Book review: Unknown, by Mari Jungstedt

8 08 2017

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist, TV presenter and crime fiction writer best known for her ‘Anders Knutas’ series of police procedurals set on the Swedish island of Gotland. The series now stands at thirteen books, the first nine of which have also been published in English translation. I’ve previously reviewed Unseen and Unspoken, the first two books in the series.

Unknown

Unknown (Den inre kretsen, 2005, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is the third of the Anders Knutas books; it goes under the alternative title of The Inner Circle (which is a more direct translation of the Swedish title) in the US. The book opens with the discovery of a brutal example of animal cruelty: a farm pony, a beloved family pet, has been decapitated during the brief summer night by some unknown intruder. To add an additional grisly dimension, the pony’s head has been removed not just from the pony, but from the scene. Knutas and his team—Maria Jacobsson, Wittberg, Sohlman and the others—commence an investigation, but little progress is made before a competing demand is placed on the Gotland police’s resources. A Dutch archaeology student, Martina Flochten, one of a group of twenty university students on a supervised summer dig on one of the island’s many Viking settlement sites, goes missing, in the middle of the night, on the walk between a restaurant and the hostel in which the group have been staying. As the days mount since her disappearance, concern for her welfare grows sharper; and then Martina is found, early one morning, by a fisherman’s dog …

Jungstedt is exceptionally good at the ensemble-cast crime novel: the reader never knows, when following the thoughts of a newly-introduced character, whether the individual may turn out to be victim, witness, or murderer, and yet any eventual revelations are credible and logically consistent. The writing is clean, smooth-flowing, vividly descriptive. The pace is not particularly fast—there are a lot of characters to introduce—but the tension is maintained effectively.

I should also note that, though the police are consistently focussed on the crime, the text is not: a parallel and occasionally interweaving thread in the books is the developing relationship between reporter Johan Berg and teacher Emma Winarve, a strand that provides useful respite from the details of the investigation while managing not to distract overly from the central case.

It is, on the evidence of the first three books, a very well-written series, even if I do have the concern that, a dozen or more books in, the ongoing sequence of major and unusual crimes on what is, after all, an island with a permanent population of fewer than sixty thousand people might well see Gotland turned into the Swedish Midsomer, with a body count sufficient to alarm actuarists, demographers, and insurers. Still, there are plenty more books in the series to consider before such an assessment could be contemplated.

 





Book review: At the Speed of Light, by Simon Morden

6 08 2017

Simon Morden is a British SF writer whose ‘Metrozone’ series of novels, set in post-apocalyptic London, has won the Philip K Dick Award.

AtTheSpeedOfLight

In the novella At the Speed of Light, much of the action takes place on a rogue exploration vessel crewed by an AI known as Corbyn, whose ship matches pace with a derelict. The book starts, however, with an entity, also identified as Corbyn, finding itself newly awakened in a rudimentary homunculus on what appears to be a spaceship, with a set of ultimately-unachievable instructions to follow. It then segues to a mental-health consulation between a client, also named Corbyn, and a psychiatrist Wu Yu, which doesn’t end very well. If this sounds somewhat confusing, there’s probably a reason for this. I should say that the story does settle down after that, and the introductory material does ultimately become integrated with the story.

At the Speed of Light is presented more-or-less as a classic SF puzzle story, and there’s a lot of problem-solving embedded within it, to do with trajectories, motives, and material resource limitations. While the story’s central conundrum is, in itself, intrinsically interesting, there is perhaps a little too much priority assigned to respect for the laws of physics, and not enough to the requirements of narrative fiction: the prose, while admirably clear (it is, after all, an AI who, for the most part, is serving as a viewpoint character), does read rather stolidly in patches. This isn’t helped, either, by the sheer solitude of much of the story: though contact is established between Corbyn and the derelict, it’s a rather pallid transaction, with no real heat or spark to the exchanges. That said, the story does achieve what I assess it sets out to do, which is to craft a solid work of old-style SF with some overall poignancy and mystery, and readers who maintain an ongoing interest in that subgenre should find the story worthwhile.





Book review: The Invisible Man from Salem, by Christoffer Carlsson

5 08 2017

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish lecturer in criminology who in 2012 was awarded the International European Society of Criminology’s Young Criminologist Award. He’s also a writer of crime fiction with six novels to date, one of which (the one under review here) was awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, as well as shortlisted for the Glass Key Award; his first YA novel has been awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers. His best-known work to date is the Leo Junker series, which now stands at three novels.

TheInvisibleManFromSalem

The Invisible Man from Salem (Den Osynlige Mannen från Salem, 2013, translated by Michael Gallagher) opens with the Stockholm police called, late one night, to a women’s refuge within an apartment building, where a woman suspected of prostitution and petty drug dealing has been killed in her sleep by a gunshot to the head. The apartment block is home to Leo Junker, a member of the police’s Internal Affairs department, currently suspended (though he prefers the term ‘on leave’) following his involvement in a botched police raid on an arms shipment. Concerned at an apparent hit-style killing in his own building, Leo starts his own investigation into the death. But you know that saying about curiosity, cats, and the sudden onset of death? Leo manages to fit himself squarely in the frame for the murder …

The book’s title is a reference not to the Massachusetts town, nor to the Oregon state capital, but to the municipality in Sweden which functions largely as a dormitory suburb of Stockholm and from which Junker hails. The text alternates between the present-day investigation and the formative events in Leo’s adolescence, a decade and a half ago. This detailed backstory at first appears somewhat gratuitous, until it becomes apparent that it’s not. There’s a reason why Leo fits so well as the crime’s perpetrator.

There’s very little to cavil about with this book. The writing has a nice intensity about it, the book’s tone of gritty paranoia and slow-burning injustice serves it better than would any play to sensationalism, and Leo is an interesting, sympathetic, and seriously-flawed viewpoint character. Those in his circle of friends, former friends, and colleagues are also conveyed as complex and relatable characters, many of whom guard their own secrets. It’s clear, too, that Carlsson is well-versed in the particularities of Swedish jurisprudence and policing (as could be expected, given his day job), but this shows more through small, telling details rather than through any tendency to awkward infodumping. This holds true, too, of the book’s social commentary (most of which emerges from the Salem backstory chapters), with a credible and well-informed feel about it. None of this detail eclipses the plot: the tension builds significantly as Leo gets closer to uncovering the identity of the person behind the crime, and the climax is suitably uncomfortable to read. All up, this is an excellent introduction to Carlsson’s talents, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.





Book review: Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck

3 08 2017

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish author, creative writing instructor, and Swedish / English translator: her two English-language books to date (one short story collection and one novel) have both been self-translated. Her stories generally fit somewhere along the fantasy / weird fiction continuum.

Amatka

In Amatka (Amatka, 2012, translated in 2017), Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, an information assistant with the Essre Hygiene Specialists, travels to the outpost colony of Amatka, seeking to elucidate opportunities for EHS sales growth to the region. Vanja is billetted at Household No. 24, the home of Nina, Ivar, and Ulla. Her hosts are pleasant enough, but it soon becomes apparent to Vanja that there is considerable resistance to new hygiene products in the colony.

The world in which Amatka is set is an austere, industrial, almost Soviet society in which mushrooms appear to be the principal source of protein, coffee, and writing material, and in which words have a settling power sufficient to stabilise the otherwise-transient materials from which clothing, furnishings, and other belongings are constructed. Every object must be marked with its name (its function) and verbally reminded of that function with reasonable frequency: stating the obvious can be a vital survival tool if you do not want your suitcase to spontaneously dissolve into a puddle of undifferentiated gloop (as happens to the sometimes-negligent Vanja early on in her stay in Amatka).

Amatka is a strange book: elusive, downbeat, asking more questions than it answers. Indeed, it’s not at all certain that it answers any questions … and yet it’s a strongly visual piece of writing, with the saving grace that it takes its central whimsical conceit with an utter seriousness that almost commands immersion. It’s as though Tidbeck has set out to create the most pallid second-world setting possible—a landscape of ice, cold lakes, and tundra, capped by a consistently grey sky—and has then sought to impose on it a sort of oppressive, farcical beauty that cannot adhere to such a substrate. Vanja’s need to understand her surroundings becomes infectious, while everyone about her (including her new lover Nina) is either a collaborator or an informant. It becomes obvious that the status quo cannot endure, but what is the alternative?

By placing language and the importance of the written word and the oral record at its core, the book invites comparison with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, though I’d argue that a more obvious and perhaps more appropriate point of comparison—an overly-restrictive, ritualistic, communalistic society in which vegetable matter (and yes, I know, mushrooms aren’t technically plants, let alone vegetables, but that’s how they’re classified in the marketplace) attains central importance as a force for change—is with Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s chili-fired novel The Core of the Sun, which I’ve previously reviewed here. Both provide vivid depictions of distinctly odd and yet somehow recognisable societies, both present inquisitive and inwardly-rebellious female protagonists (the chili-addicted ‘Vanna’ in TCotS, the meek and scatty ‘Vanja’ here) railing against the strictures of those societies, both fit solidly into a categorisation of ‘Scandinavian weird’ literature. Both have a kind of consistent, subversive strangeness about them. It’s fair to say, though, that Tidbeck’s novel is the more exotic of the two, eschewing the clean-lined surrealism of Sinisalo’s prose for a more cryptically impressionistic setting, at once superficially bland and quietly unsettling. Useful analogy could also be made, I suspect, with the work of Leena Krohn (for example, her delightful Datura, which similarly riffs off the transformative power of vegetation) or of Anna Tambour, but I’ll leave this as an exercise to the interested reader.

Amatka doesn’t waste any words, though due to the constraints of long-form prose, it doesn’t quite have the same sparkle as Tidbeck’s shorter fiction, much of which is dazzlingly strange (and for which I’ll furnish a review at some future date). Nonetheless, it got its hooks into me. I found myself somewhat compelled, once I’d finished reading, to repeatedly name the objects around me, just to be on the safe side; because, while Amatka is undeniably fiction, one just cannot be too careful.





Now open for submissions …

1 08 2017

AHOK_card

This seems as good a time as any to mention that the CSfG’s upcoming anthology A Hand of Knaves, edited by Leife Shalcross and Chris Large, has today opened for submissions. You can find most of the submission guidelines here—and I’ll reiterate that you need to be either an Australian resident or citizen, or a CSfG member, to be eligible to submit—and, when ready, stories can be submitted to the antho submission address knaves.anthology.csfg@gmail.com. Please follow the submission guidelines carefully, because failure to do so will annoy the antho’s slushwrangler (which would be me).

The above artwork, by the way, is by the awesomely-talented artist/writer/vet Shauna O’Meara, who has written about her ‘Knave’ cards, designed as a promo for the anthology, here. Check out the other designs!





Book review: The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson

31 07 2017

Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson is an Icelandic crime fiction writer and public roads administrator. He has written six novels to date, four of which have been translated into English, and he has twice been the Icelandic nominee for the Scandinavia-wide Glass Key Award for crime fiction.

TheFlateyEnigma

(As indicated by the above image, I listened to this one as an audiobook. I’m not sure the story was ideally suited to the audiobook format—each chapter is structured in two parts, with the nature of the second, shorter part not properly becoming clear until late in the book; and there are a number of places where the text features 39-character-long strings of individual letters, more-or-less meaningless in audio but of reasonable relevance to the story—but the audiobook’s gimmick of using a male narrator for the first part of each chapter and a female narrator for the second part worked well enough, even if it was quite confusing for the first couple of chapters.)

The Flatey Enigma (Flateyjargáta, 2003, translated by Brian Fitzgibbon) starts with the discovery in spring 1960, by a family of seal-hunters from the small West Icelandic island of Flatey (pronounced Flah-tay), of the badly-decomposed body of a man on the smaller uninhabited island of Ketilsey. Kjartan, an inexperienced assistant to the District Magistrate, is initially sent to Flatey to investigate the death, but by the time the body is identified as that of a Danish professor who had been visiting Flatey the previous year, it has become apparent that none of the islanders is able to explain how and why the professor made his way to Ketilsey and met his death. Suspicion grows that the death is related to the academic’s researches into the (genuine) medieval Book of Flatey, for which the vellum original is held in Copenhagen and a modern copy is stored in the island’s small library. The Flatey copy of the text also contains the only known copy of the (fictitious) Flatey Enigma, a forty-question puzzle which relates to the content of the Book and which carries a curse applicable to anyone who attempts to transcribe it or to remove it from the library, and it appears the professor had indeed attempted this.

The book is slow to unfold and rather gruesomely authentic, not so much for the descriptions of contemporary murder (which are detailed enough) but for the Book of Flatey extracts summarised in several of the latter portions of chapters: if you were ever wondering how the Norse acquired such a bloodthirsty reputation, the tales from the Book of Flatey should provide an answer, with beheadings, eviscerations and sundry mutilations galore … and then there’s the ritualistic slaying method described as the ‘Blood Eagle’. The islanders’ cuisine, too, also sounds rather grim, revolving around boiled seal meat, fermented shark, and various forms of cooked seabird (puffin appears to feature heavily on this score). Behind all of this, the story presented is sufficiently intriguing to retain interest, though it is sometimes difficult to tell the various characters apart: while they are given distinct personalities, they are not always as sharply delineated as one might wish.

The resolution of the several mysteries within the book is satisfying, but there’s a distinct sense in which the crime plays second fiddle to the gritty detail of the story’s setting.





Book review: Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, by Anne Holt

27 07 2017

Anne Holt is a Norwegian crime novelist whose CV includes the former occupations of lawyer (both in private practice and in affiliation with the Oslo police department) and Justice Minister. She is best known for her ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ series of police procedurals. I’ve previously reviewed the first in that series, Blind Goddess, here.

BlessedAreThoseWhoThirst

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst (Salige er de søm Torster, 1994, translated by Anne Bruce) is the second in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, and begins with the police investigation of a sequence of unusual Saturday-night bloodlettings, with disturbing quantities of blood (but no apparent victims) found in isolated or derelict buildings around Oslo, accompanied each time by the daubing of an eight-digit number in the spilt blood. Still, without any bodies associated with the blood, the incidents might well amount to nothing more than a particularly messy case of littering. A much more tangible crime—the vicious sexual assault of a medical student, Kristine Håverstad, by an unknown assailant—soon claims DI Wilhelmsen’s attention, and she does her best to juggle both investigations. Håverstad and her father Finn both struggle to process the assault, its aftermath, and the apparent police indifference to her situation as the ‘buckets of blood’ investigation takes priority following a gruesome discovery.

There are several things to like about the Hanne Wilhelmsen series: Wilhelmsen herself is a lesbian police officer who feels compelled to keep the nature of her home life (with partner Cecilie, a doctor) hidden from her colleagues, and this gives the narrative an innate additional strand of tension. Holt also clearly has the ability to identify with the plight of the victims of crime, and to realise the various ways in which the police system can let down those whom it is supposed to protect. But there’s also a sense in which Holt’s insider knowledge of the judicial and law enforcement systems gets in the way of the story: not through excessive description of the law or of police procedures, but through a stance which suggests that all of the problems inherent in the task of policing could be resolved through the provision of sufficient additional resources, yet which downplays the occurrence of discord between overworked officers tasked with often-conflicting duties. The officers, in short, are collectively rather too nice to feel entirely credible: nobody snaps, nobody pulls rank, nobody sounds off to any significant degree, at variance with the expected behaviour for a group of people under substantial and sustained pressure. I also wish there wasn’t quite so much head-hopping: often we’re presented with multiple personal viewpoints within the same scene, where my preference would be to have just one viewpoint character per section. The language, too, feels clunky and self-conscious in places, though in these cases it’s always difficult to know whether the flaws are with the original text or with the translation.

Those grumbles aside, the investigation proceeds in an interesting fashion, without unnecessary sensationalism and with a solid thread of social commentary which remains more-or-less topical in a story now almost a quarter-century old. Hanne is an intriguing character, possibly less daring now than she was at the time of the novel’s writing, but a refreshing change from the ranks of divorced hard-drinking chain-smokers so often cast in the role of principal protagonist in this type of story. And I’m always inclined to look favourably on crime novels which manage to include a gratuitous Moomin reference: here it’s to Comet in Moominland, on page 91.

All up, Blessed adds up to a solid and inventive crime story, not always note-perfect but worthwhile nonetheless.