Book review: The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

25 06 2017

The ‘Martin Beck’ series of police procedurals, written across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies by Swedish ex-journalists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (the latter of whom died shortly after publication of the series’ final instalment The Terrorists), have exerted a major influence on the subgenre of Scandinavian crime fiction—Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, written with a similarly laconic and closely-focussed style, can be reductively viewed as Beck’s direct descendant—and have earned a substantial following elsewhere. Forty to fifty years on, the books are now somewhat dated (which isn’t necessarily a failing: they’re very much a product of their times, and the times have moved on), but it’d be wrong to view them as merely historical documents: those I’ve read are genuinely, if quietly, intriguing, and the crimes remain topical even if the methods of investigation and communication now appear quite old-fashioned. I’ve previously reviewed the first of the Beck novels, Roseanna, here.

ManWhoWentUpInSmoke

The Man Who Went Up In Smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966, translated by Joan Tate) opens with the scene of a murder, but it’s not one with any direct connection to the mystery at the novel’s centre, which is the disappearance, in Budapest, of Swedish journalist Alf Matsson. Concerned that Matsson’s employer is not above exploiting his disappearance as some kind of made-in-house scoop—an eventuality which, with its expected trappings of jingoism and paranoia, would have troubling implications for relations between Sweden and the countries of communist Eastern Europe—the Foreign Office asks the police to investigate, and the police, in turn, assign the task to Martin Beck, the day after he has embarked on a month-long vacation with his family on one of the islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Beck is free to refuse the assignment, but he takes it on. He’s never heard of the journalist and disapproves of the paper for which Matsson writes. The details surrounding Matsson’s disappearance are sparse, a situation that doesn’t change much with Beck’s relocation to Budapest, where he stays in the same hotel room into which the journalist had been booked, but had apparently not occupied for longer than about a half hour two weeks previously. Beck has Matsson’s passport, a few eyewitness accounts of questionable reliability from hotel workers and taxi drivers, and that’s about it. Even the woman on whom Matsson had apparently been planning to call—his romantic interest, Ari Bökk, a former East German athlete—turns out to be someone who claims no knowledge of the missing Swede. And yet, incrementally, a case emerges from the heat haze …

We’re given little direct access to Beck’s thoughts and feelings, except as they impinge upon his investigation, and all of the novel’s other participants are viewed entirely through his eyes. Despite this, Beck, his colleagues Kollberg and Melander, Major Szluka of the Budapest police force, and a swathe of witnesses and suspects are clearly, almost intimately drawn before the reader’s eyes. The settings, too, are described with often-affectionate detail, and help to place the reader in the midst of the action.

One of the things that’s most striking about Beck’s characterisation is that, in this book, he eats well. This is notable chiefly because in the book’s predecessor, Roseanna, he’s starkly dyspeptic, as is the protagonist Inspector Jensen in Wahlöö’s solo crime-fiction effort Murder on the Thirty-first Floor (published in the same year, 1966, as The Man Who Went Up In Smoke and similarly concerned with the intersection between journalism and crime). That two of the three books I’ve read for which Wahlöö was an author, all of them ostensibly written within a two-year timespan, have protagonists for whom digestion is an often-agonising ordeal has me wondering whether this is in some sense mirroring the then-current state of health of Wahlöö, who would die in 1975 from a disease, pancreatic cancer, for which digestive difficulties and loss of appetite are apparently frequent early symptoms. I mention this solely because Beck’s reported eating habits in Roseanna, and Jensen’s in Thirty-first floor, are so appalling that it is, at times, quite confronting despite the distance and emotionlessness of the tone with which they’re described. Whether the oncology stacks up, and whether there is any broader scope for the application of the reported ailments of fictional detectives as a diagnosis for the physical condition of their creators, I leave as an exercise for the interested reader.

With its internationality, intrigue, and subterfuge, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke invites comparison with the books and movies featuring James Bond; and indeed, the text deliberately references Bond in a couple of places. But it would be wrong to view TMWWUIS through the same prism as Fleming’s tales of high-vis spycraft: Beck’s a plodder, a rather taciturn (though generally polite) grump with no fighting skills to speak of, without any particular tickets on himself beyond a (sometimes wavering) belief that his work is important, and he gets results because of his persistence and his capacity to take pains with the details. The detection that solves the mystery at the core of TMWWUIS is quite marvellous, and I’m looking forward to what happens in the subsequent instalments.





Book review: The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

23 06 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF author and former ESA space scientist most strongly associated with the ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, though he has also written many other well-regarded hard SF and space opera novels. I’ve reviewed several of his books; you can find those reviews on my review list here.

TheIronTactician

The Iron Tactician is the most recent novella in Reynolds’ slowly-unfolding ‘Merlin’ sequence: earlier stories in this sequence are ‘Merlin’s Gun’, ‘Hideaway’, and ‘Minla’s Flowers’, though the internal chronology of the story sequence differs from the order in which they were written. In the Merlin universe, FTL travel is not feasible, but travel at velocities marginally slower than lightspeed is accessible via the Waynet, a magical-physics network of interstellar routes established by some long-vanished alien race and still not properly understood by humanity. The backdrop to the stories is a slow-unfolding war between humanity and the Huskers; solo space-traveller Merlin’s home planet is one of those laid waste in this war.

In Tactician, Merlin discovers a derelict swallowship, scuttled in a Husker attack several centuries past. The ship is dead, but there’s one survivor—Teal—who has occupied the ship’s sole still-functioning coldsleep berth in the centuries since the attack. Merlin, who’s searching for a piece of alien tech—a ‘syrinx’, a device facilitating access to the Waynet—to replace his own ship’s damaged component, bargains with Teal to find the syrinx that the derelict swallowhip had been carrying. The device had been traded, centuries previously, to a technologically-backward human civilisation, Havergal, occupying one half of a binary star system and engaged in a long-running fusion-weapons war with Gaffurius, the occupants of the system’s other half. So Merlin and Teal travel to the Havergal / Gaffurius system to seek to reclaim the syrinx by fair means or foul.

It’s difficult to write widescreen space opera, with all the interstellar intrigue, exaggerated highborn characters and stunning star-spanning vistas that the genre requires, in a compact form; even more difficult, I suspect, when one strives also to adhere to (most of) the strictures of hard SF with its intrinsic respect for the laws of physics. But Reynolds has form in this area, as the previous ‘Merlin’ stories (among others) can attest, and he acquits himself pretty well here. I’d still class ‘Minla’s Flowers’ as the high watermark of this sequence: in Tactician, there’s a sense of a little too much plot having been shoehorned in, a little too much convenient coincidence among the set of central characters, a little too much tendency to bombast in the story’s climactic sequence. But it’s possible, also, while cavilling at these perceived imperfections, to admire the clockwork elegance of the novella’s interconnecting components, and while the story hardly shows off protagonist Merlin to his best advantage, the characterisation of Teal, in particular, is a worthwhile creation displaying intriguing depth. I hope we get to see further instalments in this sequence.





Book review: Bad Intentions, by Karin Fossum

19 06 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist, most widely known (in English translation, at least) for her series of novels featuring the widowed Inspector Konrad Sejer. I’ve previously reviewed other books in this series here and here.

BadIntentions

Bad Intentions (Den onde viljen, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) is nominally the ninth in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series, but it seems only peripherally to concern itself with Sejer per se, who gets point-of-view priority in only a handful of chapters. Instead, the narrative is most closely concerned with the mindset of Philip Reilly, a drug-addicted young hospital porter and sidekick to amoral, overconfident alpha male Axel Frimann, following the drowning of Reilly’s and Frimann’s troubled friend Jon Moreno in a late-night boating accident on a small lake. Frimann decides it’s too much bother to report the accident accurately, and persuades Reilly to conspire with him on a version of events which omits any mention of the three of them in the small rowboat and instead has Moreno suicidal and intent on drowning himself. It’s an act Frimann can carry off without qualms, but Reilly has a more difficult time of it, and is wracked with a worse sense of guilt than he carried before the accident. Moreno’s girlfriend, mother, and psychiatrist all know something is wrong with the story Frimann and Reilly present, as do the police, but there seems no way of knowing what dark secret the three men had held before Jon’s death … until another body turns up.

While I would have liked to see more of Sejer in this novel, I can’t really fault Fossum for the psychological depth of Reilly’s portrayal, nor of the other principal characters in this work. Fossum’s background in institutional work and in drug-addict rehabilitation shows through in her handling of Jon Moreno’s mental-health issues, though I couldn’t help but feel that the character of Hanna Wigert, Jon’s psychiatrist, was a fairly close copy of Dr Sara Struel, the psychiatrist in Fossum’s earlier novel He Who Fears The Wolf, even down to the discussion, with Sejer, of the importance of props such as dolls and toys as a means of encouraging inpatients to open up about deep-seated anxieties they might be experiencing. In other aspects, though, Bad Intentions is a satisfyingly different story than the others of the Sejer series with which I’m familiar. And Fossum’s characterisation and subtly subversive plotting is always a strength of her work, which darkens so gently and with so little fuss that one doesn’t notice, until it’s too late, the depths to which the reader has descended …





Book review: Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

13 06 2017

Thoraiya Dyer is a Sydney-based speculative fiction writer whose short fiction has thus far won four Aurealis Awards and three Ditmar Awards. Her previous publications include the short fiction collection Asymmetry and the novella The Company Articles of Edward Teach.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I’ve edited (or co-edited) two of Thoraiya’s stories: her novella ‘The Bird, the Bees, and the Thylacine’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 51 and her short story ‘Faet’s Fire’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, co-edited with Edwina Harvey. I also consider her a friend. I’ll endeavour, nonetheless, to offer an unbiased assessment of the work reviewed here.

CrossroadsOfCanopy

Crossroads of Canopy is Dyer’s first published novel, and the first of the ‘Titan’s Forest’ trilogy. It’s a work of high fantasy set within a complex and fully-arboreal society in which some individuals are born to godhood and some eke out the most abject existence, trapped within the caste-niches of (predominantly upper-class) Canopy, muddling Understorey, and struggling Floor, where the layers each span (as I read it) a good several hundred metres. Travel between the layers is magically restricted, but it is always possible to fall … often, to one’s death.

Unar’s baby sister Isin has fallen. The tragedy affects her damaged, difficult family in several ways; it causes the preteen Unar to seek sanctuary in service to her region’s aging goddess Audblayin, the goddess of new growth. Unar’s ambition, to reach fruition when Audblayin is reincarnated as a baby boy (for she has been female for the last three incarnations), is to serve as the young god’s bodyguard, a role always given to one of the opposite gender to the deity. In the meantime, Unar will bide her time as a gardener, one of several for the kingdom’s sacred garden. But service requires adherence to the rules, and blind obedience is not one of Unar’s strengths: her tendency is to act when she witnesses injustice … and Canopy is riven with injustice. Unar’s friends and fellow gardeners, Oos and Aoun, can more-or-less subjugate their scruples to the demands of the deity, but Unar cannot, and the breach that forms between herself and her friends is a deep one. Circumstances force her hand, and she finds herself flung into the mysterious and dangerous realm of Understorey, thirsting to return to the sunlit heights but knowing she cannot abide the societal strictures that hold sway there. And all the time, the quest to learn what she can of her fallen baby sister’s fate burns like a furnace within her …

I’ve made this sound as though it’s a work with few characters, but that’s not a true representation at all. The book is busy with the interactions, arguments, conflicts and cooperations of many individuals, and the several principals (though events are always viewed through Unar’s eyes) are strongly differentiated and fully three-dimensional. There’s a lot of detail, too, to the worldbuilding; though I never felt entirely sure how magically tall these trees were, it was obvious that they’re immense, both verdant and vertigo-inducing (just because you cannot see the ground does not mean it won’t kill you if you fall). And there’s considerable fantastic invention, both in terms of the methods used for moving from tree to tree at dizzying heights and in terms of the varieties, complexities, limitations and costs of magic, all of which is conveyed in Dyer’s richly descriptive and strongly evocative language.

It’s an unusual setting: there are some tangential and presumably unintentional commonalities with Mary Victoria’s similarly arboreal fantasy trilogy ‘The Chronicles of the Tree’, but Dyer’s world is its own thing, and it’s quite enthralling. I look forward to the subsequent instalments.





Book review: The Mars Girl, by Joe Haldeman / As Big As The Ritz, by Gregory Benford

4 06 2017

This is a review of two SF novellas, published tête-bêche (i.e., back-to-back) in the style of the old Ace Doubles. (My own experience of tête-bêche typesetting—on Flight 404 / The Hunt for Red Leicester—is that it’s simpler to set the longer work ‘right-side-up and right-way-around’ and the shorter work ‘upside-down and back-to-front’ and, indeed, this is the way it’s done here, so Haldeman is nominally first cab off the rank.)

Joe Haldeman is an American SF writer, and veteran of the Vietnam War, whose fiction has won numerous awards, including multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. His best-known work is probably The Forever War.

TheMarsGirl

In The Mars Girl, Carmen Dula is a teenager who has newly arrived, with her parents and brother, at the fledgling Martian base, part of a conscious push to shift the demographic of the slowly-growing human colony on Mars to something more genuinely representative of Earth. Carmen has brilliant parents—she wouldn’t be on Mars with her family if she didn’t—and Carmen herself is quite accomplished, though not everyone in the base is appreciative of her skills. She’s unfairly cast as as a troublemaker by the base’s administrator, Dargo Solingen, who doesn’t believe Mars is any place for children. For her part, Carmen doesn’t believe Mars is any place for fuddy-duddy administrators like Dargo, and she accordingly brings her full powers of teenage rebelliousness into action against the base’s seemingly arbitrary and unfair regulations. All well and good, until a (strongly forbidden) solo nighttime ramble in her Mars suit lands her in deadly danger …

While there were elements to the storyline of Haldeman’s novella that I found unsatisfying (there’s a significant plot twist almost halfway through that substantially alters the direction of the story, in a way I would personally have avoided), it has a lot of credible detail in the worldbuilding of the Mars base, and Carmen is a plausible and relatable narrator. The story hangs together despite, at times, feeling like a weirdly-spliced hybrid of two quite dissimilar themes, with clear tones of near-future space exploration jammed up against (to my mind, misplaced) elements of golden-age SF.

Gregory Benford is an American SF writer and astrophysicist whose work—principally hard SF—has received numerous awards including the Nebula Award, the John W Campbell Memorial Award, and the Asimov Prize.

AsBigAsTheRitz

In As Big As The Ritz, Clayton Donner is the son of asteroid belt prospectors, sent to Earth to finish his education. Pursuing a major in astrophysics, he takes up with Sylvia, the daughter of Dr Rollan, a reclusive magnate whose own asteroid-mining operation, involving a large habitat (known as ‘The Hoop’, a sort of mini-Ringworld orbiting a small captive black hole) in which he conducts his own social-engineering experiment. Rollan’s ‘Brotherland’ is populated (with the sole exception of Rollan himself, and any infrequent visitors) by a large number of male and female clones fashioned from a genotype specifically chosen for its docility and unexceptionality. Clayton has adopted the subterfuge that he is interested in the habitat for his sociology (he is pursuing a social-science minor), and is keeping his expertise in astrophysics tightly under wraps: Rollan guards his technical secrets zealously. The submerged tension between Clayton, Rollan, and Sylvia (who’s also ignorant of her boyfriend’s true interests in her family) provides the requisite clash of personalities while Benford shows off his worldbuilding.

Beyond the commonality of protagonist initials and the categorisability of both novellas as, after a fashion, coming-of-age stories, there’s no particularly apparent thematic connection between the two works. Haldeman’s protagonist is distinctly more likeable than Benford’s: Clayton Donner is a bit of a piece of work, while Carmen Dula’s principal character flaw is impetuosity and a tendency to get in over her depth. While both novellas are definitely interesting, as much for their worldbuilding as for their characterisation, I found ABATR somewhat more rewarding than TMG, both for the ingenuity of the setting and for the concealed problem inherent in ABATR‘s resolution.





Book review: Final Curtain, by Kjersti Scheen

31 05 2017

Kjersti Scheen is a Norwegian journalist, illustrator, and author. She has won several national literary awards for her children’s fiction. She’s also achieved some success as a crime fiction writer, with at least five novels featuring private detective (and former actor, former police officer) Margaret Moss, though only one of these appears to have seen translation into English.

FinalCurtain

Final Curtain (Teppefall, 1994, translated by Louis Muinzer) bears no apparent relation to Ngaio Marsh’s novel of the same name, though both revolve around actors, infidelity, and murder. It’s the first of the Margaret Moss novels, in which Margaret is hired by her friend Rosa to investigate the disappearance of Rosa’s sister Rakel, an actor of some acclaim, on a train journey between Oslo and Bergen. There’s no motive discernible for Rakel’s disappearance, nor anything substantial by way of clues, so Margaret simply starts out by interviewing those of her acquaintances who have also known Rakel. But it’s not until her life is threatened that Margaret realises she may indeed be onto something …

The writing is staccato and rather choppy. I’m not sure how much of this is authorial style and how much might represent infidelities in the translation: I did find it notable that several of the characters were not consistently named. Georg is occasionally George, Karlsen is sometimes Karlesen, Rosa is Rose in some circumstances, and Cecelie makes at least one appearance as Cecilia, all of which does leave one wondering how much of the rest of the text is reliable. (Of course, Scheen wouldn’t be the first author to not be sure how her characters’ names were spelt, and I must concede some uncertainty, in my mid-20s, as to the spelling of my own middle name …) But though the prose sometimes muddles through in much the same way that Margaret muddles through the process of detection, the story does have enough of a pulse to it, particularly once it hits the second half, that the reader’s interest is maintained. And Margaret is an interesting character in her own right: there are the almost-obligatory problems with alcohol, but her relationship with her teenage daughter is well-drawn, her past is plausibly cluttered, her love life is haphazard and a trifle reckless, her dependence on a car and a dwelling that are each in significant need of repair causes problems and frustrations which add, in subtle ways, to the difficulty of her case as well as, on occasion, providing opportunities for understated humour. (I’m also inclined to view favourably any detective who sports a Moomin lapel badge: Moss’s is of ‘the little chap in a pointed cap who likes to travel’.)

The cover of the edition I read makes a direct comparison between Scheen’s writing and that of fellow Norwegian crime novelist Pernille Rygg: it’s an appropriate analogy, given the quirky characterisation (and unnecessary risk-taking by amateur-sleuth protagonists) in the works of both writers, though Rygg’s Igi Heitmann is a rather more cerebral creation than Scheen’s Margaret Moss, who seems to operate almost purely on instinct (and an aptitude for the lucky break just when she needs it most).

Ultimately, the explanation for Rakel’s disappearance is sufficiently involved, sufficiently unpredictable, and sufficiently plausible to justify the novel’s length, and Moss is a sufficiently intriguing character that it would be good to see rather more of her in English translation than just this one book.





Book review: The Scent of Almonds and other stories, by Camilla Läckberg

29 05 2017

Camilla Läckberg is a Swedish crime writer whose novels, set in and around the fishing villa of Fjällbacka and featuring the investigative duo of Erica Falck (writer) and Patrik Hedström (police officer), have become one of the country’s most successful fictional exports. I’ve previously reviewed Läckberg’s first novel, The Ice Princess, here.

TheScentOfAlmonds

The Scent of Almonds and other stories (Mord och mandeldoft, 2013, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is built, as its title hints, around Läckberg’s novella The Scent of Almonds, to which three much shorter stories have been appended so as to yield a slightly less slim volume.

In the title novella, police officer Martin Molin (a colleague of Patrik Hedström) is trapped for a storm-wracked weekend in a boutique resort on an island off the mainland. It’s a weekend from hell, spent with the family from hell: not his own, but that of Lisette Liljecrona, to whom he has rather unwittingly found himself classed as ‘boyfriend’. The family dynamics are so appallingly awful that it’s almost a relief when wealthy patriarch Ruben, Lisette’s grandfather, is fatally poisoned during dinner—at least now Martin has a role to fall back on, that of investigating officer, to distance himself from the argumentative clan. But Martin is a reluctant Poirot, who lacks the ability to secure the crime scene, to dust for fingerprints, or to communicate with his superiors; how will he pinpoint the murderer?

The novella has a distinctly old-fashioned feel about it, which is not solely due to the isolated setting and the lack of cellphone reception: the range of possible suspects are introduced in the opening scenes, and it rolls from there, in a story that seems to channel both Conan Doyle and Christie. Läckberg revels in her descriptions of the storm’s severity and in her depictions of the Liljecrona family’s utter lack of redeeming features: one almost wants them all to be guilty. Martin isn’t a particularly engaging protagonist (which I think is a conscious decision on the author’s part, so as to provide contrast with the absent Patrik), but the story’s atmosphere more-or-less carries it.

The three short stories are all also rather old-fashioned, in that each one pretty much revolves around a single point or idea—which, I suppose, is the classical definition of the short story form. In ‘An Elegant Death’, heiress Lisbeth has been bashed to death by an unknown assailant in her second-hand clothes shop; in ‘Dreaming of Elisabeth’, Malin’s suspicions of her partner Lars’ behaviour grow with premonitions that she is about to suffer the same fate—drowning at sea—which befell Lars’ first partner Elisabeth; in ‘The Widows’ Café’, Marianne provides a special, and not exactly legal, service for the community’s domestic abuse victims. These stories all fulfil the requirements—the setup, the fulcrum, the twist—and yet they feel too constrained by their artifice: they’re too short to properly unsettle the reader in the manner that Läckberg’s longer fiction can, wherein she can get thoroughly stuck into the genuine horrors of domestic life.