Saturday, February 26, 2011

Icelandic noir/political/police procedural

Published in the U.S. as Frozen Assets and in the U.K. as Frozen Out, Quentin Bates's new crime novel set in Iceland is evidently the first in a series featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur, a uniformed police officer in charge of the station in a small fishing town. Though Gunnhildur is a widow who refuses to talk about her husband and is now the single mother of a teenage girl and a young man (out at sea on a fishing vessel), she has little of the grim outlook of the main character of Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic series and less of the "ordinary-life," almost cozy character of Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's.

Bates is English, but has lived in Iceland and has also been a journalist for a commercial fishing magazine, both certainly qualifications for the job of bringing Gunnhildur's setting to life. The novel is first a straightforward police procedural, with "Gunna," as she is frequently known, dealing with her superiors in Keflavik and Reykjavik, her diverse colleagues in Hvalvik, and a drowned man who is found along the docks.

Her superiors want the case ruled a suicide, but Gunna thinks there's more to it and pursues it doggedly to its roots in a Rekjavik P.R. agency, an aluminum plant and a power plant in her own neighborhood, and an anonymous blogger who seems to know too much about the private lives of some politicians, P.R. folks, and the financial shenanigans behind the construction projects. And lurking behind it all is what some of the characters fear (and the reader knows is looming), the Icelandic financial meltdown.

Fans of police procedurals as a genre will be with Gunna all along, and thriller fans will be engaged by the time the plot gets into high gear in the last half, after Gunna has discovered who's behind the death (and some others) and is in hot, but frustrating, pursuit. And increasingly as the plot moves along, we are in classic noir territory, as the corruption at the top of government and business throws sand in the gears of the investigation.

Wisely, though, Bates keeps the focus on the street level investigation, rather than moving into the corridors of power. The story stays at the level of the ordinary policewoman rather than reaching into political-thriller territory, and we see the effects, rather than the closeup activities, of the corrupt hierarchy. Also interesting is the penetration of the blogger into the plot, in terms of periodic posts, and the young journalist who is shadowing Gunna for a story on rural cops.

All the elements mesh smoothly and enjoyably, and every time the story seems to be heading for a cliche, Bates steers away into something more interesting. While the gloomy intensity of Indridason's novels is not present here, Bates's book is more vivid, to me, than Sigurdardóttir's: livelier and more noir, somehow, at the same time.

I'm curious whether readers find the U.K. or the U.S. title and cover more appealing. Votes, anyone? I think the U.K. cover is more graphically interesting, but the U.S. cover has a certain retro-noir appeal that I actually prefer (Soho Crime, the U.S. publisher, does a good job with covers).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hans Werner Kettenbach's The Stronger Sex

The Stronger Sex, newly published in English translation (done by Anthea Bell) by crime fiction publisher Bitter Lemon Press, isn't really a crime novel, or even a thriller, despite including a private detective, a race track, a mysterious older woman and a young lover, a young lawyer thrust into a difficult case without knowing the consequences, and so on. But the case deals with an accusation that an employer has dismissed a worker improperly: a woman working for a despotic entrepreneur asks for time off, and when refused, she takes sick leave. When the employer fires her without notice, she sues under German workers' rights laws and the case is set to come before a special employment tribunal.

Young attorney Alexander Zabel is assigned to defend the employer, Herbert Klofft, in the case by his boss, who is a friend of Klofft's. Most of the novel is Zabel's first-person puzzlement over how to proceed in the case, mixed with his on-again-off-again relationship with an attractive art critic, his fascination with the sexy-but-seventy Cilly Klofft, the defendant's wife, and his alternating sympathy and repulsion with regard to the difficult but very ill Kofft.

The blurbs accompanying the book suggest a similarity to Patricia Highsmith, which is indeed a valid comment—but it's to Highsmith's tightly wound but quieter novels, rather than the Ripley books. For me, the relationship of Zabel and Cilly was the most interesting element in what is a noir story but one whose violence is for the most part emotional and psychological rather than physical or blatant.

In fact, The Stronger Sex reminds me, in retrospect, of a short story rather than a novel, a very long story (342 pages, but more of a meditation centering on a minor incident rather than working with a bigger subject or a more complex plot. Of the three Bitter Lemon books by Kettenbach, David's Story and Black Ice, I found The Stronger Sex to be the most interesting and the most readable, though the furthest of the three from any conventional aspects of crime fiction. In some ways it reminds me o the recent novels by Peter Temple (Truth in particular), though it is much further from the rules and structures of the detective story or mystery novel than Temple's books—it's the concentration on character and situation and voice that I was reminded of in reading Kettenbach.

So: It's a bit of Temple, a bit of Hollywood (or even London) Boulevard, a bit if Highsmith, and a bit of mainstream fiction. I recommend it if you're in the mood for something quite different.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Håkan Nesser: The Inspector and Silence

Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren series was written in Swedish in the '90s but is just reaching English (can his new series be far behind?), with what is, I think, the 5th translation, The Inspector and Silence. Simultaneously with reading the book, I heard a rumor that the MhZ Network in the U.S. has purchased the rights to the Van Veeteren TV series, to be shown this spring--an interesting development, if true.

The Inspector and Silence kept reminding me of two other, seemingly contradictory, crime novelists, the classic Swiss detective stories of Friedrich Glauser and the quirky novels of French writer Fred Vargas. Somehow, the ruminative Van Veeteren thrust into a small town (as he is in this book and in some others) reminded me of the dour detective of the Swiss writer, while his character quirks reminded me of Vargas's Adamsberg. Van Veeteren, just to name a couple of instances, plays both chess and badminton obsessively, likes to use stock phrases and aphorisms, and goes off by himself during the investigation, discovering the clue to the mystery by accident.

There are long passages of narrative, broken by occasional dialogue, and fortunately both the narrator and the interior monologue of Van Veeteren are lively and often funny. The narrator isn't Van Veeteren, but they share a wry sensibility, both of them often comparing the current situation to crime novels and movies (there are explicit references to Poirot and Holmes as well). The other cops are an intereting group, though not on stage nearly as much as the Chief Inspector.

The story isn't really a puzzle mystery, since the reader is as much at sea as the detectives. A woman calls a small-town police station, manned by a substitute while the chief of police is on vacation (it's July, and all the other detectives have vacation plans for August), saying that a young girl has disappeared from a summer camp run by a religious cult. When the acting chief, and ultimately Van Veeteren, called in to assist, question the cult (which has sexual overtones), no one will admit that anyone is missing, and no one offers much help.

Most of the novel is taken up with Van Veeteren's musings about what little they know, and about the cult itself, with little progress (though events do begin to take over the story with new discoveries). Much of the considerable pleasure, though, is sharing time with the off-center detective, who at the beginning is plotting to vacation in the same spot as a woman from a previous case (she's unaware of his machinations) and his desire to quit the police and become part-owner of an antiquarian bookshop.

Readers of the series will know (and anticipate with pleasure) the latest of Nesser's books to be translated, and new readers might dive in to The Inspector and Silence without any problem. Either way, I can highly recommend this book by a very different Swedish crime novelist.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Roslund & Hellström, Three Seconds

The new Swedish noir by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström is unusual in several ways. First, the running character around whom their crime series is based, Ewert Grens, isn't at the center of the novel; and Grens is probably the most thoroughly unlikable central character in any crime series. The idiosyncratic pair of detectives in K.O. Dahl's series come close at times, but are more sympathetic (to peers and readers than Grens, who drives everyone away who might become a friend. More about him in a minute.

The character who is at the center of Three Seconds is the most unusual undercover operative I've come across in crime fiction, apparently a reflection of the real tendency of Swedish police to use criminals, rather than undercover cops, to penetrate criminal organizations. So Piet Hoffman, the "hero" of the book, is a snitch. We learn something about his motivations only very late in the book: for the most part, we can only see his sacrifices (paid off the books and not that handsomely; forced to lie to his wife and kids, and then to put them at risk). His criminal record is exaggerated by his handlers to give him street (and prison) cred, while he's actually a petty criminal whose background we know little about.

Roslund & Hellström frequently write about prison and prisoners, and most of this book is about both the Polish mafia and the police striving to insert Hoffman, code name Paula, into prison in order to take over the drug trade (and, on the part of the police, attack the crime organization). Hoffman's preparations for prison are fascinating, approaching The Day of the Jackal in the intricacy of technical processes about which the reader can only guess the function.

And the novel ticks along quickly until suddenly Hoffman needs to put his preparations into use, at which point (fair warning) the book shifts into very high gear, pulling the reader along compulsively. It's fascinating to watch the plot unfold, to find out what the "three seconds" of the title signify, and to follow the ultimate shift of emphasis from Hoffman to Grens. Readers will probably anticipate one of the final plot points, but it's nevertheless a pleasure to see it unfold. The story is very Swedish, in the sense that it turns upon a type of corruption that a number of Swedish crime writers have depicted, more so than some other nationalities of noir (not only Larsson but in different ways Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Leif G. W. Persson).

Grens is here finally undergoing a process of grief, letting go of a wife injured by his own (inadvertent) actions and recently deceased after a very long sojourn in a nursing home. In the process, his obsession with a particular Swedish pop singer of an earlier generation is ever-present in his very renunciation of it (and her). Grens is almost at retirement, obsessive, solitary, aggressive, angry, and finally showing a few glimmers of humanity.

Three Seconds improves upon an already accomplished crime series, through its glimpses of Grens's life in transition and through the creation of an original character in Hoffman: plus it has an intriguing and involving plot. Don't be put off the book if prison stories aren't your "thing,": although the prison is at the heart of the book, it's not a prison book. And although it's a "thesis" novel, taking on a social ill as perceived by the authors, the story remains in the characters caught in nets of their own making, rather than in abstract principles.