Archive for March, 2012

It is the third Tuesday in July when the X2000 express from Gothenburg to Stockholm is delayed by signaling problems at Flemingsburg 20 km from the capital. Sara Sebastiansson leaves her daughter Lilian sleeping on the train while she descends onto the platform to make a telephone call. Sara is distracted by a young woman needing help with her dog, and the train leaves without her. Sara then hires a taxi to get to Stockholm station, and a call is made to the train to arrange for a guard to watch over Lilian. But when she gets to the train Lilian is gone. 

The story then follows the classic pattern of a police procedural investigation by a team of detectives. When Lilian’s body turns up with the word Unwanted on her forehead outside a hospital in Umea in Northern Sweden, the team have to put aside personal differences in an attempt to stop the killer before more children are abducted. 

The narrative switches between the various investigators and brief passages dealing with “the Man” and his female accomplice, who is in reality also a victim.  In the first half of the book it was the character studies and personality clashes between the investigators that had me hooked, but the second half  I found was a little bit of a let down.

Alex Recht is the experienced detective leading the team: in the course of his years with the police, he had come to viewed as something of a legend. On the whole, he thought it was a reputation he deserved. Alex is a man set in his ways, who wrongly thinks the academic civilian investigative analyst on his team Frederika Bergman doesn’t have a feel for the job. 

But Frederika is clearly the most intelligent of the group, even though she is involved in an affair with a married man 25 years her senior, who has no intention of leaving his wife. The third member of the team is Peder Rydh, a young ambitious but almost childish policeman, who can’t maturely accept either Frederika as a colleague, or even his wife Ylva’s post natal depression after the birth of twins. 

The team’s various personal problems, the team’s assistant Ellen Lind is also having an affair with a mystery man, Alex’s son is living in Colombia, Frederika’s body clock is making her consider adoption, Peder feels guilt for being unfaithful and that an accident years ago left his brother Jimmy a permanent child, all add interesting background to the story. Unfortunately Alex and Peder are adamant that Sara Sebastiansson’s violent estranged husband, Gabriel, is the key to the case, and may have abducted his own daughter to punish Sara. Gabriel has disappeared and his horrid mother Teodora is a memorably obnoxious figure from a large cast of minor characters that appear throughout the story. 

This is one of those books where the reader knows a bit more than the investigators, who are in fact pathetically slow on the uptake mainly because they don’t value Frederika’s input as much as they they should.

‘Heck, this is big! Three search warrants in one go, it’s not every day you get to be in on setting up a big operation like that,’ he said, so elated that Frederika started wondering if he’d taken something to get so high.

‘A child has died,’ she said instead, her voice a monotone. ‘Pardon me for not joining in with your transports of delight.’

 I perhaps enjoyed Unwanted more than I should have as the subject matter concerning the abuse of women, and the murder of children, is definitely not my cup of tea; and the weaknesses in the investigation became more and more annoying as time went on. If I was a detective, and someone had their child abducted in that manner I would want to know every single detail about their past lives and contacts from minute one.  But despite the fact that most of the male characters are horribly violent, and the women are  all in some form of abusive relationship Unwanted kept me reading through to the dramatic ending. 

Kristina Ohlsson, a political scientist who works as a counter-terrorism officer at the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], has produced a  debut novel that did not quite live up to expectations, but I am not surprised that her next two books Tusenskonor and Anglavakter were both shortlisted for the Best Swedish crime fiction novel award. I will definitely read the next book in the series to see how the characters develop, and if the plotting is a bit tighter. 

 Two of the most knowledgeable experts on Nordic Crime Fiction, Ali Karim and Barry Forshaw, recently came together on The Rap Sheet to discuss Barry’s new book Death in a Cold Climate. At the end of  an interesting interview Ali Karim put Barry Forshaw on the spot asking  “For readers who want to get a flavor of Scandinavian/Nordic crime fiction, but don’t have a lot of extra time, which five or so works would you recommend their reading?”

His choices were: Smilla’s Sense of Snow [1992] Peter Hoeg, The Laughing Policeman [1968] Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, The Redbreast [2000] Jo Nesbo, Firewall [1998] Henning Mankell, Woman with Birthmark [1996] Hakan Nesser, Jar City [200] Arnaldur Indridason. 

These lists are always a minefield for the creator, and it would be very difficult to argue against the inclusion of any of these authors. Apart from Sjowall and Wahloo who were writing before it was first awarded all the others have won the Nordic Glass Key  [Hoeg 1993, Nesbo 1998, Mankell 1992, Nesser 2000, Indridason 2002 and 2003] a pretty good judgement on their standard of excellence.

I am not sure I agree with all the specific book selections, particularly with those books chosen for Henning Mankell, and Hakan Nesser, but my main quibble is with the lack of women authors. [Five and a half men to half a woman!]

Also as you can see from the dates there is not much new blood on that list. I think potential readers should be offered a wider choice of books, so here is my long list. Some are my favourites and some are not, but they are a cross section of the very different types of Scandinavian crime fiction on offer:

The Inspector and Silence: Hakan Nesser – Deadpan humour, introspection and terrible crimes blended together by one of my favourite Swedish authors.

The Locked Room: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo- More humour and a new twist on the locked room mystery in one of my personal favourites from the series.

Missing: Karin Alvtegen- Astrid Lindgren’s great niece writes a superb thriller about Sibylla Forsenstrom, an outsider on the run, five years before Stieg Larsson created Lisbeth Salander.  

The Gallows Bird: Camilla Lackberg- If you are trying to get a flavour of Nordic Crime Fiction you can’t ignore a writer who sells such huge numbers of books. Domesticity mixed with crime is popular. 

Sidetracked: Henning Mankell- I read this a long time ago but still remember it as one of the best Mankells I have read. It won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2001.

Echoes of the Dead: Johan Theorin, a stunning prize winning debut with an octogenarian investigator. An almost perfect blending of a back story with the present day, and a twist in the tale.

The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil’s Star: Jo Nesbo- the brilliant Oslo trilogy that introduced readers to Harry Hole, and Norway’s problems with right wing extremists. Sadly prophetic.

Exposed: Liza Marklund- a recent read for me, but with so many interesting and relevant themes to today’s situation,  from journalistic ethics to political chicanery, it is surprising it was written in 1999. 

The Water’s Edge: Karin Fossum- A writer who respects her readers and whose psychological crime books are more interested in the effect of crime on complex human relationships.

The Draining Lake: Arnaldur Indridason- Another superb book with a clever back story, with Erlendur unravelling the past, while dealing with present day problems. 

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest: Stieg Larsson-  By the time he wrote book three Stieg was avoiding some of the 150 page digressions of  his previous two books. This book promised so much …………

Mercy: Jussi-Adler Olsen- an inventive beginning for a series that has two fascinating and contrasting protagonists. 

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End: Leif G.W.Persson- Not the easiest read, but the professor wins prizes, and this convoluted book is an example of the Olof Palme conspiracy sub genre of Swedish crime fiction. 

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A baker’s dozen of authors, a very varied collection of books, and four and a half women authors. Simples. 

Exposed is one of the new excellent translations of Liza Marklund’s books by Neil Smith. I judge the translation to be excellent based on the fact that the 535 pages rushed past and my interest was maintained throughout the book even though I have a lot on my mind at the moment. 

During a very hot summer in Stockholm the naked body of a young woman is found in Kronoberg Park at the little Jewish cemetery. Annika Bengtzon, a young inexperienced summer intern on the Evening Post is manning the tip-off line, and gets the assignment as a colleague is on holiday. The young victim, Josefin, works as a dancer at Studio Six, a sex club   owned by her boyfriend Joachim. Annika keen to get to the truth and secure a permanent position on the paper but runs into all kinds of problems interviewing Josefin’s relatives and friends, and her relations with her colleagues become difficult.

‘Thanks for telling me. I’ve only been with the paper for the past fifteen years.’

Fucking fuck, Annika thought as the photographer headed back to his ‘colleagues’. Why can’t I ever learn to keep my mouth shut?

Annika does manage to form a friendship with Josefin’s flatmate Patricia, who also works at Studio Six. She discovers that Christer Lundgren, the Minister for Foreign Trade, has a secret overnight flat in the same block as the murder victim. There is obviously some political chicanery going on involving illegal activities by the ruling Social Democrats, because the minister is prepared to resign even though he wasn’t in the country let alone in Studio Six at the time of the murder. Joachim has taken the name of a Swedish Radio program Studio Six for his sex club purely to annoy them. But when this radio program attacks the coverage of the murder by the Evening Post alleging Annika harassed  Josefin’s parents and friends Annika loses her job and retreats to the countryside, where she enjoys eating mushrooms with her grandmother. On her return after a holiday in Turkey she is able to regain her position on the newspaper but things don’t conclude quite as expected.

Sending that young temp out to deal with bodies and lynch-mobs, for instance, and expecting her to somehow make clear and responsible decisions. He had spoken to the head of new and the night editor the previous evening, and neither of them had actually discussed the paper’s coverage of the murder of Josefin Liljeberg with her. He regarded this as a prime example of editorial incompetence and irresponsibility.

A book about journalism, a murder investigation, intertwined with political ramifications gave me such a sense of deja vue that I had to remind myself that Exposed was written in 1999, way before Danish TV’s The Killing and the Stieg Larsson’s trilogy.  

The other main theme of the book is the vulnerability of women in abusive relationships, and the author provides the reader with a surprising twist at the end, one which makes this novel memorable. 

This novel has been published before as Studio Sex in the USA, and Studio 69 in the UK, but I think the new title and translation will mean it will hopefully get a larger readership. Liza Marklund in Annika Bengtzon has certainly created one of the feistiest and most interesting female protagonists in crime fiction. This is one series that I class as a must read.

 

My review of Red Wolf   

My review of Vanished [Paradise] *My review contains a spoiler concerning Exposed, one of the problems of reading a series out of order. 

Reading a crime fiction series can be a bit tricky at times because:

1] The author has written the series out of chronological order.

James Lawton’s Troy series and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon books are two examples of this particular quirkiness. At the moment I am reading Exposed by Liza Marklund, the first chronologically of the five books published in English, and the young inexperienced Annika is feisty but obviously immature in comparison with the Annika of Red Wolf [number 5]. This is the fourth of the Bengtzon series I have read and I have tackled them in the order 4, 2, 5, 1 -reading The Bomber [4]  some years ago before I began blogging. New readers to Liza Marklund will be able to read the series in the correct order, and not become confused. 

2] The publisher has had the series translated in the wrong order.

The worst example of this foible was the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, where book 5 [The Devil’s Star] in the Oslo trilogy of connected stories was translated before book 3 [The Redbreast] and book 4 [Nemesis]. 

This happens fairly frequently, or the publisher dives into book 11 of a 15 book series for some unknown reason. So for once it is a pleasure to read a long running series in order such as the Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri.

3] The author switches perspectives between characters

The multi award winning S.J Rozan writes each book in her series alternately from the different perspective of her two protagonists Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. When you are not expecting it such as in Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason, where his usual lead character Erlendur does not appear and Elinborg takes over it can be a pleasant surprise, and give a new lease of life to the series. Hakan Nesser even had his Inspector Van Veeteren retire to run an antiquarian bookshop, but still have his advice sought by his former subordinates. When you have a team of investigators as in the Martin Beck series [Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo] or a cast of quirky characters as in the Adamsberg books by Fred Vargas the author can alter the emphasis from book to book, or within each book. This must make it much more interesting for the writer and ensures a better experience for the reader.

I particularly like this method of continuing to keep a series fresh.

4] The reader comes to a series late.

Some series have been running for so long that if one comes to them late and decide to catch up you face a marathon reading session, and have to absorb a lot of back story about the character. Diamond Dagger winner Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone alphabet series started with A for Alibi in 1982, and has reached V for Vengeance in 2011. But Sue Grafton is a beginner when it comes to keeping a protagonist going on and on for years. 

Ruth Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, began her Chief Inspector Wexford series back in 1964 with From Doon with Death and last year the 22nd Wexford, The Monster in the Box was published. In the new Wexford The Vault the former Chief Inspector is enjoying his retirement. Ruth Rendell could be almost considered the first Scandinavian crime writer to make it big in the UK as her mother was born in Sweden, and brought up in Denmark. 

5] The characters do not age in real time

Some characters age for example Ian Rankin’s Rebus in the 17 book series which ran from Knots and Crosses [1987] to Exit Music [2007]. This series did not really take off until the 8th book Black and blue which won the CWA Gold Dagger, and Exit Music is set during the period before Rebus is due to retire. 

Hercule Poirot, probably the best known Belgian in the world, was imagined by his creator Agatha Christie as an old man in her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in 1920. He had been a policeman in Belgium for many years, retired and a refugee in the Great War. 

‘That is not true,’ said Poirot. ‘I had a bad failure in Belgium in 1893.’  [Peril at End House]

Elephants can Remember was published in 1972, and Curtain: Poirot’s Last case was published in 1975, although that was written in the 1940’s and locked away to be published after Miss Christie’s death. A disconcertingly long  career for the great detective, but hours of pleasant reading for crime fiction fans. 

A crime fiction series can raise a lot of questions for readers.

Do you continue to read them even when they have lost their early promise? Should authors take their characters to the Reichenbach Falls, or allow their protagonist to quietly retire to tend their vegetable garden, or run a bookshop? Do authors run out of plots and just rely on their idiosyncratic characters to carry a book? Do authors eventually get bored, or even begin to hate their creations? When authors who are best known for a series write a one off  will a fan of the series buy that one off, or wait for the next book in the series? What is the ideal length for a series? What part has television played in the popularity of crime fiction series? ……………

Nuts and Bolts: Journalism

Posted: March 18, 2012 in notes, Sweden

Once again something from a crime fiction book has got me thinking about the events of the past year, and the ramifications of the Leveson Inquiry.

‘I’m deeply committed to journalism,’ he said. ‘The man in the street is my employer. I’ve fought against corruption and the abuse of power all of my professional life. That’s the very core of journalism. The truth is my guiding light, not influence, and not power.’  Exposed: Liza Marklund 1999

I could have subtitled this post, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

The Good:

The Daily Telegraph exposed the abuse of the lax expenses system in both the House of Commons and House of Lords, and some MPs went to prison. 

Today’s Observer has an excellent article by Yvonne Roberts featuring the plight of Britain’s working poor who will soon lose tax credits at a time when the country’s 1% top earners will get a reduction in their tax burden. 

The Bad:

The disgraceful invasion of privacy by some newspapers using private detectives to phone hack people’s messages to obtain stories for the entertainment of “the man or woman in the street” may well bring about restrictions on a free press. The payment of vast sums of money to wealthy celebrities and politicians whose phones were hacked can only be justified if this money was forwarded along to charities. I exclude from this the family of a young murder victim, and the neighbour of a murder victim whose reputation was torn to ribbons by the predatory press. 

The Leveson Inquiry has exposed a very unhealthy relationship between powerful media tycoons, journalists, politicians and the police. If this occurred in Italy we would be smiling and calling the country institutionally corrupt. We now have the incredible situation of a government minister resigning because he has been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice; and two of the Prime Minister’s close friends, one of whom Rebekah Brooks was formerly CEO of News International, have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. 

The Ugly:

This recent headline in the print version of The Guardian was an example of journalists trying to be too clever.

Revealed:London doctor who advised Assad during crackdown

Of course the online version headline was changed as someone realised  that most people who had a brain knew that the “Harley Street cardiologist who was acting as a close adviser to the president of Syria during his regime’s brutal crackdown” was Dr Fawas Akhras, Assad’s father -in- law. The situation in Syria is serious enough without stupid non-stories. 

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Will ethical journalists still have the freedom to pursue the corrupt, and expose scandals after the Leveson Inquiry eventually reports? 

How do you like your crime fiction?

Posted: March 13, 2012 in polls

Do you want to know a secret? I don’t particularly like the Kindle reading experience. I much prefer a book and the tactile feel of turning those pages. I love putting my book mark between those pages and immediately see what progress I have made. I love reading books. 

I just don’t think you get that feeling of intimacy with a Kindle. I agree when going on holiday the Kindle is ideal for saving space, and the cheap deals are good, and it is nice to have the complete works of George Eliot and Charles Dickens handy to read, but I just like the feel of a book. How about you?

 

Helsinki, near a bridge over railway tracks there are two dead Arabs, one has been shot and mutilated, the other has fallen or been pushed from the bridge. Ariel Kafka, of the Helsinki Police Violent Crimes Unit, is sent to investigate. Ariel is one of only two Jewish policeman in Finland, and the action takes place during the time between Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year] and Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] which adds to the dark foreboding atmosphere. When two more dead Arabs are discovered shot in an Iraqi owned garage, the case becomes more complex.  A meeting with Ariel’s brother, Eli and a representative from the Jewish congregation, at which they suggest a terrorist attack may be being planned, and an offensive comment from his colleagues allow him to deal firmly with the old chestnut of double loyalty. 

I’m first and foremost a police officer, second a Finn, and only third a Jew.”

In  passages at the start of the novel  light humour is used to imply  hope for the future. 

Imam Omar was evidently a tolerant man. At least he didn’t give the slightest indication that Stenman and I were unwelcome guests, although it was unlikely that a Jew and a policewoman were everyday sights at the offices of the Islamic society.

But later as more dead bodies are found, shot , blown to bits and strangled the story becomes even more convoluted, even kafkaesque, with drug dealers, SUPO [security police] and Mossad entering the action. The presence of a Jewish policeman should not necessarily lead on to Mossad and Israel. The novel begins to suffer  a form of literary schizophrenia in that it is not sure whether it is a spy thriller or a police procedural, and becomes a little bit confused and confusing. I am still not quite sure who was fooling who, and why certain characters thought they could play off one very dangerous group against another possibly even more violent group. But at least it does try and deal with controversial subjects with some kind of balance. 

“There are all kinds of legends and fairy tales going around about Mossad,” he said. “The majority probably started by Mossad itself.”

Some reviewers  have said there is very little sense of place in Nights of Awe, and I think this is because far from being an outsider Ariel is part of the tiny but active Jewish community. You could easily be in Brooklyn or Montreal as we are introduced to so many Jews, and it is a downside of the book that they are somewhat stereotypical characters.

But despite the falling off in the second half, the cliched back stories, the stereotypes, and the characters the sitting on the political fence, Nights of Awe is  an interesting and thought provoking read. 

I will be on the look out for the sequels when published, which hopefully will contain more unique content about Finland and Ariel’s interactions with his colleagues. 

Ashes is a good read, but perhaps it should be read at a time when the reader is feeling optimistic about the world and their life.  

It is a very dark and depressing book, and for me it was  a difficult read as I did not realise how badly the harsh story it would affect me. Ashes is about an arson attack on a house in which, an old man, a young woman and her 3-year old daughter are killed, and a once famous actress Sonia Varika is badly burned and left in a coma. 

The story is told from three perspectives by the victim Sonia [a back story in italics], by Police Colonel Chronis Haldikis, Head of Internal Affairs, and by elderly lawyer Simeon Piertovanis. Despite the fact that the evidence shows that the fire was arson Haldikis is told by his superiors to list it as an accident, because powerful people want it hushed up. Among the reasons for not investigating is that Greece must appear to be a modern successful country with the approaching 2004 Olympic games. Chronis and Simeon had both been Sonia’s lovers in the past, and Chronis recruits the lawyer to a small team to find out who perpetrated the crime and why. 

As the story proceeds we learn that Sonia and Simeon’s lives have been ravaged by alcohol, and that Chronis requires regular topping up with cocaine to function. This is a tale of ruined people, in a country ruined by greed and corruption; sections of  a politically motivated police force, and gangs of anabolic steroid enhanced fascists are working with seedy property developers to make the country a living hell. The book was published in Greece in 2007 just before the wheels fell off the economy, something exacerbated by the level of political corruption. 

“Junta-socialist” was the least offensive nickname for Attica’s Police Chief, a commander ho, after gorging on half a suckling-pig washed down with ten litres of beer, would often argue that the only politicians who had genuinely cared about the country were Andreas Papandreou, the founder of the socialist P.A.S.O.K.  party, and George Papadopoulos, one of the three colonels who engineered the ’67 coup. 

I think that politicians are the people who should read crime fiction books like Ashes, even if they might find it uncomfortable reading recognizing themselves in the narratives or even learning that their policies are the cause rather than the cure for nation’s problems.

………….listened to the 11.00 p.m.news on the car radio and tried really hard to persuade myself that the fatty, who in a couple of months would become prime minister, was our saviour and would deliver us from financial ruin and corruption.

One lesson that could be learned from reading Ashes is not to interfere in other people’s wars, as you might eventually get the blame when things go wrong.

“Well, you know whose fault it is?” ‘How would I know I am only a civil servant.”

“The ‘Great Powers’. If they hadn’t interfered back then, everything would be alright today.”

“Which ‘back then’ are you talking about?”

“The Battle of Navarino. Wasn’t that when it all started?”

[The Battle of Navarino 1827:when the British, French and Russian fleets destroyed the Egyptian and Turkish fleets during the Greek War of Independence]

A clever book and even if Chronis Halkidis doesn’t do things by the book, an understatement, he is an interesting protagonist coping as best he can in a very damaged society. I shall look out for the next in the series because it will be fascinating to see how Chronis copes with the economic collapse of his country. 

Kerrie’s meme at Mysteries in Paradise that requires you to pick your best read of the month rather than leave it to a year’s end memory test is a good discipline. Although I will probably only read fifty to sixty books during the year my memory is such that it will make it much easier to pick a selection of five best reads of the year.

I really got bogged down in February, and did not read as much as I had hoped, but there was one outstanding read:

The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis. Lene Kaaberbol translated the book into English. The story studied the stark contrast between rich and poor , the plight of the undocumented and the vulnerability of women and children. 

February’s other highlights were reading Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason [not quite as good as The Boy in the Suitcase in my opinion] and watching a fine performance by Gary Oldman play George Smiley in John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If The Artist had not been the flavour of the month I think the Oscar might have gone to Oldman.