Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Death of a Nightingale and Strange Bird

Sometimes when I'm reading two books at the same time, or close together, one of them suffers from
the inevitable comparison. I had been anticipating the third Danish crime novel by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, and just about the same time an advance of that book arrived (courtesy of SoHo Crime) a copy of the new translation of the second Anna Jansson novel featuring Maria Wern, Strange Bird, arrived in the mail, courtesy of Stockholm Text (an interesting new project that has published a number of Swedish crime novels in translation).

The two books share some things in common. The Danish duo usually focuses on crime that comes into Denmark from elsewhere, or at least has its origins in a globalized Europe. In the new book, the source is the Ukraine, an open field for criminals after the fall of the Soviet Union (according to these authors, at least). Natasha has fled her native country for asylum in Copenhagen, only to be arrested for assaulting her Danish boyfriend, leaving her daughter alone in the refugee camp. In Jansson's novel, the source of the crime is Belarus, and without giving away too much of the plot I can only say that the East European country is the source of a bird flu epidemic that strikes the Swedish island of Gotland (in a plot that actually overlaps more with Kaaberbøl and Friis's earlier book, Invisible Murder).
In both books, the unsettled family life of the central character, the Swedish cop Maria Wern and the Danish nurse Nina Borg, plays a key role. But whereas everything in Kaaberbøl and Friis's book tightens the plot more and more all the way through (though I did find myself wondering a bit about some of the Ukranian flashbacks, until their purpose became clear) a lot of the family life (as well as subplots of various sorts, each related to the plot eventually) distract from the story, so that the novel proceeds in a leisurely rather than a tense fashion. Even the element of the bird flu plague and its effect on Wern as well as everyone else, begins to seem more like a distraction than a central thread, as characters begin to gather around a murdered nurse (another link between the Swedish and Danish books is the importance of nurses).

Maybe it's just my preference for darker, more noir-oriented stories rather than looser, traditional or cozy plots, but while I was compelled to race through Death of a Nighingale I found my attention wandering throughout Strange Bird. Another possible factor in my reaction to the Swedish book is that there is a TV series based on the Maria Wern character, and the stories as filmed are quite a bit tighter, in terms of the storytelling, than the two books by Jansson that I've read (though Wern's family life also plays a big part in the TV series, it seems less distracting). 

Or maybe the problem is simply that Kaaberbøl and Friis are among the very best writers in the current crop of Scandinavian crime writers, whereas Jansson falls into the middle of the pack. I find myself passing along the Danish duos novels to anyone who will listen to me praising them. The dedicated, even obsessive (and her obsessions are much in evidence in the new book) Nina Borg is neither a superhero nor  a paragon of motherhood, but she's a compelling and believable character in a series of well-told tales. While in the case of  Death of a Nightingale I was not totally convinced of the motive that final emerges from the resolution of the story, the story itself held my attention completely,

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