Archive for the ‘Scandinavia’ Category

The announcement of the Petrona Award Shortlist is always  a bit of a sad time as I remember my friend the late Maxine Clarke.  

Maxine’s blog Petrona was an inspiration to so many, and she was one of a very small group of bloggers who spread the word concerning  Scandinavian crime fiction at a time when very few had even heard of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, or Stieg Larsson. 

This year’s shortlist looks very impressive with books from Norway, Finland and Sweden. I have read two of these books Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Satellite People and I enjoyed both immensely. I hope to read at least two of the others before the announcement of the winner at Crime Fest in Bristol. 

Last year for the first time I totally disagreed with the judges on their choice of a winner. I think that one important criteria for the award should be that the book that wins should be one that Maxine would have enjoyed reading. 

A few thoughts about the contenders. I noticed the Lagercrantz on a half price offer in our local Waterstones. I haven’t read anything about this book but my natural reaction, possibly misguided, is that the series should have ended with the death of Stieg Larsson, and that the original fans of the series may regard this novel as an exploitation. 

On a more serious subject when I met Karin Fossum at Crime Fest several years ago we very briefly discussed her social work with children with Down’s Syndrome. She is a charming lady and does know what she is talking about on this subject.

The judges comments about her book The Drowned Boy are very interesting:

After the drowning of a young child with Down’s syndrome, Chief Inspector Sejer must ask himself if one of the parents could have been involved. The nature of grief is explored along with the experience of parenting children with learning difficulties. 

This is a subject about which I know a great deal, but reading this novel in the circumstances might be too traumatic. In our case for the wonderful twenty seven years our son Jacob was part of our family we thought we were looking after him, but in reality he was looking after us.  

I have linked to my reviews of two of these books. 

THE DROWNED BOY by Karin Fossum tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

THE CAVEMAN by Jorn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

SATELLITE PEOPLE by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway)

DARK AS MY HEART by Antti Tuomainen tr. Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)     

Advertisements

defencelessLooking out for crime fiction books that would have interested the much missed Maxine Clarke is always a bittersweet experience.

Sweet because she was such an excellent judge of a good crime fiction novel, and her own choices would almost always exhibit superb characters, complex plots, and an easy to read style, important themes and evocative atmosphere.

Bitter because when I read through the hundreds of emails we exchanged [we only met in person twice] I realize what a good friend I have lost. Maxine encouraged and inspired so many bloggers that I am certain I am not alone in missing her influence.  

I have to admit a certain bias in choosing The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, because I thought her first book The Hummingbird should have won last year’s Petrona Award. Kati is a punk singer and author; she lives in a 150 year old house on the island of Hailuoto in the Gulf of Bothnia in Northern Finland. She has a Masters degree in Special Education and studied racism and bullying among young immigrants in Finland.  

The Defenceless is the second in the series featuring a mismatched pair of detectives. Anna Fekete is a young attractive woman, an immigrant as a child from the former Yugoslavia. She is Hungarian by ethnicity and her family, apart from Akos, her alcoholic brother who lives near her, still lives in the Hungarian speaking area of Serbia. Esko is a middle aged Finnish “redneck” with health problems, who hates all immigrants. The only thing they have in common is their desire to catch criminals, and their problem with alcohol and smoking. Anna is no virginal Miss Marple, and her drinking sometimes lead to sexual activity with some pathetic men that she regrets the next day.  

The stark contrast between Esko living a pathetic lonely physically inactive life in a tiny apartment and worried at the dangerous age of 56 about his heart and lungs, and Anna a keen runner and skier makes for an interesting story.  

Not everybody could be sporty health-freaks in top physical condition. Society needed the drunk, the obese, the depressed, as examples to the rest of us and to provide statistics with which to frighten people.  

In both books we see that Esko who starts off as a horrid racist misogynist, may have a softer centre to this hard outer shell. Perhaps he is merely terrified at getting older, and the enormous changes that have occurred in his country. The arrival of 300,000 immigrants into the UK may create difficulties in providing schools, housing, and health services, but in a country like Finland with a much smaller population it alters the whole ethnic and social make up of the country.   

The Finnish authorities and all the tree-hugging humanists should visit Copenhagen and Malmo and take a look at what an open-door immigration policy really means, thought Esko.   

The story opens with Viho, an elderly Finn having an argument with his noisy drug-dealing neighbour, Macke, while Sammy, a drug addicted Pakistani Christian is trying to get a supply of subutex from the dealer.  

But first he had to find some subs. Bupe. Orange guys. A dear child has many names.   

When Gabriella, a Hungarian au pair is arrested for dangerous driving as she has apparently knocked down and killed an old man on a snowy road, and Anna is called to deal with the case because she speaks Hungarian, although she finds her ability to converse in her native language has faded over the years.

The book investigates the themes of, immigration, drug gangs, the status of minorities, racism and human rights, along with the loneliness of old age. Anna’s kindness towards Sammy, and her friendship with gay immigrant pizza restaurant owners show her internal struggle with her identity, and her hopes for the future.   

The idea of a Hungarian man, and especially one from Kanisza, seemed quite tempting, at least in theory., but in practice, in reality, it was something quite different. It was a culture that reared boys into a world in which women could never become their equals.   

With the story being told from the perspective of Anna, Esko and Sammy I am sure it would have been the sort of book Maxine would have enjoyed, and we could have discussed it at length.   

Could there be a more topical book in Europe 2015 than one about the problems of immigration, and the scourge of drug gangs?   

The police procedural with a team of detectives working with Anna and Esko, and the social commentary reminded me of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

There can be no better recommendation for this brilliant book.   For more great book recommendations for Maxine go to Petrona Remembered  

HOL sat peopleFrom the back cover: Oslo 1969.

When a wealthy man collapses and dies during a dinner party. Norwegian Police InspectorKolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, is left shaken. For the victim Magdalon Schelderup, a multi-millionaire businessman, and former resistance fighter, had contacted him only the day before,  fearing for his life.

This is the second book in the series featuring K2, and his brilliant young associate, the wheel chair bound Patricia, and is dedicated to Agatha Christie. The narration is in the first person by K2, and the plot is a classic in that there are a limited number of suspects, the ten that attended the dinner party, and that the victim is a thoroughly unpleasant character. Therefore the book comes over as being very similar in atmosphere to The Human Flies, the first book in the series. One persistent theme, like the previous book, is events during the German occupation of World War II.

One misconception about Agatha Christie’s body of work is that she wrote the same English country house mystery over and over again, when in fact by varying the location and producing new plot twists she kept her work fresh. If she did parody herself there were usually thirty or forty years between the books.

The ten guests at the Schelderup dinner party, include a wife, two ex-wives, three children from the various wives, a young attractive secretary, and friends who go back to his wartime activities. K2 must negotiate his way through this plethora of suspects, numerous red herrings, and of course in true Christie tradition some of his suspects will not survive till the end of the book. 

The combination of K2 and Patricia is unlike Poirot and Hastings, or Holmes and Watson, and much more like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. K2 tells the story and does the legwork, but Patricia is very much the brains behind the duo.

I found myself faltering while reading Satellite People, as I was distracted by advancing old age, the serious political problems facing this country, and very much more pleasant events. I would not say that Satellite People is a great read because the plot lines are very derivative, as they were intended to be, but this means that it lacks a freshness and the ability to grip the reader. But if you haven’t read a lot of classic crime fiction it is a very interesting take on the genre.

Patricia stared at me wide-eyed for a moment.

‘You surpass yourself,’ she remarked, apparently serious.

My joy lasted for all of ten seconds. Because when she continued it was far less pleasant.

‘I would not have believed it was possible to get so much wrong in two sentences, and at such a late stage of a murder investigation.’ 

 

Liza MarklundThis is the tenth book in the continuing saga of journalist Annika Bengtzon, and takes place a few months after the events of Borderline. I am a great fan of these books which mix crime, details of modern journalistic technique, and the chaotic personal life of Annika, a flawed but likeable character. Annika’s skill as an investigative journalist is contrasted with her poor choice of men, a failing that has caused her much trauma in the past.

The story begins with the discovery of the brutally tortured body of business man and former politician, Ingemar Lerberg. His children are being looked after by his sister-in-law, but his wife Nora is missing. Annika begins to cover the case, and then a second body is discovered hanging from a tree. Karl Ekblad, a man with a business in Spain.

Something to do with property and industrial rights of ownership, the acquisition of property, unlimited trade and acquisition, leasing, sales and rental….. 

The other plot lines in the book, involve the return of Nina Hoffman to policing as she becomes an analyst at National Crime, Annika’s ex-husband Thomas attempting to readjust to life handicapped by the loss of his hand cut off by kidnappers in Somalia, and the internet trolling of Anders Schyman, Annika’s boss, with reference to a story that won him the Best Journalism award almost two decades earlier. The narrative is like a lot of  Swedish crime packed full of detail, of which a small portion is about torture, but is very readable and not too long at 346 pages. 

Annika is now living with Jimmy Halenius, with whom she began an affair in Borderline, and not only has to look after the needs of her own children, Kalle and Ellen, but his twins Serena and Jacob as well. The twins live with Jimmy all the time, and their mother Angela Sisulu, works for the South African government living in Johannesburg. Annika’s family life has become even more complicated as her relationship with Serena is rather strained, and Jimmy may get a promotion which requires him to move away from Stockholm. 

Nina stood outside the front door looking at the nameplate. Four surnames, a mixture of Swedish and foreign. These people had clearly chosen to live together (well, maybe not the children).

Some readers might be irritated that some of the plot lines are not completely resolved, and left for another book, but devotees of the Annika Bengtzon series will simply look forward to the next good read. Without a Trace is a very good example of why Swedish crime fiction has become so popular over the past decade.   

Falling Freely, As If In A Dream by Leif GW Persson (tr Paul Norlen) – published by Transworld.
Camille by Pierre Lemaitre (tr Frank Wynne) – published by Quercus.
Cobra** by Deon Meyer (tr K.L Seegers) – published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Arab Jazz by Karim Miské (tr Sam Gordon) – published by MacLehose Press.
The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (tr Isabelle Kaufeler) – published by HarperCollins.
Into a Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman (tr Ian Giles) – published by Quercus. 

I have read two books from this shortlist. The link above is to my review of the last book in Leif G.W.Persson’s trilogy about the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. I sometimes wonder if I am the only person in the world to have read the complete three volume “story of a crime”, and the only person to have enjoyed it? I needed the exercise, both mental and physical, involved in tackling these hefty books.

I have extracted below my comments about Cobra made in a review of my summer reading last September 13. I do have Camille by Pierre LeMaitre translator Frank Wynne ready to read after my current door stop read, but I probably won’t read the others unless one of them wins. 

Cobra** by Deon Meyer translated from the Afrikaans by K.L.Seegers is a fast moving thriller set in Cape Town. Benny Griessel is called to a bloodbath when trained bodyguards have been executed at a luxury guesthouse by a professional killer, or killers, leaving behind distinctive shell casings marked with a cobra. A mysterious Briton Paul Morris, a man seemingly with no past, is missing presumed kidnapped.

Meanwhile charming young pickpocket Tyrone Kleinbooi is plying his trade in order to help pay for his sister Nadia’s university fees. But when he is picked up by security guards for stealing a beautiful foreigner’s purse, a figure intervenes killing the guards but allowing Tyrone to escape leaving behind his mobile phone.

Tyrone still has the disk wanted by the killers, and when Paul Morris is identified a race develops to save him and Nadia who has been seized by the Cobra killers. Yes it is all very complicated, and exciting. Although Cobra is marketed as a Benny Griessel novel, my favourite police person in the novel is:

Captain Mbali Kaleni was the only woman in the DPCI’s Violent Crimes Team. For six long months now. She was short and very fat. She was never to be seen without her SAPS identity card on a ribbon around her neck, and her service pistol on her plump hip. When she left her office, there was a huge handbag of shiny black leather over her shoulder.

She is my favourite character because doesn’t fit the stereotype of women cops in crime fiction, and above all she is honest.

‘State security eavesdropping on us, taking over a criminal case. Just like in apartheid times. We are destroying our democracy, and I will not stand by and let it happen. And it will, if we let it. I owe it to my parents’ struggle, and I owe it to my country.’

Another fine book that should be a contender for the International Dagger. 

51khW2gvs-L._SL110_THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

 

The winner was announced tonight at the annual international crime fiction event CrimeFest, held in Bristol. The award was presented by the Godmother of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall, co-author with Per Wahlöö of the Martin Beck series. 

I haven’t read this one yet, but it must be a very good novel to beat out the four novels that I did read from a strong shortlist. 

 

TPA2015S

 

 

Next week the Petrona Award winner will be announced at CrimeFest in Bristol. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend but having successfully guessed the first two winners of this prestigious award I am going to be very cheeky and select my winner. I have read only four of the shortlisted books, but I think it would be a good thing if this year’s winner did not come from the usual suspects.  

I have also thought about which book Maxine Clarke, in whose memory this award is given, would have chosen.

My winner would be The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelelto translated from the Finnish by David Hackston. This novel has an Hummunusual protagonist, Anna Fekete, a Yugoslav Hungarian who moved to Finland as a child. Anna has family problems, and an interesting love life, as well as a social conscience. She struggles with the antagonism of her racist older colleague Esko, and the problems of her brother who has failed to make a proper life for himself.

The location is in a northern Finnish coastal town, and the police work as the team of detectives track down a serial killer seems very realistic. There is a moving sub plot about a teenage Kurdish girl in danger of being married off to a much older man, or facing  an even worse fate. This is a very good book and the fact that it is a debut novel is surprising because it has fully drawn characters as well as a gripping plot.

I also think Maxine would have liked this story with the female detective, the complex plot and contemporary social commentary. But that is just my opinion.

Less of the Social Services, less of the nonsense about integration, just get these people into work. Working life in Finland isn’t so weird and wonderful that an immigrant can’t survive. But of course this would mean less funding for integration projects, fewer jobs and meetings for all those experts. So that’s that then.    

 

TPA2015S

 

 

It is sometimes difficult to get old dinosaurs like me, who are very set in their ways, to read new authors, and therefore I am grateful to the judges of the Petrona Award in adding two impressive authors, new to me, to their shortlist. I have now read four of the shortlisted six books, and may possibly have the time to read one more book before the winner is announced.

HummThe Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackstrom, is an excellent police procedural with an interesting female main protagonist, Anna Fekete, a Hungarian immigrant from the northern part of the former Yugoslavia. The book begins with a murder, and as more murders occur and a serial killer investigation begins, it widens its remit to deal with the problems of multiculturalism in a democratic society.

Although Anna has lived in Finland for most of her life and speaks perfect Finnish she faces a lot of antagonism from Esko, one of the police team. Esko could be classified easily as a racist, or is he just someone very scared of the changes in Finnish society.

As a rule, minorities weren’t oppressed in the former Yugoslavia- except for the Roma, a sin of which the whole world is guilty. 

 

A subplot and another narrative theme blended into the story involves a Kurdish family, and the possible forced marriage or even “honour killing” of their daughter. We also learn about Anna’s family life, her brother, Akos, has failed to adjust to life in Finland and can’t even speak the local language, while her sexual liaisons and the marital problems of her fellow team members add to the interest.

Finland it seems has a difficult combination of problems with wide gun ownership, and heavy alcohol consumption. The Hummingbird is yet another excellent Scandinavian crime book that adds a layer of realism to the  myth of Scandinavia’s social democratic utopia. This is definitely a strong contender for the Petrona Award. 

Bihar Chelkin is lying. I’m convinced this is a matter of honour violence,’ Anna said eventually. She felt compelled to repeat herself  one last time, especially to that arsehole.  

‘Finnish law doesn’t recognise such a crime,’ he replied impassively.

The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson is a very different book. This novel is set  in theflies distant past, 1968, when I was a young man in my prime, and the world was almost in as big mess as it is today. 

The story told in a crisp first person narrative by young detective Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, is a variation on the locked room mystery being a tribute or pastiche of an Agatha Christie novel. The English country house mystery moved to an Oslo apartment block at 25 Krebs’ Street. The victim is Harald Olesen, one of the heroes of Norway’s wartime resistance movement to the Nazi occupation, and a cabinet minister in the post war period. When Kolbjorn begins to unravel the lives of the other occupants of 25 Krebs’ Street he finds a group of people who underneath a facade of comparative respectability have many secrets. Kolbjorn has few leads, and when a friend of his parents Professor Borchmann tells him that his daughter Patricia, an eighteen year old girl with a brilliant mind, who is confined to a wheelchair, can help him he accepts the offer. Patricia swiftly solves the mystery of how the locked room murder was committed, but the pair still have to discover the identity of the murderer. She has worked out how, now we want to know why and that will lead to who.

Kjolborn and Patricia uncover a web of lies and intrigue, marital infidelity, love affairs, wartime treachery and collaboration as they hunt for the killer. 

Those who enjoy Agatha Christie novels, and good crime fiction will love the twists and turns in this tale. The Human Flies is yet another contender for the Petrona Award, and I congratulate the judges on providing readers with such a strong shortlist. 

‘He is everything that I have ever dreamed of in a man. There is a physical aspect, obviously. I have always been attracted to to blond men of my height, and he has just the right physique and is so elegant’………….[my comment: he also has a wife and young baby]

………….

As I walked down the stairs, I pondered whether the ever more mysterious Sara Sundqvist had been aware of the fact that I too was a blond and well-built man of about her height.  

Anne Holt Lions MouthWhen Norwegian Prime Minister Birgitte Volter is found slumped across her desk shot dead, the investigators are faced with a variation on a ‘locked room mystery’, and the question whether the shooting is politically motivated, or relates to a personal matter in Birgitte’s background.

Hanne Wilhelmsen is in the USA living with her partner Cecilie, and only returns to assist lead investigator Billy T part way through the book.

Three factors make this book, with its neat blend of police work, political intrigue and social commentary a good read.

Firstly it was published in 1997 eleven years after the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, when a supposed Kurdish connection hampered a proper investigation. The utopian view of the Scandinavian democracies had been brought shudderingly into the real world by this event.

Secondly the book deals with a possible neo-Nazi plot to murder leading figures in Norway fourteen years before the country was shocked by Anders Breivik’s massacre of young people perpetrated on Utoya Island.

Thirdly it was jointly written with Berit Reiss-Andersen*, a Norwegian lawyer and member of the Nobel Committee, and state secretary to the Minister of Justice and Police when Anne Holt briefly held that government post. Therefore the details of the political background and infighting between the characters have a ring of authenticity.

The reader learns about Birgitte, her family, husband Roy Hansen, and son Per, and her swift rise to power. Her childhood friend Supreme Court judge Benjamin Grinde, chair of a commission looking into a spike in deaths of young babies back in 1965, comes under suspicion as the last person to visit Birgitte in her office. And while most of the politicians and journalists in the book are fairly unlikeable Benjamin’s mother Birdie is probably the most unpleasant character, although Health Minister Ruth-Dorthe Nordgarden runs her pretty close. 

He [Tryggve Storstein, the new Prime Minister] had crushed her. It astonished him that he did not feel even a scintilla of regret or sorrow. When he took stock, he realized he felt pity for her, but that was all. Someone should have destroyed her long ago. 

1997 was an interesting year, because although it is clear that Anne Holt may not think that highly of her political colleagues, we in the UK naively believed in the newly elected Labour Government. Some of us actually celebrated the result of that election.

There have been two great political rivalries in British history. In the Nineteenth Century that between Tory Benjamin Disraeli and Liberal William Gladstone, and in recent times that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The only problem was that Blair and Brown were supposed to be in the same political party. The populace awoke from a thirteen year long nightmare to discover the country was virtually bankrupt, and after a new election we were now ruled by a different bunch of incompetents.

What happened to an “end to boom and bust” and the “golden age of banking”?

But I digress Anne Holt sums up the state of most Western democratic systems quite succinctly in The Lion’s Mouth in a passage that bears a strong resemblance to the situation in the UK as the powers that be search for someone to chair a commission on child sex abuse.

“This kind of thing has become worryingly common in our society,” Professor Brynjestad continues.

“Namely, that members of the social elite increasingly have links to one another, allowing them to operate beyond the usual boundaries and without being accountable to ordinary citizens. We end up with an invisible network of power we cannot control.” 

My reviews of the first three Hanne Wilhelmsen books:

The Blind Goddess

Blessed Are Those That Thirst

Death of the Demon       

Anne Holt Lions Moutha

borderline 2014It seems like yesterday but it is in fact over three years since translator Neil Smith was kind enough to reply to a post about Liza Marklund with a very informative sketch of the future plans for the Annika Bengtzon series. Read it here.

Since then I have reviewed Last Will, Lifetime and The Long Shadow and have just finished reading Borderline, the 9th Annika Bengtzon book.

If anyone asked me to recommend a real “page-turner” thriller novel I would without any hesitation suggest Borderline [Du Gamla, du fria in the original Swedish, which means Set You Free]. This is Liza Marklund back to her very best, ably assisted by Neil Smith, because Borderline reads as if originally written in English.

Annika is back with her former husband after they have spent three years in the USA, but the philandering Thomas is with an EU delegation in Kenya advising on the strengthening of  frontiers, in reality trying to stop the flow of people into Europe from Africa. But while he is lining up the attractive blonde English representative, Catherine Wilson, as his next conquest the delegation are kidnapped near the Somali border.

The narrative switches back and forth between Thomas and his fellow delegates suffering barbaric treatment from their captors somewhere along the Somali-Kenya frontier; and Stockholm where an important and ironic plot line involves the brutal stabbings of  Swedish women by their former partners, or possibly by a serial killer. Women in this story are treated appallingly in both the Northern European utopia, and the East African dystopia.

‘Oil tankers worth hundreds of millions of dollars float past the coast of Somalia every day, and starving people can do nothing but stand on the beach and watch them.’

The negotiations for the release of Thomas are conducted by his boss Jimmy Halenius, who assists Annika to cope with  the terrible situation. How does she tell her children Ellen and Kalle their father is in grave danger? Annika also juggles her strained relationships with her mother, her sister, and best friend Anne Snapphane none of whom are particularly helpful. 

At the offices of Kvallpressen editor in chief Anders Schyman realises that his news editor Patrik Nilsson is lowering the whole tone of the business with ridiculous lead stories about people losing  control of an alien hand. But then seeking the lowest common denominator is what modern media is all about. 

Liza Marklund imparts a lot of detailed information about the media, banking systems, hostage negotiations, and the outcomes of historic hostage situations, but it is  done quite naturally within the narrative, and not in the laundry list method used by some authors. Her technique of switching back and forth between Stockholm and Somalia/Kenya increases the tension and is handled with some skill. Borderline is a very good thriller, with a good plot, great characters, especially Annika, and an almost live documentary atmosphere that makes the reader keep turning those pages until the conclusion. 

‘The kidnappers have plenty of weapons. It’s striking how many hostages end up getting shot. And Somalia is a country where amputations form part of the legal system. It’s traditional that all the external parts of young girls’ genitals are cut off………’

She turned on the cold tap in the basin and let the water run over her wrists. She felt like crying, but was too angry. There had to be limits. She didn’t want to hear about mutilated little girls. She needed help, but not at any cost.

 I feel any violent events discussed in the book such as the Rwandan Genocide, and the beheading of Daniel Pearl, are necessary to create the atmosphere, and mentioned in a factual way without any embellishments.