Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cold Hearts, by Gunnar Staalesen

Gunnar Staalesen is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction, and one of the most venerable, in terms of the length of his career. His voice as a writer is also, in a way, the most distinctively Scandinavian. His hero, Varg Veum, is a private detective but also a former social worker. And his cases inevitably reflect his background.

Cold Hearts, the latest Veum novel to be translated (by Don Bartlett, for Arcadia Books), deals with prostitution, drugs, and murder, but the essential subject is the one Veum most frequently confronts: the impact of adult crimes on the children directly or indirectly involved. In Cold Hearts (the use of the word "cold" seems too tempting for publishers to resist for far-norhtern crime fiction, but the title is in this case a direct translation of the original Norwegian, and very apt for the topic) a former girlfriend of Veum's son approaches him to try to find a missing colleague (like the former girlfriend, a prostitute).

What Veum finds is a disheartening story of the girl's upbringing in a family of alcoholics as well as the care of a committee of community "well-wishers," once the parents' inadequacy is at least in part out int he open. There's a parallel plot concerning a missing shipment of drugs, which comes occasionally into a relation to the main plot, as we expect in crime novels, but is resolved in an unexpected way.

The two covers I've reproduced here are for the current Arcadia edition and for an earlier one that, as far as I can tell, was never released. Like the use of the word "cold," cover images of prostitution seem irresistible to publishers, though I must admit in this case it's a clearer reference to the content of the book than anything to do with the miserable home life of the main characters.

Veum's voice as a narrator is always sympathetic, and Staalesen's plotting is natural, never forced. It's only at the end that we see how the complicated twists and turns are really only misunderstandings, and the real story is as straightforward as it is unfortunate. In both voice and plot, Veum's (and Staalesen's) sympathy for the characters (and their empathy with their misfortunes) is always evident. While not breezy or comic, the stories are eminently readable.

As with some other books I've read recently, this one has been made into the most recent of the Varg Veum TV films--and as in the other case, the story is considreably changed for TV, partly to accommodate a running character not drawn from the books (Varg's girlfriend). The TV series is very good, and the actors very well chosen, but the distinctive tone and the particular point of view of the stories is clearer in the books.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Swedish Agatha Christie

Maria Lang (pseudonym for Dagmar Maria Lange) published her first murder mystery in 1949 and continued to bring out one a year for 42 more years, plus some "deckare," as the Swedish call mystery novels, for children. She was definitely influenced by the British crime genre, and was repeatedly called "the Swedish Agatha Christie," though she also makes references to Lord Peter Wimsey in her books. She was definitely in the cozy branch of the genre, and reportedly clashed with Per Wahlöö in a meeting of the Swedish society of crime novelists, and quit the organization over the direction in which the genre was heading.

There's a Swedish 6-part TV series that was made from some of the novels, which is being shown now on the U.S. MhZ World View network. I looked for some of the novels, to compare them with the series, and was only able to find one in English translation (Kung liljeconvalje av Dungen, literally King Lily of the Valley of the Shady Grove, a phrase from the Swedish poet Fröding), under the title A Wreath for the Bride. A couple of the others are promised in translation in Kindle versions for later in the spring.

In the TV series, the primary investigators are Chief Inspector Christer Wick and his friend Puck Ekstedt, along with Puck's love interest and later husband  Einar Bure, called Eje. There's an intersting triangular sexual tension among them throughout the series, and Puck (an unusual name for a Swedish woman, I would have thought, but the name is never explained) is an aspiring academic for wom murders are only an abiding interest rather than a profession (as in the purely "amateur detective" genre, bodies are constantly appearing in her presence, and always in the vicinity of the small town of Skoga, where Eje and Christer are from, rather than in Stockholm, where all of them now live).

The TV writers have preserved the atmosphere of the book A Wreath for the Bride, without sticking too closely to the actual plot or language. In fact, Puck is absent in this text, referred to only in passing by Christer, who wishes she were nearby to offer her help. but Christer himself is very recognizable, though his literary pipe is replaced on film by cigarettes, and tobacco is ubiquitous in both.

The books are quite naturally a bit dated now, but offer an interesting glimpse into pre-noir Swedish crime fiction and culture. The translation is also a bit of its day, though Joan Tate is quite well known for her work as a translator. But Lang could certainly be said to be the founder of Scandinavian crime fiction, and her work is a vivid contrast to Wahlöö and the others who would follow--both the TV series and the arrival of new books (in Swedish, as Norstedts is bringing back some of the novels in new editions, and in English, assuming those e-books do materialize soon, are very welcome additions to our bookshelf of far-nothern crime.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Parker Bilal, The Golden Scales

Parker Bilal's first crime novel, The Golden Scales, languished on my tbr pile for the past year, until I saw a review of the 2nd novel in the series, which sent me back to the pile. Turned out to be a good decision. Bilal is a pseudonym for literary novelist Jamal Mahjoub, whose other work delves into cultural conflicts of various sorts, apparently.

His new crime series, featuring Makana, an ex-cop from Sudan now working as a private detective in Cairo (in the years prior to the recent Egyptian revolution and coup). The Golden Scales starts with a large coincidence, linking a preface that shows us an Englishwoman in 1981 who is desperately looking for her daughter, lost in Cairo. The novel proper begins in 1998, when Makana (whose private detective business is more than a little less than succesful) is hired by a prominent Egyptian developer (with a criminal background) to find the missing star of the football team he owns.

The coincidence is Makana's brief encounter with the same Englishwoman, back in Cairo and still searching for her daughter. Makana begins (as these things go in crime fiction) to see links between the missing footballer and the Englishwoman. To say much more about the plot would involve spoilers, so I'll confine myself to more general comments. The novel is written in a direct style, in the third person, mostly from Makana's point of view. There are some flashbacks to the sad story that caused Makana's flight to Egypt, and the whole pattern of stories provides a rich overlay of conflicting cultures, the topic of the author's other novels as well. But the crime story is not being condescended to. Though the story develops somewhat slowly,  and over a fairly large number of pages (almost 400), the book remains lively and involving throughout. The complexities of Egypt of the late '90s is particularly interesting, given the more recent events. But the story is at base (like many noir novels) one of unhappy families, rich and poor.