What We’ve Been Reading

In the Washington Post, Richard Lipez reviews Kaaberbol and Friis’s The Boy in the Suitcase, and finds the interwoven tales of two mothers, both intent on a boy who is drugged and shipped to Denmark in a suitcase, “another winning entry in the emotionally lacerating Scandinavian mystery sweepstakes.”

At Petrona, Maxine reviews the book, finding many of the characters well-drawn, but herself not particularly drawn to Nina Borg. Despite a disappointing denouement, Maxine found the book “exciting and involving” as it sheds light on issues of social injustice.

Ms. Wordopolis thought it was the best of the Scandinavian crime she has read lately, with complex characters and a riveting story that never becomes manipulative.

At Eurocrime, Lynn Harvey reviews the new translation of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber,  which she found a fast-paced thriller with an appealingly strong heroine.

The Daily Beast interviews the authors about the choices they made in the book, including the portrayal of men who carry out violent acts. They find crime fiction that dwells on violence is too often about how crime is committed, not who committed it or why.

At International Crime Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Johan Theorin’s The Quarry, writing that Theorin continues to combine an interesting plot structure, lots of the flavor of daily life for the characters, including the recurring figure of Gerlof, an elderly resident of the island of Oland, and a folkloric supernatural element – continuing the arc of a series that he feels is about as far from the style of Stieg Larsson as it is possible to get.

He also reviews Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds and compares it to the previously-filmed Swedish television version of the story. He praises Tursten for telling an interesting story with just the right amount of domestic backstory – and Soho Press for restarting their publishing of this seires, which was one of the earliest Swedish translations into English among crime fiction titles.

Jose Egnacio reviews Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, and recommends the Norwegian police procedural highly.  While still in Norway (at least in a literary sense) he offers his comments on K. O. Dahl’s Lethal Investments, which he found enjoyable. Crossing the border into Sweden, he reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s Cop Killer, a late entry into the Martin Beck series which he finds thought-provoking, with “a fine sense of humour.”

At Eurocrime, Laura Root also reviews Lethal Investments, concluding that plot is less the author’s strength than character and being able to poke society with a sharp, satirical stick.

Mrs. Peabody investigates Jan Costin Wagner’s The Winter of the Lions, another entry in a series she admires, writing “the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.” (As an aside – are there many reviewers in the media who write mystery reviews as good as this?)

Sarah at Crimepieces also reviews it, noting that it has a slightly bizarre but not implausible plot, praising the author’s writing and ability to create intriguing characters.

At Petrona, Maxine has mixed feelings about Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted. She found it a quick, entertaining read, but short on emotional depth and rather predictable, though the writing was good enough that she hasn’t written off the author yet.

For the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge, Maxine (who has completed two levels of the challenge and is well on her way to completing the expert level) profiles Inger Frimansson and includes Camilla Ceder and Karin Alvtegen among her “writers a bit like Frimansson” list.

Michelle Peckham enjoyed Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, finding it a slow-burning story with an intriguing lead character.

Beth sums up her thoughts about the Millennium Trilogy as David Fincher’s new film version hits theatres. She writes, “the real genius of the Millennium Trilogy is that Lisbeth Salander is no less an unforgettable character on the page as she is on the screen.”She also reviews Anne Holt’s 1222 which she found atmospheric and evocative. This novel recently made new in the US as it was just nominated for an Edgar “best novel of 2011” award

Keishon raises some excellent questions about “the commercialization of Scandinavian crime fiction” – in particular wondering if the trajectory of the Harry Hole series has been influenced by the demands of the American market for more violence done by armies of serial killers. The comment thread resulting is also well worth a read. She also reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path which she found an uneven entry in a strong series – making up for it in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which she found “unputdownable,” full of strong scenes and unforgettable characters. 

Norm also gives Until Thy Wrath Be Past high marks – “refreshingly different and thought-provoking.”

Shadepoint names Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End the best book of 2011, which was challenging in its scope but in the end memorable and significant.

Kerrie in Paradise finds Jo Nesbo’s standalone Headhunters quite clever and advises readers to stick with it through its slow start.

If you’d like to browse a list of excellent reviews, you’ll find it at Reactions to Reading, where Bernadette lists the books she read for the Nordic Book Challenge of 2011. (She nearly reached Valhalla – as do I, reading her insightful comments on books.)

Some interesting feature articles to add to the review round-up:

Publishing Perspectives profiles Victoria Cribb, who translates Icelandic works into English and scrambles to keep up with Icelandic neologisms that are based on Icelandic roots rather than being merely imported from other languages. (Go, Iceland!) This small country, which publishes more books per capita than any other, was highlighted at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Dennis O’Donnell, book geek, reviews Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold ClimateForshaw himself blogs at Shots about covering the Scandinavian crime beat – and offers aspiring novelists a checklist of how to write a Nordic bestseller, among the tips changing your name to something like Børge Forshawsen.

Dorte contributes a wonderful survey of Danish crime fiction to Martin Edwards’ blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? including writers who are just becoming familiar to English-speaking readers as well as some we haven’t met (yet).

On the “in other news” front, Nick Cohen challenges Stieg Larsson’s claim to feminism, criticizing his (not translated) co-authored book on honor killings which Cohen says suffers from a left-wing abandonment of feminism when race enters the picture, using the issue to accuse leftists in general of waffling on women’s rights when it comes to immigrants.  The smoke is still rising from the comments.

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Asa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath Be Past

(Cross-posted from my personal blog.)

Not long ago I finished reading Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Asa Larsson’s most recent book in the Rebecka Martinsson – Anna-Maria Mella series set in the far north of Sweden, and sighed with satisfaction. It’s an excellent book in a wonderful series, and so it makes sense for me to include Asa Larsson in my attempt at the expert level of the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge.

Asa Larsson is an excellent writer, and in this series she adds to her stylish writing a group of intriguing characters and a vivid setting that the author infuses with love. Its one of those settings that seems terrifically appealing because the author has made it so, though in reality I doubt I would really enjoy living in Kurravaara, a village outside Kiruna so far north that in the winter the sun barely shows its face and in April, when this story takes place, the sun rises before 4 a.m. Rebecka Martinsson, who is now working as a prosecutor, seems happy, settled in the home that she left in her late teens after a difficult set of circumstances, described in the first book in the series, Sun Storm (apa The Savage Altar). She spent lonely years in Stockholm as a student, then as a obsessively hardworking tax lawyer, only called home to the north when a friend was in trouble. Things haven’t been easy for her, and events in previous books were traumatic, but as Until Thy Wrath Be Past opens, Rebecka seems grounded and fulfilled.

Snow, thought district prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, shivering with pleasure as she got out of her car at the house in Kurravaara.

It was seven in the evening. Snow clouds enveloped the village in a pleasant, dusky haze. Martinsson could barely make out the lights from the neighboring houses. And the snow was not just falling. Oh no, it was hurtling down. Cold, dry, fluffy flakes cascaded from the sky, as if someone up there were sweeping them down, doing the housework.

My farmor, my father’s mother, of course, Martinsson thought with a trace of a smile. She must always be on the go, scrubbing the good Lord’s floor, dusting, hard at work. I expect she’s sent Him out to stand on the porch.

Her farmor’s house, faced with gray, cement-fiber Eternit siding seemed to be hiding itself in the gloom. It appeared to have taken the opportunity to have a nap. Only the outside light above the green-painted steps whispered quietly: Welcome home, my girl.

She is soon presented with what seems an unfortunate tragedy: the body of a long-missing girl is found in a river. She and her boyfriend went diving months ago, and now that her body has  been discovered, authorities conclude they died in an accident. But readers know they were murdered, that while diving in an ice-bound lake someone deliberately blocked the hole they had cut in the ice. We learn in the opening pages exactly what happened from point of view of the girl, who remains in the story, observing and commenting on the action. Though I am not fond of supernatural elements in mysteries, Larsson pulls it off in large part because the dead girl is a vividly-realized character in her own right, a maverick child of a neglectful mother who came to live with her great-grandmother, who delights in the company of this irreverent, rebellious child. The passages that give us her point of view after death give the reader a strong sense of a willful, daring young woman who won’t rest until her story is told.

Rebecka, inspired by a dream, suggests that the water in the dead girl’s lungs be tested, and so they discover that the girl drowned in a lake, where in the late years of World War II a Nazi supply plane went down. Someone, it seems, wants to be sure the wreck is never found. She and Inspector Anne-Marie Mella, who has become estranged from her closest colleagues following a decision she made in The Black Path, begin to investigate. In some ways, this isn’t much of a mystery; we have a strong inkling of who in the small village is likely responsible and we see some of the story from the point of view of a participant or witness to the murder. And yet, Larsson has created a compelling story as we peel back the historical layers and the tainted relationships behind the deliberate drowning of two young people.

I loved the first book in the series, and admired The Black Path (though I found the ending in both books to be out of scale with the rest, a bit too over-the-top). In this latest volume in the series, Larsson really hits her stride. She has given us a cast of characters we have come to know and care about, a setting that is vivid, a ghostly young woman who has a grounded, earthy reality, and a compelling story that explores Sweden’s troubling relationship with Nazi Germany. She offers a terrific combination of psychologically probing character development, action, and (for lack of a better word) a kind of poetry in her writing style that makes this series a particularly fine contribution to the genre. Highly recommended.

By the way, Maxine also includes Asa Larsson as she takes the SinC25 expert challenge – and links to her reviews of all the books in the series.

reviews and more

The New York Daily News has some travel advice for those who want to follow the footsteps of Swedish sleuths. If you are truly obsessive, you may even reserve Wallander’s table at his favorite restaurant.

The Australian Courier-Mail has an interview with Asa Larsson and manages to work Stieg Larsson into the title.

Ali Karim, the consummate fan, has an appreciation of Arnaldur Indridason at Shots Magazine, marking his appearance (again) at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where his books originally found their international audience with Jar City.

I reviewed Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes (also known as Mercy) for Mystery Scene magazine. (Shortcut: I liked it quite a lot.) For an alternative view, see what Glenn Harper has to say – he feels it’s not a bad book, just a bit flat and lacking in nuance. At Reviewing the Evidence, Yvonne Klein didn’t care for all of the ingredients, but liked the results very much. And Bernadette has some insightful things to say – including the way the role of humor in the book, in spite of some horrific goings-on, sets it apart, as does the way that a tired fem-jep trope is given fresh life by creating a woman who is extraordinarily tough and resourceful.

More recently, Glenn has reviewed Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason, in which Elinborg takes the lead. He writes that she is “fully the equal of other female detectives in Scandinavian fiction.”

While dallying in the north, Glenn also reviews Jorn Lier Horst’s Dregs, which he declares “a first-class police procedural” with an interesting protagonist. Though it’s actually the sixth in the series (and first to be translated into English) he finds the author did a good job of filling the reader in sufficiently to make it a good place to start.

(For more on this author, who is himself a policeman, check out an interview published at Cyprus Wells.)

And Glenn also reviews Stefan Teganfalk’s novel Anger Mode, which he likens to Jussi Adler-Olsen and Leif G.W. Persson. The author’s strength is plotting, but the dialogue, Glenn feels, can be on the wooden side, making the book longer than it needs to be.

Keishon reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices, which she finds sad and realistic – a good review that captures the mood of the book well.

Maxine Clarke reviews Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft for Euro Crime, finding it a good if over-hyped portrait of small town life, its limitations thrown into relief by a murder. She thinks the main character has potential and gives the translator, Neil Smith, high marks, particularly for the sections of the book that are told from the victim’s perspective.

She also points out that if you follow people on Twitter, you might want to follow @SwedishNoir.  Thanks, Maxine!

Margot Kinberg puts Detective Inspector Irene Huss in the spotlight, particularly looking at the way that author Helene Tursten weaves together the personal and professional in this character. (I do like this series, and having a lead character who is so balanced and pleasant to be around is part of it.)

The Independent has reviews of Camilla Lackberg’s The Hidden Child and Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Both involve crimes of Sweden’s past and both are recommended.

In the Irish Times, Declan Burke reviews Liza Marklund’s Exposed, which is apparently the first in the Annika Bengtzon series, summing up: “concise, pacy and direct, eschewing any literary pretensions to language or characterisation in favour of a hard-hitting polemic on the topic of domestic violence, in which the personal is very much the political.”

The Globe and Mail reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Headhunters, mincing no words: “If you thought Scandinavian crime fiction couldn’t get better than Steig Larson and Henning Mankell, you’re wrong.. Norway’s Jo Nesbo is better than either and this book is far and away his finest.”  Paired with this review is one of Karin Fossum’s The Caller, giving her points for psychological suspense and her ability to find ” violence in the everyday,” which I think is Fossum in a nutshell.

At Petrona, Maxine also reviews Headhunters, calling it “a dazzling, relentlessly paced thriller, combining classic noir elements with Nesbø’s trademark intricate plotting that constantly challenges the reader’s wits and attention span. What a refreshing read!”

Mrs. Peabody investigates a couple of Scandinavian television crime dramas coming to BBC in 2012. (Oh dear, another brilliant and maverick profiler mourning the death of his wife and child . . .) More at the BBC site.

Fox is developing Leif G. W. Persson’s series into a television drama series with the director of Syriana and Traffic (the US version) directing. This plus more on Fincher’s Girl, a von Trier adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series, an American Jar City, and a confused reference to who will play the detective in Mankell’s novel Italian Shoes being made into a film – sorry, folks, but it’s not about Wallander; it’s not even crime fiction.  Another article in Word and Film reports that Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters is being made into a film, then speculates about which part of the world will be the next hot destination when we’re tired of Scandinavia.

And while we’re on the subject of reinterpretations, here’s news that DC Comics has acquired the rights to turn the Millennium Trilogy into six graphic novels. I have to say – strange though it may sound – I think this is great. Maybe it’s because I grew up with Classics Comics or maybe because Larsson was such a fan of pop culture himself, but I quite like this idea. I’d rather they be Swedish, and not by a mega-company, but these seem to me books that will work well in graphic format.

Finally, let’s let the New Yorker have the last word . . .

an update – with a little help from my friends

Jane at the Madison (Wisconsin) public library reviews Jussi Olsen-Adler’s Keeper of Lost Causes (published as Mercy in the UK) and says it’s “a suspenseful, sometimes darkly funny, mystery thriller that is my number one book so far this year.”

Shelf Awareness dedicates an issue of its “maximum shelf” to it as well.

NancyO reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage, finding it a good addition to the series though, with its focus on Elinborg as the detective this time, she finds the domestic bits a tad overdone.

She also reviews Arne Dahl’s Misterioso, and recommends it, though it won’t deliver edge-of-the-seat thrills so much as solidly-assembled ensemble procedural work conducted by a large cast of police. She plans to read as many in the series as she can, though it has taken ages for this first English translation to actually appear.

Glenn Harper is not mesmerized by Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist.

Peter, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past, the fourth book in her series about lawyer Rebecka Martinsson and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella. It also gets a thumbs up at The Bookbag, which says it’s “not strictly a police procedural, as we know pretty much what has happened from early on, but more of a psychological thriller and an intriguing mystery as to why two young people died.”

There’s an interview with Asa Larsson in The West Australian, in which she says her own past not only involves growing up in Kiruna and being a lawyer, like Rebecka Martinsson, but also a period of time involved with a fundamentalist church, which is interesting in view of the themes of her first two books.

He also gives Jarkko Sipila’s Nothing but the Truth high marks, saying it is “a very entertaining, suspenseful and excellently plotted crime fiction novel” that raises important questions about the role citizens play in criminal justice. I just recently finished this myself, and agree – review to follow soon.

Jose Ignacio Escribano thinks that Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions is not the best of her books, but still worth a read, being disturbing, intense, and intelligent.

He also gives Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices high marks for being humane and well-written, as well as complex, dealing with the theme of stolen childhood sensitively.

Karen Meek reviews the audio version of Camilla Lackberg’s The Gallows Bird, which she feels has a rather disappointingly hole-prone plot but is nevertheless an entertaining story, nicely narrated by Eammon Riley.

Maxine Clarke thinks very highly of Johan Theorin’s third book in the Oland quartet, The Quarry, which is no doubt going to be a strong contender for the CWA’s International Dagger.

Quentin Bates has lived in Iceland, but is not an Icelander, yet makes it his fictional home. Crimeficreader (Rhian Davies) enjoyed his mystery, Frozen Out, particularly enjoying the strong female lead, ‘Gunna’ Gunnhildur Gisládottir.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen traveled in the opposite direction; this Danish author’s ebook mystery, The Cosy Knave, is set in Yorkshire, and has been discussed by two Australian readers, Kerrie and Bernadette, who has been in on the mystery from the start.

Bernadette also reviews Thomas Enger’s Burned, a “solid debut” that didn’t have its plot entirely under control, but has strong characters, even those that are not at all likeable.

Rohan Maitzen has a nice essay on the Martin Beck series and how it challenges those who persist in thinking crime fiction is good only when it “transcends the genre.”

Despite the persistent assumption that some literary forms are inherently more formulaic than others, all writing relies on genre markers, and “genre” itself is a notoriously unstable term, invoking categories that are both permeable and endlessly mutable. The real issue — the critical issue — is how form is used, what it enables us to discover. We shouldn’t ask whether crime fiction needs to transcend its traditional forms, but rather how those forms have evolved, and what they have made possible. . . . Sjöwall and Wahlöö are among those who show that, in the hands of visionary and capable writers, crime fiction can simply be great literature. The only transcendence required is the reader’s.

Norm and the new translator of the Annika Bengtzon series untangle the series order for us. It’s a bit unusual for a publisher to spring for all new translations of a previously translated work, unless you are Tolstoy. But, to stick to publishing tradition, they are giving books new titles to make it all more exciting to shop and are keeping the US and UK publications out of sync. Good to know they aren’t breaking all the rules.

Looks as if Leif G. W. Persson’s series about Evert Backstrom is destined for the American small screen.

Peter Rozovsky, always on the lookout for humor, finds some in Three Seconds. He also notes a lot of border-crossing going on in Swedish crime fiction that harkens back to the old days of the Hanseatic League.

Laura DeMarco rounds up lots of Scandinavian crime at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a nicely detailed piece, with a sidebar on “ten essential authors.”

And finally, I’ve mentioned it before but I owe the Crime & Mystery Fiction friendfeed group, founded by Maxine Clarke, an enormous debt for finding and commenting on so many fascinating links related to the genre. Not only is it a good place to find out what’s going on, it’s inhabited by charming and well-read fans of the genre.