Archive for September, 2011

Insomnia 1997

Posted: September 30, 2011 in films, Norway, Scandinavia

The other night I recorded the original 1997 Norwegian version of Insomnia showing on Sky Arts at around midnight, and watched it at a more agreeable time. I will take the risk of being classified as an Art channel snob, or one of the chattering classes, and  say that I thought it was superior to director Christopher Nolan’s 2002 version. The last Nolan film I watched was the full of brilliant computer generated dream sequences blockbuster Inception, and perhaps Insomnia was too simple and spare a story for a Hollywood style treatment.

The original Norwegian Insomnia 1997 directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, and written by him and Nikolaj Frobenius, starred the superb actor Stellan Skarsgard as Swedish cop Jonas Engstrom, sent to Northern Norway to solve the murder of a young girl. The other excellent but unknown to me actors helped create a believable atmosphere of tension as Engstrom, unable to sleep in the permanent light of the Arctic summer, begins to lose his grip on reality after a tragic incident in the fog.

Skarsgard has been in numerous movies but I remember him as Gregor in the gripping thriller Ronin, with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed the original better than the 2002 remake, which starred Al Pacino and Robin Williams. To me Robin Williams will always be Patch Adams, and I can never accept him as a villain. 

Maybe I am just quirky always liking the original creation [despite the sub-titles] over any rehashed version. 

Bonger, Wauters, Leverkuhn and Palinski; four old codgers win 20,000 kroner on the lottery and decide to celebrate with a knees up in the smart restaurant area of the Capernaum. Leverkuhn gets very merry and quite drunk and slips under the table. Later Palinski and Wauters go home in a taxi, while Bonger and Leverkuhn have a little drunken argument outside the restaurant, and then walk home separately. 
When Marie-Louise Leverkuhn returns home after visiting a friend, and being stuck on a train because of a power cut, she finds the 72 year old Waldemar Leverkuhn dead stabbed twenty eight times. Leverkuhn’s drinking buddy Bonger has not returned to his canal boat, and is nowhere to be found, and then a few days later one of the Leverkuhn’s neighbours the formidable Else Van Eyck is reported missing by her husband. 
With Rheinhart on maternity leave admiring his new daughter, and Chief Inspector Van Veeteren on a sabbatical working in his antiquarian bookshop the investigation is lead by Munster, with assistance from Ewa Moreno, Jung and Rooth. Van Veeteren makes only fleeting appearances in the story, and it is if Hakan Nesser is paying some kind of tribute to Conan Doyle’s attempted break with Sherlock Holmes between 1893 and 1901, or those Martin Beck books where the great detective shares the limelight with his team. The story loses nothing by the comparative absence of the chief inspector, and this reader was pleased Van Veeteren was really enjoying his well earned rest. 
As a result we learn a lot more about Munster, and the strain police work puts upon his marriage to the lovely Synn, and his relationships with his young children Marieke and Bartje. While Moreno’s police work is affected by her desire to end her five year relationship with her unsatisfactory financial puppy of a boyfriend, Claus. 
The  reader follows the investigation as the bleak lives of the victim, his children and his neighbours are gradually exposed. The author’s cynicism and sometimes sarcastic humour had me laughing at times, and the accounts of what are fairly mundane lives were always kept interesting by glimpses into the detectives’ inner thoughts. The translation by Laurie Thompson expertly captures all the nuances of the humour which is such an important part of Hakan Nesser’s appeal.
Mussolini was lying on his back on the radiator, snoring.
Rooth had never seen a bigger cat, and purposely sat as far away on the sofa as possible.
In my opinion The Unlucky Lottery [original title Munster’s Fall, when published in Sweden in 1998] is one of the best books in the series, because it has an incident filled plot, red herrings and clever twists, a sardonic style that is a good fit for a detective novel, and plenty of intriguing characters. 
This is the sixth book in the Van Veeteren series set in Maardam, which may or may not be a city in Sweden, Netherlands, Germany , Poland or where ever in Northern Europe. But one certainty is that they set a very high standard and the series is a must read for me. 
Her second instinct was to take a hammer and batter the exercise bike that had been emitting its reproachful whining for the whole of her visit, but she managed to restrain herself. After all she did not have a hammer handy. 
I must thank the ever kind Maxine of Petrona [seen in the photo in deep discussion with Hakan Nesser at the 2009 Crime Fest in Bristol] for passing on her advanced reading copy. This was an uncorrected proof which means I should not quote anything without checking with the finished copy or the publisher. But I enjoyed the book so much that I hope I will be forgiven for quoting those few sentences that show a little of Hakan Nesser’s style ,and his irreverent and brilliant take on the police procedural. 
Reviews of the rest of the series:

It may seem premature to think about the contenders for this award, but my fellow bloggers are well advanced in reviewing books that are setting a high standard for the 2012 short list. Even I, at my slower reading pace, have read one and half really brilliant books that should challenge for that short list. 

These are Trackers by Deon Meyer translated from the Afrikaans by Laura Seeger, and thanks to Maxine of Petrona an ARC of The Unlucky Lottery by Hakan Nesser, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson, which although I am only half way in has had me laughing out loud at the author’s irreverent treatment of the standard police procedural.

The main contenders will probably be books from authors who have won, or at least been nominated previously, but from my sneak peeks at other bloggers reviews, and opinions, there may be some dark horses.

You can visit Karen’s encyclopedic Euro Crime website for a full list of the eligible books, but I am going to select just a dozen hopefuls and see how close I can get to next year’s short list. At this stage most of this will be pure guess work as I haven’t read eleven and a half of the novels yet.

Trackers: Deon Meyer [South Africa]

The Unlucky Lottery: Hakan Nesser [Sweden]

Outrage: Arnaldur Indridason [Iceland]

The Quarry: Johan Theorin [Sweden]

The Boy in the Suitcase: Lene Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis [Denmark]

Until Thy Wrath Be Past: Asa Larsson [Sweden]

Dregs: Jorn Lier Horst [Norway]

The Bat Man: Jo Nesbo [Norway]

Sweet Money: Ernesto Mallo [Argentina]

Temporary Perfections: Gianrico Carofiglio [Italy]

Last Will: Liza Marklund [Sweden]

Disgrace: Jussi Adler-Olsen [Denmark]

These fairly wild guesses are a first draft, and as I read through the contenders, and Karen adds more eligible titles, I will revise and modify my long list, trying eventually to predict the winner.  [The photo shows some Norwegian contenders for the International Dagger] 

Giving opinions about books I haven’t read and know virtually nothing about makes me feel almost like a politician or a journalist, so do feel free to criticize my selections if you have read any of these books, or even if you haven’t. 😉

What makes a prize winner?

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Book Awards

Are you as confused as I am by the plethora of prizes for crime fiction books?

There are CWA daggers of various types Diamond, Steel, New Blood, Gold and International. There is the  Edgar, McAvity, Barry, Anthony and Nero. There are the Theakston Old Peculier, the Arthur Ellis, and the Ellis Peters. There is the Davitt, Dilys, Shamus, Gumshoe, Agatha, Hammett, Martin Beck, Sue Feder, Bruce Alexander and the Riverton.  There is even the Archie Goodwin Award probably the most exclusive of all with only 4 winners: Rex Stout [not a surprise in the circumstances as the creator of Archie], Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers. 

My apologies if I have missed out a prize given by some worthy organization.

I used to religiously read the CWA Gold Dagger, Ellis Peters, and Edgar winners, and then when the International Dagger came along I read that short list, but now I am no longer prepared to even attempt to read all the prize winners. The criteria and qualifications for certain prizes are far too  restrictive. A book has to be published in the UK to win a CWA Dagger, thus preventing a double prize winner in the USA such as A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell from even being nominated for anything here, while the late Stieg Larsson can win a prize for the Best British novel for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because it was published in the UK then the procedure has become too complex for this old codger.    

What  qualities do the judging panels look for in a crime fiction novel?

I should interject here that both the two book judges I know have an incredible encyclopedic knowledge about crime fiction, and also impeccable judgement [which means they agree with me 90% of the time] and if the panels they sit on ever come up with an eccentric prize choice then they must have been outvoted. 

Unfortunately not all judges are of their quality, and factors such as innovative plot twists, great characters, unusual location, and an amenable writing style can sometimes be ignored. Some prizes seem to go to the same authors year after year presumably either because the judges love that particular author’s books, or are blind to other contenders. Authors supported by legions of admiring fans, massive marketing and publicity campaigns are obviously more likely to win  prizes, whatever the standard of the books they produce, while some authors don’t even get nominated because their publishers aren’t prepared to make the required effort. 

It is very sad but possibly the main factor in winning a crime fiction book award seems to be that you have won it before.


Posted: September 20, 2011 in Agatha Christie, England, review

It is difficult to say anything about Agatha Christie’s 1967 novel Endless Night without revealing too much about the plot, but I will try.

Critics might say it is derivative but they would have to agree it is an astonishingly different book for a 75 year old writer to produce at the end of her career. There is no Poirot or Miss Marple, and the two main ideas behind the plot and the brilliant twist at the end derive from ideas in books she wrote over 30 and 40 years before Endless Night.  I think it can be considered a masterpiece of psychological crime fiction. 

The reader needs to remind themselves that the year 1967 was closer in time, and manner, to the world of the Golden Age of the Detective novel than it is to us today. Forty four years back from 1967 would take us back to 1923. In Endless Night Christie mixes the familiar world of old money from her pre-war books, with the thrusting new society of the 1960s. The story almost seeming ahead of its time in predicting the greedy consumer society, and the breaking down of class structures.

When people say Christie’s characters have no depth I wonder how many of her books they have read recently, because Endless Night has a cast of characters that jump of the page and are easy to visualize. I read the book again after a long gap familiar with the plot, but I still enjoyed it immensely as the tension was wound up tighter and tighter. Most of today’s readers having read, or seen so many Christies on TV, will guess what is going to happen even if they don’t know for certain, but back in 1967 when on November 10, 1967 it was reviewed in The Guardian by Francis Isles aka Anthony Berkeley Cox his reaction in a more innocent and trusting era was:

 “The old maestrina of the crime-novel (or whatever is the female of ‘maestro’) pulls yet another out of her inexhaustible bag with Endless Night, quite different in tone from her usual work. It is impossible to say much about the story without giving away vital secrets: sufficient to warn the reader that if he should think this is a romance he couldn’t be more mistaken, and the crashing, not to say horrific suspense at the end is perhaps the most devastating that this surpriseful author has ever brought off.”  

‘All Gaul is divided into three parts.’ C.Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars

I don’t know whether Deon Meyer had a classical education [says Norman failed Latin O-Level 1959] but his latest thriller Trackers is divided into three distinct parts. All the three stories are concerned with ‘tracking’ in its various forms, animal tracking, satellite tracking and a detective tracking the trail left by a missing person, and in all three the violent drug gangs that blight the country play some part.

Maxine of Petrona in her review of Trackers states that ‘I think this is the best thriller I’ve ever read’. After The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth I think this might be the best ‘three’ thrillers I have read, because the different strands of the story are almost self contained and each is worthy of a separate book. Deon Meyer’s great skill is in getting them to briefly overlap, and creating an ending that leaves you wanting to pick up and start reading a sequel right away. The translation from the original Afrikaans by Laura Seegers lets the story [stories] flow and uses just enough words from South Africa’s eleven official languages plus slang to create the right atmosphere. There is a useful glossary at the back of the book.

The first part of Trackers is the story of Milla Strachan, a forty something white woman who after years of abuse at the hands of her husband and unappreciative son, leaves home to start a fresh life. A former journalist she finds a job with a government surveillance unit unit, the P.I.A. [Presidential Intelligence Agency] writing reports on their targets. The PIA are monitoring an Islamist terror cell that appears to be about to instigate an attack. For an organization whose efficiency is damaged by internal conflicts, Milla, the runaway housewife, is an ideal recruit:

‘I mean, look at us. The rest of the Agency is a model of affirmative action, a perfect reflection of the Rainbow Nation, but we are all white, all over forty, and all fucked up.’

But by chance Milla  meets Becker, a man on a mission, and her life gets very complicated.

The second part reintroduces the reader to Lemmer, from Blood Safari, who is recruited by local cheat and rascal Diederik Brand to help bring in a pair of valuable black rhinos from Zimbabawe. The rhinos are looked after by the beautiful Cornelia ‘Flea’ van Jaarsveld, a tracker, a “vet” and a consummate manipulator, who will accompany Lemmer on a mission that will test his survival skills. Lemmer’s dislike of rich Afrikaners produces some sharp social commentary.

‘It means they sit around eating expensive, impress the neighbours Woollies’ food in their in their huge, luxurious houses behind high walls and alarm systems, in front of their Hi-Def flat screen TVs, with a Mercedes ML, two quad bikes, a harley, and a speedboat squeezed into their triple garages, and they bitch about how bad things are in this country….’

……..’They have no culture apart from spending money and drinking………..Their forefathers at Magersfontein and Paardeberg would spin in their graves……’

The third part of the story which doesn’t start till page 347 is in my opinion the best. Matt Joubert has recently  retired from the SAPS [South African Police Service] where he was Head of the Serious and Violent Crimes Unit in the Cape, and joined Jack Fischer and Associates as a Senior Security Consultant. The world of the private investigator is very different from his experience in the police. He discovers this quickly as Jack Fischer introduces Matt to his first client Tanya Flint who is searching for Danie her husband who has disappeared.

‘Now before I leave you in his very capable hands, just a few admin matters. You understand that, should we accept your case, there is a deposit payable?’

Matt investigates Danie Flint’s disappearance systematically tracking the electronic and physical signs that we all leave behind as we move through life, but he is concerned that  in this new private investigator’s world charging the client for all the extras is even more important than solving the case. He also becomes very worried as the evidence mounts that Danie did not disappear voluntarily. 

Deon Meyer has written a very exciting and complex thriller, with some sharply critical social commentary about the problems of the Rainbow Nation, and as a master of his craft he leaves you, even after 475 pages wanting more, and more. Trackers is one of the best thrillers I have read, and in my opinion it must surely be a contender for the 2012 CWA International Dagger.

Agatha Christie’s Devon

Posted: September 15, 2011 in Agatha Christie, England, notes

This post is my contribution to the Agatha Christie special 121st birthday celebrations at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise. 

Unfortunately our gas boiler breakdown, and the subsequent chaos, has prevented me attending any of the events of the Agatha Christie Festival running in  Torquay from the 11th  to 18th September. You can download a program from the festival website

But as part of my tribute to Agatha Christie I have started to read Endless Night [1967] rated by John Curran [author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks] as one of her ten best books. Endless Night has been variously described as ‘prodigiously exciting to read’ [Collins reader], her final triumph, and greatest achievement of her last twenty years[John Curran]. You know with Christie that the plot will be inventive, even if a variation on a theme, but in this later work will her characters be worthy of our interest, or merely shapeless outlines. 

My review of the last Christie book I read Five Little Pigs, which surprised me with the amount of social comment and depth of characterization. 

I have recycled some material from previous posts about our trips to Greenway and Torquay. 



Last month [posted 17 September 2009] we visited Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home, which was given to the National Trust in 2000 by the family, daughter Rosalind and Anthony Hicks, and Agatha’s grandson Mathew Prichard.
The house purchased by Agatha [known locally by her married name of Mrs Mallowan] and her second husband Max Mallowan [ later knighted for his services to archaeology] in 1938 for £6,000 has only been open to the public this year after a £5.4 million restoration.

The original dwelling on this site , Greenway Court, was a Tudor mansion but the present building dates from about 1780.

The house and gardens are situated on the River Dart and although you can approach by water we took our very small car, and pre-booked a parking space for a three hour stay. This is essential as they will turn you away if you come by car and have not booked and the approach roads are very narrow. The watery options were not feasible for us as we would have had to drive to Torquay, or Dartmouth or Totnes, parked and then taken the boat. Another factor is it is a steep climb of 800 yards up from the boat quay to the house. From bitter experience lanes and hills in Devon and Cornwall described as narrow and steep are very narrow and very steep.

From the car park there is a gentle down hill walk to the reception centre and house. It was a little bit tougher going back uphill weighed down with books and gifts. Those who have chosen the greener options by walking or arriving by boat are charged less for admission, but as National Trust members [a bargain for us retired folk] we get in for free.

You are given a timed ticket to enter the house and there is a short introductory talk, which among other facts mentioned that you can hire part of the house which has been arranged for self catering accommodation [sleeping ten] for about £2,500 in high season and a more manageable £750 approximately in February.

The interior of the house has been arranged to be exactly as it would have been in the 1950s.
The drawing room contained furniture brought and arranged by Agatha from Ashfield, her family home, and one could imagine her sitting reading her latest manuscript to the family after dinner.
Her clothes still hang in the dressing room and in the bedroom Max Mallowan’s metal camp bed which he took on his archaeological trips is set up alongside the main bed. The effect is that you expect members of the family to come in and resume their lives at any minute.
During the autumn of 1943 Greenway was requisitioned by the Admiralty for the use of the United States Navy. Greenway became the Officers Mess for the 10th US Patrol Boat Flotilla, and their unofficial war artist Lt Marshall Lee painted a frieze around the walls of the library.

The whole interior is full of wonderful family mementos and gives a glimpse of how prosperous English gentry lived after the Second World War. We will certainly return because there is far too much to take in within one visit. In some National Trust properties furniture and books have to be brought in to fill the space, here it is all genuine Agatha and family. I was particularly interested as an old Dulwich resident that among all of her own books there was a copy of The House on Lordship Lane by A.E.W. Mason, author of The Four Feathers.

After leaving the house we had lunch, walked round a small part of the wonderful gardens and then spent far too long in the book/gift shop before happily trudging up the slope to the car park.

The superb collections of memorabilia in the house, the wonderful setting on the River Dart and the beautiful gardens made this a place we hope to return to again and again.

“We went to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and ground were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees-the ideal house, a dream house….”
Agatha Christie
[posted 17th September 2009]


The Princess Pier in Torquay was named after Princess Louise, the fifth of Queen Victoria’s seven children, and opened to the public in 1894.

It was one of young Agatha Miller’s favourite places and for 2d very old money she could roller skate on the pier. The photograph of Agatha Miller [and information is from Exploring Agatha Christie country by David Gerrard] shows Agatha in a feathered hat and long skirt.
Today roller skating is forbidden, but the pier is still a pleasant place to walk and sit admiring the scenery.
In the background of the modern photograph you can see the Grand Hotel, where Agatha spent a one-night honeymoon on Christmas Eve, 1914 with Archie Christie. 
You can read all the other 121st birthday celebratory posts at Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival. 

Shot in the dark

Posted: September 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

I will be posting a new book prize quiz soon so to get you in the mood here is a taster, or a teaser if you want. Who wrote this?

They wanted me to go steady with a nice girl, save money, get married to her and then settle down to a nice steady job. Day after day, year after year, world without end, amen. Not for yours truly! There must be something better than that. Not just all this tame security, the good old welfare state limping along in its half-baked way! Surely I thought, in a world where man has been able to put satellites in the sky and where men talk big about visiting the stars, there must be something that rouses you, that makes your heart beat, that’s worthwhile searching all over the world to find!

Just put your guesses in the comments, and I will be very surprised if anyone gets it right. 😉 

Nordic women crime writers: poll result

Posted: September 12, 2011 in polls, Scandinavia

The result of the Nordic women crime writer poll was a close run thing, with Karin Alvtegen [Sweden] winning by one vote from Karin Fossum [Norway], with Asa Larsson and Maj Sjowall [both Sweden] two votes back.


Both Karin Alvtegen, and Karin Fossum, write a deeper psychological style crime fiction in which the perpetrator’s motives, and the impact of a crime on victims, relatives, accomplices and witnesses play a bigger part than the whodunnit  factor. I suppose you could compare their style with Ruth Rendell’s non-Wexford stories? Have I made the correct comparison?

Do women write this type of story better than male writers? Or is that too simplistic a view?

Do women readers prefer Karin Alvtegen, and men prefer Stieg Larsson? Do women prefer Karin Fossum, and men prefer Jo Nesbo? Do you prefer thrillers, psychological suspense, or police procedurals? What is more important to you; clever plots, character development, creating an atmosphere or the quality of the writing? The problem with this sort of  poll is that sometimes it raises more questions than it provides answers. 

The concluding part of my interview with Don Bartlett.

14] What factors do you think are responsible for the popularity of Nordic crime fiction? 

The UK has been slow to pick up on foreign writers, but perhaps it took Peter Høeg’s  “Miss Smilla” to act as the catalyst. That became a million-seller and allowed the door to be opened.  It was the first book to counter the deeply-held view among some publishers that translated fiction does not make serious money. Yet it took more time, entrepreneurial spirit, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, to prove the case. All eased by a willingness on the part of Scandinavian Arts Councils to part-fund translations, support translators and promote authors. Now the door is well and truly open. 

Nordic crime, in general, does offer something different though: 

First of all, breath-taking scenery and dramatic climates, which are not just a backdrop to the plot but can be deeply intertwined with it. Snow, ice, precipices, fjords, dense forests, geysers, volcanoes, sea. A real sense of place. 

Then, societies which are smaller, more egalitarian, in many ways more liberal than our own, facing their own demons: extreme beliefs, the Past, drugs, alcohol, etc.  

With strong literary traditions and a variety of crime-fiction models to build on, writers have come up with enough intelligent plots, innovative characters and memorable scenes to provide a serious challenge in a competitive market. 

15] Why do you think German crime fiction hasn’t become as popular in the UK and USA? 

As for good German-language crime fiction, I can only say there is a lot, some on my shelves at home and much of it un-translated. There doesn’t seem to be a very big name, as yet, and perhaps this is what is needed? Or is there a lack of state support to promote German-language literature abroad? Pass. 

16] Can you tell us what you are translating now, and what work is in the pipeline? 

I have just finished Gunnar Staalesen’s COLD HEARTS, the follow-up to THE CONSORTS OF DEATH, published by Arcadia Books. Now I am working on Jo Nesbø’s GJENFERD (Ghosts), number nine in the Harry Hole series.  Then I change tack, with Ida Jessen’s CHILDREN, followed by the second of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volumes. And a break.

That is very good news. 

Many thanks for this interview and for giving us so many interesting insights into both your work, and the success of Nordic crime fiction.