Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Ice Moon, by Jan Costin Wagner (Finnish/German)
I set aside Jan Costin Wagner's Ice Moon for a while, not too tempted by the descriptions I'd read (concerning alternating chapters from the cop's and the killer's point of view) or the fact that it's about Finland but written by a German. But Ice Moon is in fact worth the wait: it's an excellent crime novel in a style that is a bit like Henning Mankell, in the simple, almost flat, prose and the introspection of the troubled and lonely detective. But Wagner's prose is ultimately more poetic than Mankell's without sacrificing simplicity or directness. The detective is Kimmo Joentaa, whom we meet at the moment his wife is dying of cancer. His grief and gradual reconciliation with life is an arc of the novel that criss-crosses with two characters whose lives are deteriorating rapidly, the killer and the chief of detectives, Joentaa's boss. We do see through the killer's eyes, as well as several victims and other characters, but without the lurid voyeurism that we have seen in some serial killer books. And the points of view do not alternate: When more is happening in Joentaa's life and in the investigation, we get sequential chapters from the detective's point of view, with attention returning to the killer when more is happening there. The balance is much more effective than a simple alternation. Because we know what the killer is doing, we recognize the clues that the police are overlooking, and part of the book's tension is the anticipation of Joentaa's realization of what he is hearing and looking at: this isn't a mystery, it's part police procedural and part character study, with the murders and the resolution both growing organically from what we know about Joentaa, the killer, and other characters, and with visual and spoken/thought metaphors reinforcing the story and the lives of the people we meet. Ice Moon is compelling and complex, drawing the reader into worlds that are not alien but recognizable (perhaps seeming more normal because of the simple prose style), and all the more effective for the ordinariness of Joentaa's grief, his boss's erratic behavior, and the killer's descent into his private vortex. Compliments are due the translator, John Brownjohn, for a lucid and evocative translation from the German--I'd be interested to know, from German speakers who've read the original, whether the directness and flatness of the prose are an effective transformation of the style of the original German.