Archive for November, 2012

Barcelona police Inspector Hector Salgado has lost his temper and beaten up Dr Omar, a scumbag running a “clinic” that was involved in trafficking of young girls mainly from Nigeria. His superior Superintendent Savall asks him to stay away from that case and look into the apparent suicide of Marc whose mother Joana Vidal has asked him to find out whether the young man had jumped, fell or was pushed from a high window. The trafficking, the police brutality allegation and the subsequent disappearance of Dr Omar will be dealt with by Salgado’s colleague Sergeant Martina Andreu, and a new girl Leire Castro. Salgado will mix with some of Barcelona’s wealthy, but dysfunctional families, as he tries to discover the truth. A search which will lead back to another case, the death of a child over a decade earlier.

It is always exciting when a new author begins a debut novel with fascinating characters that the reader can learn about and hopefully follow over a series of books. When the author covers such a wide range of subjects from Catholic priests and drugs to voodoo and lesbians, and charts numerous sexual and social interactions between the large cast of characters I wonder whether he has given us too much to digest in one book. I really enjoyed reading The Summer Of Dead Toys  but sometimes I was confused as I had forgotten who was who. That might not worry a younger reader with a more efficient thinking machine.

‘Whatever you say. But, in that case, we split the bill.’

‘Never. My religion forbids it.’

‘I hope it doesn’t forbid you eating duck as well.’

‘I’m not sure about that. I’ll have to seek advice.’

She laughed. ‘Well seek it tomorrow…..just in case.’

Salgado, Andreu and Castro are interesting characters and I liked all the details of their personal lives, which means I want to see what happens to them in further books. But next time I will make myself a chart to follow their complicated lives and investigations. The complex plot, well drawn characters and interesting location make this a sophisticated and welcome new entry into crime fiction genre. 

‘No one has ever been killed out of love; that’s a fallacy from tango. One only kills out of greed, spite or jealousy, believe me. Love has nothing to do with it.’    

Good news for her many fans is that the Swedish Crime Academy named Asa Larsson’s Till offer at Molok [Sacrifice to Moloch] as the Best Swedish Crime novel of 2012. Asa Larsson won this award back in 2004 with The Blood Spilt. Let us hope we don’t have to wait too long for an English translation of Till offer at Molok.

The best foreign crime novel award was won by Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison.

Lime’s Photograph was written by Danish thriller writer Leif Davidsen in 1998, and won the Nordic Glass Key in 1999. It was preceded as winner of this prestigious award by Jo Nesbo’s The Bat and followed by Hakan Nesser’s Carambole [Hour of The Wolf]. 

Peter Lime is a Danish photographer, a paparazzo, living happily in Madrid with his Spanish wife and daughter. One day he “executes a hit” getting a photo of a married Spanish government minister and a much younger Italian film star, and shortly after that he is visited by Clara Hoffmann, from the Danish Security police, about another photograph he took many years ago. Peter’s life is tragically turned upside down and his story is told in a dramatic  first person narrative which despite the book’s length [371 pages] works well for several reasons. Firstly the author seems to care deeply about his character and despite his profession Peter Lime is a protagonist with whom the reader can develop some empathy. Secondly the book educates the reader as we are given a lot of information about Europe, General Franco, Spain, ETA, the IRA, Denmark, Germany, the fall of the GDR, and the New Russia. Thirdly although the book was written back in 1998 we get some hints as to the causes of the failure of European Union experiment. 

 

Copenhagen had been designated Cultural Capital of Europe and as happened in Madrid, certain creative personalities had taken this opportunity to milk the coffers of the European Union, Denmark and Copenhagen.

The plot is predictable, but this reader despite spotting  the villain very early on, enjoyed being taken along Peter’s difficult path to the truth. There is a particularly dramatic description of bullfighting, which occurs probably deliberately during  a discussion about Franco’s Spain, and when Peter draws a comparison with the German Democratic Republic. The narrative will take Peter to Berlin, and on to Moscow for a tense climax. 

The Caudillo’s vision was right. Spain had to follow its own course for many years in order to emerge from its past unscathed.” You could hear the echo of servants of servants under other dictatorships. From Stasi informers in the former GDR to fascist executioners in many Latin American countries.

Even Denmark’s utopian social democracy comes in for some criticism. 

We pay for our social tranquility. We pacify them [the forgotten third of society] with welfare handouts.

Leif Davidsen’s clever blending of fiction and real events tells the story of Europe in the later part of the 20th century through Peter Lime’s life from the leftist communes of the 1970s, the democratisation of Spain, on to the collapse of Communism and to the establishment of a new order in Russia. Lime’s Photograph, is a grown up thriller that reminds me a little of the works of Eric Ambler, high praise and therefore I am not surprised it won the Nordic Glass Key.  

Deon Meyer has put South African crime fiction on the map. I read Seven Days in September during my break from blogging, so I thought I should say a bit more about a book that should be a contender for the 2013 International Dagger.

Seven Days is a clever blend of an Agatha Christie detective novel and a Frederick Forsyth thriller, with the carefully dropped clues [which I missed] and all the explicit detail of a gripping thriller. Hanneke Sloet, a beautiful young corporate lawyer , has been stabbed in her new luxury apartment. No one has been brought to justice and then a sniper starts shooting policemen, and the authorities receive messages with a religious slant about a cover up and corruption in the Sloet case. The sniper will continue to shoot a policeman every day until the “communist” is brought to justice for Hanneke’s murder.

Ecclesiastes 3: To every thing there is a time.  

Verse 3: A time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to break down, and a time to build up.

Verse 8: a time of war, and a time of peace.

The investigation will be split between recovering alcoholic Benny Griessel, who will deal with the murder of Hanneke Sloet, and feisty Captain Mbali Kaleni who will hunt down the shooter. Along the way there are several sub-plots; Benny’s relationship with his new love interest singer Alexa Barnard, the politics of the rainbow nation, Black Economic Empowerment, the ambition and subsequent problems of Hanneke Sloet, a woman who was lovely and knew it, and policing in post apartheid South Africa.

What do you do if a member of parliament calls you up and says,’Help out a little’? You are coloured, but still not black enough for affirmative action, you have a wife and children, a mortgage on your house. 

Seven Days is one of the best books I have read this year, because as well as the tension and thrills you learn so much about a very complex country. What makes a pleasant change from some authors from the Northern Hemisphere is that Meyer very rarely moralises, he just tells it like it is and leaves his readers to make up their own minds. Deon Meyer is an author on my must read list, and Seven Days keeps up the standard set in his previous books. [There is an excellent glossary of Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu words and other explanations at the end of the book]

Hayi,’ said Mbali, and her tongue clicked through the room. ‘Mama? Is that how you address an officer?’

He focused on her, astonished, saw the identity card round her neck, screwed up his eyes to decipher it. Only then did he spring to his feet, still holding the magazine. ‘Uxolo, Captain,’, he said and saluted. 

‘Do not speak Xhosa to me.’   

John Schwarz, a singer on the ferry between Sweden and Finland, loses his temper with a man harassing a pretty woman and kicks him in the head. Detective Ewert Grens sees the victim waiting to make a complaint at the police station. Ewert knows all about serious head injuries as for years he has been visiting the only woman he loved, brain damaged and living in a care home after he had accidentally driven over her head. Ewert Grens orders John Schwarz’s arrest and when he reacts violently they realise there is something strange going on. John Schwarz is not who he says he is, and when they check with Interpol the Swedish police find that his real identity is in fact John Meyer Frey, who died on Death Row in Marcusville, Ohio over six years earlier.

I have really enjoyed Roslund & Hellstrom’s The Vault and Three Seconds, and Cell 8 exhibited so many of the attributes that make the best Swedish crime fiction so good. Cell 8 had great characters like the incorruptible insubordinate Ewert Grens; Cell 8 went into great detail; when the story switched perspectives and time and location [between Stockholm and Ohio] it was to advance the plot and add to the tension. The story had something to lighten the mood a fraction as an antidote to the tension in the platonic relationship between the beautiful young policewoman Hermansson, and the curmudgeonly old Grens. Also I love small American towns and there is a superb analysis of the fictional Marcusville in the book so why did a political thriller that was going into my top ten suddenly fall away in my estimation. 

The book’s message about the death sentence had been made very clearly, the sale had been completed. Then in a ridiculous plot twist at the very end the authors got too clever, and the story lost believability.    

 

The third non fiction book I read last month was Einstein’s German World by Fritz Stern. With my limited knowledge of German culture it was a little above my level of understanding, but I could grasp the main points. The book is a collection of essays about Paul Ehrlich, the relationship between Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Walter Rathenau, historians of the Great War, the New Germany and Chaim Weizmann. The portrait of Fritz Haber [who played a major role in the development of chemical warfare] is far more sympathetic than that in the BBC production of Einstein and Eddington that appeared on our TV screens back in 2008. This is probably because the author Fritz Stern was Haber’s godson. I was rather surprised when I realised that Haber had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 so soon after he had personally overseen the gas attack at Ypres in 1915, in contravention of the 1907 Geneva Convention.

But this book is one long story of bitter tragedy and the introduction begins with this ironic passage.

It was in April 1979 in West Berlin. Raymond Aron and I were walking into an exhibit commemorating the centenary of the birth of Einstein [Nobel prize for Physics1921], Max von Laue [Nobel prize for Physics 1914], Otto Hahn [Nobel prize for Chemistry 1944], and Lise Meitner [should have won the Nobel prize with Hahn]. We were passing bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions of a once proud capital, our thoughts already at the exhibit, when Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me and said, ” It could have been Germany’s Century.”

But I was not surprised to read in the essay about Paul Ehrlich [who won a Nobel prize for Medicine in 1908]…

Like Haber, he relaxed by reading detective novels. Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrait hung on the wall of his study, and the author sent some of his books as presents.   

Election Day USA

Posted: November 5, 2012 in USA

I don’t believe that tomorrow’s US Election will be as close as the media and pollsters expect. The GOP would surely have decided on a more viable candidate for Vice President, Chris Christie or Marco Rubio for instance, if they thought they had any chance of defeating President Obama. 

Interestingly 100 years ago the four way contest involved Theodore Roosevelt, who had won the Nobel Peace prize in 1906, and Woodrow Wilson, who was to win the Nobel Peace prize in 1919. Barack Obama of course won the Nobel Peace prize in 2009.

Linkoping, Sweden in the autumn. Jerry Petersson, lawyer and self made IT millionaire, is found murdered in the moat of the castle at Skogsa, which he bought from 

the aristocratic Fagelsjo family. The murder will be investigated by an interesting team of detectives, among whom were Zeke Martinsson, whose son earns a fortune in the NHL in North America;Waldemar Ekenberg, who is an old style policeman with a tendency to violence; and Malin Fors, mother of Tove and an alcoholic…..

It all seemed so promising and the blurbs about previous books were gushing so why 501 pages later was I so disappointed. An author owes their readership a good story well told and the reader owes the book their best attention. So perhaps I am partially to blame for not giving this one all my focus, and perhaps I should have started the series at number one and not number three. One blurb calls Malin’s flaws “intriguing and endearing” I found her repetitive moaning about how much she loves her daughter Tove interspersed with her falling down drunk far from endearing. Perhaps I expect better behaviour from a mother than someone like Harry Hole. If that is sexist I plead guilty.

It was the American journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce who once reviewed a book saying ” The covers of this book are too far apart”. I wouldn’t be so cruel but there is possibly a good 300 page novel hiding in Autumn Killing’s 501 pages. 

I found the author’s technique of using short sentences and switching perspectives unsettling, it was probably meant to be. An idiosyncratic style doesn’t necessarily make a book literature. I quite like stories which switch back and forth, between characters and between time periods, but only when they add something to the plot. In this case the plot was a bit lightweight, and some of the stereotypical characters were far from endearing. We are given pages and pages of the introspective thoughts of  every character, even italicised reminisces from the dead. I may be in a minority yet again, but I found it all intensely irritating.

Are we now getting the average Swedish crime novel translated simply because it is Swedish?   

I love history therefore in October along with two crime fiction books I read two non fiction books, and also started a third. 

They may seem depressing alternative choices to dark Scandinavian crime fiction but in fact one of them, Into The Silence, The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis was an inspiring tribute to the men who survived the trenches to risk their lives climbing Everest in the 1920s. Into The Silence has been nominated for the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize and must be a strong contender as despite its length, 578 tightly packed pages, it is a wonderfully interesting read. Within its covers are an English social history of the Edwardian upper class, a demolition of the Great War generals, tales about the Raj, information on Tibetan culture, and an exciting story of mountaineering on the highest point on the planet.  

Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin goes into great detail about the path by which Europe went down the path to war in 1914 lead by leaders who did not really understand what they were doing. The Great War was the tragedy from which all the other tragedies over the last century have flowed. 

As late as 1926, as the nation mourned the death of nearly 1 million men, Haig would write on the future of war. ” I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse-the well bred horse-as you have ever done in the past.”     Into The Silence: Wade Davis    

[Update 13 November: Into The Silence by Wade Davis did win the Samuel Johnson Prize]

It was really no contest as to my favourite crime fiction read in October as I read only two fiction books. [I also read two excellent non fiction books but more about those later]

Jo Nesbo’s The Bat was by far the superior of the two crime books as the other, Autumn Killing by Mons Kallentoft* was disappointing and not my cup of tea. 

*review to follow soon