Petrona was the blog name of Maxine Clarke, a stalwart of the crime fiction blogging community until her death in 2012. I didn’t know her personally, but I hadn’t been blogging for long before I discovered how highly regarded she was both in the blogosphere and as one of Amazon UK’s top reviewers. It’s an honour therefore to contribute a review to the blog set up and run in her memory. I hope you’ll pop over to see my review and, while you’re there, you’ll find great recommendations from many other crime fiction bloggers, each of whom have selected a book that they think Maxine would have enjoyed. Don’t forget to follow – there’s a new recommendation from a different blogger every month or so.
Maxine was a great champion of Scandi-crime back when it was a new phenomenon, so I think she’d have liked Ragnar Jónasson’s series set in the tiny town of Siglufjördur on Iceland’s northern shore…
There seems to be a crime wave going on in the heat of the Oslo summer, and Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen and her colleagues are feeling the strain. There’s been a spate of rapes, and though many of them are ‘self-inflicted’, as Hanne’s boss charmingly puts it – i.e., date rapes – one is different. A stranger invades a young girl’s flat and the rape is particularly violent and degrading. Meantime, some practical joker is spending Saturday evenings creating what look like blood-soaked crime scenes around the town, but with no bodies. Hanne’s not convinced it is a joker though…
Hanne is a likeable detective – functional, hard-working, relates well to the people in her team. Her private life is stable, though she’s hiding her long-term gay relationship from her colleagues and family – the book was only written a couple of decades ago, but oddly that strand already feels outdated, and rather clichéd. This means she doesn’t socialise much with the team, so in some ways she’s a bit isolated, though not a traditional loner. And she has a good friend in her colleague Billy T, who maybe knows her even better than she thinks.
Both strands of the plot – the rape and the Saturday night “massacres” – are interesting and Holt is excellent at setting the scene. The description of the rape is graphic without being gratuitous, but for my taste there’s too much dwelling on the despair of the rape victim and her father in the aftermath. My views on misery-fests are well known to anyone who reads my reviews, but I do read crime primarily as entertainment and sometimes the voyeuristic wallowing becomes a bit much. However, the characterisation of both victim and father is very well done and their actions are for the most part believable.
Holt gets off to a great start, letting us know enough about the recurring characters to make this work fine as a standalone, and introducing the two major plot-lines nice and early so that the reader is hooked. And the ending takes on aspects of the thriller. It goes pretty far over the credibility line in places – one of these ones where you feel if people would just have a quick conversation a lot of angst could be avoided – but the quality of the writing carries it.
The major problem with the book is the tricky middle. For long stretches of time the police don’t actually seem to do anything much, while constantly complaining of overwork. Can it really take three weeks to determine whether the blood left in the “massacre” scenes is human? And while they wait for results they do nothing else to try to find out who might be behind it. Is it really credible that the rape victim’s father is able to find clues about the rape that the police missed, by merely questioning neighbours? If so, the competence of Hanne and her team can’t be terribly high. Even I might have thought to ask if anyone had seen a strange car around the neighbourhood on the night in question. The overwork excuse is dragged out to cover every lapse that is required to allow the plot to develop into a thriller, but that leaves credibility as the major victim.
All this lack of investigation allows plenty of time for personal relationship stuff, though – most of which I could cheerfully have lived without, but that’s just personal preference. And then when Holt finally moves towards the denouement she does so by having Hanne have a couple of those brilliant moments of inspired guesswork, based on pretty much nothing, so beloved of the fictional detective.
This is the second book in the successful Hanne Wilhelmsen series, which now stands at nine, though I think only eight have been translated into English so far. As so often, I jumped into the middle of this series with the third book, Death of the Demon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This one didn’t impress me quite so much, but its problems are of the kind that often infect authors’ early books. On the whole, they were outweighed by the strengths – the quality of the writing enhanced by a good translation from Anne Bruce, the excellent characterisation, and the basic idea behind the plot, even if the execution of it wasn’t quite as good. And knowing that by the time of Death of the Demon, Holt was more in control of her plotting and pacing means this is a series I will look forward to returning to in the future.
Rookie cop Ari Thór Arason is so pleased to be offered a posting that he immediately accepts, even though it’s in the tiny town of Siglufjördur, so far north it’s closer to the Arctic than to Reykjavik. A place, so they say, where nothing ever happens. So when an elderly writer falls down a flight of stairs to his death everyone assumes it’s an accident, and when Ari Thór is reluctant to accept this, he is quickly warned off by his boss Tómas. But when a young woman is found unconscious in the snow and bleeding from a knife wound, even Tómas has to face up to the fact that crime has arrived in Siglufjördur.
This is described in the blurb as a ‘debut’, but I think it’s actually the second in a series although the first to be translated. There are references to what sounds like a previous story involving Ari Thór and his girlfriend Kristín, but this one works fine on its own and doesn’t give any major spoilers for the earlier book, should it ever appear.
The writing is excellent, and enhanced by a fine translation by Quentin Bates, who is himself a highly regarded crime writer. Jónasson slowly builds up a claustrophobic feeling to this small fishing community, approachable only by air or through a tunnel under the mountains, both of which routes become impossible as the winter snows deepen. Ari Thór finds himself feeling more and more cut off, emotionally as well as physically, especially since Kirstín hasn’t forgiven him for accepting the posting without discussing it with her. A newcomer to a place where families have to remain for generations before they are accepted as locals, Ari Thór finds himself in the position of an outsider in a community where everyone knows everything about their neighbours – or at least they think they do. But as Ari Thór continues to ask awkward questions, old scandals are disturbed and secrets begin to come to the surface.
The basic plot is very good. It’s a proper mystery, with motives and clues, and of course the isolated setting makes for a limited cast of suspects, especially since the death of the writer took place during a rehearsal of a play. Ari Thór is a good character, not in any way dysfunctional, but with enough of a past to make him interesting. And although he’s a policeman, his method of getting at the truth is based more on interviews and reading people than on DNA and autopsies. But despite the traditional feel of some aspects, the book doesn’t feel at all old-fashioned, since both the structure and the story are firmly modern. Some parts of the plot become clear relatively early, but there’s plenty still to be revealed as the book progresses, and the various strands are brought to credible and satisfying solutions.
It takes a while for the story to get going, and there are occasional dips in the pacing, mainly caused by Jónasson’s technique of giving the backstory of each character as he introduces them – sometimes more interesting and relevant than others, I found. And every now and then, the reader is suddenly given the solution to a little piece of the mystery without the characters doing anything to reveal it, which feels a little as if he hadn’t been able to see how to work it smoothly into the story. He also hit one of my pet hates when he would let Ari Thór learn something but not make the reader privy to it – done to keep up the tension, obviously, but again it feels as if he couldn’t always quite see how to give the clues but disguise them so the reader wouldn’t spot their significance.
However, these are all minor niggles and things that often show up in an author’s early books while they are still developing their skills. And the weaknesses are well outweighed by the book’s strengths – the excellent sense of place, strong characterisation, intriguing and credible plotting and high quality writing. I have already added his next book (or at least the next to be translated, though I believe it’s no.5 in the series! Why do they do that?!) to my wishlist and am looking forward to reading more of them, though I can’t help but feel that tiny Siglufjördur might end up being as dangerous a place to visit as Midsomer or Cabot Cove…
An interesting side-note – apparently Jónasson has translated many of Agatha Christie’s books into Icelandic. I wonder if that may be one reason why the plotting in this one is as strong and as mystery-based as it is…
As the book begins, a man and his young daughter are in the last stages of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes in his car. How did they get there? Who has done this to them? The story takes the reader back into the past to answer these questions. Odinn’s life was turned upside down a few months previously when his ex-wife fell from a window and died, leaving him with the responsibility for his young daughter, Rún. Until then he had been a weekend father, fond of his daughter but leading the life of a single man. As part of his readjustment, he has taken a new job in the State Supervisory Agency, office-based and with regular hours. He has been given the task of preparing a report on a former residential home for boys to check whether there are likely to be any claims from former residents for compensation for abuse or ill-treatment. The book is split between his investigation and the story of what led to the home’s closure, following the death of two of the boys.
This is being billed as a horror novel and does have some aspects of horror, but in reality it’s more of a crime novel with psychological aspects. The horror consists of some unexplained shadows and the occasional bit of spooky giggling, and rarely sent any shivers down my spine. And it really doesn’t add anything to the basic story, leaving me to wonder why it’s in there at all.
The crime aspect is better. Back in the ’70s, the story is seen through the eyes of Aldis, a young girl employed at the home who develops a relationship with one of the older boys. The owners of the home have their own secrets and don’t treat either the boys or the staff well, though thankfully this isn’t yet another child abuse tale. Again, the reader knows from Odinn’s investigation in the present day that two of the boys die, so this part of the story, like the present day one, is more about finding out what led to their deaths. Sometimes knowing what’s going to happen works, but in this case I found that all this foreknowledge led to a serious lack of tension. There is still a mystery, which I won’t detail for fear of spoilers, and I was surprised by the ending, but for most of the book it feels like a fairly long plod to get to a destination we already know.
Usually I love Sigurdardottir’s books, so my disappointment with this one is partly to do with my high expectations. Although it didn’t quite meet those, there’s still plenty in it to enjoy. The characterisation is good, especially of Aldis, and the part about the home is well done, giving a good feeling of authenticity. Sigurdardottir’s writing is always readable and the translation, by Victoria Cribb, is excellent. The plot is intriguing despite the ending being known, and although it crosses the credibility line it held my interest for the most part.
I think the book is trying to do two things at the same time – have a realistic plot and be a spooky horror story – and as a result neither works as well as it would have alone. It also makes the book overlong. Had the spooky aspects been cut, the whole thing would have been much tighter and would, I feel, actually have achieved a higher level of tension. I’m sure that Sigurdardottir fans like myself will find enough in it to make it a worthwhile read, but it wouldn’t be one that I would necessarily recommend to newcomers to her work. Much better to start with her Thora Gudmundsdottir series.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.
Suspended cop, Leo Junker, is awakened by the flashing blue light of police cars parked outside his apartment block. A prostitute has been murdered in the hostel for down-and-outs situated on the ground floor. Leo sneaks past the cops guarding the entrance to have a look around before the police detectives arrive, and is shocked when he sees what the victim is clutching in her hand – a necklace Leo instantly recognises.
There’s quite a lot about this book that should have made me dislike it. Leo is angst-ridden in the extreme – traumatised and disgraced after a fatal shooting incident, he pops tranquillisers constantly, often washing them down with absinthe. He’s a maverick, working the case on his own even though he’s on long-term sick-leave – a euphemism for suspension in his case, till his superiors can decide what to do with him. Some days the mix of drugs, alcohol and stress leave him barely conscious, much less functional. And part of the book is in the dreaded first person, present tense, which makes my hackles rise more and more as it continues its tediously ubiquitous hold over crime fiction.
However, the quality of the writing and translation is high, and after a bit of a shaky start the story hooked me completely. It’s another of these books, so prevalent at the moment, where the present day crime arises out of events in the past, and it is the strand from Leo’s youth that raises the book well above standard. Blissfully this strand, which is actually the bulk of the book, is written in the past tense. Also, because Leo is young in it, he hasn’t yet become the drunken, pill-popping mess he is in the present.
Young Leo lives in Salem, a run-down area on the outskirts of Stockholm, a place where the youngsters grow up without much in the way of hope or aspiration. For years he has been the victim of two older bullies, but when he is around sixteen he meets up with another boy, John Grimberg, ‘Grim’, who’s a bit of a loner and misfit, and the two quickly become friends. Grim has a younger sister, Julia, to whom Leo finds himself becoming attracted, despite knowing Grim is overly protective of her. This little triangle is the basis for the story in the past and for the events that will happen years later in the present. Leo’s family is strong and quite supportive, but Grim and Julia aren’t so lucky with their parents. The book gives a convincing picture of the way adolescents can live a separate life from their families even though they are still at home, dealing with their own problems as best they can. Bullying is a major feature of the story and again Carlsson handles it sensitively and believably. He also shows how easily young boys can find themselves drifting into a life of crime, when neither their families nor communities are there to give them the support and guidance they need. I found this whole section of the story entirely credible and absorbing to the point where I didn’t want to put the book down. I could have lived with a bit less swearing and teenage sex, but both were consistent with the characters and relevant to the plot.
The present day strand also kept me interested, even though I didn’t find older Leo as sympathetic a character as his younger self. The solution becomes obvious pretty early on, so the bulk of this section is more about tracking the murderer than trying to work out whodunit. There is a thrillerish aspect to the story but it doesn’t go wildly over the top. In fact, Leo’s maverick tendencies lessen over the course of the story as he is gradually sucked more into the official investigation. Overall I thought this was an excellent read, and will be looking forward to reading more from the author in the future, with my fingers firmly crossed that Leo can put his troubled past behind him, along with the drink and drugs. Apparently the book was named Best Crime Novel of 2013 by the Swedish Crime Association – well-deserved, I think.
I won this book via Raven’s blog, so many thanks to both Raven Crime Reads and the publisher, Scribe Publications.
Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. Terrified, Jonas jumps overboard and manages eventually to swim to shore. He makes for the first lighted dwelling he sees – the boathouse of old Gerlof, who’s back staying in Öland for the summer months. Something odd happened to Gerlof too when he was young, so despite the strangeness of Jonas’ story, Gerlof believes him – and so is sucked into a mystery that will get darker as the summer wears on…
This will undoubtedly appear in my best of the year list this year. The first two chapters – the one on the boat, and the one about the spooky experience in Gerlof’s youth – are brilliantly atmospheric, hooking the reader right from the beginning. And the rest of the book pretty much maintains that high standard all the way through. The next few chapters introduce the various characters, giving a bit of back-story for each and then bringing them all to the island in time for the Midsummer celebrations in 1999. At this point it can be a bit confusing as to how they will all fit into the story but Theorin gives just the right amount of information at each stage to keep the story flowing.
The characterisation is particularly strong. There are several main characters, and the chapters rotate amongst them, all in the third person – Gerlof, a life-long resident of the island, elderly now but still with a curiosity about life that means he gets himself involved in other people’s problems; Jonas, visiting the island for the summer and feeling a bit isolated as his brother and cousins consider him to be too young to take along with them; Lisa – a musician and DJ who’s working at the resort for the summer; and Aron, who left Öland for the ‘new country’ as a child and has now come home, though we don’t learn why till later. Gerlof is both well drawn and likeable – as a man of 86, Theorin never makes the mistake of having him be some kind of physical hero. Rather he is someone who is good at listening and believing, and at persuading people to talk to him. Aron is enigmatic – it’s clear from his first appearance that he’s plotting something bad and has a grudge against the Kloss family, but as his story is gradually revealed, it’s hard not to find some empathy or, at least, pity for him – some understanding of why he has become who he is.
The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. As it happens, I have recently read a history of the Stalinist period, so for once am in a position to say that the picture Theorin paints of this time is totally authentic and clearly based on very thorough research. I’m not going to say any more about this part of the plot, because the way that Theorin gradually reveals the story is the real strength of the book. But this time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.
Back in the present, all the various strands are gradually pulled together in the lead up to an explosive thriller finish – well foreshadowed, but still surprising and shocking when it comes. And just to finish off one of the most perfectly structured crime/thrillers I’ve read in a while, the epilogue is as compelling as the first couple of chapters were. Though this works perfectly well as a standalone, it’s the fourth in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, with Gerlof as the recurring character who links them. I shall promptly be adding the other three to the TBR. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
In 1978, a small boy and his mother are staying in a holiday cabin in the forests near Falun, in Sweden. All seems well until the mother accidentally kills a bat that was flying around her. She throws it into the undergrowth, but the next day, when she goes to the fridge, there is the dead bat lying crumpled on a shelf. Now some of the forest animals begin to behave strangely, sitting motionless staring at the house. The mother tells the boy to stay in but he wants to see them, so he runs out of the house into the forest – and is never seen again. His distraught mother claims that she saw him being taken by a giant…
In the present day, Susso visits an elderly woman who claims she has seen a strange little man watching her house and her grandson. Susso believes in trolls and is on a personal mission to prove that they still exist. Most of the reports she receives via her website are obviously false or hoaxes, but something about this woman convinces her to investigate further. Elsewhere, Seved is busily clearing up the havoc caused by the Old Ones who live in the barn – a sure sign they are getting restless…
This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time – weirdly wonderful, that is. The world it is set in is undeniably the Sweden of today, but in some isolated places the creatures of myth and folklore still exist. It’s essential that the reader can accept this, because there’s no ambiguity about it, but Spjut’s matter-of-fact way of writing about them somehow makes the whole thing feel completely credible. But although their existence is established he leaves them beautifully undefined – the reader is never quite sure what exactly they are or whether they are fundamentally good or evil or perhaps, like humanity, a bit of both. They’re not all the same, either in appearance or behaviour, and there seems to be a kind of hierarchy amongst them. Although most humans remain unaware of them, some are very closely involved with them. And every now and then, a child goes missing.
It’s the writing that makes it work. Spjut builds up a chilling atmosphere, largely by never quite telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Normally that would frustrate me wildly, but it works here because the reader is put in the same position of uncertainty as the humans. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. But despite that, fundamentally this is a crime novel with all the usual elements of an investigation into a missing child. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.
There’s a real air of horror running beneath the surface, though in fact there’s not too much in the way of explicit gruesomeness – it’s more the fear of not knowing what might happen. The beginning is decidedly creepy and sets up the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly. It takes a while to get to grips with who everyone is and how the various strands link, but gradually it all comes together. I admit there were bits in the middle that dragged slightly and felt a little repetitive at times, but the bulk of it kept me totally absorbed. And the last part is full of action building up to a really great ending that satisfies even though everything is far from being tied up neatly and tidily. So much is left unexplained, not in the way of careless loose ends, but more as if some things just are as they are and must be accepted.
If you can cope with the basic idea, then I highly recommend this as something very different from the normal run of things. 4 stars for the writing, plus one for being one of the most original books I’ve read in a while – I do hope there’s going to be a sequel…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka in Sweden to sort out the belongings of her parents who have recently died. But she is soon in the middle of the investigation into the death of her childhood friend, Alex, found frozen in her bathtub with her wrists slit. At first it looks like suicide, but it soon becomes clear that she was murdered. Alex and Erica had been very close as children but had grown apart as children do, and then Alex and her parents had left the town. So Erica feels personally involved in wanting to know what happened to Alex in the intervening years, and who would have a reason to kill her. The detective who’s investigating the case, Patrik Hedström, is another friend from childhood, but when they meet again after all these years their relationship quickly becomes something more than friendship.
This is the first book in the Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck series. I’d previously read a later one, The Stranger, and enjoyed it a lot, so wanted to go back and read the books in order. Quite often the first book in a series can be disappointing as so much time has to be given over to character development, and authors sometimes take a couple of books to really get into their stride. But I didn’t feel that at all in this case – this is an excellent debut, with a strong plot and with two main characters who very quickly become people the reader can like and care about.
Patrik and Erica’s new found feelings for each other are handled beautifully. There’s enough humour to stop it from being at all soppy and Läckberg makes the whole romance element quite straightforward – no bitter, vengeful ex-partner, no misunderstandings etc. The whole thing comes over as very natural and realistic and, because both characters are strong and attractive, the match feels like one that will last. I loved the way the viewpoint shifts between them so that we are able to see what each is thinking. At one point as Patrik is on his way to Erica’s, we see her rushing about desperately changing clothes and re-doing her make-up in an attempt to achieve that carelessly casual natural look – and when he arrives the view shifts to him, and we see him being completely fooled by it and thinking she’s one of these rare women who doesn’t need to try. Lovely!
By contrast, the plot concerning the reasons for Alex’s murder is quite dark, and there is a sub-plot concerning Erica’s sister who is in an abusive marriage, so there’s plenty of meat in the story. Although Erica does a little unofficial poking around, the bulk of the investigation is done as a police procedural. Fjällbacka is a tiny place, so the police aren’t used to dealing with murders, and apart from Patrik most of them would rather not have their routines disrupted. So Patrik more or less takes the case over, and we see him as a dedicated officer without any tediously maverick tendencies. On the downside, Patrik’s boss is drawn as the stereotypical incompetent bully in this book, though from memory that aspect seemed to be toned down quite a bit by the time of the later book that I read.
The translation by Steven T Murray is excellent – it doesn’t read like a translation at all, and none of the touches of humour get lost. Well written, with two likeable lead characters and a great mix of light and shade in the plot, this one has left me looking forward eagerly to catching up with the rest of the series.
Lars Martin Johansson, Chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, decides to have a final shot at solving the twenty-year old assassination of then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. Pulling together a small team of his best detectives, he gets them to begin a review of the huge amount of paperwork relating to the investigation, trusting that fresh eyes might spot something previously overlooked. Meantime, Chief Inspector Bäckström, now sidelined to working in the Lost Property division, is determined to find a way to get the reward offered for solving the crime.
This is a rather strange book in that the assassination of Olof Palme is, of course, a real event, which has never been properly solved. Although one man was convicted of the murder, he was later released on appeal. While many still think him guilty, there are about a zillion other theories too – from rogue police officers to Kurdish terrorists – and all, from what Persson suggests, based on the thinnest of evidence or none at all. So from the start it was hard to see exactly where we were going to end up in this book – either Persson would have to stick with the facts, leading to an untidy unresolved ending, or he would have to invent a solution. I thought he might be going to use the opportunity to put forward his own pet theory (I’m guessing every Swede has one) but the book didn’t really give me that impression. Instead it read more like a kind of slow thriller and seemed to veer further from reality as it progressed. In fact, I found all the way through that I didn’t know which bits were fact and which were fiction, which meant that by the end I couldn’t really say I knew more about the real assassination than I did at the beginning (i.e., nothing). I suspect this would work much better for anyone who knows the ins and outs of the crime and investigation before they begin, but for me it all felt too confused and unclear. The more I read, the more unconvinced I became about the merit of using a real, unsolved case in this way, especially such a high profile and recent case.
Putting the concept to one side, then, and looking at the book purely as a crime thriller worked a little better for me. Johansson and his team are well drawn and their interactions have a convincing feel. We get to see them in their off-duty lives too, which makes them feel well rounded. This is a team of professionals who on the whole respect each other and work well together. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Bäckström – obviously supposed to be the comic relief, he is an ‘old-fashioned’ sexist, racist, drunken, corrupt copper – oh dear! Yes, occasionally he has a funny line, but really he is so stereotyped and one-dimensional as to be completely unbelievable, and I tired very quickly of his foul-mouthed, offensive remarks. Maybe they were funnier in Swedish. The whole strand relating to him made very little sense as far as I could see, and I felt the book would have been better and tighter without him in it.
The fictional investigation sees the detectives discussing many of the ‘tracks’ followed by the real investigators, plus, I assume, some made up stuff so that Persson could deliver his own version of events. While interesting, there is a good deal of repetition in these sections, not just of information, but often the same phrases being used time and again, all of which contributes to the book being seriously overlong. The translation is fine for the most part, but occasionally becomes clunky and a few times actually leaves the meaning somewhat unclear. Overall, the interest of the original case plus the good characterisation of the main team just about outweighed the annoying Bäckström and my mild irritation at not knowing where the line lay between fact and fiction. I’d guess that Persson fans will enjoy this but, although it works as a standalone, in hindsight perhaps it’s not the best of his books to start with.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
Sonny Lofthus has been in prison for twelve years for crimes he didn’t commit. However he is quite content to be there and even to confess to other crimes, so long as he is paid with a plentiful supply of the heroin to which he is addicted. When Sonny was a boy, he idolised his policeman father Ab, but his life was shattered when Ab committed suicide just as he was about to be revealed as the ‘mole’ who had been giving information to a shady underworld figure known as the Twin. Now Sonny sits in his cell in a drug-induced trance listening to the confessions of his fellow prisoners and dispensing forgiveness. Until one day one of the prisoners confesses that Ab was set up – he never was the mole and the apparent suicide was actually murder. Now Sonny is set on the path for revenge…
This is a standalone from the author who is best known for the much-admired Harry Hole series. Much-admired by other people, that is – personally one Harry Hole book was enough for me. Though if I ever get too happy and feel the need to be made miserable again, I may pick up another one. However, despite hating the character of Harry Hole, I admired Nesbo’s writing enough to see how it would work in a different context.
Let’s get rid of the negatives first. The premise of the book is ridiculous. The character of Sonny is…ridiculous! This is a man who has been addicted to heroin for at least twelve years, but then goes cold turkey and turns into some kind of superman, who can break out of impregnable prisons, tackle gangs of baddies, evade the forces of law and order and persuade a perfectly respectable woman to give up everything she has for sudden love of him. And the book is chock full of pseudo-religious symbolism as if suggesting that in some way Sonny’s revenge is divinely inspired; or worse, that he in some way represents goodness or holiness. Yes, Nesbo is deliberately playing with ideas of morality and when revenge may be justified, but with such a lack of subtlety it’s almost awe-inspiring. I think the heights were reached for me when we were introduced to the character named Pontius – or perhaps it was when The Son’s head began to develop a strange halo-like glow. (Oh, how I wish I was joking!)
Unusually, the positives are equally strong. Apart from the unbelievable Son and the pantomime villain Twin, the rest of the characterisation is very good. Simon Kefas was a friend of Sonny’s father and is now the police officer tasked with catching Sonny. However his sympathy for Sonny and loyalty to his father’s memory complicate matters for him, as does his urgent need to find enough money to fund an eye operation for his young wife who is going blind. Simon’s partner is an ambitious young woman who is determined not to be tainted by any of the corruption she sees going on around her. And even Sonny’s love interest is well drawn and believable once the reader has accepted the unlikelihood of the love-affair. The plotting is strong and well-paced although the violence is far more graphic than it needs to be, or indeed than sits well with Nesbo’s attempt to blur the morality line. The writing flows well and the translation by Charlotte Barslund is excellent.
So all-in-all, if you can overlook the significant credibility weaknesses and the violence, this is a reasonably entertaining noirish thriller. Not nearly as thought-provoking or meaningful as I think it would like to be, but quite entertaining nonetheless.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
When Rose spots that amongst the old unsolved cases are four that relate to disappearances that all happened at the same time, Carl Mørck and the team begin an investigation that leads them into the murky world of far-right politics and illegal eugenics. Curt Wad’s organisation is now a recognised political party, the Purity Party, but was previously a secret organisation known as the Cause – the cause being to ensure the purity of the race by carrying out forced abortions and sterilisations of girls deemed unfit to be mothers. And it appears that all the missing people were in some way linked to one of the victims, Nete Hermansen.
When Adler-Olsen is writing about the background to the crimes and the crimes themselves, his writing is very strong. He creates a convincing picture of the abuse these young girls suffered at the hands of men and women in positions of authority which allowed them to act with impunity. He attempts to lighten the seriousness of the plot by introducing humour into the sections relating to Carl and the investigation. Unfortunately this didn’t work quite as well for me this time round. The running gag is that everyone in the team is hit with a virus that leads to cold symptoms and upset stomachs. I got very tired very quickly of constant descriptions of dripping noses and diarrhoea. And the quirkiness of Rose and Assad begins to jar as their behaviour becomes such that no police department would tolerate from any of its employees.
Carl remains a likeable character, still juggling with his complicated personal life as well as his crazy employees. In fact, here’s one detective who could be forgiven for taking to drink – thankfully he hasn’t though! Despite my reservations about the credibility of their behaviour, Rose and Assad are still enjoyable, and each of their stories is developed a bit more in this outing. Although Wad is an obvious baddie, the other characters are more complex; the victims are by no means straightforward innocents and the villains might be seen to have had extenuating circumstances. However, on the whole I found it hard to sympathise with any of them, even when I was being shown the abuses they had had to endure.
The plot in this one is interesting, though it’s not particularly complex. The novel is told in two time periods – the present day investigation and the story of the crimes back in 1987. The reader knows who is responsible for the crimes early on, and the reasons are gradually revealed through the sections that are set in the past. The anti-immigrant policies of the Purity Party allowed the author to show us a different, more serious side to Assad and to hint at parts of his past that will presumably be revealed in later books. Towards the end, I found implausibility was creeping in, and the big reveal was somewhat of an anti-climax – so much of the story had been revealed as the book progressed that there was very little element of surprise. And, as I seem to be saying with nearly every book I read at the moment, at 512 pages it’s far too long; there are lots of little sub-plots that don’t really go anywhere or add anything, and serve only to prevent the plot from building any kind of tension.
Overall, while I still found this an enjoyable read, it didn’t quite live up to my hopes for it. I’ll still be interested enough to stick with the series for at least one more book though to see how the characters develop in the next one. Recommended, with some reservations.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.
When a young Norwegian man is brutally murdered on the shores of Lake Superior, his body is discovered by Lance Hansen, a US Forest Service cop. As the investigation gets underway, suspicion quickly falls on the victim’s friend and companion. Lance is on the sidelines of the investigation, but realises he saw something that night that casts a different light over what may have happened. Will he put his family at risk by telling what he suspects?
The first chapter or two of this novel are very effective – Lance’s discovery of the body is dramatic and chilling. However, we are very soon bogged down in a mass of local and family history, as Lance, an amateur genealogist, begins to wonder if this is the first murder committed in the area. There is an attempt to draw parallels between the current crime and an event over a century ago, when Norwegians were beginning to populate this area of Minnesota. This drags the whole book down to a crawl, as we are given endless and repetitive stories about the early days of the settlers and details of the family history of almost every character, while there is very little actual investigation of the murder. Suffice it to say that, since the investigators soon find DNA at the scene, it ought to have been possible to wrap the whole thing up fairly quickly, but for reasons unbeknownst to this reader (who suspects that the writer got himself bogged down in an inconsistency that he hoped the reader wouldn’t spot) the police don’t seem to bother to try to match the DNA to that of their suspects.
Between the never-ending Minnesotan history, the in-depth look at the minutiae of daily life, including what everyone eats and where they eat it, and Lance’s constant agonising over whether he should put family loyalty over duty, I found this a real slog (though I could possibly set myself up in business as a tour guide of the region now). It is well enough written in a technical sense and the translation by Tiina Nunally is seamless, but I’m afraid it is simply dull. And worse yet – it’s the first of a trilogy so the crime is left unresolved at the end. I’m afraid I care so little about the outcome, I will not be reading the other two books. I find it frankly amazing that this book won an award for best Norwegian crime novel of the year in 2008 – I can only assume it was a bad year…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, University of Minnesota Press.
When the family of a Swedish sport star is gassed to death during a robbery on the Costa del Sol, the Evening Post sends reporter Annika Bengtzon to cover the story. Meanwhile a reorganisation at the newspaper means that Annika’s colleague Patrik has been promoted to be her new boss. And the appeal is about to be heard for Filip Andersson, a man convicted of murder, apparently in a previous book.
This is a very well written slowburn thriller that takes Nordic crime away from the cold of the north to the sunshine of Spain. Marklund gives a real feel for these ex-pats living in the brash world of the Costa Cocaine, as Patrik wishes to dub it. The story lets us see how the police are failing to stop the drug route through Spain from the hash farms in Morocco and on to the rest of Europe. Annika’s character is well developed and she’s a likeable lead although with the usual confused personal life. She’s not superwoman, thankfully – just a hard-working, professional journalist with a well-defined set of ethics. And we see her as a caring mother to her two young children and struggling to come to terms with the break-up of her marriage.
Many crime novels are part of a series where each book can be read on its own merits. However, this one is very much part of a serial – i.e. the main plot clearly runs on from book to book and this is an instalment rather than a distinct story. Unfortunately this means the book doesn’t work as a standalone. I spent most of my time baffled about characters whose story had obviously begun in the previous books, which I haven’t read; and as all the threads began to come together my lack of knowledge of who had done what and why in previous books meant I hadn’t a clue what was going on. And unfortunately that confusion continued right through to the end. And yet, so much of the book was given over to retelling bits of previous instalments I am left with little desire to backtrack, especially since I now know what has happened to many of the recurring characters. Of course, it’s quite normal for there to be a running story arc in the background, but I’ve never come across another crime novel where the main plot was so dependant on a thorough knowledge of the previous books.
I’m reluctant to mark it down because I’m sure that for people who’ve been following the serial this will be an interesting and enjoyable read. Even with my problems with understanding the plot, there was much that I enjoyed – the quality of the dialogue, the characterisation, the sense of place, Annika’s family life. So 4 stars from me, but I doubt I’ll be reading the past books, since this book contains so many spoilers about them. And while this instalment felt as if it had come to a proper, if rather incomprehensible, conclusion, I wouldn’t be willing to read any future books unless I could be sure that major plot points didn’t rely on the reader knowing about things that happened in the previous books. Shame.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.
When a bottle is washed up on a beach in Scotland, it is found to contain a message, mostly obliterated by time and damp, but with the Danish word for ‘Help’ still clearly showing at the top. This might have been dismissed as a joke except that the bottle also contains traces of blood. The age of the message marks this as a cold case, so it falls to Copenhagen’s Department Q, Carl Mørck and his team, to investigate. Enough of the message can be deciphered to suggest that it relates to a kidnapping, perhaps worse. But the case isn’t as cold as Carl thinks, as the kidnapper is just about to repeat his crime…
This was my first introduction to Jussi Adler-Olsen and I was very impressed. The story is told in the third person from a variety of viewpoints, and in the past tense. (Hurrah! Am I the only person who’s tired of every second book being in the present tense these days?) The author manages to create a good mix of humour mixed in with some really nail-biting suspense. There are some great action scenes, fast-paced and tense, together with some slower but no less interesting passages where Adler-Olsen lets the reader see inside the heads of the main players. His characterisation is very strong, both of villain and victims, and some of the scenes are quite harrowing, though he steers clear of being too graphic for the most part. Contrasted with this is the humour around the odd mix of people who make up Carl’s team and family. It took me a while to get tuned in to these characters and some of them are undoubtedly a bit too eccentric to be quite realistic. However as I got to know them better, they grew on me – particularly Carl’s main sidekick, his Syrian assistant Assad, who provides much of the book’s humour. Carl himself is of course a bit of a maverick with lots of problems, but he stops well short of the stereotypical angst-ridden drunk, thankfully, and I found him a very likeable lead character.
The translator Martin Aitken has done an excellent job. The gradual deciphering of the message is key to the plot while a lot of the humour is based around Assad’s misuse and misunderstanding of words, but Aitken manages to navigate these issues seamlessly and for once the humour travels very well. In fact, had I not known it was a translation, I’m not sure I would have guessed, which is about the highest praise I can give.
I could criticise some small weaknesses in the book – coincidence comes into play occasionally, some aspects stretch credulity a bit, the ending is perhaps a shade clichéd. But overall I found the book very well written and strongly plotted, and heartily recommend it as an interesting and enjoyable read that held my attention throughout. Although it works well as a standalone, I felt I would have gained from knowing the recurring characters’ back-stories, and will now be adding the earlier books to the ever-growing TBR pile.
(This book has been published in the US under the title ‘A Conspiracy of Faith’, which I must say I think is a much better title for it than ‘Redemption’. Confusingly, it is available under both titles in the UK.)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.
Paul Hjelm and the team have had very little to do since they wound up their last case in The Blinded Man. ‘Violent crimes with an international character’ seem to be in short supply. And Paul is bored…
‘What they needed was a robust serial killer, of a robust, international character, thought Paul Hjelm as he slid back into his orgy of self-pity.’
Be careful what you wish for! Even as Paul thinks this, a serial killer is on his way to Sweden – a killer who tortures his victims in the cruellest ways – a killer so professional he has eluded the FBI for decades. But why is he coming to Sweden? And is this killer more than just your ‘ordinary’ psychopath?
In this second instalment of the Intercrime series, Dahl lets us see how the team members have developed since their experiences the year before. Although Paul is still the main character, we find out more about the lives of the others, particularly Nyberg and Norlander, and this adds an extra layer of interest to the book. Paul himself, happily, is suffering much less from the existential angst that afflicted him so much in the last book. Back with his wife, he still has feelings for the enigmatic Kerstin Holm though their relationship has changed. Kerstin is a much more rounded character here – in the last book she really seemed only to be there to allow Paul to fantasise about her, but in this one she becomes a real person.
At first this looked as if it was going to be a fairly straightforward manhunt for a serial killer book, but when Paul and Kersten go to America to liaise with the FBI, it becomes obvious there are some strange and unexpected things about this killer. Firstly, the method he uses was one developed during the Vietnam war and known to very few people. Secondly the killer had stopped fifteen years before, but has now started up again – the murder method remains the same but the type of victim has changed. And thirdly, the FBI’s main suspect is dead. And yet the obvious explanation of copycat killings doesn’t fit either since there are aspects to the crimes that a copycat couldn’t have known. As the plot progresses, it become increasingly dark and complex, raising some uncomfortable questions of personal and state ethics.
I found this book to be both less complicated but deeper than The Blinded Man, and although there is some graphic violence right from the start, it’s not the main focus. The translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles is fine, although as in the first book sometimes the humour doesn’t travel very well. The plotting is very good, stretching but not breaking credibility, and the characterisation is much stronger and less stereotyped in this novel than the last. Recommended – and I look forward to reading the next in the series.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.
When respectable, middle-aged Agnes Vestavik is found at her desk with a kitchen knife in her back, it seems at first as if no-one could have wanted her dead. But as Hanne Wilhelmsen and her team investigate, they suddenly find themselves with a surfeit of suspects amongst the staff and in Agnes’ personal life, all with strong motives. And then there’s Olav – a 12-year-old newcomer to the foster home that Agnes ran: a boy with serious behavioural problems and a mother who can’t cope. Why did he run away on the night of the murder? Did he witness something? A question they can’t ask him until they find him – but Olav doesn’t intend to be found…
This was my first introduction to Hanne and her team and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. There’s obviously a back-story and it would probably be better to read the books in order, but I found this worked perfectly well as a standalone. Hanne has just been promoted to Chief Inspector and has persuaded her friend Billy T to transfer to her team. Their interactions are good fun and give the book a lighter side, without in any way detracting from the plot. We also see Hanne’s home-life with her partner Cecilie and get to see why Hanne is reluctant to make their relationship public.
The descriptions of the foster-home and the troubled children are very convincing and handled with a welcome light touch. So often such places are rather unfairly portrayed as being all doom and gloom, but Holt brings out much of the humour and genuine care that in reality usually exists in them. We see Olav’s past through his mother’s eyes – a child she loves but can’t control. Both Olav and his mother are very well-drawn characters and Holt manages to make the reader increasingly sympathetic towards them as the book goes on.
Overall, a very enjoyable read that will certainly encourage me to read more in the series.
Thanks to Alex over at thinkinginfragments who suggested this author to me, and you’ll find Stacia’s fine review over at Red Panda Reads, a great resource for Nordic crime – of the fictional variety, of course!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.
When a residential unit for disabled people is burned down, all the residents are killed bar one. Jakob has Downs Syndrome and a grievance – he never wanted to be placed in the unit and he doesn’t like it there. It seems to be an open and shut case but, because of his disability, Jakob is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital rather than prison and it looks like he’ll stay there for life. At least, until one of the other inmates asks lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to try to get the case reopened…
This is a very well written entry into the field of Nordic crime – Iceland, on this occasion – and the translation by Philip Roughton is first-rate. Apparently this is the fifth in the series, but it’s the first I’ve read. The characterisation throughout the novel is particularly strong and Thóra herself is a likeable lead, strong and capable but with a soft centre. As well as dealing with the case, she’s having to juggle home life as her parents move in on a temporary basis to a house already filled with Thóra’s children, grandchild and partner, Matthew.
In the course of her investigation, Thóra has to deal with people with a variety of severe disabilities. Sigurdardóttir handles this well, managing to convey the difficulties they face without becoming overly mawkish or sentimental. Thóra’s dealings with the relatives of the victims show her sensitivity, particularly when dealing with Jakob’s mother. And her aversion to Jósteinn, the psychopathic child abuser who has hired her, grows steadily as she wonders what his motivation is for wanting to help Jakob. A sub-plot concerning a possible haunting is cut in to short sections between chapters and Sigurdardóttir’s excellent writing makes this part of the story chillingly atmospheric and decidedly creepy. There’s also a real sense of place in the novel, as the culture, weather and recent economic woes of Iceland all play their part.
Overall, a very satisfying read that, together with Läckberg’s The Stranger, has reawakened my enthusiasm for Nordic crime. Highly recommended, and I look forward to backtracking through the rest of the series.
A year or so ago, I was pretty much ready to give up on Nordic crime. Harry Hole was too drunken, Salander was too weird, and frankly the whole genre seemed too angst-ridden and downright miserable to be enjoyable…and I say that as someone hardened by years of dealing with drunks and screwed-up mavericks – all fictional, of course! At the time of my disillusionment, a fellow Amazon reviewer tried to get me to read Läckberg, promising that she was different. Finally, I’ve followed that advice – and I’m so glad I did! Patrik Hedström is that rare and precious creature – a sober, likeable, intelligent detective who works within the rules and has a happy home life. And in this story he proves that that can be considerably more interesting and much more enjoyable than reading yet one more description of binge-drinking, hangovers and cowboy policing.
When Patrik is called to the scene of a fatal car accident, it looks like a straightforward case of drunken driving. But the woman driver was teetotal and Patrik suspects that there may be more to the accident than meets the eye. Meantime the town has been invaded by a reality TV show starring a group of C-List celebs whose claim to fame is that they are willing to get outrageously drunk, party all night and have sex as often as they can, and all with the cameras rolling. This is problem enough, but when one of the celebs turns up dead in a bin, Patrik has two cases to deal with. So it’s lucky there’s a new member of the team – Hanna, an experienced and efficient officer has transferred to the district – especially since more deaths are on the way…
Well written, and well translated by Steven T Murray, this is an intriguing police procedural with a dark and complex plot and a satisfying conclusion. Although Patrik is the lead character, we get to know the members of his team too and their interactions add an extra layer of depth to the story. The picture Läckberg paints of contemporary Sweden is as misery-laden and angst-filled as the most ardent Nordic fan could desire, but is lightened by Patrik’s family life as he and Erica prepare for their forthcoming wedding. Although there’s clearly a running story in the background about Patrik and Erica’s relationship, this book works well as a standalone for anyone who, like me, hasn’t read the previous ones in the series – an omission I now intend to rectify. Recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road. I understand it was previously published under the title The Gallows Bird.
When two top-level financiers are murdered in quick succession, the Swedish authorities decide to put together a special unit to investigate. Fortunately for our hero, Paul Hjelm, he is asked to join just as he is about to be fired for shooting an immigrant during a hostage situation. As the murder toll continues to climb, the unit is following several leads. Are the crimes to do with something in the men’s pasts? Or is the murderer an insane serial killer? Could the victims’ membership of a Masonic-type secret society be involved? Or is the spate of murders a sign that the Russian Mafia is moving in? Apparently this book was previously published under the name Misterioso – a reference to the Thelonious Monk album of the same name.
I watched the first episode of the Arne Dahl TV series last Saturday (BBC4) and was seriously underwhelmed. I’m glad to say the book impressed me considerably more. Like most Nordic crime, there’s a lot of angst in the book and dark undertones about a society that doesn’t ever seem very comfortable with itself. However our hero, though of course profoundly miserable and with the obligatory unhappy home life, at least is neither a total maverick nor a drunk.
The book is well written and very well translated by Tina Nunnally, and the plotline is satisfyingly complex. Each of the leads is followed through to its conclusion and each shows us a different aspect of Swedish society. The various members of the A-unit are a bit stereotyped – the foreigner (so we can talk about questions of race), the intelligent one who wrestles with moral questions, the older one, trying to prove he’s still got it, and, of course, the beautiful and complicated token female whose main purpose seems to be to allow Hjelm to indulge in some rather unnecessary sexual fantasizing. However, they are in the main developed well and we see them change from a group of strangers into a cohesive team as the book progresses.
Overall, this is an enjoyable, well plotted police procedural with elements of both mystery and thriller and a good deal better than the TV adaptation would suggest. I’ll certainly be looking forward to the author’s next, Bad Blood, which I believe is due out in August 2013, although apparently with a different translator.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.