Archive for July, 2011

The US title of this book Box 21 is far more appropriate than the UK title The Vault, and therefore I will use that when necessary. 

I am not going to attempt much of a plot synopsis, because Box 21 is a book that needs to be a journey of discovery. It is a very dark journey, and if you are like me you will be angry when you have finished. Not angry with the book, but with the events in the story. I found myself hoping that I would be wrong about the conclusion, and shouting with frustration when I was right. 

In a Stockholm fifth floor apartment with electronic locks are two Lithuanian girls forced into prostitution. One Lydia Grajauskas has been whipped by a man she calls Dimitri-Bastard-Pimp. While the other Alena Sljusareva hides naked in another room, and runs away when police officers, Ewert Grens, Sven Sundqvist and Bengt Nordwall arrive.

Meanwhile junkie Odeus Hilding is desperate for money so he cuts speed with washing powder, and sells it to the wrong girl. Enforcer Jochum Lang , just released from prison, is sent by the Yugoslav mafia to punish Hilding, for cutting their product. After overdosing Hilding is in the hospital where Lydia has been sent for treatment for her injuries. Aging difficult detective Ewert Grens has been waiting to get Jochum Lang put away for a long sentence ever since Lang was responsible for a dreadful accident twenty five years earlier that left Anni, Grens’s wife in a nursing home, and Grens deeply traumatized. Lydia Grajauskas and Ewert Grens will both make very difficult decisions as the situation unfolds.

‘Alena, I am absolutely sure. Someone has to know. This must never happen again.’

I read Box 21 very quickly because it is written in a matter of fact style with the sort of details that draw you in to the action. The characters may be deeply flawed but they are interesting and you turn the pages wanting to discover their fate. If you read crime fiction because you want to see justice done this is not the book for you. If you like books that are truthful, very sad, and don’t pull their punches then get hold of this superb example of Swedish crime fiction that jumped straight in to my top reads of the year. 

‘I saw you in the flat.’

‘It was very chaotic.’

‘I would know you were Swedish anyway, even if I’d never met you. I’ve got to know what Swedish men look like.’

The authors Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom have recently won the CWA International Dagger with their thriller Three Seconds. Anders Roslund is the founder and former head of Culture News on Swedish Television, and a prize winning investigative reporter at Rapport [Sweden’s equivalent of CNN]. Borge Hellstrom is an ex-criminal who helps rehabiltate young offenders and drug addicts, and a founder of KRIS-a non-profit association which assists released prisoners during their first period of freedom.  

POLL no.1-Conclusions

Posted: July 28, 2011 in polls

A couple of weeks ago we were in an independent bookshop when Mrs Crime Scraps saw a book she liked but it was priced at £25.00, we gulped and went home. Later we guiltily purchased it online from Amazon for £15.00! 

Therefore I was not particularly surprised by the results of the Crime Scraps Polls no.1 which showed that 33% of those that voted had bought the last book they read from Amazon. 

21% had borrowed that last book read from the library, and 12% had purchased it from another online retailer. 6% used either an independent bookshop or multiple chain bookstore such as Borders or Waterstones. With only 12% of the market, and although my sample was small I think we are representative of the book reading public, the long term viability of small independent bookshops or chains similar to the recently closed Borders is problematic. It is common sense that as financial pressure grows during this long recession readers will rely more and more on a shrinking library system, and the cheaper on line retailers. 

Borders with its cafe in the bookstore seemed to us so innovative and friendly when we stopped in Lancaster County PA, after driving still jet lagged from our friends house in the Poconos back in 1993. I don’t remember anything like that in the UK at the time, although there might have been in London.

Why did Borders fail?  I have read several articles on this subject, and some of the reasons were not specific to the book trade. Retail is difficult a disaster, at the present time and some shopping precincts in English towns look semi-abandoned. But Borders made several mistakes.

1] They failed to keep up with technology, the growth of internet sales, and the move from print books to e- books. They were outpaced in this field by their major rivals Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. When they did wake up they could not catch up with the advantage held by the leaders.

2] There was an inability to control costs as a result of opening too many big stores on 15-20 year leases. There are many businesses in the UK that have made the same mistake taking prime high street positions that require enormous turnover merely to cover the rent, business rates, and stock purchase overheads.

3] Their sales of music CDs and DVDs fell off a cliff, which was predictable if they had looked at the progressive closure of music stores in the UK. 

Borders were copied, and then left behind by their rivals.

I still enjoy the experience of browsing in a book shop, but when the price differential is huge it is inevitable that I purchase the vast majority of my books on -line, and it seems I am not alone. 

South Africa 1952: Detective Emmanuel Cooper arrives in the tiny deep country town of Jacob’s Rest, near the Mozambique border, to investigate what district headquarters thought was a hoax but turns out to be the murder of  local police Captain Willem Pretorius. Cooper’s investigation is complicated by the National Party’s policy of segregating people into racial groups, the Immorality Act of 1950 that criminalizes sexual relations between the races, and the status of the Pretorius family. Captain Pretorius ruled the town, and his family of five boys, with a rod of iron. Mrs Pretorius is the daughter of one of the past leaders of the Afrikaner tribe. 

‘The great trek celebration,’ Hansie said.’ Captain and Mrs Pretorius took us Voortrekker Scouts on a trip to Pretoria for the ceremony. We got to throw logs into a huge fire.’

Emmanuel has psychological problems as a result of his war service, and secrets he must hide from the brutal Special Branch officers who come to Jacob’s Rest to pin the murder on a communist conspiracy. But he does get help to untangle the relationships between black, coloured, English, and Afrikaner from police constable Shabala, a half Zulu-half Shangaan, who grew up with Captain Pretorius, and the mysterious old Jew Zweigman, who runs a local store. Emmanuel faces the question of whether Pretorius is the paternalistic figure as some paint him or did he lead a double life that lead to his murder. There are some fine descriptions of the beautiful South African veldt, but the racial attitudes of the Boer Afrikaner are stated clearly in terms that were normal at that time and place, but would be very offensive today. The South Africa of 1952 comes across as a beautiful country deeply blemished by the obnoxious policy of apartheid.

Mrs Pretorius sighed. ‘There was always trouble with the coloureds; drinking and fighting, that sort of thing. They find it hard to control their emotions no matter how much white blood they have in them. Willem understood that, and tried not to be too tough with them.’

These are very different Afrikaners from those portrayed in Deon Meyer’s post apartheid novels, and sometimes the reader has to remind themselves this was 1952 and even in England these attitudes abounded at that time and for several decades after.

He didn’t put much store in Mrs Pretorius’s lecherous Shylock story: her world was populated with crafty Jews, drunken coloureds and primitive blacks. It was the standard National Party bullshit that poor Afrikaners swore by and educated Englishmen loved to mock while their own servants clipped the lawn.

There is a lot more of that sort of thing which gave the story an authentic atmosphere, and brought home to the reader the dreadful nature of the regime. I did enjoy the book although like a lot of current novels it was about 100 pages too long, and the ending wasn’t entirely convincing with a little too much melodrama. But I look forward to reading more about Emmanuel Cooper, and hopefully some of the other characters, in future books. 

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was that I wondered how the Pretorius family with their anti-Semitic attitudes, and their ideas of Afrikaner superiority, would have reacted to certain real life events. The old Jew Zweigman tells Emmanuel: ‘I did not come here on the first Trekboer wagons,
and I do not understand how or even why one would play the game of rugby.’

A little ironic because at the time the dominant figure in South African rugby during both the New Zealand All Black tour of 1949, and the tour of Europe in 1951 was Aaron ‘Okey’ Geffin, a Jew, whose parents came from Lithuania. Geffin had been captured by the Germans at Tobruk, imprisoned as a POW in Italy, escaped, sent to Germany escaped and recaptured twice, he ended up in Stalag XX-A, where he met 1928 Springbok Bill Payn. They played rugby in the camp but had no boots so Geffin, a huge man, kicked the ball in bare feet. After the war he played for Transvaal, and in the first test of the All Blacks tour kicked 5 penalties, and scored 32 out of 47 points in the South Africans 4-0 series victory over the New Zealanders. On the 1951 tour of Europe he played against Scotland, kicking 7 conversions in the 44-0 victory, and also was vital in the wins over Wales and Ireland.     

This month’s carnival is available at

I haven’t had a chance to look at all the posts yet, but Roberta Rood’s superb post on Torquay, Greenway and Agatha Christie reminded me of my own trips to one of Devon’s most glorious scenic spots on the River Dart.  

If you want to make a contribution to the August Carnival go to 

Kevin McCaffrey, author of the Emma Boylan crime series, has started a new blog here.   

Do have a browse round his blog because you will find reviews of his books and discover the man is a talented painter as well as fine crime writer. You can read my review of The Cat Trap here, and a review of his latest Emma Boylan novel No Curtain Call here

Prayers for Norway

Posted: July 24, 2011 in Norway, review

At Crime Fest in Bristol in 2008 I was lucky enough to have a conversation with the charming Norwegian crime writer Karin Fosssum, and the following year meet Don Bartlett the translator of the novels of Jo Nesbo and K.O.Dahl. Norway is the only Scandinavian country that I have not visited, but because of the excellence of those authors I feel I know the country well. A theme in some of their books, particularly those of Jo Nesbo, is that beneath the surface of Norwegian society lurks the danger of a resurgent Fascism. We can only hope and pray that Anders Behring Breivik is a lone perpetrator, and that these attacks are not the beginning of a campaign by the extreme right as a violent reaction to liberal multiculturalism. My sympathies go out to the Norwegian people, and especially to the victim’s families at this terrible time. 

Below you can read my review of The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo translated by Don Bartlett, that I wrote for Euro Crime in October 2007. 

‘I read THE REDBREAST, number 3 in the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, out of order, because for some reason THE DEVIL’S STAR, number 5, had been published in English first. That this did not affect my enjoyment despite prior knowledge of some of the events is testament to the brilliance of the story. 

This is a long, six hundred and eighteen page, complicated book which breaks some of the rules of crime fiction, while at the same time exhibiting the features of the classical detective story. A good part of the book relates a backstory about the Norwegian soldiers who fought on the Eastern Front for the Germans in World War II. This does slow the progression with multiple flashbacks, but it is integral to the plot and the atmosphere of brooding Nordic melancholy. 

Harry Hole after an unfortunate incident during the Oslo Middle East Peace Conference is given a political promotion to POT, the Norwegian security service. He begins a search for a very expensive Marklin sniper rifle that has been illegally imported into Norway. Harry discovers the purchaser to have been an old man, and then one of the old East Front men is murdered outside a cafe frequented by neo-Nazis. Harry’s colleague from the crime squad the intuitive Ellen Gjelten gives assistance in monitoring these right wing groups. 

The novel is littered with repulsive characters such as the skinhead Sverre Olsen, who so admires the old East Front fighters, and has the mysterious Prince as his contact and supplier of weapons. Then there is Bernt Brandhaug, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, a sexual predator who wants to possess Rakel Faulke the woman with whom Harry hopes to begin a relationship. When Brandhaug realises Rakel prefers Harry he engineers his transfer to Sweden to monitor more neo-Nazi groups. 

One thing I do like about the books is Harry’s low key sardonic humour of which there are many examples in the book: 

“How’s it going with the report on the neo-Nazis?” he asked as he saw Harry in the doorway.
“Badly,” Harry said, sinking into the chair…The E on my keyboard has got stuck,” Harry added. 

This novel is beautifully constructed like a jigsaw puzzle in two time dimensions, blended with a discussion on the nature of treachery and collaboration. When Harry eventually solves this slick puzzle it leads to a very dramatic climax. 

I can heartily recommend the Harry Hole series but do try to read them in the correct order.’  

Thanks to a tweet from Karen of Euro Crime for the information that the 2011 CWA International Dagger was won by Three Seconds by Borge Hellstrom and Anders Roslund.

You can read my review here.

Although I did not think Three Seconds would win the CWA International Dagger I did pick it as one of my five best Euro Crime reads of 2010.

Barry Forshaw, whose latest book, Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction will be released in early 2012, was recently interviewed for the Kirkus Review by Jeff Kingston Pierce. When asked for reasons for the sudden interest in Nordic crime fiction Barry commented that:

The analysis of society freighted into the novels is more forensic and detailed than in the crime fiction of virtually any other country, even within the orbit of such mordant social critics as the writers James Lee Burke [in America] and Val McDermid [in Britain].

I would disagree somewhat and say this detailed analysis of society is not restricted to Nordic crime fiction, or even novels in an American or British setting. Claudia Piniero, Ernesto Mallo [both in Argentina], Andrea Camilleri, Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Lucarelli, Massimo Carlotto, Donna Leon [all in Italy], Deon Meyer [South Africa], Dominique Manotti [France] Yasmina Khadra [Algeria], Ken Bruen [Ireland] and Petros Markaris [Greece] are just some of the authors whose books shine a bright light on the rotten structures in the fabric of their countries. 

Nordic crime fiction has achieved great success based on the talent of a group of writers who are good storytellers, the creation of some uniquely interesting characters, and some exceptionally powerful marketing. There is also the novelty factor in that we know Italy and Argentina are not shining examples of good government, but for years the social democratic Scandinavian state has been presented to British and American observers as the ideal. In my first trip to Scandinavia back in the early 1990s I noted that even the homeless bag ladies looked prosperous, rather like Sibylla in Karin Alvtegen’s Missing. 

But even then, although Sweden’s wealth was obvious, it was possible to see the cracks in that utopia, and I discussed this in my 2009 post The Swedish Apache. Are we guilty of getting some vicarious pleasure in reading about the problems faced by the wealthy Nordics? Or do we just like well written, and translated, stories by excellent authors such as Karin Fossum, Karin Alvtegen, Liza Marklund, Hakan Nesser, Arnaldur Indridason, and Johan Theorin, who are all good examples of the best that Nordic crime fiction has to offer.

The media are again treating Nordic crime fiction rather like the flavour of the month, and frequently we don’t know whether an author is being translated because that book is very good, or whether the publisher just wants to jump on the bandwagon.  When the media interest dies down I hope that readers will not have been put off translated crime fiction as a result of the overenthusiastic marketing of some books. 

[Photo: A selection of Nordic Crime Fiction from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.]  

Another photograph [click on image for full size] that shows the unchanged England of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Jane Marple made her first her first appearance as an old lady between 65 and 70 in Murder at the Vicarage published in 1930, and the last Miss Marple written [not published*] Nemesis was published in 1971, forty one years later. She appeared in 12 novels and 20 short stories during that period, but I always think of her as a pre-war or 1950s figure, and conveniently not getting any older. * Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, but Christie had written it during World War II and had it locked away in a vault only to be published after her death. 

Memo: 19.07.2011

Posted: July 19, 2011 in notes, polls, Quiz

Please don’t forget to vote in the Crime Scraps Poll no. 1 which will close on 26 July. This has already produced some interesting results but the more votes the easier it will be to draw some conclusions.

Also you still have a chance to win one of Andrea Camilleri’s superb Salvo Montalbano series by answering these questions. The competition closing date is 31 July