Book review: Where Roses Never Die, by Gunnar Staalesen

22 05 2017

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian writer best known for his longrunning ‘Varg Veum’ crime fiction series, documenting the cases of a lugubrious, deadpan, good-hearted, aquavit-sculling PI based in Staalesen’s hometown of Bergen. There are almost twenty books in the Veum series, of which less than half have yet appeared in English translation.


Where Roses Never Die (Der hvor roser aldri dør, 2012, translated by Don Bartlett) is set in March 2012, but revolves around the events of almost twenty-five years earlier. Veum is contracted by a desperate parent, Maja Misvær, whose three-year-old daughter Mette disappeared from her home’s sandpit one morning in September 1977, with no signs of a struggle and no subsequent trace of her fate. A substantial police investigation at the time found no indication of foul play; now the mother wants her daughter’s haunting disappearance reviewed once more before the 25-year statute of limitations falls on the case. The Misværs occupied—indeed, the divorced Maja still occupies—one of five homes in ‘Solstølvegen’, an architect-designed U-shaped terrace. Once he’s sobered up sufficiently, Veum commences his investigation by interviewing those of the five homes’ original occupants who are still at the address, which, as it turns out, is about half of them, due to a combination of relocation and divorce. He tracks further afield to speak to the others, though one is irrevocably beyond reach (gunned down a few months earlier as an innocent bystander in a mishandled jewellery getaway). Is it really going to be possible for a lone alcohol-damaged PI to solve a case that remained beyond the full reach of the police’s resources twenty-five years earlier?

Staalesen’s writing doesn’t follow the usual style of Scandinavian crime fiction: the language here is playful, mordant, sometimes whimsical. Nesbø has compared Staalesen’s style to Chandler, and there’s a definite Philip Marlowe flavour to Veum, with the hard drinking, the persistence, the insistence on asking inappropriate questions, and the sharp backchat. There are some absolutely wonderful lines in the dialogue and in the descriptions. The plotting, too, is extraordinary. Overall, the book is astonishingly vivid and enticing, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I learned once I finished reading the book that Where Roses Never Die has just (ie within the last 48 hours) won the 2017 Petrona Award for Scandinavian crime fiction in translation. I can’t speak for all six books on the shortlist, but the two others I’ve read and reviewed—Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Exiled and Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal—would have to be considered formidable adversaries, every bit as good in their way as Staalesen’s work.

(A side note on Roses: I found myself rather bemused by the prevalence of alliterative characters in the book, which approaches Marvel-comic-series tendencies: Varg Veum of course, Maja & Mette Misvær, Terje Torbeinsvik, Synnøve & Svein Stangeland, Jesper Janevik … I’m not sure if this is indicative of a genuine Norwegian nominative proclivity, but it was noticeable enough to seem a little odd.)

Matters Arising from the identification of a book launch

22 05 2017

A few weeks back, I foreshadowed the upcoming book launch for Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body. I now have substantive details of said book launch, so without further ado:


The launch is scheduled for 7 pm (AEST) on Friday 9th June, at Continuum 13, which is being held at the Jasper Hotel, 489 Elizabeth St, Melbourne VIC 3000. Entry to the convention for the Friday night only is at a special reduced rate of (a) a gold-coin donation or (b) $5, whichever one of these options turns out to be correct (and I’ve seen both listed in various places on the convention website, which I suspect means option (b) is the correct one and parts of last year’s site haven’t been adjusted). The launch is to be held, I’m given to understand, in the ‘Haunted House’ room. There will be nibbles, and beverages, but hopefully no poltergeists.


It’s a dual launch: the other book on offer is Edwina Harvey’s An Eclectic Collection of Stuff and Things (also newly published by Peggy Bright Books) a wonderful mixture of short speculative fiction ranging all the way from children’s stories to some decidedly adult content, with lots of stuff (and, indeed, the occasional ‘thing’) in between.

I’m thrilled to say that Master-of-Ceremonies for the launch will be Ion Newcombe, the long-serving editor of the Antipodean SF flash fiction webzine. The launch will be, in some respects, a reunion. ‘Newk’ has published a good many stories by both Edwina and myself over the years: my first speculative fiction publication, almost exactly ten years ago, was in Antipodean SF‘s 108th issue, while Edwina’s involvement with the zine goes all the way back to its very first issue in 1998 (and several of her Antipodean stories have made it into the collection—I’m hoping she’ll read ‘Where The Last Humans Went’, the latest such offering, at the launch).

So, a book launch. Now all we need, I suppose, are the books …

Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

20 05 2017

Nnedi Okorafor is an American academic and SF / fantasy writer of Nigerian heritage. She teaches creative writing and literature at SUNY Buffalo. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award.


The titular character in the Hugo- and Nebula- winning novella, Binti, is a young woman of gifted mathematical ability who wins a scholarship to Oomza University, the most prestigious institution of learning in the Galaxy. Her parents and siblings don’t believe she should accept the offer: it would mean leaving home (and leaving Earth, besides) and that’s just not something that the Himba do. Binti’s heritage is deeply important to her, but so is the opportunity to advance in her beloved field of mathematics, so she absconds and catches a shuttle. The subsequent flight from Earth to Oomza (in a living starship which is more-or-less an oversized, flight-capable prawn with bioengineered onboard living chambers) takes around twenty weeks, but is attacked enroute by the Meduse, a race at war with humanity. Almost everyone on board the ship is slain by the Meduse, but Binti survives and must then find a way to prevent carnage when the ship reaches its destination.

The strength of Binti is in the portrayal of the title character, who is smart, rebellious, respectful, fearful, and determined, and whose identity and culture are intimately tied to her braided, beaded hair and her precious clay-and-oil bodypaint, otjize. Her bridge-burning departure from her hometown places her in a position of substantial vulnerability, as a metaphorical ‘fish out of water’ within a literal one (the ‘Third Fish’ living spacecraft, plying the vacuum of space). I wasn’t completely convinced by the Meduse villains, and I’m not entirely satisfied that the pretext given for the longstanding conflict (which may have been between the Meduse and humanity, or between the Meduse and all of the Galaxy’s other sentient, spacefaring races–of which humanity is only one of quite a few) really held up. But the ‘otherness’ of the Meduse is well captured (in this respect, Okorafor’s writing shows some common ground with that of Octavia Butler, Amy Thompson, and Phillip Mann, though Binti is categorisable as ‘science fantasy’, which is not the description I’d apply to those other authors) and the story’s fairly sharp divergence from the customary furniture of space-based SF is, for the most part, refreshing. The story arc is well handled and sets things up beautifully for further work in this fictional universe. The novella might not convince devotees of space opera, but it should satisfy readers whose SF interest is primarily in character-driven fiction.

Book review: The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

20 05 2017

Arnaldur Indriðason is an Icelandic crime fiction writer best known for his novels featuring the detective Erlendur. I’ve previously reviewed one of those, Strange Shores, here.


The Shadow District (Skuggasund, 2013, translated by Victoria Cribb) is subtitled ‘A Reykjavík Wartime Mystery’. It’s not an Erlendur novel: here, Arnaldur has introduced a new detective, Konrád, who has retired from active police work but apparently still feels compelled to pitch in from time to time. The novel staggers between two timelines: in the present day, Konrád is helping to investigate the suspicious death of Stephán, a reclusive nonagenarian, in his Reykjavík apartment, while seventy years earlier, during the wartime occupation of Iceland by the Allies, the crime under investigation is that of a young woman whose body is spotted by an Icelandic woman Ingiborg and her American GI boyfriend Frank. Hoping to solve the young woman’s murder in 1944 are Flóvent, a detective in Reykjavík’s then-fledgling CID, and Thorson, a Canadian of Icelandic ancestry on secondment to the US military police. There are, of course, connections between the cases …

I found myself wishing, in places, that the text was somewhat more visually descriptive: the author does not always take enough time, in my opinion, to place the reader in the setting. But against this, the depiction of human action and response is very clear, and the inner voices of the several principal characters are all eloquently recorded. For the most part, the book does a good job, too, of the crucial task of clarifying ‘who knew what when’, which is unavoidably fiddly given the long lapse between the two timelines and the loss of several protagonists, and much evidence, in the interim.

I’m loath to leap to unwarranted conclusions (well, okay, not that loath), but I cannot help but think that the only other novel by Arnaldur that I’ve read, Strange Shores, was in some senses a ‘dry run’ at this one: though the investigators are different, there’s the same concern of a modern-day detective for information regarding a long-buried wartime crime to which the only witnesses remaining alive are in nursing homes or otherwise ‘on borrowed time’. On eyeballing the synopses for his earlier Erlendur novels, it appears that this predilection for wartime cold cases is not completely all-consuming, but its recurrence (and, it would seem, its continuance in the next Konrád instalment, not yet available in English) indicates that the wartime years are something of a passion for the author. The far-distant setting of the young woman’s murder does give the story an eerie, elegiac sense; but Arnaldur’s prose, clean, gentle, and cold, would confer this quality regardless.

Book review: An Event in Autumn, by Henning Mankell

15 05 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer, playwright, and activist best known for his ‘Kurt Wallander’ series of crime novels. I’ve recently reviewed the first of the Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, here.


An Event in Autumn (Handen, 2013, translated by Laurie Thompson, originally published (in Dutch) as Het Graf, 2004) is a novella set a few years before Wallander’s retirement. It opens when his colleague Malinson, aware of Wallander’s interest in buying a rural property, asks if he would be interested in viewing a house belonging to his wife’s aged uncle who has recently moved into a care home. Wallander inspects the property: it’s distinctly run-down but otherwise seems to be the kind of thing he’s after, and the price is right. The sale doesn’t go ahead, however, because at the close of his inspection Wallander finds something unexpected protruding from the back lawn: a skeletal human hand. The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone, the arm bone’s connected et cetera … An investigation ensues. It transpires that the body’s been in the ground for forty or fifty years.

The pacing and overall tone in this one is rather reminiscent of Jorn Lier Horst’s When It Grows Dark (reviewed here), which is similarly brief and is similarly concerned with the investigation of a crime so long-concealed that very few witnesses remain, though the cynical and middle-aged Wallander is a much grumpier individual than Lier Horst’s keen young William Wisting. As ever, it’s the depth of the curmudgeonly Wallander’s characterisation, and the enveloping minutiae of the repeatedly-thwarted investigation, which convinces. It works well as a story; it would also function quite usefully as an introduction to Mankell, for those who might be put off ploughing straight into one of the longer books. (It’s also of interest for the dozen or so pages of explanatory material at the end, in which Mankell details the story’s origins as a publisher-requested ‘freebie’ to accompany Dutch sales of his crime novels, as well as outlining the origins of Wallander’s character—though this can be skipped over by those merely interested in the fiction, rather than the backstory.)

What the Government wants YOU to know about its clandestine Mind Control research program

15 05 2017

Book review: Before I Go, by Leena Lehtolainen

1 05 2017

Leena Lehtolainen is an award-winning Finnish crime novelist, best known for her long-running series of police procedurals featuring Maria Kallio. This series now stands at fourteen volumes, the first seven of which have thus far been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed the third book in the Maria Kallio series, Copper Heart, here.


Before I Go (Ennen lähtöä, 2000, translated by Owen F Witesman) is the seventh book in the Maria Kallio series, in which Maria’s career has advanced to see her hold the post of Unit Commander in the Violent Crimes Unit of Espoo’s police force.  The book opens with the discovery of a grievously bashed cyclist, interior designer and Greens councillor, on a parkland path in the southern Finnish city. The case soon becomes a homicide investigation, but with no direct witnesses to the attack and a string of contradictory statements regarding a motorcyclist seen to have fled the area soon after, Maria and her team must rely on forensic evidence and on a hazy and frustratingly-broad range of possible motives. Was the openly-gay councillor targeted for his sexuality, for his political activity, or for some other reason? And is the assault simply a bashing that got out of hand, or something more serious and premeditated?

Lehtolainen’s novels fit fairly comfortably into the Scandinavian crime-and-social-commentary mould; they’re solid and enjoyable, though hardly exceptional, examples of this style. (In saying this, though, I’m mindful that this book, though only now available in English translation, was written almost two decades ago, and thus comparison with the latest work by, say, Kati Hiekkapelto or Antti Tuomainen is a case of apples vs. oranges.) This time lag perhaps explains why the book somewhat labours (in my opinion) its ‘acceptance’ credentials: while same-sex marriage is now legal in Finland, the country didn’t even have a legally-recognised ‘recognised partnership’ category until 2002. (Of course, I write this from the perspective of living in a country that still refuses to legalise marriage equality, but that’s a matter somewhat beyond the scope of this review …) But the book’s portrayal of the range of attitudes likely to prevail within an intrinsically conservative institution, such as the police, appears plausible. And I’m not sure whether to be heartened or dispirited by the story’s otherwise still-contemporary feel. The identified problems of seventeen years ago still seem quite relevant today.

The plot, as I suspect is standard in Lehtolainen’s novels, is reasonably intricate, and the book’s two-page Dramatis Personae is a useful feature for readers, like myself, who may occasionally find themselves lost among a profusion of sometimes-intractable Finnish names.

Though the story is certainly not without action, it doesn’t seek to ramp up the tension through unnecessarily-contrived scenarios; if the case does not exactly unfold as a by-the-book investigation, there are at least clues offered for Maria’s deviations from Standard Operating Procedure. And there’s enough warmth and weight in the characterisation of the various officers (and witnesses, and suspects, and family members) to retain the reader’s interest. This seems to be a dependable series that, hopefully, will continue to see further English translation.