Matters up for review (update)

8 10 2017

It’s been two months or so since I gave a round-up of the reviews for my SF/crime novella Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body (Peggy Bright Books, 2017), and there are a few new ones to highlight. As is standard practice, I’ll provide a snippet from each, while linking to the full reviews on their respective original sites.


Cindy Bohn of the Speedy Reader site says ‘I really enjoyed this book. I liked the mystery aspect, I liked the characters, and I really enjoyed the setting. It’s a world enough like our own that I could identify with what was going on, but enough different that it was completely fresh. I recommend this one and I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.The full review is here.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald of the Earl Grey Editing site says ‘Another thing I was pleased to see was how diverse the cast was. It’s something I’m not used to seeing in hard sci-fi… A solid read … I’d definitely recommend it to lovers of hard sci-fi.Here’s the full review.

Suzie Eisfelder of Suz’s Space says ‘It has good writing, a plot that makes sense and it’s written by an Australian author! What more do you want? … Anyway, enough nonsense. Yes, I thoroughly recommend it.Here’s the full review.

Lee Murray says ‘It hooks me from the get-go … Well written and original, with characters who are both unique and recognisable, this is a satisfying read. Well worth the quick detour.The full review is here.

(You may note that there’s a mention, in the Speedy Reader review, of ‘the next book in the series’. No, it hasn’t slipped my mind. I’m working on it. And yes, it should still be out next year.)


Book review: The Dying Detective, by Leif G W Persson

3 10 2017

Leif G W Persson is a Swedish professor of criminology (now retired) and a noted crime novelist. In his professional career, he has precipitated at least one political crisis (when, in 1977, he helped confirm the alleged involvement of the then Minister of Justice in a prostitution ring); he has also acted frequently as a media adviser on unsolved crimes. His fiction has three times won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award; he’s also won the Glass Key Award and the Palle Rosencrantz-prize.


The Dying Detective (Den döende detektiven, 2010, translated by Neil Smith) opens with the hospitalisation of retired Chief of Police, Lars Martin Johansson, with a major stroke. During Johansson’s treatment, his doctor, Ulrika Stenholm mentions to him that her recently-deceased father, a priest, had confided to her on his deathbed that he was troubled by statements he’d heard in confessions twenty-odd years previously, which appeared to identify the attacker in the brutal rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl. The ailing Johansson is immediately intrigued by this news, but his hands are tied with a triple knot: first, he’s flat on his back in hospital (and struggling to regain sensation in his right arm); second, he’s no longer a serving police officer and so cannot officially call on police resources to investigate this cold case; and the nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan’s death occurred slightly more than twenty-five years previously, meaning that any case surrounding her fate has been prescribed by the statue of limitations that prevailed for serious crimes committed prior to the Olof Palme murder. Even if Johansson—who has earned a formidable reputation for being able to ‘see around corners’ in criminal investigations—is somehow able to identify Yasmine’s murderer, there is nothing that he, or the law, can do to see justice enforced in the matter.


If the book were merely to describe Johansson’s sensible decision to eschew involvement in a matter in which he could make no practical difference, and to concentrate on his recuperation, The Dying Detective would be a slim and sombre volume; but it’s neither of those things. As well as his ability to see around corners, Johansson is also able to envisage a mechanism by which justice might be served on Yasmine’s killer despite the statute of limitations; and, flat on his back, he commences his investigation, with the assistance of Dr Stenholm, his former colleague and close friend Bo Jarnebring, and the ‘home help’ which his wife Pia and his brother Evert foist on him in the weeks after his stroke. The tale is meandering and prone to reminiscence, by both Johansson and those around him, but this is appropriate for a case assembled primarily from recollection, and it’s not a massive surprise that the legendary former policeman is able to make substantial progress in an investigation which, led by the incompetent Evert Bäckström (a protagonist in several of Persson’s other books) and sidelined by the assassination of the Swedish PM just weeks later, floundered on its first pass two-and-a-half decades ago. Johansson’s process of deduction is ingenious and insightful, and narrated with considerable flair. The writing has an easy smoothness to it that’s reminiscent of fellow Swedish crime novelist Håkan Nesser and Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, though Persson also infuses the tale with understated black humour, repeated metaphor, and some very effectively quirky characterisation: the interplay between Johansson and his ‘home help’—the feisty Matilda, bedecked with tattoos and piercings, and the instantly-loyal, eerily-silent, and disconcertingly strong Max—is particularly engaging. Persson even manages to (I think) Tuckerize himself into the tale, with a fleeting reference on page 189 to ‘that mad professor on the National Police Board, the one who’s always talking a load of crap on Crimewatch‘. In a more consistently serious book, such flippancy might be out of place, but here it dovetails comfortably with Persson’s storytelling, a practised mix of light and dark. But what is perhaps most impressive about the novel is the way in which Persson uses Johansson’s medical predicament as the principal source of tension in a story devoid of forced intrigue or a steadily-mounting body count: in pursuing closure in a case already quenched by the statue of limitations, Johansson is embarking on a race which he cannot hope to win, but which he can still most definitely lose. It’s handled well.

Book review: The Ice Beneath Her, by Camilla Grebe

26 09 2017

Camilla Grebe is a Swedish economist, audiobook publisher, and crime fiction writer. She has co-written four novels (featuring psychologist Siri Bergman) with her sister Åsa Träff, the first two of which (also available in English translation) were shortlisted for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year; another three novels (the ‘Moscow Noir’ trilogy, as yet unavailable in English) were coauthored with Paul Leander-Engström.


The Ice Beneath Her (Älskaren från huvudkontoret, 2015, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) is Grebe’s first solo novel. It concerns the discovery, in the basement of clothing-store magnate Jesper Orre’s well-appointed home, of a young woman’s body, her severed head placed upright on the floor some distance from the rest of her corpse. The police’s suspicion is that it’s an extreme case of domestic violence; but Orre, who is missing, has long been secretive about his love life (due to hostile media attention) and the woman’s identity cannot be established. The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Peter Lindgren, one of the detectives on the case; Hanne Lagerlind-Schön, a behavioural psychologist who has previously worked with the police on several investigations, and is brought in as an adviser; and (in a sequence occurring along an earlier timeline, in the months before the murder) Emma Bohman, a young sales clerk at one of Orre’s Clothes&More stores, whom Orre has impregnated and then dumped.

Grebe’s evocation of the lives of her troubled protagonists—Peter badly handled an affair with Hanne, some years ago, and now exhibits considerable difficulty working with her; Hanne also struggles with this baggage, and with the further need to disguise from her colleagues the early-onset dementia with which she’s now afflicted; Emma is a survivor of a childhood shared with a suicidal father and an alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother, and punctuated by a schoolyard sexual assault—is impressively detailed. The story, which is studded with unanticipated pivots into new directions, takes some time to properly establish itself, but becomes progressively more engrossing as the questions mount up and the answers remain elusive. There’s a sense in which the entire novel is a long-form thimble-and-shell game, with a few key aspects of the central murder (for example, the particulars of its ritualism, the provenance of the murder weapon) that I felt weren’t adequately addressed in the rush to climax; but overall, there’s a pleasing solidity to the story and a plausibly gritty depth to the characterisation.

Book review: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

25 09 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish author with several novels and novellas to her name as well as a short fiction collection. She has also worked as a translator, mostly of the works of Swedish crime novelist Johan Theorin. Her publishing credits include The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Boston Review; she has won the P O Enquist Literary Prize and, with her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, was a finalist in the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Spejl, skulder, blink, 2016, translated by Misha Hoekstra) is an episodic novel exploring the minutiae of translator and misfit Sonja Hansen’s life as she negotiates driving lessons with Jytte, an overbearing, distractable and short-tempered instructor; massage sessions with Ellen, aura reader and interpreter of muscular anxiety; translating the works of pretentious, misogynistic Swedish crime novelist Gösta Svensson; and painful and unsatisfying interactions with a family who, after four-and-a-bit decades, still pointedly refuse to understand her. This could be a recipe for tedium, but Nors’ comic timing is note-perfect, her ability to extract tension and pathos from the smallest detail is enviable, and the book engages almost from the first sentence.

Nors’ characters (notably Sonja herself, who prefers solitude to human interaction, suffers from otolithic vertigo (BPPV—a condition which ensures that if she bends over, she experiences extreme dizziness), and is haunted by an adolescent fortune-telling session, the gist of which she can no longer remember) are idosyncratic yet fully credible. In both the subtle complexity of its characterisation and its focus on a minutely-observed existence, the book is reminiscent of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book: in her dogged determination to follow her own track and to ignore societal expectations, Sonja could well be considered a weighted average of the two principal characters from Jansson’s book, and the bone-dry humour of Nors’ writing—chiefly her sudden, distracting, and yet strongly informative changes of topic—also carries a somewhat Janssonian flavour. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is an appealing book that impresses with its quiet depths: it conveys considerably more than, at first, it lets on.

Book review: Tainaron (Mail from Another City), by Leena Krohn

24 09 2017

Leena Krohn is a prolific Finnish speculative fiction writer, and one of the pioneers of the ‘Finnish Weird’ subgenre, whose work has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award; she’s also the recipient of the Finlandia Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her (high recommended) pittoresque novel Datura (or a delusion we all see) here.


Tainaron: Mail from Another City (Tainaron. Postia toisesta kaupungista, 1985, translated by Hildi Hawkins) is an epistolary novel exploring the strange city of Tainaron and the unnamed narrator’s solitude as he / she composes a series of letters to a former lover who opts not to respond.

Tainaron’s inhabitants are insects—many of them recognisable, some of them mysterious—who have shaped a society that is in places individualistic, in places anarchistic, and in places strictly hierarchical, with rites and rules enforcing an often-inflexible social structure. The narrator (whom one presumes to be human, though this is never explicit) frequently falls afoul of the city’s numerous taboos and idiosyncracies, much to the chagrin of his / her long-suffering local guide Longhorn. The book is thronged with fantastical invention and description, but there’s an underlying coldness to it that makes it a difficult work with which to engage; considerably more so than Krohn’s similarly-episodic though more wryly whimsical Datura. There are a few places in which the fancy truly takes flight, and the prose is beautiful (as is much of the imagery) but it seemed to me that too much of the book is given over to an extended societal metaphor with few points of obvious human connection.

Book review: Pet Shop Girls, by Anja Snellman

23 09 2017

Anja Snellman is a Finnish journalist, poet, and novelist with over twenty books to her name. Though some of these have been translated into several languages, to date only one of her novels has been translated into English. She was awarded the Pro Finlandia Medal (a civic honour bestowed upon distinguished Finnish artists and writers) in 2007.


Pet Shop Girls (Lemmikkikaupan tytöt, 2007, translated by Scott Kaukonen and Helena Halmari) concerns the disappearance of teenagers Jasmin Martin and Linda Rossi, Jasmin’s mother Sara’s quest to come to grips with her daughter’s ongoing absence (especially after Linda’s body is discovered, some months later, in the remains of a warehouse following a fire), and pathways into prostitution and sexual slavery. It’s a mosaic novel comprising the adult Jasmin’s reflections on events leading up to the death, fifteen years after her abduction, of her wealthy ‘owner’; extracts from the book Monday, written by Sara and exploring her experiences as a suddenly-childless mother; and a recounting of the developing involvement of immigrant Randi Suraweera in, first, the titular ‘pet shop’ and, later, the underage-prostitution racket (the ‘Wet Pet Club’) for which the pet shop serves as a front business. The content at the book’s core is undeniably confronting (and, I suspect, triggering for some), though the writing is far from lurid: the focus is predominantly on the emotional journey of daughter and mother and their sometimes-inexplicable inability to connect as each copes in her own way with the circumstances of Jasmin’s abduction and its lingering aftermath. Shorn of its specifics (and the text is consistently careful never to identify its locations), it’s a book more about loss, hazard, and quiet fury than about anything else. And although it’s presented as a ‘crime’ novel (by a publisher specialising in English translations of Finnish crime fiction), it’s really more a novel of injustice.

The book’s scrapbook composition and fifteen-year span doesn’t permit as much tension (nor, it seems, as many answered questions) as might be expected from the subject matter, but the characterisation of Jasmin and Sara is a strength, and a lengthy historical epilogue provides a context that, in some measure, is lacking from the novel’s sometimes-disjointed narrative fragments.

On the filmography of the late Cyrano de Bergerac, astronaut-prévaricateur

23 09 2017

(Signal-boostery follows:)


Adam Browne, whose The Tame Animals of Saturn was published last year by Peggy Bright Books, is looking to produce a short (ten minute) film based on his deliciously-idiosyncratic debut novel Pyrotechnicon: being a True Account of Cyrano de Bergerac’s further adventures among the States and Empires of the Stars. But even shoestring budgets can add up, so he’s holding a Pozible fundraiser to raise $2000(AUD) to provide a special-effects budget for the film.

If you’ve read Pyrotechnicon, you’ll likely remember it as a masterwork of gloriously weird spacegoing-ness, brimming with invention, speculation, and wordplay. If you haven’t read it, it’s still available from the coeur de lion website, in both print and ebook formats; I can wholeheartedly recommend it. And if you’d like to help make a film version possible, please throw a few pennies into the hat.