Monday, June 29, 2020

Two recommendations, from Scotland and Finland

A couple of well written, complex, and entertaining novels, one new and one from last year. Denise Mina's The Less Dead, from Mulholland Books (available this coming August in the U.S.) delves into Glasgow streets across two generations. Dr. Margo Dunlop's adoptive mother has just died, and she discovers a link to her birth mother. The novel actually begins with a fraught visit to the social service agency that is mediating between the birth mother's family and Dr. Dunlop, but shifts quickly into a dangerous journey into the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, dirty cops, and a (possible) serial killer. The book's title comes from a Scottish term equivalent to the famous "NHI" term used by the LAPD to indicate that no humans were involved in murders of prostitutes. Dr. Dunlop gets a very deep lesson in the lack of attention given to the murders of prostitutes in Glasgow. The material sounds very heavy, but Mina manages to make the text surprisingly funny at times, and at all times the story is tense and compelling.

Katja Ivar's Evil Things also deals with the death of a mother and the fate of an orphan, but in the far northern Lapland of Finland, in the early 1950s, close to a recently contested border with the Soviet Union. Hella Mauzer is the first woman to have achieved the status of detective in the Helsinki police but is now disgraced (because of an event that only becomes completely clear at the novel's end) and sent to the mostly rural far north. After the report of an elderly man even further north an closer to the Russian border, Hella becomes determined to investigate, despite her new boss's conviction that there's no case, the old man has just wandered into the forest and has probably encountered a bear. Hella's own story comes out in small bursts of her recollections, and the truth of the case comes out slowly at first, and then in rapidly increasing momentum. The story deals with murder, envy, bureaucratic refusal to consider the lives of people living in distant villages, and international conspiracy. There is also a striking echo of a current pharmacological and governmental scandal in the U.S. (watch for it, it will show up late in the book). There is, even in this tense and emotional book, some lightness and comedy, and a resolution that shifts the story from a dark pessimism into a cautious optimism about humanity and the future.

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