Some Mini-Reviews

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, but here are a few books I’ve read that, while not knock-your-socks-off amazing, ticked at least many of the boxes.

1501174789-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Anne Holt In Dust and Ashes (Scribner, 2018)

This is the tenth and final volume in the Hanne Willhelmsen series. As usual, she puts her prickly wheelchair-bound detective into a tricky plot, or rather two of them: a suicide that might actually be a murder, and a murder that perhaps wasn’t. The death that police believe to have been a suicide is that of a right-wing extremist celebrity who has been hounded by the media. Hanne thinks the psychology is all wrong for that particular woman to have taken her own life, and she wants her eccentric police detective sidekick Henrik Holme to look into it. (Perhaps it was me, but I found this part of the story confusing and not terribly engaging.) Meanwhile, another retired detective has given Henrik a case: he thinks he put an innocent man in prison for murdering his wife years ago. They had grown estranged after their small daughter ran into the street and was struck by a car and killed during a moment when her father was distracted. In the meanwhile, in a disturbing and powerful plot line that man, now out of prison, has grown obsessed with the driver’s granddaughter and begins to plan an action that seems to have wandered out of one of Karin Fossum’s moral psycho-dramas. You find yourself saying “oh no, no, don’t do that” quite often. To be perfectly honest, I’ve grown a little tired of Hanne and her irritable brilliance, but I’ve enjoyed other books by Anne Holt and look forward to whatever else she writes.

a93f92d59b42178596b4d7a7167444341587343Gunnar Staalesen Big Sister (Orenda Books, 2018)

There are things I like a lot about Varg Veum, Staalesen’s long-running PI hero. He’s somewhat modeled on the American hardboiled tradition – a tarnished hero who goes down mean streets, cracking wise – but he’s also Norwegian, so instead of being a former cop, he’s a former social worker. That said, I’ve never totally clicked with this series, and I’m not sure why. This was as enjoyable an entry as any I’ve read. Varg has a client who wants him to take on a missing persons case. But it turns out she, herself, is a bit of a missing person – a half-sister he never knew he had. The missing girl is her god-daughter, and she has vanished after moving to the big city. She had previously sought out her estranged father, who turns out to be a piece of work as Varg retraces her steps. There’s a biker gang and an act of violence to be uncovered from the past, a murder or two, and another family surprise for Varg before it’s all over.

0451491793-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alex Dahl The Boy at the Door (Berkley 2018)

Set in Norway, and quite Nordic Noir in feeling, this novel is not a translation but is by an American born in Oslo and educated in the UK who lives, at least some of the time, in the picturesque town of Sandefjord, the setting of the novel. Told in the first person in more than one voice, it’s an intensely psychological story that reminds me a bit of reading Quicksand–one of the narrators is wealthy, entitled, and terribly annoying. “Here in Sandefjord we have everything” she tells us early on. “Or, rather, we don’t–and that’s my point exactly. We don’t have any of the undesirable components that make life so unpalatable in many other places: pollution, poverty, property crises, excessive crime, immigration issues–I could go on.” When she goes to pick a daughter up at the town’s swimming pool, the attendant asks her to run a little boy home. His mother has apparently forgotten to pick him up and they’re closing. She crossly agrees, but the place he points her to is no place for a child. It’s an abandoned house deep in the woods and seems to have been used by squatters. Rather than go to the trouble of taking him to the authorities, she takes him home for the night and plans to drop him off at school the next day; let school deal with it. But that dodge doesn’t work out, and when social services has trouble finding a foster home for him, her soft-hearted but mostly absent husband volunteers to take him in. Some of the story is told from the perspective of the boy himself, and some from a drug-addicted prostitute whose letters and journal explain how he ended up in Sandefjord, all leading into the past of the smug, self-centered woman who has wrapped privilege around her like a blanket to keep out the past. It’s well-written and compelling if a bit melodramatic, but the author has real writing chops to make such an unpleasant character ring true and at times even a little bit sympathetic.

 

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Three Seconds, many reviews

Three Seconds, Roslund & Hellstrom’s gritty thriller (with a slow fuse), is getting a lot of attention as it is released in the U.S. A sampler:

The Booklover loves it – though if you haven’t read it yet, the review has a bit of a spoiler (though to be honest, so does the cover description on the book).

USA Today deems it “as good if not better than Larsson’ and concludes “gun play, explosions, betrayals and the ingenious ways drugs and weapons are smuggled into prisons give this novel, Roslund & Hellström’s fifth, an eau de testosterone level that’s through the roof.” Sounds terribly Hollywood in their description.

Janet Maslin of the New York Times is uncharacteristically snarky, writing that the authors “know how to deliver the kind of stilted, world-weary verbosity that somehow quickens the pulses of this genre’s readers. Even better, they are on a first-name basis with the Seven Dwarfs of Scandinavian Noir: Guilty, Moody, Broody, Mopey, Kinky, Dreary and Anything-but-Bashful.” She admires the “devilishness” of drug-smuggling plot details, but dislikes “the tiresome, vaguely flawed character development that comes with them.”

Marilyn Stasio, crime reviewer for the Sunday New York Times Book Review, is not so dismissive, though doesn’t really say whether she thinks the book was good or not.

ABC News pronounces it “highly entertaining.’

IUBookGirl thinks that Three Seconds starts off as slowly, as did the Girl Who Keeps Being Mentioned, but just as she was wondering whether to carry on, it  kicks in with a vengeance. “Three Seconds has a smart, intricate, well-written plot that I think any thriller or crime novel fan will enjoy.”

JC Patterson, book reviewer for the Madison County, Mississippi, Herald also gives it two thumbs up. He writes, “the second half of Three Seconds is psychological suspense on a grand scale.”  T. S. O’Rourke says the same thing. Literally. Word for word. I’m confused: which of these two writers said them first?  They were both posted on January 6th. Who done it?

Publisher’s Weekly interviews the two authors, who won’t say who does what in their collaboration.

In other news  …

There’s a new website on the block, scandinaviancrimefiction.com – “your literary portal into northern deviance.” So far there is information on 15 Swedish and Norwegian authors, plus links to articles on the Nordic crime wave. There will be more to come, it seems.

Australia and New Zealand are the market for the first English translations of Danish crime fiction author Elsebeth Engholm. I wonder if the UK and US will catch up? Everyone else seems to be publishing them [pout].

Kimbofo reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia and says something I thought when I read the book, but couldn’t put nearly so well:

…what made this book truly work for me was the way in which Indriðason makes you genuinely feel for the victims and the parents of the missing. How he achieves this is a kind of magic, because his writing style is so understated and sparse it seems devoid of emotion. And yet, by the time you reach the last page, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in your throat…

Kerrie reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Man Who Went Up in Smoke and gives it high marks.

Lizzy Siddal, inspired by the BBC Nordic Noir documentary, reports on her reading of Mankell and Nesser, and finds Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark more enjoyable than The Pyramid (partly because she finds Wallander annoying). She’s currently reading Staalesen, so we can hope for a “part two” post.

God, Sweden sounds gruesome,” writes David Blackburn in the Spectator’s Book Blog, where he reviews the forthcoming and final volume of the Kurt Wallander series, The Troubled Man. He thinks highly of Mankell as a writer:

Mankell’s stylistic poise survives translation. His prose’s quiet brilliance is reminiscent of Coetzee’s easy precision; and there is something persuasive and seductive about both at their best. The plots aren’t too shoddy either. The descriptive passages and attentive structure provide long hits of suspense for those who won’t follow Mankell into demanding territory. Anything Steig could do; Mankell can still do better.

Martin Edwards isn’t sure he likes the Rolf Lassgard version of Kurt Wallander being broadcast on BBC, but enjoyed the episode, “The Man Who Smiled.”

Peter Rozovsky asks about Sjowall and Wahloo’s habit of featuring protagonists other than Martin Beck, and sets off an interesting conversation (as always).

Hat tip to Nordic Noir (online home for the Nordic Noir book club is organized by staff in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at University College London) for this interview in the Scotsman of Gunnar Staalesen, which I had missed. He says, of his hero, Varg Veum, “Varg is my take on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, the holy trinity of American crime writers, who have really inspired me, particularly Chandler, whose writing I admire very much.” The character ages in real time, so he is nearing retirement of the permanent sort. Staalesen discusses the direction his possible demise might take and how it might lead to a fork in the series’ road.

And finally …

Lucky Londoners! Hakkan Nesser will be speaking at “Shadows in the Snow,” part of the Nordic Noir book club’s series of events. Mark your calenders for February 3rd, 6:30-9:00 if you are fortunate enough to attend.

and still more from the smorgasbord

There’s an interesting article on Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo by Jack Bumsted in the lastest newsletter from the Whodunit bookstore in Winnepeg, Canada. He points out the social critique that the couple deliberately wove into their Martin Beck series and the similarities between their work and that of both the American hardboiled tradition and current Swedish crime fiction (especially some parallels between Wahloo’s life and Stieg Larsson’s).

Glenn Harper reflects on a new television version of Norwegian author Gunnar Stalessen’s hero Varg Veum which some lucky people are able to watch on an enlightened and worldly cable channel (not available in my neighborhood, harrumph).  It sounds good, and as Glenn points out is a reminder that Scandinavian crime fiction didn’t take a long nap between Sjowall and Wahloo and Mankell. He considers this “an excellent and unique series that should not be forgotten in our appreciation of Scandinavian crime fiction’s current worldwide popularity.” He also kindly helped me learn how to pronounce the hero’s name. Tusen takk.

What can I do in the face of Sarah Weinmann’s astonishing industry but steal her stuff? She reports: “so much THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE! Which is wholly deserved, because it’s an amazing thriller, but there’s Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post, Alan Cheuse in the SF Chronicle, Daniel Mallory in the LA Times, Brian Bethune’s Stieg Larsson profile in Maclean’s, Vanessa Thorpe’s assessment of Larsson-mania in the Observer, and the National Post’s Larsson-themed travel guide.” She also unearths another story about the new Wallander.  I think I will go take a nap now.