Saturday, July 30, 2011

Finally, the sequel to Liza Marklund's The Bomber

Years ago, I picked up a copy of Liza Marklund's first crime novel, The Bomber in its English translation) as a remainder in a bookshop. Shortly after, a second novel by her, featuring the same investigative journalist (Annika Bengtzon) showed up, also as a remainder (evidently there'd been a big first printing, the publisher expecting a blockbuster that didn't happen--these were the pre-Tattoo, pre-Scandinavian crime wave days). The puzzling thing was that the second book, Studio Sex, was set years before the first one, a prequel in fact.

And only now has the fifth book in the series caught up with the first: Red Wolf takes place in the aftermath of the emotionally, professionally, and psychologically turbulent (for Annika) conclusion to The Bomber. Annika has passed up a chance to advance in the hierarchy of the Stockholm tabloid where she works (Kvällspressen or Evening Post), choosing instead to be an "independent" writer (though still dependent upon her immediate boss and the paper's editor in chief to actually publish her stories). And the atmosphere around her at work is troubled, even beyond the conflictual scenes of The Bomber.

She's trying to get her editors to publish her research into an old terrorist incident in the far north of Sweden when she falls into something more current and more dangerous: a serial killer is stalking the same northern province, and there are echoes of the earlier incident. But the editors forbid her to pursue the case (they think she's still suffering from shell-shock, as indeed she is).

Annika is surely one of the most flawed leading characters in contemporary series-crime-fiction. The only character I've come across recently who's even close is the heroine in the excellent Danish thriller The Boy in the Suitcase, and even she is more together than Annika. Suffering hallucinations, resistance from her bosses, a husband who's having an affair, Annika is barely holding it together. We see her not only in her own interior monologue, but also as her best friend Anne and her husband Thomas see her, emphasizing the egoism, determination, ambition, near collapse, and self dramatization that make up her character.

But she's never dull. And never as callow (even in the earlier books) as the main character in the pulp thriller she wrote with James Patterson (The Postcard Killer, and by the way, I thought that Patterson could have been bothered to offer a more substantial blurb for the back cover of Red Wolf than just "gripping"). Annika's family life is entirely believable: her frustration with Thomas and Thomas's self-justifications and lies surrounding his affair are drawn with credible and lively strokes.

And the extent to which Annika will go to protect herself and her family plays out in the subplot of family betrayal in perhaps an even more interesting way than in the terror-serial-killer plot, demonstrating a ruthlessness and skill in manipulating the social system and the truth. I don't find her relationship with her editor-in-chief entirely credible in Red Wolf (less so than in earlier books) but the sleazy capitalist tool that he shows himself to be here is a logical outcome of his earlier career, as well as an echo of the main plot, which veers into the history of radical groups in Sweden in the '60s and later.

Marklund is clearly at the forefront of Swedish crime writing, perhaps less well known than she should be because she came earlier than that blockbuster trilogy (and her third and fourth books never appeared in the U.S., the first and second long since out of print here--so that a well known and otherwise well informed critic described Red Wolf as the first of her novels to appear in English).

The two movies by Colin Nutley based on her earlier books also were never released in the U.S. (though The Bomber made a pretty good movie), but there's a new series being developed by Yellow Bird, the film company behind not only the Tattoo trilogy but also the Wallander series (the Swedish TV series not taken from Mankell's novels and the U.K. TV series that was), so maybe the films and the books will finally find their English-language audience. Whether U.S. readers are ready for this deeply flawed character and the mayhem she follows or creates (in her career and her family) is another question.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New Swedish crime: Arne Dahl, Misterioso

Arne Dahl's Misterioso, newly translated and published in the U.S., resembles the Sjöwall/Wahlöö Martin Beck series than it does any of the other Scandinavian-crime-boom novels that have been translated so far. There's a brief prelude that seems to have nothing to do with what most of the book is dealing with, there is a team of cops, the style is distinctly "police-procedural," and there's a good deal of social criticism (the tale is set in the 1990s (it was originally published in Swedish at the end of that decade), at the beginning of the financial and other crises that continue to shift the foundations of the "middle-way" capitalist socialism (or socialist capitalism) of Sweden.

There are, however, many differences between the Beck books and Dahl's "A-Unit" series, of which Misterioso is a part (apparently 11 novels published so far in Swedish). Dahl spends a lot of time in the beginning setting up his team (and the similarity of the group's name, arbitrary and tentative though it is at the beginning of the book, is a bit too close to the "A-Team" of American TV fame: especially since threre is a "one of each" quality to the team's members. The ending of the book drags out a bit too long, for me, spending a lot of time setting up the series as a whole, whereas the Beck books end abruptly, carrying forward in a more natural way to the next in the series.

But Misterioso is a good read and has a lot of interesting characteristics, in the diversity of the cops' characters, in the use of music and social commentary, and in Dahl's skill at keeping a story moving forward while the cops are making little or no progress. The story involves a serial killer targeting high-level businessmen in Sweden. Paul Hjelm, in the wake of an incident that simultaneously makes him a hero and a target for Internal Affairs, is recruited to the A-Unit, while also in the midst of a puzzling crisis in his marriage. Though Paul is the main focus of the story, each of the numerous members of the team gets a turn in the spotlight, as each investigates an aspect of the crime or the possible identity of the killer (Russian mafia, disgruntled employee, personal connections among the dead men, etc.).

In a satisfying way, the reader discovers a key element in the crime before the cops do, bringing together the strands of the narrative. The final assault on the killer's hiding place is a bit of an anti-climax, though. There are also a number of coincidences in the story, but the author deals with them in an interesting way, invoking the killer's notion of fate.

It's also interesting that a number of publishers around the world have highlighted different aspects of the crime in their cover art. I'm pasting into this post covers from the U.S., Poland, Spain, and Sweden as examples. I can't figure out the Spanish one, though, the one with the woman's face and the birds...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

New Danish thriller: The Boy in the Suitcase, by Agnete Friis & Lene Kaaberbol

Scheduled for November release in the U.S. by Soho Press, The Boy in the Suitcase, by Agnete Friis & Lene Kaaberbol and translated from the Danish by Lene Kaaberbøl, is an unrelenting roller-coaster ride of a thriller/crime novel with a vivid cast of characters and an unusual "hero." It's also one of the best books I've read this year.

The first sections can be a bit confusing, but all will become clear if the reader just sticks with it. Four threads interweave without any connections being made until much later. In a sort of prologue, someone who has been asked to pick up a heavy suitcase decides to see what's in it before she puts it in her car, and discovers a young boy, alive, neatly folded into it. From there, we meet Jan, an anxious architect; Jucas, an obviously shady character who yearns for a normal family life with his girlfriend but has one more job to do; Sigita, a Lithuanian single mother who has been plunged into a paranoiac's nightmare; and Nina, a nurse who seems to be fleeing her family responsibilities by becoming involved in rescue missions.

All of the people are caught up in a plot wherein nothing goes according to plan, beginning with an airplane delayed when it strikes a seagull and cascading from there on. The outlines of what's going on become clear gradually, with the true nature of the plot becoming clear between half and two-thirds of the way into the book. Along the way, we gain and then lose sympathy and respect for the characters, resulting in a fully drawn and multivalent cast. Nina in particular, obsessive-compulsive or perhaps high-functioning autistic, launching into rescue missions less from bravery than from anxiety, emerges as a new sort of icon for crime fiction.

Agnete Friis, according to Soho's p.r., is a children's book writer and Lene Kaaberbol is a fantasy author, and neither had written crime before their collaboration. Perhaps the vivid quality of the writing has something to do with their diverse backgrounds, and their fresh take on the crime and thriller genres may derive on part from their non-crime writing careers. Whatever the reasons, The Boy in the Suitcase is the impressive beginning to what is reportedly a series (hinted at in the last pages of the novel) featuring the unconventional, troubled, and determined Nina. More, please.

I read an advance reviewer's copy of The Boy in the Suitcase, and I always wonder whether it's best to time a review to coincide with the publication of the book (when readers can actually get hold of the book) or to preview it (especially with a book I am praising, is better (to whet readers' appetites. Let me know what you think, or what you do in your own blog in cases like this.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Re-reading crime fiction

What is it that distinguishes crime fiction that you can read over and over again from books that, read once, have exhausted their interest? I'm almost done reading Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini's 1972 The Sunday Woman, translated by William Weaver, for at least the third time (spread out over more than 30 years). The Sunday Woman was published originally more as a mainstream novel than a work of genre fiction, and in fact is seldom cited in the U.S. as a groundbreaking crime novel (though it is). At around the same time I picked up my copy (the early '70s), I was also beginning to read the Martin Beck cycle by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, all of which I've re-read at least once.

Where the Swedish writers mixed in a lot of politics and irony as well as comedy, Fruttero and Lucentini give us a lot of comedy, satire, and social observation, without directly engaging in political commentary. Both the Swedish and the Italian collaborators structure the stories as police procedurals (rather than whodunnits or least-likely-suspect stories), which makes re-reading easier for me (the stories are all about process rather than the revelation of the murderers' identities).

But is it the quality of the writing, the pleasure of the comedy, something else, all of the above that makes a crime fiction novel re-readable, a book to save and take off the shelf again and again, rather than something you simply get rid of or something that's just taking up space on a shelf?

By the way, there's a movie version of The Sunday Woman (La donna della domenica) featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Jacqueline Bisset, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, made for Italian TV in the '70s—but it's only available with Italian subtitles (intended for hearing-impaired Italian speakers), not any other languages. What a shame, it should be more accessible (though there's apparently a new Italian mini-series based on the book that is being considered for international release).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Turkish crime: Esmahan Aykol's Hotel Bosphorus

Billed as the "first kati Hirschel murder mystery," Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol (recently published in a translation by Ruth Whitehouse, for Bitter Lemon Press) starts from a comic and cozy premise: like Colin Bateman's "mystery man," Kati runs a crime fiction bookshop (in Istanbul), and as with Bateman's books, the tone is frequently comic (not quite as broadly as Bateman's, though).

Kati is a German who was born in Turkey and has returned to Istanbul, running through several jobs before opening her bookshop. One of the interesting and amusing things about the story is this reversal, a German immigrant in Turkey, and the culture clash of her situation is a frequent subject of both plot and comedy. A childhood friend who is now a minor film actor arrives in Istanbul to make a movie, and calls on Kati. The reunion takes a sinister turn when the film's director is murdered in his hotel.

The novel seems to be taking a well-trodden cozy-ish path when Kati turns amateur detective and makes a professional and personal connection with a handsome Turkish detective. For a good part of the story, her attraction to the detective and her reluctance to follow through with her desire for him are accompanied by the very slowly moving investigation into the crime (by both parties to the not-quite-consummated affair). After that had gone on for a while with no advance in the story, I was beginning to lose interest in the story.

But there is a sudden turn, when Kati's mother (in Berlin) is hospitalized and Kati feels an urgent need to be by her side. There are a couple of ensuing coincidences that strain credulity a bit, but twist the story in a much more interesting direction (and even the trip to Berlin is interesting, in advancing the culture-clash aspect of the tale). I won't say anything more about that twist, but it takes the story out of the conventional cozy and into much more interesting territory, right through to the conclusion.

The tone is light, throughout, and the violence is off-stage. So even if the books isn't quite a cozy, it's not as dark as the contemporary noir genre can be. I'm interested to see where Aykol takes the series: it could go in either direction, light or dark, or could perhaps maintain the delicate balance that kept Hotel Bosphorus interesting for me. I'm hoping that Bitter Lemon will continue to translate and publish Aykol's work, which is at the very least quite different from the other Turkish crime fiction (but Turks and foreigners) that we have had access to in English up to now.

The cover image, by the way, is related to the crime and is quite atmospheric, but doesn't give much of the flavor of the book--it suggests a much more relevant cover for one of Sophie Hannah's books. Still, it's an attractive cover and does set up one scene that is referred to but never actually experienced by Kati herself (a frequent problem for amateur detectives, who don't have the access of a professional detective to all aspects of a crime).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stuart Neville's Stolen Souls

Due out in the U.S. in October, Stuart Neville's third crime novel, Stolen Souls, is a terrifying trip through a heartless underworld, the dark side of today's Belfast. Galya, forced into prostitution and trapped in a Belfast brothel, escapes by killing a Lithuanian, one of her captors, but every time she seems to have gotten free, another monster appears. And this story is full of monsters: corruption, greed, ruthlessness, and lack of empathy reign.

There are a couple of character with redeeming qualities, beyond Galya herself. Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, the central character, now, in a series that started with a focus on someone else, is deeply flawed, struggling personally and professionally, but not a monster. His daughter (abandoned by him during her first years but now jealously guarded from her mother's family (see the first two novels for details of that relationship) and other threats, retains some of her second sight and is taken care of more often by Susan, her father's neighbor and sort-of girlfriend, more often than by her father himself. Susan is an ordinary person, not a saint but in the novel's mire of horrible people, she shines out as a beacon of normalcy.

As Galya bounces from frying pan to fire, Lennon follows in her wake, tracing the murders that followed the Lithuanian's death (andn there are a lot of deaths). The story is part gang war, part serial killer story, and part revenge tragedy (some of which is carried over from the previous novels, and various elements threaten Lennon from different angles.

A casual reader might have thought The Ghosts of Belfast, Neville's first book, to be an unlikely candidate for a sequel; and that same reader might have thought, after reading Collusion, the second in the series, that any sequel would be unlikely to sustain the ruthless momentum of the first two. But Stolen Souls, while quite different from the first two, is equally compelling and rewarding (and also equally dark, even without the emphasis of the earlier two books on the legacy of the troubles, a minor element here).

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Cold Swedish noir: Mons Kallentoft

I mentioned yesterday that the newly translated (by Neil Smith, forthcoming in October in the U.K. from Hodder) crime novel by Mons Kallentoft (Midwinter Sacrifice) has a unique style that (at least for me) demands a certain style of reading. The text is frequently allusive and features numerous passages from the point of view of the corpse discovered at the beginning, hanging naked, tortured, high in a tree in the frozen forest near Linköping. The language varies considerably from the fairly straightforward interactions among the police to the very fluid narrative passages, frequently told in sentence fragments.

The style suits the story, which involves urban-rural conflicts and contrasts, cults and the revival of old religions, and the damage that families can do to children. The lead detective, Malin Fors, is a single mother (with a teenage daughter and all the conflicts that that implies). Her colleagues are a distinct group of mostly pretty normal police officers, each with his or her own quirks. The corpse, however, was a damaged man, who seems disturbed and perhaps autistic (though the term is never mentioned) eccentric, if seen from the outside (his monologue after death is surprisingly normal).

The search for the killer or killers is conducted as a police procedural, with more than the usual frustration, perhaps, since no leads give any promise of concrete evidence. There's a dysfunctional family living (literally as well as figuratively) outside the civilized city, a small group worshipping the old Aesir gods, some criminally delinquent teenage boys, a nearly catatonic rape victim and other characters. Some of their stories evidently overlap into later installments of this series (and it will be interesting to see if the author's style changes when his focus changes to other plots and stories),

I tend to appreciate a fairly straight style in crime fiction (allusive, certainly, but perhaps not fragmented in the more poetic style that Kallentoft employs), but Midwinter Sacrifice was very engaging once I got used to the shifts between voices (the narrator's, the corpse's, even a tree at one point) and the dialogue (very realistic) among the cops. The conclusion involves a race to save a trapped victim, but in a way that turns that convention of the thrilling ending upside down and inside out, while also leaving enough unresolved to lead forward to the next installment... Plus I found myself thinking of Sara Lund (from the Danish TV series The Killing) while in Malin's company—a reference that's also made in the back cover blurbs and a comparison that isn't quite accurate but still suggests something of Malin's personality and the tone of the book as well.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Brian McGilloway's Little Girl Lost and some other stuff

Does speed (as in how fast you read a book) make a difference to your appreciation of a book? Does speed indicate something about the book itself? A few days ago, I finished Brian McGilloway's new book (featuring a new character, DS Lucy Black, of the new Northern Ireland Police in Derry), and started reading the much longer Midwinter Sacrifice, by Swedish author Mons Kallentoft (his first to be translated, featuring Detective Malin Fors of the Linköping police). I finished Little Girl Lost quickly (it's not that long) but actually read the text at a fairly leisurely rate (engaged with the story but not forced by the plot to speed up to reach the conclusion). I find that with Kallentoft's prose, which is almost stream of consciousness (lots of sentence fragments, sections from the point of view of the corpse discovered at the beginning) I can only stay engaged with the story if I read very quickly—not to advance toward the end of the over-400-page story, but simply to keep up with the flow of the language.

Little Girl Lost steps aside from the characters in McGilloway's previous novels and into Lucy Black's complicated personal and professional life. She has returned to Derry to take a new job and to take care of her ailing father, only to be shunted into an ostensibly less prestigious position in the force and also to discover that her father is slipping quickly into the difficulties of Alzheimer's. She is called to the scene of the sighting of a young girl wandering in the frozen forest during a winter storm, thinking that the girl is the one everyone is looking for (the kidnapped daughter of a local builder) but finding instead a younger girl covered in blood that is not her own.

Once it is discovered that it's not the kidnapped girl, no one seems very interested (except Lucy) in the girl, who is now mute and unresponsive). Lucy tries to discover who she is, while also trying to stay involved in the hunt for the kidnapping victim, and when she discovers links, the police hierarchy try to steer her away from the high profile case. Her family history (her parents both cops, in the complicated situation of Catholic police officers in the Troubles) and her conflicts with her superiors are matched by her increasing difficulties with her father (and all strains of the story converge, in a perhaps too convenient way, making Derry sound like one of those small cities where everying and everyone are ultimately connected).

I found the fairly straightforward storytelling very appealing, though less complex than the more ruminative Inspector Devlin series (set in the borderlands between Ireland and Norther Ireland). The far less straightforward Midwinter Sacrifice gave me some trouble until I sped up my reading: it's not that the prose is difficult or self-consciously literary; it's more that the style is very expansive rather than economical. We've grown to expect a certain terseness in the writing of noir fiction and a simplicity of style in more conventional mysteries. The complexity is not particularly a Swedish style (from Larsson to the many newly translated Swedes and back to the classic Sjöwall/Wahlöö books there is a great variety of styles, as well as lengths, in crime fiction books), but seems in this case linked to the subject matter, replete with mysticism, malice, and insular families.

One more entry in this "portmanteau" post: I'm halfway thtough watching the excellent RAI TV series based on Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca novels. The films are very well made, capturing the period (end of WWII in Italy) as well as the character of the conflicted Commissario De Luca. The first installment, though, was made not from a De Luca book but from a stand alone novel by Lucarelli set in the same period, in Rimini, and in spite of the rewriting to bring it into the De Luca ambience, there's a telling difference in tone, and the series really comes alive with the second episode, based on Carta Bianca (Carte Blanche in English). The first episode is based on an untranslated book whose title would be something like "Unauthorized Investigation," and I'm curious now about what the book is like (and how different the main character is from the De Luca that he becomes in the film).