Nowhere to post reviews. So here they are.
I wasn’t impressed by Liza Marklund’s Prime Time, featuring young journalist, Annika Bengtzon. I thought the characters were a bit thin and the plot a bit Agatha Christie. Maybe Marklund’s publisher had wanted another novel quickly at the time? Anyway, I persisted and read 2 more murder thrillers featuring the same media characters.
Exposed by Liza Marklund
This has the trainee journalist, Annika Bengtzon, manning the tip-off phoneline on a work placement at Stockholm's biggest tabloid newspaper. Of course she receives a call informing her that the body of a young woman has been found and she investigates. The blurb says, ‘There is suddenly far more at stake here than Annika's career, and the more questions she asks, the more she leaves herself dangerously exposed.’ This sensational build-up seems a bit misplaced (or maybe it’s from another novel). Anyway, I quite enjoyed this rather more solid tale and Bengtzon came across as more three-dimensional. Without spoiling the story too much, I can say that Bengtzon stumbles across video footage that places the main suspect hundreds of miles from the crime scene, right at the time of the murder. 'That night he did something so controversial that he'd rather be suspected of murder than tell anyone what he was really doing. What could possibly be worse than that?' A nice premise and a sign that she is after all an instinctive investigative journalist. And I am still fascinated at the way information is so readily available in Sweden.
Red Wolf by Liza Marklund
This one has Annika Bengtzon, now a crime reporter, investigating a death against the explicit orders of her boss, which seems to lead to a series of deaths, including that of a journalist investigating the same incident. I am not reading these books in the order they were written, so there were references here to previous episodes that I didn’t understand, but, again, it was a good story that I enjoyed. There was still though the unnecessary sensationalism (‘Caught in a frenzied spiral of secrets and violence, Annika finds herself and her marriage at breaking point. Will her refusal to stop pursuing the truth eventually destroy her?’) It was an interesting read, but the ‘frenzied spiral’ and acts which might ‘eventually destroy her’ were tricky to find. It was set in the north of Sweden, in the middle of a particularly freezing winter, which added that air of gloom and foreboding and devastation that makes Nordic thrillers the genre that they are. My only real complaint is the attempt here to turn Bengtzon into a human being with personal problems and baggage. This genre is usually good at doing this, but somehow the little girl who constantly breaks down into tears when her boss is cross with her, doesn’t square with the constant references to her as ‘top crime reporter’ and ‘dogged investigator’. But there, she’s a woman, written about by another woman; what do I know? The incidents investigated, by the way, are all based on real life events, which makes them credible I suppose, but also an uncomplicated, easy-read series.
The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser.
Another case for Swedish Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. I still don’t know quite what to make of these novels. The story was interesting enough - a girl went missing from the summer camp of a mysterious religious sect and a young girl's body is subsequently discovered in the woods nearby, raped and strangled. This time, the story is set in the soporific heart of a summer heat-wave, which provides an interesting counter-point to the usual ice and snow and Nordic gloom. I like the way the investigation unwinds in these thrillers, usually coming to a dead end when there are no more clues to pursue and leading to painstaking, laborious re-examinations. I’m sure most police investigations are like this. Here, the sect refuses to cooperate and all lines of enquiry run into the scorching sand around the forested lake. Van Veeteren is approaching retirement and is in holiday mood, but is asked to apply his usual intuition when the police have more or less given up making progress and there is another murder. So far, so good. What I’m not sure about though is that, as in previous Van Veeteren stories, we are never given an insight into this famous intuition. The detective goes off, apparently enjoying the glorious weather, boating on the lake and sitting in pub gardens, yet somehow makes progress where the combined might of the police force has failed. And I’m not quite sure I really like Van Veeteren either. Anyway, a good atmospheric piece and a credible crime tale in the usual readable style (by Mankell’s translator).
Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
This is the first book in the classic Martin Beck detective series from the 1960s - the novels that set the tone and the standard of Scandinavian crime writing to come, if not crime writing in general. I was very please to get hold of it at last. It was reading this book, as a young man, that enthralled Henning Mankell and inspired him to start writing and to invent Wallender. The enigmatic, taciturn, overworked, job-obsessed Martin Beck indeed is the model for many detectives since, such as Rebus and Scudder. Despite a few references to outdated views of the time, it stands up well today. The authors intended their stories to be firmly socialist in nature and critical, if not of society, of the government of the time. This is a theme Mankell took up with gusto, as his Wallander looks on in mystification at the way Swedish society has developed. That commentary, the unglamorous detective, and the slow build-up of the suspense in Roseanna, must have been stunning at the time. Even now, it is still a good read. The naked body of a young woman is dredged up from a Swedish canal. She has been sexually assaulted and strangled. But no one has reported her missing and Martin Beck can find no clue to her identity. Three months later, all that Police Inspector Martin Beck knows is that her name is Roseanna, that she came from Lincoln, Nebraska, and that she could have been strangled by any one of eighty-five people. As the investigation struggles on, it is of course the detective and his preoccupations on which we focus. Great stuff. Must now to try to find some more in the series.
Missing by Karin Alvtegen.
Another new author – no doubt now appearing on library shelves because of the continuing popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction. In The Grand Hotel, a homeless woman charms a businessman into paying for dinner and a room. When his dead body is discovered the following morning she becomes the prime suspect. When a second person is killed in similar circumstances, Sybilla, having left her comfortable middle-class upbringing for the anonymity of the streets, becomes the most wanted person in Sweden . . . I have now read several novels involving homeless persons on the streets of Sweden; they can’t all be total fiction. Perhaps all these novels coninue to shine a light on the disjointed, unequal nature of society in Sweden. I found that aspect of the story fascinating. I also quite like the plot line – one which has been much done before (Frantic, The Fugitive, North by North-West, and other Hitchcock films). But this is not so much a murder thriller as a journey by our heroine to find her way in life. Those she meets on her way provide keys to her eventual existence. But we do want to know who dunnit too. Not a detective thriller as such, but an interesting book. On the strength of the blurb on the back of this book, I borrowed it and another by Alvtegen, without checking the blurb on the second book. That turned out not to be a thriller at all.
Sacrifice by Karin Alvtegen.
Monika is driven to succeed as a doctor - but cannot allow herself any personal happiness. Maj-Britt is desperate to be left alone. A tragic accident brings these two strangers together. The blurb then says, ‘forcing them to confront their darkest fears’; I must have missed that bit. The blurb also asks, ‘why does she shun society?’ I still don’t know. Again, I found that reading a tale of characters in another land, their lifestyles and their decisions interesting in itself. But, despite the surprise ending, not really my glass of aquavit at all.
Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft.
Yet another Swedish crime thriller to appear on the crest of the wave of Scandi-fever. This novel introduces a female hero for a change, Malin Fors, a detective with the usual kinds of messy personal baggage (a thirty-one-year-old single mother), but possessing special investigative skills. She is first on the scene, when a naked man is found hung from a tree on a frozen plain in the middle of nowhere. For a while, no one knows the identity of the dead man, but it seems that maybe no one cares. A tale of small town society trying to keep its secrets hidden. This was in the end a run of the mill thriller, with a plot that I quite enjoyed. Malin is a good characterisation and her instincts are what makes her a good detective and keeps things moving along. And of course the cold and snow make it what it is. What I hated though were the ‘voices’ that linked each chapter. It’s fine, and a normal plotting conceit, to have persons in the background voicing their thoughts to help the reader understand motives and actions. But having the dead man speaking to Malin was a bit weird and I found it an unnecessary distraction. I read another review which said that the voices were what Malin could ‘hear’ and what drove her instincts. Sorry, I didn’t understand that at the time. Maybe, now you know, it won’t disturb you quite as much as it did me.
The Day is Dark by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Another, the fourth, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir story. Thora is an Icelandic solicitor, who investigates primarily for insurance claims, but who ends up resembling a Scandinavian detective. She has a few problems at home and personal frictions, but these serve only to make her more human and do not overshadow the story, as they often can. In this investigation, contact has been lost with two Icelanders working in a harsh and sparsely-populated area of Greenland. Thóra is hired to investigate. In everyone’s mind too is the fact that a woman had vanished from the site some months earlier. The almost sunless days of the Greenland winter provide a nice brooding backdrop to the novel and the tensions that arise between the members of the team in this lonely, unforgiving, place are entirely credible. The inexplicable hostility of the locals adds to the unsettling atmosphere. And I was rudely reminded that Scandinavian countries are not all one, as the Icelanders grapple with Danish and English to make themselves understood to the Greenlanders. A chilling tale in more senses than one and with nicely created shocks at the end of almost each chapter. The most gripping to date of the Thora novels. Sigurdardottir has now acquired the ‘Iceland’s Larsson’ or ‘if you liked Nesbo’ tag, which is helpful only to those selling the book, in other words not helpful at all. Would make a good film I reckon, with scary music and inexplicable things happening all the time. A great read this one.
The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler
And yet another new author, in fact another husband and wife writing team, and the book has apparently sold millions all around the world. I can only guess that that is because, like so many these days, it says on the cover, ‘if you liked Stieg Larsson and are missing The Killing buy this'. In fact it’s nothing like either. It’s a good story – quite fast-moving, exciting, complex, mystifying, etc – all that a crime thriller needs to be. A gruesome triple murder attracts the interest of Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate. There is only one witness - the boy whose family was killed before his eyes. But he is deeply wounded and is comatose with shock. Linna engages Dr. Erik Bark to hypnotise the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes. But Bark has sworn never again to practise hypnotism on traumatised patients. And so the story unfolds and leads where no one expected. So far so good, as a premise. But it has received quite a lot of poor criticism (which makes the claim of it being an international sensation a bit odd). Firstly, there are too many main characters. Is the hypnotist the hero? We follow all his problems, his cases, his personal life, his involvement with this case. Or is Linna the hero? He is after all the detective trying to unravel the mystery. But we don’t learn too much about him. Why is he the top detective, etc? Does he solve this case or does someone else in fact? Then there is a sub-plot with some other characters; I wasn’t quite sure who they were. Why was that there? Maybe that is one of the problems of a husband/wife writing team? Anyway, sort all that out, or ignore it completely, and you’re left with a gripping tale that is well worth the read. Oh, and why is hypnotism the only solution at the start? And why does he have to use a discredited hypnotist who has sworn never to work again? Oh, never mind; it’s a thriller, it has crimes and a detective, and it’s Swedish.
Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen
You may remember that I quite enjoyed Mercy (The Keeper of Lost Causes in the US), this author’s first book, when the unsolved crime department was set up. Well, here’s his second book. After the ‘success’ of the first case, Carl Mørck now has a second assistant and things are going better than he expected. But he decides to take on a case where the killer confessed and is just completing his long prison sentence. Why? Who knows? He’s an instinctive detective after all! The case concerns the murder of a brother and sister twenty years earlier. A group of boarding school students were the suspects at the time, until one of them confessed. If this is another book that offers a commentary on present day society (this time Danish), it’s pretty damning. Again we follow closely a girl who lives on the streets. She has learnt to be invisible and elude the police and the rest of her boarding school friends who want to find her. She steals and beats up people who tangle with her. But she has lots of money and is not entirely sane. All this seems to be because of her treatment by her friends and her parents. We are never told why they treated her this way. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; the case is after all about the friends. These are now very wealthy prominent citizens, who have achieved their success through ruthlessness, cruelty and a bit of illegality. How they now live their lives and amuse themselves is somewhat incredible, even to a common pauper like me. But there we are – this is the upper echelon of Danish society. Perhaps the girl on the streets is the indictment of these excesses? Anyway, the police characters are filling out nicely and this book has a new translator which makes the language rather easier to accept than Mercy. The story runs along nicely and is exciting enough to keep interest until the end. Although did the detective actually solve the crime? There is still much that isn’t explained here, but maybe, with the exciting ending particularly, we can wait until the next novel. I enjoyed it anyway. I wouldn’t want to meet any of these upper class Danish types though. Hopefully the next book will continue to develop the characters and will have an investigation on the same, more routine lines. Hopefully too one that is actually unsolved, since he seems to have hundreds of such cases on his desk.