Book review: The Gingerbread House, by Carin Gerhardsen

20 07 2017

Carin Gerhardsen is a Swedish crime novelist and former mathematician and IT consultant, best known for her ‘Hammarby series’ of murder mysteries set in the Stockholm suburb of that name and featuring Detective Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg. The series now stands at eight books in the original Swedish (and, I think, in German translation); currently only the first three have been translated into English.

GingerbreadHouse

The Gingerbread House (Pepparkakshuset, 2008, translated by Paul Norlen) marks the first instalment in the Hammarby series. It opens with a carefully-etched depiction of childhood cruelty and segues into a brutal murder which, from the outset, is plainly retributive. Sjöberg and his team begin the investigation with no connection apparent between the victim and the site of the assault, and no apparent motive for the slaying of someone undemonstrably successful and lacking in known enemies. Over the next fortnight, three more deadly attacks occur, by various methods and scattered around central Sweden, but they are not immediately connected by the police to the initial slaying of Hans Vannerberg. (That connection is made, for the reader, by the inclusion of the killer’s diary which establishes the common motive for the assaults.)

I enjoyed the characterisation in The Gingerbread House. The principal viewpoint characters employed are senior officer Sjöberg, junior team member Petra Westman, and the murderer. Conny Sjöberg would appear to be a rarity in Scandinavian crime fiction—a happily married police officer—but there’s enough complexity to his character to ensure his is an interesting perspective, as too is Westman’s. The murderer’s diary entries, while providing an undeniably hard edge to what could otherwise be a tidy police procedural, actually have the effect of slowing the story somewhat, and I felt while reading that this material could either have been abridged or excised completely—we alreday know, from the outset, why the murders are occurring. Having finished the book, I think I see the reason for their inclusion.

Gerhardsen’s writing is evocative and engaging, with considerable emphasis placed on portraying the murderer as a tragic figure whose motivation is understandable, almost inescapable. In tone, the book has certain similarities to the work of Norwegian crime novelist Karin Fossum—DCI Sjöberg could well be Fossum’s Konrad Sejer with a happier homelife—and also Karin Alvtegen, for whom the psychology of the perpetrator is a primary focus. There is, in fact, an intriguing connection between The Gingerbread House (2008) and Alvtegen’s Shadow (2007), with both books relaying an identical anecdote involving the dilemma faced by a woman seeking to gain boat passage across a crocodile-infested river to visit her boyfriend. In each case, the anecdote, relayed at a social gathering, is presented as an ethics test designed to provide an insight into the psychological makeup of principal characters. (A bit of Google-based research will show that the anecdote in question is fairly widely known in social-science circles as ‘The Alligator River Story’, which asks the participant to rate the behaviour of the five characters in the story from best to worst.) I suspect the inclusion of the anecdote in both books is more an example of convergent evolution than of anything more sinister—given the evident interest of both Gerhardsen and Alvtegen in the detailed exploration of criminal psychology and the backstory to criminality, it’s understandable that the same widely-known ethics exercise might find its way into two different stories, but it does give the reader momentary pause on encountering it in a second book.

This is, overall, a promising first instalment to what would seem to be an interesting series, and one of which I hope we see more in English translation than merely the three books currently available.





Book review: The Ninth Grave, by Stefan Ahnhem

17 07 2017

Stefan Ahnhem is a Swedish crime fiction writer with a background in screenwriting, having produced several screenplays for Scandinavian film and TV adaptations of the works of writers such as Karin Fossum and Henning Mankell. His own crime fiction novels, featuring investigator Fabian Risk, have been shortlisted for several European awards, and he has won Sweden’s Crimetime Specsavers Award and Germany’s MIMI Award.

TheNinthGrave

The Ninth Grave (Den Nionde Graven, 2015, translated by Paul Norlen) starts with a gruesome surgical intervention, the disappearance of the Swedish justice minister, and a vicious home invasion in the home of a Danish TV host. Fabian Risk is brought in, alongside his supervisor Edelman, as a police representative in a preliminary meeting with officers from SäPo, the Swedish Security Service, to apprise them of the politician’s disappearance. Risk and Edelman are left in no doubt that it’s merely a courtesy briefing, and that police involvement in the case is not sought, but Edelman subsequently decides, for obscure motives, to direct Risk to run his own parallel investigation while not doing anything to alert SäPo’s attention. Evolving in parallel, the Danish investigation involves detective Dunja Hougaard  and other members of the Copenhagen police force’s homicide unit, who quickly learn that they are dealing with a double murder. The Swedish and Danish crime trails appear not to connect, but it becomes independently apparent to both Risk and Hougaard, as the body count grows, that something very strange is happening …

I have mixed feelings about this novel. The characterisation is effective and broadly plausible, the viewpoint characters (principally Risk, Hougaard, and Risk’s heavily-pregnant colleague Malin Rehnberg) are well fleshed out with engaging, relatable, and not exactly untroubled home lives—thus providing the basis for the social commentary typical of Scandinavian crime fiction—and the plot has been intricately crafted, seemingly with accurate attention to detail. And yet … it’s all a bit too full-on, in some respects. There’s a fair bit of unnecessary in-harm’s-waying on the part of the investigating officers, a bit too much gonzo zeal displayed those responsible for the crimes … it all hangs together, it has a pleasing logical consistency to it, and yet it doesn’t entirely convince, because it’s too much the bloodbath. It’s a pity—I feel as though there’s a good story here, told well, but I just wish Ahnhem hadn’t turned it up to 11 to tell it.





Book review: Buried Lies, by Kristina Ohlsson

8 07 2017

Kristina Ohlsson is a Swedish security analyst and author. In English translation, she’s probably best known for her ‘Fredrika Bergman’ series of police procedurals which now runs to six titles (the first five of which have been translated): I’ve previously reviewed the third book in this series, The Disappeared, here. She has also written several children’s novels as well as nonfiction books.

BuriedLies

Buried Lies (Lotus Blues, 2014, translated by Neil Smith) starts when Bobby, brother of the late Sara Tell, visits lawyer Martin Benner on a quest to clear his sister’s name. Sara died by jumping off a bridge, shortly before her trial date for a series of five self-confessed murders  across the US and Sweden. The evidence of Sara’s guilt appears unquestionable—not least the fact that she admitted to the murders herself, shortly after emailing police to reveal where in her house she had hidden mementos of the crimes—but Bobby seems genuine in his belief that his sister was innocent, and must have been framed. Against his better judgement, Martin starts an informal, after-hours investigation of the case surrounding the woman known to the media as ‘Sara Texas’. He’s assisted, against her better judgement, by his (former romantic, now legal) partner Lucy, but it gradually becomes clear they’ve gone deep into something much darker than they had expected.

This is a densely-plotted book, with so many fakes and feints that it becomes very difficult to keep track of the current version of reality as Martin understands it. I have to say that, all up, Martin isn’t a particularly appealing character—an arrogant, manipulative womaniser—and one has difficulty in seeing what Lucy ever saw in him, unless she has a fetishistic attraction to alpha-male cads. I also found myself irked by the ‘framing device’ used in the book: each of the novel’s seven sections is preceded by an after-the-fact transcript of an interview between Martin and a freelance journalist. The brief segments of transcript were, in my opinion, rather self-spoilerish and did not, in my opinion, add anything of substance to the narrative. However, this may merely be a device with which Ohlsson is familiar and comfortable: I seem to recollect that the other novel of hers which I’ve read, The Disappeared, also incorporated such material at intervals throughout the book.

Buried Lies isn’t exactly my preferred style of Swedish crime fiction: it’s a bit too high-contrast, high-octane, high-stakes, straying at times into airport-thriller territory. There’s a degree of unnecessary monologuing, and one finds oneself wondering, at times, just why certain people are bothering to self-incriminate by answering Martin’s seemingly-innumerable questions. But it’s also undeniably well-constructed and well-paced, and sets up the series very well for the next instalment.





Book review: The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

25 06 2017

The ‘Martin Beck’ series of police procedurals, written across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies by Swedish ex-journalists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (the latter of whom died shortly after publication of the series’ final instalment The Terrorists), have exerted a major influence on the subgenre of Scandinavian crime fiction—Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, written with a similarly laconic and closely-focussed style, can be reductively viewed as Beck’s direct descendant—and have earned a substantial following elsewhere. Forty to fifty years on, the books are now somewhat dated (which isn’t necessarily a failing: they’re very much a product of their times, and the times have moved on), but it’d be wrong to view them as merely historical documents: those I’ve read are genuinely, if quietly, intriguing, and the crimes remain topical even if the methods of investigation and communication now appear quite old-fashioned. I’ve previously reviewed the first of the Beck novels, Roseanna, here.

ManWhoWentUpInSmoke

The Man Who Went Up In Smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966, translated by Joan Tate) opens with the scene of a murder, but it’s not one with any direct connection to the mystery at the novel’s centre, which is the disappearance, in Budapest, of Swedish journalist Alf Matsson. Concerned that Matsson’s employer is not above exploiting his disappearance as some kind of made-in-house scoop—an eventuality which, with its expected trappings of jingoism and paranoia, would have troubling implications for relations between Sweden and the countries of communist Eastern Europe—the Foreign Office asks the police to investigate, and the police, in turn, assign the task to Martin Beck, the day after he has embarked on a month-long vacation with his family on one of the islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Beck is free to refuse the assignment, but he takes it on. He’s never heard of the journalist and disapproves of the paper for which Matsson writes. The details surrounding Matsson’s disappearance are sparse, a situation that doesn’t change much with Beck’s relocation to Budapest, where he stays in the same hotel room into which the journalist had been booked, but had apparently not occupied for longer than about a half hour two weeks previously. Beck has Matsson’s passport, a few eyewitness accounts of questionable reliability from hotel workers and taxi drivers, and that’s about it. Even the woman on whom Matsson had apparently been planning to call—his romantic interest, Ari Bökk, a former East German athlete—turns out to be someone who claims no knowledge of the missing Swede. And yet, incrementally, a case emerges from the heat haze …

We’re given little direct access to Beck’s thoughts and feelings, except as they impinge upon his investigation, and all of the novel’s other participants are viewed entirely through his eyes. Despite this, Beck, his colleagues Kollberg and Melander, Major Szluka of the Budapest police force, and a swathe of witnesses and suspects are clearly, almost intimately drawn before the reader’s eyes. The settings, too, are described with often-affectionate detail, and help to place the reader in the midst of the action.

One of the things that’s most striking about Beck’s characterisation is that, in this book, he eats well. This is notable chiefly because in the book’s predecessor, Roseanna, he’s starkly dyspeptic, as is the protagonist Inspector Jensen in Wahlöö’s solo crime-fiction effort Murder on the Thirty-first Floor (published in the same year, 1966, as The Man Who Went Up In Smoke and similarly concerned with the intersection between journalism and crime). That two of the three books I’ve read for which Wahlöö was an author, all of them ostensibly written within a two-year timespan, have protagonists for whom digestion is an often-agonising ordeal has me wondering whether this is in some sense mirroring the then-current state of health of Wahlöö, who would die in 1975 from a disease, pancreatic cancer, for which digestive difficulties and loss of appetite are apparently frequent early symptoms. I mention this solely because Beck’s reported eating habits in Roseanna, and Jensen’s in Thirty-first floor, are so appalling that it is, at times, quite confronting despite the distance and emotionlessness of the tone with which they’re described. Whether the oncology stacks up, and whether there is any broader scope for the application of the reported ailments of fictional detectives as a diagnosis for the physical condition of their creators, I leave as an exercise for the interested reader.

With its internationality, intrigue, and subterfuge, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke invites comparison with the books and movies featuring James Bond; and indeed, the text deliberately references Bond in a couple of places. But it would be wrong to view TMWWUIS through the same prism as Fleming’s tales of high-vis spycraft: Beck’s a plodder, a rather taciturn (though generally polite) grump with no fighting skills to speak of, without any particular tickets on himself beyond a (sometimes wavering) belief that his work is important, and he gets results because of his persistence and his capacity to take pains with the details. The detection that solves the mystery at the core of TMWWUIS is quite marvellous, and I’m looking forward to what happens in the subsequent instalments.





Book review: The Scent of Almonds and other stories, by Camilla Läckberg

29 05 2017

Camilla Läckberg is a Swedish crime writer whose novels, set in and around the fishing villa of Fjällbacka and featuring the investigative duo of Erica Falck (writer) and Patrik Hedström (police officer), have become one of the country’s most successful fictional exports. I’ve previously reviewed Läckberg’s first novel, The Ice Princess, here.

TheScentOfAlmonds

The Scent of Almonds and other stories (Mord och mandeldoft, 2013, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is built, as its title hints, around Läckberg’s novella The Scent of Almonds, to which three much shorter stories have been appended so as to yield a slightly less slim volume.

In the title novella, police officer Martin Molin (a colleague of Patrik Hedström) is trapped for a storm-wracked weekend in a boutique resort on an island off the mainland. It’s a weekend from hell, spent with the family from hell: not his own, but that of Lisette Liljecrona, to whom he has rather unwittingly found himself classed as ‘boyfriend’. The family dynamics are so appallingly awful that it’s almost a relief when wealthy patriarch Ruben, Lisette’s grandfather, is fatally poisoned during dinner—at least now Martin has a role to fall back on, that of investigating officer, to distance himself from the argumentative clan. But Martin is a reluctant Poirot, who lacks the ability to secure the crime scene, to dust for fingerprints, or to communicate with his superiors; how will he pinpoint the murderer?

The novella has a distinctly old-fashioned feel about it, which is not solely due to the isolated setting and the lack of cellphone reception: the range of possible suspects are introduced in the opening scenes, and it rolls from there, in a story that seems to channel both Conan Doyle and Christie. Läckberg revels in her descriptions of the storm’s severity and in her depictions of the Liljecrona family’s utter lack of redeeming features: one almost wants them all to be guilty. Martin isn’t a particularly engaging protagonist (which I think is a conscious decision on the author’s part, so as to provide contrast with the absent Patrik), but the story’s atmosphere more-or-less carries it.

The three short stories are all also rather old-fashioned, in that each one pretty much revolves around a single point or idea—which, I suppose, is the classical definition of the short story form. In ‘An Elegant Death’, heiress Lisbeth has been bashed to death by an unknown assailant in her second-hand clothes shop; in ‘Dreaming of Elisabeth’, Malin’s suspicions of her partner Lars’ behaviour grow with premonitions that she is about to suffer the same fate—drowning at sea—which befell Lars’ first partner Elisabeth; in ‘The Widows’ Café’, Marianne provides a special, and not exactly legal, service for the community’s domestic abuse victims. These stories all fulfil the requirements—the setup, the fulcrum, the twist—and yet they feel too constrained by their artifice: they’re too short to properly unsettle the reader in the manner that Läckberg’s longer fiction can, wherein she can get thoroughly stuck into the genuine horrors of domestic life.





Book review: An Event in Autumn, by Henning Mankell

15 05 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer, playwright, and activist best known for his ‘Kurt Wallander’ series of crime novels. I’ve recently reviewed the first of the Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, here.

AnEventInAutumn

An Event in Autumn (Handen, 2013, translated by Laurie Thompson, originally published (in Dutch) as Het Graf, 2004) is a novella set a few years before Wallander’s retirement. It opens when his colleague Malinson, aware of Wallander’s interest in buying a rural property, asks if he would be interested in viewing a house belonging to his wife’s aged uncle who has recently moved into a care home. Wallander inspects the property: it’s distinctly run-down but otherwise seems to be the kind of thing he’s after, and the price is right. The sale doesn’t go ahead, however, because at the close of his inspection Wallander finds something unexpected protruding from the back lawn: a skeletal human hand. The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone, the arm bone’s connected et cetera … An investigation ensues. It transpires that the body’s been in the ground for forty or fifty years.

The pacing and overall tone in this one is rather reminiscent of Jorn Lier Horst’s When It Grows Dark (reviewed here), which is similarly brief and is similarly concerned with the investigation of a crime so long-concealed that very few witnesses remain, though the cynical and middle-aged Wallander is a much grumpier individual than Lier Horst’s keen young William Wisting. As ever, it’s the depth of the curmudgeonly Wallander’s characterisation, and the enveloping minutiae of the repeatedly-thwarted investigation, which convinces. It works well as a story; it would also function quite usefully as an introduction to Mankell, for those who might be put off ploughing straight into one of the longer books. (It’s also of interest for the dozen or so pages of explanatory material at the end, in which Mankell details the story’s origins as a publisher-requested ‘freebie’ to accompany Dutch sales of his crime novels, as well as outlining the origins of Wallander’s character—though this can be skipped over by those merely interested in the fiction, rather than the backstory.)





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.