Friday, August 24, 2012

New crime from Iceland

Arni Thorarinsson is a succesful Icelandic crime writer with a big following in France (among other places) and is just now arriving in English (courtesy of translator Anna Yates and AmazonCrossing,'s venture into translated fiction) with the fourth, rather than the first, of his series featuring intrepid journalist Einar (many Icelanders (including this books's author), as readers of other Icelandic crime fiction know, mainly use their first name, along with a patronymic rather than a family name).

Einar is a recovering alcoholic who has been sent (for his sins) to cover the privincial city of Akureyri (rather than his usual Reykjavik beat), along with his former news editor, now downgraded to heading the Akureyri office. There's obviously some back story to all this, but a reader will not be handicapped by not having been able to read the previous novels.

There's an interesting parallel and contrast not only between Thorarinsson's book and the books of the most prominent Icelandic crime writer (outside Iceland, at least), Arnaldur IndriĆ°ason and a Swedish author, Mari Jungstedt. The contrast with IndriĆ°ason is stark: his books are vivid and gripping but emotionally cool and decidedly dour, in terms of the characters and the stories. Thorarinsson's hero is a first-person narrator with a quick wit and a sarcastic attitude: rather than grim and dour, Einar's narrative is lively but still vivid. Though Einar is a smart-ass, with all the friction that comes with that attitude, in terms of his relations with co-workers and others, he also shares a quality with Mari Jungsteadt's journalist character, JOhann Berg: both are working in the provinces, and both have a higher sense of journalistic ethics than their bosses. And both tend to be a bit self-righteous about their ethics (more a Scandinavian attitude, perhaps--I can't think of an American or British journalist in crime fiction with his attitude).

Another similarity with Jungsteadt's stories is Joa, the young woman photographer who has also been banished from Reykjavik to Akureyri. Pia, in the more recent Jungstedt books, works with Johann but is very independent and has a bit of Lisbeth Salander in her (toned down to a more realistic character). Joa, too, is independent and quick-witted and, when push comes to shove in a confrontation with some skinheads, also has a bit of Lisbeth in her.

I had been looking forward to having access to Thorarinsson's books in English for some time, and Season of the Witch (named for the Donovan song, with plays a part in the story at several points) fulfilled its promise. It's a quite different kind of Icelandic crime fiction, and gives a different view of Icelandic culture and landscape from other writers in the genre. I have to say I don't like the cover that AmazonCrossing has given it very much: it doesn't really give much sense of the story or setting, seemingly pointing only to the first syllable in the name of the country. There are a couple of points in the book where I couldn't quite go along with the story (that fight with the dkinheads collapsed a bit, for me--I won't give away anything by explaining) and an otherwise effectively comic character (a small bird) comes in for some over-the-top comic effect toward the end. But those are small quibbles, i recommend the book and am already looking forward to having more of the author available in English (especially if Anna Yates contitues to be the translator--the prose glides smoothly and elegantly along in English).

I bought the book as a second-hand galley (without the cover that I don't like), but full disclosure: I know the author's sister, a sculptor who is well-respected both in and outside Iceland.

Friday, August 10, 2012

One from Finland and one from Sweden

I finally got my hands on a digital copy of mari Jungstedt's The Dead of Summer (courtesy of Netgalley) and also received a new Finnish crime novel (new to English) courtesy of the Ice Cold Crime publishing company: Seppo Jokinen's Wolves and Angels. They're both police procedurals, but are quite different from each other.

Jungstedt's series featuring Anders Knutas, head of the Gotland detective squad, is unusual in several respects (in comparison to other crime series). One is the setting: the vacation island off the coast of Sweden, and in particular the medieval city of Visby. But the most interesting quality of the series is that it reads like one continuous narrative, particularly in terms of a strong set of plotlines concerning secondary characters, the reporter Johann Berg and his on-again-off-again relationship with a witness from the first novel in the series, Emma Winarven. At the point where The Dead of Summer begins, Johan has been expelled from Emma's life except for the occasional hand-off of their child.

Another secondary character in the series is Karin Jacobssen, Knutas's most competent detective and now his assistant in the department. Karin has been a bit of a cipher in the series, but here she gets more time in the foreground and we find out a bit more about her own background (as well as, in the conclusion, her character). Though there is indeed a dragon-tattooish female character in this and other books in the series, a young photographer who works with Johan, Karin provides a more realistic portrait of a woman crime-fighter in Sweden today, as well as being a complex character in her own right.

There are several plotlines in The Dead of Summer, including Karin's first chance to head up an investigation (Knutas is away in his wife's native Denmark on vacation), when a camper on the Gotland coast is shot to death. Knutas, to Karin's dismay, has trouble staying away. There's a backstory concerning a German family decades before whose vacation on Gotland is disrupted by violence. And then there's Johan and Emma.

A reader will figure out how these plotlines come together long before they actually do, but the identity of the perpetrator and the final outcome of the investigation are more interesting and well worth pursuing to the end of the book.

Jokinen's story is also unusual in a couple of respects. The series features Detective Sakari Koskinen, head of the detective squad in Tampere (one of Finland's larger cities). Wolves and Angels isn't the first of the series, but is the first to make it into English. Koskinen's detectives are individually characterized in interesting way, but it's Koskinen himself who is the main focus and the most interesting character. After his divorce, he has dedicated himself (become obsessed, even) with exercize, particularly running and cycling, and he takes a lot of ribbing from his puzzled cohorts about the obsession. But he's also very quick to anger, and having trouble controlling his temper.

The story is also a bit unusual, beginning with the first victim: a paraplegic but runs with a "gang" of wheelchair bound "fallen angels." There's a lot of interesting material about people living in an assisted living facility (and their lives are not whitewashed in terms of their disabilities or their personalities). Koskinen makes slow progress through another murder and a disappearance, fighting resistance from one stubborn and outspoken detective as well as several other colleagues whose attitudes Koskinen is having trouble figuring out or dealing with.

There's an earnestness about the dialogue among the cops, in spite of their various attempts at levity, that seems particularly characteristic of nordic noir: these writers take their social milieux very seriously. But Jokinen is never preachy and his characters and his plot are always believable. And in this case, it's not only the Finnish setting that is "another country" for most readers, there's also the world of those having difficulty with the physical management of their daily lives.