Book review: Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel

25 07 2017

Sara Blædel is a Danish crime novelist with experience in journalism and publishing, best known for her award-winning series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Louise Rick.

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Call Me Princess (Kald mig prinsesse, 2005, translated by Erik J Macki and Tara F Chace), also published in the UK as Blue Blood, is the second of Blædel’s Louise Rick novels and the first of the half-dozen which have thus far seen English translation. (It’s also the first book I’ve experienced as an audiobook, which went somewhat more straightforwardly than I’d anticipated.)

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When a romantic encounter with a man met through online dating goes wrong, Susanne Hansson becomes the victim of a savage rape. DI Rick is assigned Hansson’s case, but struggles to make headway against the psychological trauma which Susanne experiences following the attack. The assailant has taken particular care to avoid leaving anything which might constitute forensic evidence, and all that Rick and her team have to go on is a very vague description of a young man whom Hansson would very much wish to forget. But when a second, similar attack occurs a few days later, with fatal consequences, it underscores the urgency of identifying and apprehending the rapist before any more women suffer at his hands.

The book’s subject matter is clearly emotionally charged, and this intensity comes through starkly in Blædel’s spare and insightful prose. There’s an admirable depth to the characterisation of the flawed but empathetic Rick, who identifies strongly with Hansson’s vulnerability following the attack, and there’s sufficient variety to the identities of the supporting cast, and sufficient exploration of the main characters’ home lives, that the book’s telling of the investigation feels credible and thorough, with a disturbing degree of gritty detail in the descriptions of sexual assault and its physical, psychological, and social aftermath. There is, almost inevitably, an aspect of needless in-harm’s-wayism in the direction Rick takes to solve the case, but this is plausibly accounted for in the minutiae of the investigation, and the book never sashays into sensationalism or overreach. It’s notable, also, that for a book first published over a decade ago, its description of the online dating environment still feels current: almost the only thing that dates it is a reference to the poor quality of images generally obtained from mobile phones.

This is a tense, moderate, and quite deeply moving police procedural, well-constructed and vividly written, and Rick is an interesting character well worth encountering again.





Book review: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Høeg

11 07 2017

Peter Høeg is an award-winning Danish author whose eight books to date, written in a variety of literary styles, have appeared across a thirty-year span.

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In Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Froken Smillas Fornemelse for Sne, 1992, translated by F David), known in the US and in an associated movie production as Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the titular Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is an acerbic and gifted loner, of mixed Danish and Greenlandic heritage, who cannot determine exactly where, if anywhere, she fits within society and has therefore made a habit of excluding herself from it as much as possible. Isaiah, the young son of Smilla’s alcoholic neighbour Juliette, has been an exception, begrudgingly allowed into Smilla’s solitude, but when Isaiah falls to his death from the snow-covered rooftop of the apartment building in which they live, Smilla is spurred into action by the inadequacy of a cursory police investigation which soon determines Isaiah’s death to be a suicide. Smilla is convinced there is something much more sinister involved.

It’s difficult to reliably characterise MSFfS, which often seems to be heading in so many directions at once that it’s unsettlingly kaleidoscopic. In a plot that references (among many other things) jazz, ice-fishing, tropical parasitology, accounting practices, industrial espionage, navigation, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the correct form of artificial lighting for the photography of snow, Høeg also finds space for a steady undercurrent of black humour. Much of this is conveyed through Smilla’s voice, or her unvoiced thoughts: first-person-present-tense can be a difficult style in which to relate a tale effectively, but Smilla’s character is sufficiently well-versed in a breadth of subject matter, so strongly individual and innately rebellious that her viewpoint frequently surprises. An example from the text may illustrate this better than any analysis I might offer:

“I hate lies,” I say. “If any lying has to be done, I’ll do it myself.”
“Then you should have told him that. Instead of hugging him.”
I can’t believe my ears, but I see that I’ve heard correctly. In his eyes there is the gleam of pure, unadulterated, idiotic jealousy.
“I didn’t hug him,” I say. “I helped him into his coat. For three reasons. First, because it’s a courtesy you ought to show towards a fragile, elderly man. Second, because he presumably risked his position and pension to come here.”
“And the third?”
“Third,” I say, “because it gave me the chance to steal his wallet.”

This conveys, I hope, a sense of the book’s flavour, though it’s just one small facet of an unusually complicated tale. The prose is finely chiselled, patient, playful. I felt in a couple of places that Høeg’s set-pieces were slightly overwrought—Smilla gets away with a lot, largely on moxie, the curiosity of her opponents, and hellish good luck—but overall this is a quite beautifully rewarding book, busy with invention, full of delicate detail; a book that is best read slowly. (I started and finished several other titles in the time taken to percolate my way through MSFfS.) It’s rare, I think, to find a single book which so encapsulates a complicated protagonist that the telling is utterly complete in itself, and yet leaves so much around the margins that the world is seen to be much larger than the tale it contains—it’s a trick managed, I think, in The Summer Book, and also in Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, two books which otherwise have almost nothing in common with it or with each otherbut this is true of Smilla too, while also toeing a fine line in narrative indeterminacy. It’s one of my favourite reads of the year to date.





Book review: The Dinosaur Feather, by Sissel-Jo Gazan

5 01 2017

Sissel-Jo Gazan is a Danish biologist and author, now living in Berlin. Her work has won several awards.

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The Dinosaur Feather (Dinosaurens fjer, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) has been judged ‘Danish Crime Novel of the Decade’. It’s Gazan’s first crime novel and, so far as I know, the first of her books available in English translation, though several earlier works are listed on her (Danish language) Wikipedia page.

Anna Bella Nor has just completed her MSc thesis on the still-contentious issue of the evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. (Anna Bella’s research supports the majority view that modern birds are the direct descendants of extinct dinosaurs, rather than the still-resilient but struggling hypothesis that birds and dinosaurs instead arose separately from a common archosaur ancestor.) But the thesis is still sitting, unread, on the desk of her supervisor Lars Helland when an agitated fellow research student, Johannes, finds Prof Helland dying at his desk, slouched, bloodstained, and with his severed tongue resting on his chest. Medics are unable to revive the Professor; Anna Bella’s department becomes a crime scene, and the police investigation is headed up by Superintendent Søren Marhauge. It becomes apparent that there are academics who for a long time have vehemently disagreed with Helland’s published research (most notably the renowned Canadian bird-physiology expert Clive Freeman, who is scheduled to visit the University of Copenhagen for a conference in the weeks ahead), but who would stoop to murder over such things?

The Dinosaur Feather is very well-constructed. I suspect its palaeobiological background (which forms an important and fascinating component of the story) is spot-on: Gazan writes with the assurance of one who knows of such matters, and given her background this would seem highly credible. (I did note, just to be persnickerty, that there are a couple of references to ‘Archaeopteryx Lithographica‘ in the opening chapter, where the orthodox nomenclature would feature a lower-case ‘l’ rather than a capital, but I suspect this could be the sort of error that sneaks in during translation; and my recollection is that the subsequent instances of taxonomic nomenclature are not inappropriately capitalised.) The other structural aspects of the book, too, are sound, and the characters are solid, to the point that there ultimately seems to be a skeleton within every closet. Much of this character complexity gets revealed (to the characters themselves, or their close colleagues) within the course of the investigation, sometimes threatening to overload the narrative. If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that it does at times seem verbose: there are some very long monologues within the book’s five-hundred-plus pages, and I did find myself thinking that various important sequences could have been conveyed considerably more succinctly, in language more finely crafted. The prose doesn’t really sing; it’s the story that carries the tune. But it is, nonetheless, a compelling read, and the ending is well accomplished.

I’ll be interested to see how Gazan’s follow-up, The Arc of the Swallow (another ornithologically-informed mystery, again featuring Supt. Marhauge), measures up against her crime debut.





Book review: The Boy in the Suitcase,by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

31 12 2016

Lene Kaaberbøl is a Danish writer (and high school teacher, and translator) whose primary solo output is in the field of children’s fantasy fiction (although she has recently published Doctor Death, the first in a series of crime novels set in nineteenth-century France). Agnete Friis, also a Danish writer (and journalist), has also written children’s fiction and YA, as well as the psychological thriller What My Body Remembers. In collaboration, Kaaberbøl and Friis have produced four novels in the Nina Borg series, where the central character is a Red Cross nurse whose humanitarian instincts repeatedly prove problematic.

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The Boy in the Suitcase (Drengen i kufferten, 2008, translated by Lene Kaaberbøl), the first of the Nina Borg novels, won the Harald Mogensen award for best crime novel and was shortlisted for the Glass Key award.

The titular character in Boy is a three-year-old whom Borg encounters when a friend of hers asks her to retrieve an item from a locker at Copenhagen’s central railway station. That ‘item’ turns out to be a heavy suitcase containing, as it transpires, one heavily-sedated small child. Nina has no clue as to the child’s identity, but believes him to be in continuing physical danger: she witnesses an angry assault on the recently-emptied locker by a large man in a leather jacket. Across the continent in Lithuania, solo mother Sigita Ramoškienė awakens in a hospital bed with no recollection of the assault that accompanied the abduction of her young son Mikas …

Alternating chapters, short but vivid, show us the ensuing events, most often through the eyes of Nina or Sigita, though others’ viewpoints are occasionally adopted as needed. The characterisation is strong, with all of those involved having plausible (if not always admirable) motives for the actions they take: the crime that sees a young boy snatched from his mother and then transported halfway across Europe is deftly explained: it becomes comprehensible, even as it remains monstrously horrific. And Nina is an intriguing protagonist, idealistic, headstrong, compassionate, but prone to distraction, even, at times, to absent-mindedness. She is, in some ways, a less streetwise sister—or perhaps a precursor?—to Finnish crime novelist Kati Hiekkapelto’s Detective Inspector Anna Fekete, with whom she shares both a conviction that a society should care, not just for its citizens, but for all its residents, and a determination to take action pursuing this ideal. If Kaaberbøl & Friis place less emphasis, in this collaborative debut, on the victimisation of refugees than does Hiekkapelto’s work, there’s nonetheless a wealth of nuanced social criticism woven into their narrative.

If Nina (who is, obviously, the mainstay of the Nina Borg books, of which a further three currently exist) is a compelling lead character, Sigita is a superior foil: if at first her chapters appear to be mere backstory to the principal storyline involving Nina, her subsequent actions are sufficient to propel her to a central role in the unfolding events. (I won’t divulge details of the story’s climatic resolution, but it’s impressively handled and well-choreographed.) And the prose is a delight to read: it’s emphatic, and clear, and shot through with cogent observations that inform, but do not intrude upon, the book’s deepening mystery. It’s clearly inappropriate to treat this work as a debut—both Kaaberbøl and Friis were already experienced authors at the time they embarked upon Boy—and yet, in the sense that any writing partnership will never be exactly equal only to the sum of its parts, it’s perhaps not so inappropriate. I’m not sure what separate plans the authors have, going forward, but I do hope we get to see more of Nina.