Book review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

25 04 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer and dramatist (he died in 2015) whose most well-known legacy is the sequence of crime novels, much in the Sjöwall & Wahlöö ‘Martin Beck’ mode, which feature the detective Kurt Wallander (whom, from TV, we now know to look very much like Kenneth Branagh).

faceless-killers

Faceless Killers (Mördare unte ansikte, 1991, translated by Steven T Murray) is Wallander’s debut. It opens with the discovery of a vicious attack on the Lövgrens, an elderly farming couple, which has left the husband dead and the wife fighting for her life. Emerging briefly from unconsciousness, Maria Lövgren is able to give the police just one word, ‘foreign’, as a clue to the identity of her assailants; there’s precious little material evidence, and no apparent motive for the brutal home invasion. When a leak to the media suggests (incorrectly) that Wallander’s team believes foreigners to be responsible for Johannes Lövgren’s death, community suspicion falls on the residents of a nearby refugee camp, and the mood turns ugly. It seems as though the only way to avert an escalation into outright racial violence is to solve an apparently-insoluble murder mystery …

Wallander isn’t a particularly stable character: he drinks to excess, has quite severe mood swings, and follows his own irrational hunches while the evidence appears to be pointing in a quite different direction. He is cast, in other words, very much in the mould of the archetypal fictional detective. In Faceless Killers, his wife Mona—for whom he retains strong feelings—has recently left him, his daughter Linda has become estranged, his father appears to be descending into irascible senility. This personal trauma intrudes repeatedly on the investigation, as does a kaleidoscope of often mundane happenstance: his car runs out of petrol, he misses appointments, he sustains a succession of minor injuries (and some not so minor), he repeatedly vows to make better meal choices the next day. And he breaks—or at least scuffs up—the fourth wall:

‘He wondered why almost every policeman was divorced. Why their wives left them. Sometimes, when he read a crime novel, he discovered with a sigh that things were just as bad in fiction. Policemen were divorced. That’s all there was to it.’

This constant accretion of humdrum detail slows the story, but it also gives it a pleasing three-dimensionality: we’re tricked into accepting Wallander as a real person, and by extension accepting also the colleagues and family members around him. In tone, temper, and pace (as well as in his author’s sociopolitical leanings), Wallander is very much the spiritual son of Martin Beck, persistent to a fault, though with less of Beck’s patience and with a rather more dour mood.

The crime is well-conceived, the investigation carefully logical (and littered with a plausible number of initially-promising dead ends), the social commentary is nuanced and reasonably thoughtful. If Mankell’s prose doesn’t quite have the searing crisp clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson or Mari Jungstedt, he still provides a robustly engrossing murder mystery.





Book review: Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

17 04 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, lecturer, and former TV reporter who has performed the translation of much of the Agatha Christie canon into Icelandic, whose ‘Dark Iceland’ crime novels, set in the small northern Icelandic township of Siglufjörður and featuring the rookie policeman Ari Thór Arason, a Reykjavík native newly posted to the insular town’s police force, have been gaining international attention and critical acclaim over the past couple of years.

SnowBlind

Snowblind (Snjóblinda, 2010, translated by Quentin Bates) is Ragnar’s debut novel, and opens with the recruitment of Ari Thór, a trainee policeman, by Tómas, the senior officer in Siglufjörður, a town now past its heyday as a fishing port. Ari Thór, keen to get an offer of employment after several setbacks, travels north to the town, against the wishes of his girlfriend Kristín, who stays behind to complete her own studies. Ari Thór is assured by Tómas that the criminal element in Siglufjörður is almost nonexistent, with the daily police duties much more involved with maintaining public order and safety than with the investigation of felonies. For a couple of months, this—and an apparently town-wide obsession with knowing everybody else’s business—does indeed seem to be Siglufjörður’s defining characteristic. But when the town’s most famous citizen, elderly novelist and Dramatic Society chairman Hrólfur Kristjánsson, suffers a fatal fall down a flight of stairs at a rehearsal for the Society’s latest play, followed the next week by a vicious knife attack on Linda, the wife of the play’s leading man Karl, it begins to appear to Ari Thór that the town’s inhabitants are hiding a number of secrets.

I’m not yet sure how central is the sense of geographic isolation as a feature of Icelandic crime fiction, but certainly Ragnar’s Siglufjörður seems very distant from anywhere else—it’s cut off for several days, at one point, by an avalanche which has blocked the only road out, something that Tómas (dubiously) reassures Ari Thór happens every winter—in a sense that mirrors the powerfully bleak emptiness of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores, and that seems to be absent from most continental Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read (Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal is a recent exception). Though the landscape definitely has the status of a character in its own right, the (human) characters are all clearly drawn and leave the reader progressively more deeply puzzled about the crimes that Ari Thór is investigating. There’s an impressive sense of life continuing behind and beyond the pages of the novel: every character (and there are enough of them, almost all with unfamiliar names like Ugla, Leifur, Pálmi, Úlfur, and Hlynur, that I felt the lack of an explicit dramatis personae) has a detailed and often tragic backstory which is gradually teased out. The mystery is well-buried and satisfying, and the ending is sufficiently bittersweet as to motivate the reader to want to know what happens next …

If I have a gripe, it’s that the paperback edition I read (which has excellent design values) suffers from several typographic errors, one of which is potentially serious enough to throw an alert reader out of the story. (Chapters are headed with the appropriate date, which is useful enough, except that two consecutive chapters both identified as occurring on Sunday 11th January 2009 detail events which could not both have occurred on that day.) But other than this, Snowblind is a powerful, contained, and highly impressive debut.





Book review: The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Le Guin

15 04 2017

Over the past half century or so, Ursula K Le Guin’s work has received just about every SF / fantasy writing award going, and has achieved a greater degree of cut-through into the broader literary sphere than almost any of her genre contemporaries. I first encountered her writing through her ‘Earthsea’ trilogy (as it was then), but have also read many others of her books including the avowed classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

TheWordForWorldIsForest

I first read The Word for World is Forest about thirty years ago; it didn’t particularly resonate with me at the time, and I think I subsequently confused it in my memory with her YA novel Threshold (also known by the title The Beginning Place), which I read at about the same time. When I realised recently that I didn’t recognise its synopsis, I decided a reappraisal was in order.

The Word for World is Forest is set on Athshe / World 41 / New Tahiti, home of a diminutive race of docile, intelligent green-furred humanoids known, by the terrestrial scientists who are studying them, as Athsheans, and as ‘Creechies’ by the soldiers and sawmill operators who have moved in to cut down the planet’s trees for precious timber to be sent back to a now-treeless Earth. Many of the Athsheans have been pressganged into service as labourers across the various timber-felling operations, but their largely nonconfrontational nature sees the Terran (‘Yuman’) settlers taking greater and greater liberties with their small green slave labour force. Eventually, a line is crossed, and a vicious insurrection ensues. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Captain Donald Davidson, the supervisor of tree-clearing operations at Smith Camp; Selver, an Athshean held at Smith Camp, whose wife Thele has been raped and killed by Davidson; and Dr Raj Lyupov, a researcher at the central Terran, whose efforts to unravel the secrets of Athshean culture—a matriarchal society which places great importance on the technique of directed dreaming—have been substantially assisted by his interactions with Selver. All three individuals are, in their own way, quite strongly rebellious, and seek to follow their own directions rather than follow the guidelines explicitly or implicitly set for them by their respective societies, and this leads ultimately to disaster.

There are clear parallels between WWF and the movie Avatar: substitute wood for unobtanium, change the locals’ skin colour from green to blue, and you’re mostly there. The more immediate (and openly acknowledged) parallel, though, is with the Vietnam war, at its height when the story was first published in 1968; and I would say that there are also echoes, whether conscious or unconscious, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Depressingly, the book has scarcely dated at all, and seems at least as topical now as it was fifty years ago.

Of the protagonists, Davidson is ruthless and venal; Selver is determined but troubled; Lyupov is prone to doubts. All three are utterly self-consistent, but with sufficient complexity of personality to render them both interesting and believable. There’s a solid moral subtext to the story, but it plays out cleanly as a contest between wholly motivated characters, and the text leaves you in no doubt as to why they’ve behaved as they have. Within its short frame (it is, I think, somewhere on the border between novella and novel) there’s enough vivid depiction to build up a clear and detailed picture of Athshean society—as befits, I suppose, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer—and of the planetary ecology. The story has a kind of horrible inevitability to it, the atrocities are contained and yet truly shocking—as befits, I suppose, a tale of conflict written at the height of the Vietnam war—and the ending rings true. There are almost certainly more comprehensive treatments of the dehumanising effect of war, elsewhere in the SF canon, but WWF endures as a compact and insightful look at the depths to which human nature can descend.





Book review: The Nightmare, by Lars Kepler

12 04 2017

‘Lars Kepler’ is the pen name of Swedish husband-and-wife crimewriting team Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, who have written six novels featuring the protagonist Joona Linna.

thenightmare

The Nightmare (Paganinikontraktet, 2010, translated by Laura A Wideburg) opens with a televised debate between Penelope Fernandez, peace activist, and Pontus Salman, arms manufacturer. It’s an inconclusive slanging match, but it obviously strikes a nerve somewhere within the dark recesses of Swedish society, because within days two people closely connected with the debate are dead from not-so-natural causes and Penelope herself is on the run from a ruthless and highly proficient killer. It’s up to Detective Inspector Joona Linna, Finnish-born wunderkind of the Swedish CID, to try to figure out what’s happened, and to guess at where the hitman will strike next.

This novel is impressively detailed and tautly plotted, but it’s let down, I felt, by lumpy characterisation: Joona, for example (who’s referred to far too often, particularly in the book’s first half, as ‘Joona Linna’, as though we’re in any danger of forgetting who he is), is a tad Mary Sue-ish, with his lightning-fast reflexes, quick thinking, and infallible intuition; his one Achilles heel is a susceptibility to surprisingly evanescent and always inconvenient migraine attacks when he’s not medicated with a mind-dulling preventative treatment, and the rock-star-like reception he receives from an elite team of police specialists rings more than a little false. The tone of the writing, too, is a little dull: events are depicted clearly enough, but the words don’t shine in the way they ought; there’s not the clipped and chiselled cadence of classic noir, nor the ice-cold purity of language of the best evocations of Scandinavian social realism. There are whole chapters of backstory which (though ultimately relevant) are, at first pass, awkwardly placed to interrupt the developing narrative; and the action, while often gripping, suffers on occasion from credulity-straining excess and relates, on too many occasions, to characters for whom it’s difficult to muster enough empathy for the outcome to matter. The book suffers, in my opinion, in seeking to marry the traditional airport thriller with the Swedish crime predilection for social commentary, a conjunction it doesn’t properly pull off.

I’ve probably made it sound less worthwhile than it truly is: there are some undeniably impressive set-pieces within the book, and some characters sufficiently intriguing that, by the book’s end, I wished I’d learnt more about them. And if your tastes run to action and suspense, it might well be to your liking. It’s constructed solidly enough, and it holds together; it just didn’t fit me as well as I’d hoped it might.





Book review: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.

cracking_the_sky

Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)





Book review: He Who Fears The Wolf, by Karin Fossum

6 04 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian poet and crime novelist whose work, principally her ‘Inspector Sejer’ series of murder mysteries, has won numerous awards. I’ve previously reviewed her crime novel debut, In the Darkness, here.

HeWhoFearsTheWolf

He Who Fears The Wolf (Den som frykter ulven, 1997, translated by Felicity David) is the third in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series. It opens with Errki Johrma, an escapee from a psychiatric institution, who is seen at the scene of a brutal murder of an elderly woman at a backwoods farm, and thereby immediately becomes prime suspect for the deed. But police efforts to find the troubled Errki are hampered by his subsequent disappearance, and resources become stretched when the nearby town’s bank is robbed the next morning, with an ensuing hostage drama.

This is an intriguing, well-paced mystery with vividness and depth. Fossum displays considerable empathy with her protagonists on both sides of the law. There’s an undercurrent of completely unforced situational humour in the working relationship between Sejer and his offsider, Skarre: a couple of the conversations between them, as they discuss their progress in the case—and as something else plays out between them—are highly amusing. I’m not sufficiently familiar with Fossum’s work to know whether such humour is an ongoing part of her writing, but it works wonderfully here. There’s an astonishingly personal (though, again, quite unforced) piece of character exposition in the lengthy exchange that occurs between Sejer and Dr Struel, the psychiatrist who for several months has been seeking to unpick the issues that torment Errki Johrma. And the characters of Errki, the hostage, the bank robber, and Kannick, the reform-school boy who reported the woman’s death, are sensitively and insightfully drawn. In time, every piece of the backstory emerges, takes shape, and attains significance. The story rewards on several levels. Part of this is due to something in the writing for which the best summary comes from the text itself:

[Skarre] also had that rare talent of directing at everyone the same amount of genuine attention, even at those that didn’t interest him

Fossum’s writing, I think, shares this talent. Even the third-string players in the story—even, I would suggest, the psychiatrist’s rubber toad—have their own vital part to play, and are afforded three-dimensionality for their troubles. It makes for a highly engrossing book, and one which, despite its inherent solidity, is over too soon.





Book review: Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna, by Michael Swanwick

4 04 2017

Michael Swanwick is a US science fiction writer whose novels and short fiction, over the past three-and-a-half decades, have won the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

FieldGuideToTheMesozoicMegafauna

I’m a sucker for dinosaur stories, and Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna is chock-full of them, eighteen in a chapbook-sized volume of just thirty-two pages. Swanwick’s writing, perhaps especially his flash-fiction work such as showcased here, is characterised by whimsy, inventiveness, and intriguing juxtaposition. None of these stories is long enough to fully engross the reader, but equally, none outstays its welcome; and several, such as ‘The Thief of Time’, ‘Parallels’, and ‘Iguanodon anglicus‘ convey a poignancy beyond their brief wordcount. While not every story here manages to hit its mark precisely, most do, with wit and deftly twisted humour. Thematically it’s not, I think, particularly representative of Swanwick’s larger body of work, but the writing is wonderful, like a less gonzo Howard Waldrop. It’s fired me up to check out more of Swanwick’s short fiction.