Sunday, March 11, 2007
Some writers who turn to crime fiction after having a career in another genre or in mainstream fiction turn out what might be called "professional" novels that are incidentally crime novels. Elmore Leonard is an exception--his earlier career was in Westerns, and his crime novels, while throughly professional, have a casually written air, almost as if they were transcribed rather than composed. One example of professional, though no less enjoyable for that, fiction is Inger Frimansson's recently translated Good Night, My Darling. Frimansson's book also contrasts with the previous Swedish novel reviewed here, Mari Jungstedt's Unseen. Both novels turn on revenge for events experienced much earlier, in school. Both feature girl bullies. Both include substantial flashbacks. And both are "collective" novels, a term I've been using to describe stories told from multiple points of view, i.e. with the focus split among a number of characters. But Unseen is a procedural, a roman policier, and that structure dominates the plot. Good Night, My Darling is instead a thriller, I suppose--without the overlay or grid of police activity. And the atmospheric, slowly building composition takes shape in more poetic language than is typically the case with the policier (and the language of Unseen is typical of the genre--a plain language that I happen to appreciate in contemporary writing--not Hemingway-esque or even Simenon-esque, but still straightforward). Frimansson's first book in English is not overwritten, by any means, and perhaps resembles Ruth Rendell than any other prominent writer in English that I can think of. But there's also quite a bit of Patricia Highsmith, and even a taste of Beat Not the Bones, the amazing jungle adventure/suspense novel by Charlotte Jay (an adventure hinted at from the novel's first words occupies a large chunk of narrative toward the end). There's not an early murder to solve, there's a building sense that something bad is going to happen, and a slow revelation of bad things that have happened in the past, things that foreshadow or even determine what is happening in the book's "now." One of the pleasures of Frimansson's book is a more complete picture of a certain suburban slice of Stockholm than has so far been shown in most contemporary Swedish crime fiction. This isn't urban Stockholm--it's the city's boundary with nature. Stockholm is built on a lake, and is at the edge of an archipelago, and nature is important to even urban Swede's sense of themselves. The denizens of this novel dwell at that not-quite city and not-quite rural zone, and nature invades the main character's house, in the form of a tame bird that is not the usual parrot, parakeet, or canary. These characters are not cliche Swedes, though--several of them have non-Swedish forebears (the main character, Justine, has a French mother, who died when her daughter was 3). And the characters range in age from the remembered primary school kids of the novel's past to a paralyzed old woman in a rest home--as well as a moral range across numerous shades of gray. No one in the novel is guiltless, but all are sympathetic. My only quibble with the novel is that at the end, Justine's character seems hardly capable of some of her actions, regardless of her substantial motivation--but that ties her to Highsmith's characters, in fact, since Highsmith's violence often far exceeds the apparent capacities of the characters who perpetrate it. I'm pasting in a cover from a recent Swedish paperback edition because the American cover isn't up on the web anywhere yet--I may come back and paste in the American one later.