make him a man vying for the position of police chief in a throughly corrupt city in the 1970s. That cauldron the weird sisters are stirring? It just might be brewing some kick-ass meth. The story is likely to keep relationships and themes but perhaps not much else. I must say I’m particularly intrigued about what Margaret Atwood might do with The Tempest. 

weird sisters and cauldron

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to be in northern California on February 2, Janet Rudolph invites you to join her and fellow fans for a lecture on Swedish crime fiction by my fellow Minnesotan, Jim Kaplan. He’s very wise to be somewhere other than in the Polar Vortex that keeps on turning the upper Midwest into an arctic knockoff.

tidbits and more reviews

Some tidbits . . .

There is a new imprint for translated fiction coming from Little Brown and Crown. From the press release:

Trapdoor will publish up to six commercial crime, suspense and thriller titles a year, all in translation, and will be launched with the publication of Sebastian Bergman by Hjorth and Rosenfeldt in paperback on July 5th. Spring 2013 will see the publication of the second title on the Trapdoor imprint, The Devil’s Sanctuary, a heart-stopping psychological thriller by Swedish bestseller Marie Hermanson.

Julia Buckley interviews Ake Edwardson at Mysterious Musings. He says “I’m a sad person, or melancholic, and down right pessimistic most of the time. Probably that’s why I laugh so much; you have to laugh at all the madness around you or you’ll go stark raving mad, start running screaming through the streets naked in the night with just your underwear in your hand.” He also says, when asked about the state of journalism,

“… the good and serious stuff goes slowly/fast down the drain, the horror of banality takes over, knowledge gets confused with information. Still there’s wonderful journalism out there; Sweden tries to maintain decent newspapers, and the best papers in USA, England, France and Germany are still worth reading/working for. The problem is of course that good journalism is expensive, objectivity is expensive, to send a reporter to the other side of the world is expensive, or have a team work on some investigation for a long time.”

Erik Winter, his police protagonist, is a “hopeful person” – making me think perhaps Edwardson, like many journalists, finds fiction a way to say what needs saying in a way that is an alternative to the underwear-in-hand approach.

Camilla Lackberg is profiled in SCANmagazine (thank you, Philip) as she publishes more of her popular Fjalbacka-based series in  both the UK and US.

Publishing Perspectives covers the Salomonsson Agency, a Swedish powerhouse that represents many of the most successful Nordic crime authors. It’s a far sunnier picture than Sarah Weinman’s profile of the agency’s head last year.

At the Telegraph, Henning Mankell says that Kenneth Branagh makes a good hand of playing Wallander and likes the BBC film versions of his books. The article has quite a few insights into the author as well (and has collected some remarkably hostile and silly comments).

American cable television station A&E (which does not stand for Accident and Emergency, contrary to UK usage) has acquired US rights to create a pilot of a series to be based on Elsebeth Egholm’s crime series.  Or rather based on a Danish television series based on the books. And probably moved to a US setting. There is a reason I prefer reading to watching television.

And now for the reviews . . .

Sarah at Crimepieces reviews Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds, finding it a well-done police procedural with a touch of the supernatural, which she enjoys, and a solid plot, though with some startling lapses on the part of otherwise competent police. She also reviews the second book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series, Pierced, which she feels picks up the story about Juul’s dead son very movingly. Enger has become a “must-buy” author for her.

Maxine Clarke reviews Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson at Petrona and finds it a quick read that does more to develop the characters than to provide a realistic story line – mainly because all of the puzzle pieces snap together a bit too tidily, with none left over.  It’s altogether a rather old-fashioned read. Glenn Harper also reviews it, and a television series based on Jansson’s work. He finds it a bit overwritten in places, but predicts it will be of interest to those who enjoy getting caught up in the character’s personal lives, likening it to Camilla Lackberg’s work.

Maxine also reviews Ake Edwardson’s Sail of Stone, which she finds a good read, though not a very good mystery (and the second half, minus the not-very-satisfactory ending, is better than the first.)

And at Euro Crime, she reviews Camilla Lackberg’s The Drowning, which she feels has a good 250-page mystery hidden within its 500 pages, much of which is devoted to the domestic lives of its detective protagonist.

Peter Rozovsky reviews Lars Keppler’s The Nightmare for the Philadelphia Inquirer, then hosts a conversation at his Detectives Beyond Borders literary salon, asking whether it’s entirely a good thing to mix potboiler fun with serious social messages. On the whole, he finds this kind of “Larsson-y” an unhappy blend.

Kimbofo at Reading Matters reads The Caller by Karin Fossum. Fossum is one of her favorite authors, and this well-plotted, nuanced story is, to her mind, one of her best.  She also reviews The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, which she finds a bit of a challenging read because of the multiple viewpoints, but feels it is “an intelligent, involving and compassionate read.”

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews the final volume of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s “story of a crime” – The Terrorists, which he notes has not lost its relevance. He includes links to his reviews of other books in the series and says “I strongly recommend reading this series to everyone, in particular to all crime fiction fans and, if possible, in chronological order. It’s a highly rewarding read.”

Karen Meek, a true Queen of Crime if there ever was one (bringing us the amazing Euro Crime site) reviews The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen, which she finds a successful exploration of childhood bullying, though with a decidedly American translation.  She also reviews the very first volume of the Konrad Sejer/Jacob Skarre series, finally published in English translation. In the Darkness introduces Sejer with a bit more background that later books, and though published originally in 1995 it still works because, as Karen points out, Fossum’s work has something of a “timeless quality.”

Ms. Wordopolis reads Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, and though finding the wartime scenes confusing and not engaging, she ended up taken by the characters. Though it’s her first foray into the Harry Hole series, she puts her finger on one of the author’s characteristics: extremely intricate, even convoluted plotting.

Norm at Crime Scraps reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Black Skies, the latest in the Erlendur series in which Erlunder is absent and the focus this time is on Sigurdur Oli. Though he was never my favorite character, Norm makes me impatient to read it. Rob Kitchin found it less successful, with the first half particularly hard to get into.

He also reviews another book I want to read badly, Anne Holt’s The Blind Goddess, which he thinks is quite good, featuring a character who has changed quite a lot (and not for the better) in 1222 – and he adds some intriguing commentary on what it says about the time period when it was originally published, 1993.

At Euro Crime, Maxine Clarke reviews The Blind Goddess, the first of Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series and (in her opinion) a better book than the previously translated eighth in the series, 1222. In addition to a plot that works well, this book includes strong characters and full of detail that reflects the author’s background in the Norwegian legal system.

Bernadette reviews Liza Marklund’s Last Will, and gives it high marks for the way it depicts the current world of the news media, treats several explosive issues with an even hand, and gives us a complex heroine. “I can’t say that I like Annika,” she writes, “but I like reading about her and find her a hundred percent credible.” One of the rather cliched baddies, not so much – but overall she gives the book top marks.

She also reviews Karin Wahlberg’s Death of a Carpet Dealer and finds it an engaging story which offers a trip to Turkey as an added benefit. Maxine also reviews it at Petrona, finding it readable, old-fashioned, and pleasant, if not a barn-burner of a story.

Kerrie in Paradise reviews Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye, the first of the Van Veeteren series, which she finds nicely compact in these days of over-long books.

Raven Crime Reads (a new to me blog) reviews Arne Dahl’s The Blinded Man (published in the US as Misterioso) calling it “taut and well-written” and the start of a series worth watching.

Cathy at Kittling Books reviews Sara Blaedel’s second book to be available in English (and third in its series), Only One Life, which she thought fell short of the mark. Though it has some interesting information about honor killings, she couldn’t warm to the characters, and felt as if from page one ” as though I’d missed my bus and kept chasing after it as it disappeared down the street.”

Glenn Harper thinks Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House quite good (except for a bit where exposition bogs things down) and particularly handy with misdirection.  Jose Ignacio also reviews it, calling it a classic police procedural that is somewhat uneven in its execution.

And finally, Margot Kinberg takes a close look at Irene Huss, Helene Tursten’s series protagonist, providing quite a thorough biography of the character, one of my favorites.

Before I sign off, I must give credit once again to the place where I keep up with all things mysterious, the Crime and Mystery Fiction FriendFeed room. Many thanks to its founder, Maxine Clarke, and its regular contributors for filling me in. If you enjoy mysteries, this is a site to visit regularly.

The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen

I’m woefully behind on reviewing books. I read this one shortly after Stockholm Text kindly sent me a quartet of their newly launched imprint, one that takes advantage of new technologies to make translations of Swedish work available as ebooks and through short-run printing.

Carin Gerhardsen has written a police procedural series set in Hammarby, which I gather is a southern suburb of Stockholm. For once, the first of her books to be translated is actually the first in the series. In The Gingerbread House we meet a genial detective, Conny Sjoberg, who works with a team of detectives (including a bright young woman, Petra Westman, and the Lebanese-heritage Jamal Hamad, who gets rather fed up with comments about his background, having to say with exasperation “I’m Swedish, damn it!”) We also meet a nameless individual whose festering rage at being bullied in school many years ago, described in a disturbing prologue,  has led in adulthood to a moment when it’s time for revenge.

This made for a disconcerting reading experience for me, going between Conny’s hyper-normal home life (he has a calm, efficient wife and no less than five children, including adopted infant twins), then spending time with a disturbed and isolated person acting on a long-harbored grudge. The first crime is chillingly described as a man is lured from his home and family to a vacant house. His body is then discovered by an elderly, somewhat addled woman returning home after a stay at the hospital. She’s not much help to the police, being entirely ignorant of any reason her house became a crime scene and a bit crabby about the inconvenience. The police are stumped, and it takes them some time to connect this unsolved murder with others that have occurred elsewhere. The reader, of course, is well ahead of them, having a ringside seat on acts of escalating violence, the last attack one that I flipped past because it was too graphic.

This structure made me a bit impatient with the police – come on, what’s taking you so long? – but they don’t have much information and do eventually connect the dots. For the smug reader who thought the police failed to see an obvious pattern, well … the author has a trick or two up her sleeve yet. The narrative that seems overly schematic (scenes with the killer and victims alternating with baffled police holding pieces of the puzzle, unsure how they fit together) turns out to be quite a bit more sophisticated than it may have appeared.

In some ways, this is a classic Scandinavian mystery, though it lacks the standard-issue divorced and introspective gloomy detective. Gerhardsen, like so many Swedish crime writers, doesn’t just attribute the causes of crime in a killer’s dysfunctional childhood, she shows how a social institution that has failed can lead to situations in which social norms go awry and the resulting damage has long-lasting cumulative effects. In this case the failure is at a school where an indifferent teacher lets small children develop into a nasty Lord-of-the-Flies tribe of savages in which the weak are routinely tormented by the strong. The violence lives on in shattered lives as the victim-perpetrator roles are reversed. In contrast we see up close two institutions that function well: the team of earnest police and the well-adjusted family.

Ponderous thoughts alert:

Many years ago Ian Hacking wrote an interesting article in Critical Inquiry (subscription or a willingness to read one of the many unauthorized copies lying about the Internet required) about how American ideas about cycles of violence and the intergenerational transmission of abuse were in part a tactical way to call attention to a problem without suggesting society needed expensive repairs. When doctors wanted to raise awareness about the high numbers of children being seen with injuries in emergency rooms, they argued it was a problem all classes experienced so they would not get mired in an unwinnable fight over funding for social programs. Later, when a not-very-rigorous study suggested abused children became abusers, it was seized on because it helped absolve the rest of us from having to address the human costs of broken social contracts. We Americans don’t like to pay taxes and are big on individualism, and we like to think our choices are ours to make – or at least that problems are all in the family.

I think this is reflected in much mainstream popular fiction. Police organizations backed by totally reliable forensic science pursue problems that originate in choices people make or started in a family without proper family values. There is also a strong tradition of finding villains in rapacious corporations, sinister government agencies, and in lifestyles of the rich and famous. Less common are these kinds of stories, where the roots of violence can be traced to a school where a teacher was indifferent to her responsibilities, nobody noticed, and the children were not all right. In some ways, these causes are too small and quotidian  for big thrillers. In other ways they are far too big. It costs a lot to have good schools, so we’d rather pinpoint the sources of violence elsewhere.

Sometimes I’m a bit exasperated with the social critique found in novels set in countries that seem to work so well. You have good schools! health care! a safety net! Our failed social institutions can top yours any day! Yet I also appreciate the nuanced way in which this wide-angle lens makes us feel some empathy with all of the characters. In this case, I thought Gerhardsen did a good job of showing how both bullies and their victims were shaped by their experiences so many years ago in the schoolyard. Responsibility is shared; no answers are simple. I also appreciated the fact that what seemed a bit cut and dried at first just means I wasn’t paying enough attention.