Book review: The Forgotten Dead, by Tove Alsterdal

17 12 2017

Tove Alsterdal is a Swedish journalist, dramatist, and crime fiction writer who has served a long apprenticeship as Liza Marklund’s beta reader and editor. Alsterdal has to date written four crime novels; the third of these, Låt mig ta din hand (2014), was awarded Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year. At present, only her debut novel has been published in English translation.


The Forgotten Dead (Kvinnorna på stranden, 2009, translated by Tiina Nunnally), which apparently underwent a late-stage change in title—it was earlier identified by a straightforward translation of its Swedish title as The Women on the Beach, and can still be preordered under this name on a few slow-to-update online bookstores—is Alsterdal’s crime fiction debut. It follows seven-weeks-pregnant New York theatrical set designer Alena Campbell’s search for her husband Patrick, a freelance journalist who went missing in Paris, where he had been researching a story on people-smuggling. On her arrival in Paris, Alena’s first upfront inquiries into Patrick’s whereabouts are met with evasion and threats, so she resorts to subterfuge, and gradually a more detailed and disturbing picture seeps out …

This is a well-researched, nuanced, and moving story that juxtaposes Alena’s desperation with that of the undocumented asylum seekers hoping to carve out an existence for themselves within the loopholes and shadows of European society. It has a very contemporary feel—Alsterdal, I’m given to understand, updated the text prior to its English-language publication—and a well-constructed background of menace and corruption. The reader is never sure who among Alena’s contacts can be trusted until she herself learns this—often enough, the hard way. The sense of loss and of futility is vivid; and yet, the book retains a strong sense of positivism, largely by virtue of Alena’s unflinching determination to get to the ugly truth at the heart of Patrick’s disappearance. While I doubt that any one piece of fiction could fully convey the cruelty and opportunism of those who seek to profit from the desperation of asylum seekers, The Forgotten Dead offers considerable detail and depth on this subject as the background to a suspenseful and satisfying crime novel. The only point at which, for me, it breached plausibility was the occasion, quite early on in the novel, when Alena is able to voice a syllable-perfect recollection of two sentences in French, heard only once during her last distracted phone conversation with Patrick ten days previously, to a colleague so he can translate it for her. Other than this, the novel’s stagecraft appears flawless, its climax memorable.


Book review: Punishment, by Anne Holt

13 12 2017

There are a fairly large number of crime fiction writers who have previously served with the police, and a fair few also who have for a time been lawyers. But there cannot be that many who have also acted as their country’s Minister of Justice. Anne Holt is a long-established Norwegian crime novelist whose backstory does indeed include those exploits. She’s probably best known as the author of the ‘Hanne Wilhemsen’ series of police procedurals, the first two instalments of which—Blind Goddess and Blessed Are Those Who Thirst—I’ve reviewed previously.


Punishment (Det som mitt, 2001, translated by Kari Dickson) is the first novel in Holt’s second sequence, bringing together senior detective Adam Stubo and criminology researcher Johanne Vik. Vik is informally seeking to illuminate an apparent historical miscarriage of justice, with an innocent man (Aksel Seier) serving nine years in jail, from 1956 to 1965, for the rape and murder of a child before his release and subsequent emigration to the US. Stubo has much more immediate concerns: within the span of a week, two children, nine-year-old Emilie and four-year-old Kim, have been brazenly abducted. There’s no apparent connection between Emilie’s and Kim’s families, no ransom demands, no reliable witness statements, and in desperation Stubo asks for help from a researcher he’s seen interviewed on TV (Vik). She’s unwilling to immerse herself in the case, but when Kim turns up dead shortly before an eight-year-old goes missing, she finds herself drawn into the investigation.

I’m not sure whether it’s the series’ setup or the fact that, by the time Punishment came out, Holt already had a half-dozen Hanne Wilhelmsen procedurals under her belt (and had therefore, one presumes, developed significantly as a writer), but I found this distinctly more rewarding than the Wilhelmsen novels I’ve read to date (which are, admittedly, only the first two). The pace is well-tempered, the polite though sometimes flinty working relationship between Stubo and Vik is delicately drawn, the abductor’s means of execution is fiendishly ingenious. There are a lot of moving parts here, all played expertly and without sliding into excess. All of this bodes well for the further works in the sequence.

Book review: Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher

30 11 2017

Adam Christopher is a New Zealand-born speculative fiction writer now living in the UK. He’s published several novels, including TV and game tie-ins, and has collaborated with Chuck Wendig. His debut, Empire State, was named SciFiNow’s Book of the Year.


Made to Kill is the first novel in Christopher’s ‘Ray Electromatic’ series, in which the title character, the world’s last robot, is a hired killer ostensibly working as a private investigator in 1960s Los Angeles. It’s a ludicrous concept, but what makes the book work is its generally note-perfect channelling of Raymond Chandler’s writing style, with precisely-chiselled descriptions, deadpan wisecracking, and dialogue dominated by the clipped to-and-fro of outwardly courteous opponents. There are femmes fatales, mysterious clues to high-level corruption, and enough sudden death to satisfy noir readers, while the deliberately-retro SF aspects—clunky robots, tape-drive memory cores, brutalist-era ray cannons—slot in seamlessly within the polished-pulp text. (There’s even, perhaps, some prescient political commentary on contemporary US / Russian relations, though I’ll opt not to explore that thought further.) It is, in short, a lot of fun.

The story revolves around Ray’s latest case: he’s been hired by A-list actor Eva McLuckie to find, and kill, fellow actor Charles David, a task which is—or, at least, should be—all in a day’s work for Ray. As protagonists go, he has a rather unusual combination of strengths and weaknesses: physical near-invulnerability; batteries and a working memory which are only good for 24 hours at a stretch; a perfect capacity for motionless silence; a unique and highly recognisable visage which impedes losing oneself in the crowd; the need for care in sitting or leaning on items that might be damaged by a one-ton robot’s weight. While these are all appropriately highlighted within the novel, I was mildly surprised at Ray’s ability to avoid confrontation or interruption, with lengthy passages in which he is basically free to investigate various crime scenes and suspicious sites without interception. This seemed to me to be the one aspect of the book which departed significantly from noirish expectations. Nonetheless, Made to Kill is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing, peppered with larger-than-life characters and deliberately-overdone criminality, and the big finish is appropriately climactic. It’s definitely one of my favourite reads this year.

Book review: The Bat, by Jo Nesbø

29 11 2017

Jo Nesbø is a Norwegian crime novelist whose CV includes previous stints as a footballer, musician and reporter. He is most widely known for his longrunning ‘Harry Hole’ series of novels, and has won several awards including the Riverton Award, the Glass Key Award, the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize and the Peer Gynt Prize; he has also been shortlisted for an Edgar Award. I’ve previously reviewed his Blood on Snow / Midnight Sun short-novel double here.


The Bat (Flaggermusmannen, 1997, translated by Don Bartlett; a title that translates literally to ‘Batman’, thus offering considerable scope for confusion) is Nesbø’s debut novel and the first in the Harry Hole series. It has a setting that’s somewhat unusual for a Norwegian crime novel: Sydney. (It was apparently written during an extended holiday which Nesbø took in Australia, during which time he was supposed instead to be working on a book describing his time in a rock band.) The novel’s pretext is that a Norwegian woman holidaying in Sydney, Inger Holter, has been found raped and murdered; Hole, a troubled Oslo police officer, has been sent out to Australia to escort her remains back to Norway. Harry has no official involvement in the investigation into Holter’s death but, assigned an obliging ‘chaperone’ from the local Homicide division, he decides to assist in an advisory capacity. Naturally—this being crime fiction—he ends up much deeper in than that.

The Bat suffers from a few first-novel problems: the pacing is patchy, there’s perhaps rather too much monologue-as-exposition, the characters don’t always ring true. (In particular, I wasn’t convinced by the risktaking, on a supporting character’s part, that set up the story’s climactic third act.) I might have expected also that the book would betray a superficial knowledge of Australian culture and character, but in fact it doesn’t do too badly on this score: outside of a reference to ‘the single-track railway to Darling Harbour’ (i.e., the monorail), it acquits itself fairly well, though does get too infodumpish in places. Harry is an engaging though not appealing character: marked by alcoholism and rather too ready with his fists as a means of interrogation, he’s nonetheless capable of significant insight, reflection, and vulnerability. The book’s antipodean location means it’s of limited usefulness as an introduction to his ‘patch’—we get elements of the Harry Hole backstory, but see nothing (save in flashback) of his home environment and colleagues—but it’s an interesting enough investigation and establishes its main character well. If it feels more like a prelude than an introduction to the series as a whole, it still shows an ability with tension and intrigue that helps explain Nesbø’s considerable success in the genre.

Book review: Acadie, by Dave Hutchinson

25 11 2017

Dave Hutchinson is a British SF author. His novel Europe at Midnight won the BSFA Best Novel Award. He has also received nominations for the John W Campbell, Arthur C Clarke, Locus, and Kitschies awards.


Acadie is a novella-length space opera dealing with the crisis faced by John Wayne ‘Duke’ Faraday when an unmanned probe makes an incursion into the rubble-filled solar system settled by The Colony, an anarchic consortium of fugitive geniuses and bodymorphs. Earth’s ruthless Bureau of Colonization has been scouring the Galaxy’s systems for centuries in their hunt for the colony founded by genehack pioneer Isabel Potter, and it looks as though they may have struck paydirt just months into Faraday’s unasked four-year stint as Colony president. Confronted with an ominous but nebulous threat—the infiltrating probe was destroyed by a trigger-happy miner who chanced upon it deep within the system’s outer reaches, and there is no way of knowing whether it signalled its discovery to Earth before its incapacitation—Duke must decide whether the widely-dispersed settlement he heads up should prepare for combat against a foe of unguessed firepower, or should flee to the seclusion of a far-distant system while the opportunity still exists.

This is a fast-paced little story that builds to an intriguing scenario. The characterisation is tidy and effective enough; the levity in descriptions or in social interaction hits a couple of flat notes, though overall it probably boosts the story somewhat. All up, it deploys reasonably familiar SF furniture in a story which ultimately, despite a somewhat by-the-numbers premise, is by the close both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Book review: Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors

23 11 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer (and former translator of Swedish crime novels) who has been awarded the P O Enqvist Literary Prize and was this year a finalist in the Man Booker International Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal here.


Karate Chop (Kantslag, 2008, translated by Martin Aitken) is a collection of fifteen of Nors’ short stories, previously published in magazines like Harper’s, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. They are pithy, quirky, and often unsettling. There is, overall, less of the situational humour here that I found so appealing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but there is the same sense of closely-observed subterfuge, expressed here in a wide variety of scenarios. I’ll highlight a few:

In ‘The Buddhist’, a government official declares himself to be a Buddhist, so as to be a better person, and armed with a resultant sense of moral invulnerability, seeks to misrepresent himself into the position of CEO for a respected charity organisation. It’s whimsical, self-mocking, and sharp-edged.

In the cleverly-symbolic ‘The Big Tomato’, the narrator is working as a cleaner and home help for the wealthy Bangs. When the grocery delivery to their upscale New York apartment includes an unreasonably-large tomato, Mr Bang demands that the grocery send someone to take the tomato back, but the cleaner is the only person in the apartment when the delivery boy calls to collect it.

‘Karate Chop’ itself is a tale of an abusive relationship that is in its portrayal at once disturbingly intimate and clinically detached. Annelise is a special-needs teacher whose insight into human behaviour is not able to protect her from a string of doomed relationships with flawed men such as the bullying Carl Erik, father of one of the boys in her class.

‘Duckling’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection, is a getting-of-wisdom piece that catalogues a young girl’s awareness of the centrality of injustice as revealed through her duck-farmer father’s casual infidelity.

‘Hair Salon’, another vignette, engages principally by virtue of its close observation and offbeat introspection.

In several ways, Nors’ collection is reminiscent of another Scandinavian short-fiction collection I reviewed recently, Knots, by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both of them are filled with acerbic, concise stories edged with absurdity and with a cynicism for human motives. Nors’ fiction is, I would say, less barbed, more polished, less allegorical, though there is certainly some common ground.

Ultimately, I didn’t find Karate Chop quite as fulfilling as her Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but it nonetheless contains some wonderful short-story writing, which I can certainly recommend to students of the form.

Book review: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

19 11 2017

Seanan McGuire is a prolific US speculative fiction writer who’s achieved considerable prominence in the subgenres of urban fantasy, YA, and horror. She is the first author ever to have received five Hugo nominations in the one year (2013); two of those were under the pen name Mira Grant which she has used for her ‘Newsflesh’ thriller / zombie series. She has won numerous awards including the John W Campbell, the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Pegasus, and has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award.


Every Heart A Doorway is the first volume in McGuire’s ‘Wayward Children’ novella series, and centres on events unfolding at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the wake of seventeen-year-old Nancy’s arrival. It reads like a Twin Peaks / YA mashup of Hogwarts, Roke Island, and the Narnia magic portal idea: the Home’s (predominantly female) teenage charges are all veterans of accidental Otherland travel, having previously found portals into a spectrum of magically chaotic or highly ritualistic realms from which they’ve subsequently been expelled, estranged, or otherwise dispatched, and they are often desperate to find a way back to their particular adoptive homelands. In many cases, the hidden doors to such wonderlands remain irrevocably closed, but Miss Eleanor’s boarding school is a much more palatable ‘halfway house’ for them than their own misunderstanding families.

Nancy has been sent back from the Halls of the Dead, where she acquired the skills of silence and stillness, and a taste for pomegranates and black-and-white attire. In a school full of those who don’t fit neatly into society—think of a school populated entirely by Moomin characters in teenage human form, and you’ll get some idea—Nancy is instantly an introverted outlier, but she’s thrown together with exuberant roommate Sumi, chalk-and-cheese twin sisters Jack and Jill, and boy-whose-parents-desperately-wanted-a-girl Kade, and slowly starts accommodating herself to the particularities of Miss Eleanor’s tutelage.

The characterisation in Every Heart is impressively vivid and individualistic, and Nancy is a very sympathetic protagonist despite her aloofness and death-obsession. Although she is the novella’s clear mainstay, there’s ample depth and shade provided to ensure that those around her, too, are very clearly drawn … which adds to the impact once the gruesome deaths commence. The murderer can realistically only be one of their number, but which of them has any motive for the death and dismemberment visited upon the victims? Suspicion naturally falls on morbid new girl Nancy and those closest to her: she knows she didn’t do these things, but will anybody believe her?

The worldbuilding is also very engaging. Miss Eleanor classifies realms along axes of Nonsense and Logic; Virtue and Wickedness; Rhyme, Whimsy, and whatnot, and though this cartography is never explicitly depicted anywhere, it makes perfect taxonomic sense within the novella’s construction. The undeniable strength of the story, though, is in the sympathetic depiction of the highly variegated cast of students, many of whom achieve memorability within the book’s comparatively compact frame.