Book review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

25 04 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer and dramatist (he died in 2015) whose most well-known legacy is the sequence of crime novels, much in the Sjöwall & Wahlöö ‘Martin Beck’ mode, which feature the detective Kurt Wallander (whom, from TV, we now know to look very much like Kenneth Branagh).

faceless-killers

Faceless Killers (Mördare unte ansikte, 1991, translated by Steven T Murray) is Wallander’s debut. It opens with the discovery of a vicious attack on the Lövgrens, an elderly farming couple, which has left the husband dead and the wife fighting for her life. Emerging briefly from unconsciousness, Maria Lövgren is able to give the police just one word, ‘foreign’, as a clue to the identity of her assailants; there’s precious little material evidence, and no apparent motive for the brutal home invasion. When a leak to the media suggests (incorrectly) that Wallander’s team believes foreigners to be responsible for Johannes Lövgren’s death, community suspicion falls on the residents of a nearby refugee camp, and the mood turns ugly. It seems as though the only way to avert an escalation into outright racial violence is to solve an apparently-insoluble murder mystery …

Wallander isn’t a particularly stable character: he drinks to excess, has quite severe mood swings, and follows his own irrational hunches while the evidence appears to be pointing in a quite different direction. He is cast, in other words, very much in the mould of the archetypal fictional detective. In Faceless Killers, his wife Mona—for whom he retains strong feelings—has recently left him, his daughter Linda has become estranged, his father appears to be descending into irascible senility. This personal trauma intrudes repeatedly on the investigation, as does a kaleidoscope of often mundane happenstance: his car runs out of petrol, he misses appointments, he sustains a succession of minor injuries (and some not so minor), he repeatedly vows to make better meal choices the next day. And he breaks—or at least scuffs up—the fourth wall:

‘He wondered why almost every policeman was divorced. Why their wives left them. Sometimes, when he read a crime novel, he discovered with a sigh that things were just as bad in fiction. Policemen were divorced. That’s all there was to it.’

This constant accretion of humdrum detail slows the story, but it also gives it a pleasing three-dimensionality: we’re tricked into accepting Wallander as a real person, and by extension accepting also the colleagues and family members around him. In tone, temper, and pace (as well as in his author’s sociopolitical leanings), Wallander is very much the spiritual son of Martin Beck, persistent to a fault, though with less of Beck’s patience and with a rather more dour mood.

The crime is well-conceived, the investigation carefully logical (and littered with a plausible number of initially-promising dead ends), the social commentary is nuanced and reasonably thoughtful. If Mankell’s prose doesn’t quite have the searing crisp clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson or Mari Jungstedt, he still provides a robustly engrossing murder mystery.





Tolkien ‘Bout My Generation (a drabble)

19 04 2017

The little company had been arguing for days about which path to take to reach their destination. They were still bickering about it when disaster struck in the darkness, and their wizard fell towards certain death facing a formidable foe. They never understood that his final words were yet further travel directions; they assumed he was issuing a desperate rebuff to the monster that attacked them. And so they opted to follow the dangerous and difficult route through the forest and down the river, rather than the much faster and safer mountain pathway that led through Yew Shell Knot Pass.





In which I perform random acts of experimental plastic surgery

18 04 2017

Approximately six months and one day ago, I put up a post encapsulating my adventures in the fabrication of steampunk-themed props. These adventures have continued and, indeed diversified, as detailed below.

NicotinizingEmbubblifier

This exceedingly rare ‘Nicotinizing Embubblifier’ is yet another of the seemingly-inexhaustible range of pipeware produced, in the 1880s, by the Croydon firm of Geo. Dottlesworth & Sons. The Embubblifier, introduced with, it seems, some desperation into the Dottlesworth product list shortly before the once-ubiquitous company’s precipitous collapse in 1889, made use of Dottlesworth’s patent-refused Pneumatic Refluxionation technology, by which ‘the Pipe’s combustive Vapours are entrained through a miniaturized, self-heated Chamber wherein they are admixed with a mild Emulsifying Agent, thereby producing a regular and entrancing cascade of tobacco-scented Bubbles.  Whether as a locus of merriment at Parties, Sporting Events, and Funerals, or as a discreet yet unmistakable distress signal on occasions of Maritime Disaster, the Embubblifier is truly the Pipe of a Thousand Uses’. Three hundred and seventy-two were produced by Dottlesworth’s teams of skilled urchins; eight were sold. Unsold items were, of course, lost in the highly-suspicious Great Dottlesworth Fire of 1890.

This particular Embubblifier, believed to be only one of three still in existence, is considered to have been the property of Lieutenant Jedediah P. Knackersby, a military officer in the Punjab, who was allegedly never seen without at least one pipe, and more often two, protruding from his mouth. It is thought that a defect in the pipe’s refluxionation chamber, resulting either from its manufacture or from the effects of the oppressive subcontinental heat, led to an unfortunate blockage and, shortly thereafter, Lt. Knackersby’s untimely demise. The Lieutenant became, for a short time, the world’s first (and thus far sole) sentient hot-air balloon, before he was brought down by enemy fire.

Beaky_reduced

I’ve also diversified into figurines / dolls / toys, however you choose to describe them. The above is ‘Beaky’, constructed by drafting the head of a toy pterodactyl onto the body of a solar-powered light-up votive statue. The solar light pretty much only illuminates the underside of his beak, but there you go.

MyLittleCyclops1_reduced

I call this one ‘My Little Cyclops’.

Luminilla_resized

This is Lumenilla, with a plastic left-arm thresher and a battery-powered booklight head.

Seahorse_reduced

And yes, that’s a seahorse. Or, if you prefer, a mermare.

I don’t, unfortunately, have life stories for these, because who has the time?

I’ll be showing these off (and several others besides) on the Peggy Bright Books / Celestial Cobbler table which Edwina Harvey and I will be manning at Ironfest 2017, which kicks off this Friday afternoon at the Lithgow showgrounds.





Book review: Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

17 04 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, lecturer, and former TV reporter who has performed the translation of much of the Agatha Christie canon into Icelandic, whose ‘Dark Iceland’ crime novels, set in the small northern Icelandic township of Siglufjörður and featuring the rookie policeman Ari Thór Arason, a Reykjavík native newly posted to the insular town’s police force, have been gaining international attention and critical acclaim over the past couple of years.

SnowBlind

Snowblind (Snjóblinda, 2010, translated by Quentin Bates) is Ragnar’s debut novel, and opens with the recruitment of Ari Thór, a trainee policeman, by Tómas, the senior officer in Siglufjörður, a town now past its heyday as a fishing port. Ari Thór, keen to get an offer of employment after several setbacks, travels north to the town, against the wishes of his girlfriend Kristín, who stays behind to complete her own studies. Ari Thór is assured by Tómas that the criminal element in Siglufjörður is almost nonexistent, with the daily police duties much more involved with maintaining public order and safety than with the investigation of felonies. For a couple of months, this—and an apparently town-wide obsession with knowing everybody else’s business—does indeed seem to be Siglufjörður’s defining characteristic. But when the town’s most famous citizen, elderly novelist and Dramatic Society chairman Hrólfur Kristjánsson, suffers a fatal fall down a flight of stairs at a rehearsal for the Society’s latest play, followed the next week by a vicious knife attack on Linda, the wife of the play’s leading man Karl, it begins to appear to Ari Thór that the town’s inhabitants are hiding a number of secrets.

I’m not yet sure how central is the sense of geographic isolation as a feature of Icelandic crime fiction, but certainly Ragnar’s Siglufjörður seems very distant from anywhere else—it’s cut off for several days, at one point, by an avalanche which has blocked the only road out, something that Tómas (dubiously) reassures Ari Thór happens every winter—in a sense that mirrors the powerfully bleak emptiness of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores, and that seems to be absent from most continental Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read (Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal is a recent exception). Though the landscape definitely has the status of a character in its own right, the (human) characters are all clearly drawn and leave the reader progressively more deeply puzzled about the crimes that Ari Thór is investigating. There’s an impressive sense of life continuing behind and beyond the pages of the novel: every character (and there are enough of them, almost all with unfamiliar names like Ugla, Leifur, Pálmi, Úlfur, and Hlynur, that I felt the lack of an explicit dramatis personae) has a detailed and often tragic backstory which is gradually teased out. The mystery is well-buried and satisfying, and the ending is sufficiently bittersweet as to motivate the reader to want to know what happens next …

If I have a gripe, it’s that the paperback edition I read (which has excellent design values) suffers from several typographic errors, one of which is potentially serious enough to throw an alert reader out of the story. (Chapters are headed with the appropriate date, which is useful enough, except that two consecutive chapters both identified as occurring on Sunday 11th January 2009 detail events which could not both have occurred on that day.) But other than this, Snowblind is a powerful, contained, and highly impressive debut.





Book review: The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Le Guin

15 04 2017

Over the past half century or so, Ursula K Le Guin’s work has received just about every SF / fantasy writing award going, and has achieved a greater degree of cut-through into the broader literary sphere than almost any of her genre contemporaries. I first encountered her writing through her ‘Earthsea’ trilogy (as it was then), but have also read many others of her books including the avowed classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

TheWordForWorldIsForest

I first read The Word for World is Forest about thirty years ago; it didn’t particularly resonate with me at the time, and I think I subsequently confused it in my memory with her YA novel Threshold (also known by the title The Beginning Place), which I read at about the same time. When I realised recently that I didn’t recognise its synopsis, I decided a reappraisal was in order.

The Word for World is Forest is set on Athshe / World 41 / New Tahiti, home of a diminutive race of docile, intelligent green-furred humanoids known, by the terrestrial scientists who are studying them, as Athsheans, and as ‘Creechies’ by the soldiers and sawmill operators who have moved in to cut down the planet’s trees for precious timber to be sent back to a now-treeless Earth. Many of the Athsheans have been pressganged into service as labourers across the various timber-felling operations, but their largely nonconfrontational nature sees the Terran (‘Yuman’) settlers taking greater and greater liberties with their small green slave labour force. Eventually, a line is crossed, and a vicious insurrection ensues. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Captain Donald Davidson, the supervisor of tree-clearing operations at Smith Camp; Selver, an Athshean held at Smith Camp, whose wife Thele has been raped and killed by Davidson; and Dr Raj Lyupov, a researcher at the central Terran, whose efforts to unravel the secrets of Athshean culture—a matriarchal society which places great importance on the technique of directed dreaming—have been substantially assisted by his interactions with Selver. All three individuals are, in their own way, quite strongly rebellious, and seek to follow their own directions rather than follow the guidelines explicitly or implicitly set for them by their respective societies, and this leads ultimately to disaster.

There are clear parallels between WWF and the movie Avatar: substitute wood for unobtanium, change the locals’ skin colour from green to blue, and you’re mostly there. The more immediate (and openly acknowledged) parallel, though, is with the Vietnam war, at its height when the story was first published in 1968; and I would say that there are also echoes, whether conscious or unconscious, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Depressingly, the book has scarcely dated at all, and seems at least as topical now as it was fifty years ago.

Of the protagonists, Davidson is ruthless and venal; Selver is determined but troubled; Lyupov is prone to doubts. All three are utterly self-consistent, but with sufficient complexity of personality to render them both interesting and believable. There’s a solid moral subtext to the story, but it plays out cleanly as a contest between wholly motivated characters, and the text leaves you in no doubt as to why they’ve behaved as they have. Within its short frame (it is, I think, somewhere on the border between novella and novel) there’s enough vivid depiction to build up a clear and detailed picture of Athshean society—as befits, I suppose, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer—and of the planetary ecology. The story has a kind of horrible inevitability to it, the atrocities are contained and yet truly shocking—as befits, I suppose, a tale of conflict written at the height of the Vietnam war—and the ending rings true. There are almost certainly more comprehensive treatments of the dehumanising effect of war, elsewhere in the SF canon, but WWF endures as a compact and insightful look at the depths to which human nature can descend.





All the Colours of the Shortlist, episode 2

14 04 2017

It’s come to my attention that the Ditmar Awards ballot has been announced. Here’s the Best Novella / Novelette category:

  • “All the Colours of the Tomato”, Simon Petrie, in Dimension6 9.
  • “By the Laws of Crab and Woman”, Jason Fischer, in Review of Australian Fiction, Vol 17, Issue 6.
  • “Did We Break the End of the World?”, Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Defying Doomsday, Twelfth Planet Press.
  • “Finnegan’s Field”, Angela Slatter, in Tor.com.
  • “Glass Slipper Scandal”, Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Sheep Might Fly.
  • “Going Viral”, Thoraiya Dyer, in Dimension6 8.

(As a side note, all but one of these stories are also vying for an Aurealis Award.)

It’s great, also, to see Adam Browne’s wonderful artwork for The Tame Animals of Saturn in the running for Best Artwork, and elsewhere there’s a heavy presence of other CSFG members and appearances by talented friends such as Edwina Harvey. I wish everyone the best of luck.





Book review: The Nightmare, by Lars Kepler

12 04 2017

‘Lars Kepler’ is the pen name of Swedish husband-and-wife crimewriting team Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, who have written six novels featuring the protagonist Joona Linna.

thenightmare

The Nightmare (Paganinikontraktet, 2010, translated by Laura A Wideburg) opens with a televised debate between Penelope Fernandez, peace activist, and Pontus Salman, arms manufacturer. It’s an inconclusive slanging match, but it obviously strikes a nerve somewhere within the dark recesses of Swedish society, because within days two people closely connected with the debate are dead from not-so-natural causes and Penelope herself is on the run from a ruthless and highly proficient killer. It’s up to Detective Inspector Joona Linna, Finnish-born wunderkind of the Swedish CID, to try to figure out what’s happened, and to guess at where the hitman will strike next.

This novel is impressively detailed and tautly plotted, but it’s let down, I felt, by lumpy characterisation: Joona, for example (who’s referred to far too often, particularly in the book’s first half, as ‘Joona Linna’, as though we’re in any danger of forgetting who he is), is a tad Mary Sue-ish, with his lightning-fast reflexes, quick thinking, and infallible intuition; his one Achilles heel is a susceptibility to surprisingly evanescent and always inconvenient migraine attacks when he’s not medicated with a mind-dulling preventative treatment, and the rock-star-like reception he receives from an elite team of police specialists rings more than a little false. The tone of the writing, too, is a little dull: events are depicted clearly enough, but the words don’t shine in the way they ought; there’s not the clipped and chiselled cadence of classic noir, nor the ice-cold purity of language of the best evocations of Scandinavian social realism. There are whole chapters of backstory which (though ultimately relevant) are, at first pass, awkwardly placed to interrupt the developing narrative; and the action, while often gripping, suffers on occasion from credulity-straining excess and relates, on too many occasions, to characters for whom it’s difficult to muster enough empathy for the outcome to matter. The book suffers, in my opinion, in seeking to marry the traditional airport thriller with the Swedish crime predilection for social commentary, a conjunction it doesn’t properly pull off.

I’ve probably made it sound less worthwhile than it truly is: there are some undeniably impressive set-pieces within the book, and some characters sufficiently intriguing that, by the book’s end, I wished I’d learnt more about them. And if your tastes run to action and suspense, it might well be to your liking. It’s constructed solidly enough, and it holds together; it just didn’t fit me as well as I’d hoped it might.