Book review: Babylon, by Camilla Ceder

13 03 2017

Camilla Ceder is a Swedish social worker and writer, based in Göteborg, who has to date written two crime novels and, more recently, several children’s books.

Babylon

Babylon (Babylon, 2010, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Ceder’s second crime novel; like the first, Frozen Moment, it’s set in and around Ceder’s home turf of Göteborg and is headed up by Inspector Christian Tell.

Rebecca Nykvist is a care-home worker with longstanding anger issues directed against the men in her life. Her current partner, Henrik Samuelsson, is an archaeology student who is having an affair with his tutor, Ann-Marie Karpov. So when Henrik and Ann-Marie are summarily executed late one night, by a visitor to Ann-Marie’s apartment, it’s only natural that Rebecca, who has just that night learnt of Henrik’s duplicity, should emerge as a prime suspect for the double murder, particularly when it’s established that she had visited the apartment on the night in question. But Rebecca swears her innocence, and when her own home is systematically ransacked by burglars apparently seeking items other than the conventional targets of jewellery and high-end gadgetry, it begins to appear that the murders may not have been motivated by simple jealousy …

This is an intriguing novel with sophisticated and detailed characterisation: there’s quite a bit of head-hopping, but Ceder gives enough individuality to each of the players that the frequent changes of perspective don’t usually become disorienting, and the various protagonists grapple with realistic human problems as well as the complexities and trials of the ongoing investigation. (The title Babylon can satisfactorily be interpreted on at least two levels, the literal location and the metaphorical tower of miscommunication, both of which are contextually appropriate.) There’s so much character development that, at times, it threatens to overwhelm the novel’s crime core, particularly in the sequences that deal with Tell’s romantic interest Seja Lundberg, a journalist whose connection to the investigation is incidental at most: I suppose this plays into the reputation that Scandinavian crime fiction has for social commentary, but it would seem churlish to expect a writer trained in social work and psychotherapy to eschew such explorations into the human psyche. I would also argue that the quality of Ceder’s writing is a saving grace and further argue that, while the novel is in places a little sedate in its pacing, it remains interesting. (And the pace does pick up quite markedly towards the end.) It helps, too, that the story which emerges is one with considerable currency—indeed, its relevance has arguably been increased by events which have occurred on the geopolitical scene within the seven years since the book was first published.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit, and I’ll be watching with interest to see whether Ceder returns to crime fiction; I hope she does.





Book review: Hour of the Wolf, by Håkan Nesser

18 02 2017

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author and teacher who is most well known (in English translation at least) for his ‘Inspector Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels set in the geographically nebulous city of Maardam. The series has won several awards, including the Glass Key award in 2000.

hour-of-the-wolf

Hour of the Wolf (Carambole, 1999, translated by Laurie Thompson) opens with a hit-and-run: late one night, a drunk driver hits, and kills, a teenager walking home along a poorly-lit street. The driver stops, but there’s nothing he can do for the boy … and so he does nothing.

But somebody witnessed the incident; two days later, the driver receives a blackmail letter. It’s not the sum of money that concerns him so much as the absence of any guarantee that this will be the end of the matter.

As it transpires, his concerns are justified; less so his methods.

We don’t get to meet Van Veeteren until quite some way into the story, and although he is in a sense the fulcrum on which the novel is balanced, he’s not truly the main character: most of the ‘head time’ in the story is devoted to the drunk driver (whose innermost thoughts the reader is privy to, but whose identity is not revealed until such time as the police uncover it) and to Reinhart and Moreno, two of the police officers central to the investigation. By see-sawing between the perspectives of the perpetrator and the police, the book treads a very effective line in … not exactly ‘moral ambiguity’, but more what might be termed ‘conflicted empathy’.This depth of perspective brings the story to a resolution that is at once deliberately hollow—there’s no sense of victory, of achievement, just of having attained some kind of end—and yet also satisfying, in its realistic portrayal of the emotions involved.

The book’s fictional setting (the nonexistent city of Maardam) initially feels incongruous, but its depiction is so patiently detailed that it takes on the attributes of somewhere real, even if it’s not possible to determine whether it’s in Sweden (as one might expect given the author’s nationality), or in the Netherlands (as would be in keeping with the names given to streets and parks, and to many of its inhabitants), or someplace else. Ultimately, it feels credible, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

Hour of the Wolf is a muscular, deeply-drawn story, well-plotted and with some memorable characterisation (although I did feel, as seems reasonably often to be the case with the Scandicrime I’ve sampled thus far, that the characterisation of the offbeat and deliberately abrasive officer among the supporting cast—in this series, he has the name Rooth—tended to detract from, rather than add colour to, the story). Ultimately, though, even the irritating Rooth can’t derail the story, which moves with a sort of locomotive purposefulness through its various waystations on its way to the terminus.





Book review: The Blood Spilt, by Åsa Larsson

2 02 2017

Åsa Larsson is a Swedish crime novelist whose background as a tax lawyer, and upbringing in Kiruna prior to employment in Stockholm, have substantially informed her fiction: the heroine of her novels, Stockholm-based tax lawyer Rebecka Martinsson, also grew up in Kiruna. This adherence to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy has served Larsson well: she’s won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Association prize for best first novel, while subsequent novels have twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel award. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel The Savage Altar here.

thebloodspilt

The Blood Spilt (Det blod som spillts, 2004, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Rebecka’s second outing. She’s not travelling well: she gives every appearance, following the events of The Savage Altar, of suffering PTSD. Various of her more solicitous work colleagues try to help, but their well-meaning interventions only serve to make things worse. And so she finds herself, quite against her will, dragged back to the communities around Kiruna where her law firm is hoping to finalise a business arrangement with the church council. But there’s something beyond mere business in the wings, because Rebecka belatedly learns about the brutal murder, three months previously, of Mildred Nilsson, one of the local priests … Rebecka decides to stay on in one of the local villages when her colleague drives back to Stockholm. She’s not looking to solve the case, she’s just trying to come to terms with her past, but the case keeps confronting her.

Several of the supporting characters important to The Savage Altar also feature prominently in The Blood Spilt, notably the police officers Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke, Rebecka’s colleague Maria Taube and her flinty, socially-awkward supervisor Måns Wenngren. The perspective can jump quite suddenly, from one sentence to the next, between these characters or a good many others introduced in this novel. Larsson’s characters are clearly drawn, admirably varied, and richly imagined, but I do wish she didn’t head-hop to quite the extent that she does, because it can at times get disorienting. (There are several apparently-missed scene breaks in the final few chapters that certainly don’t help in this regard.) If you can cope with the perspective-shuffling, there’s a lot to like in Larsson’s clean, smooth, deep prose which sets the scenes exquisitely while layering on the mystery and the tension. I will confess to substantial misgivings, based on the book’s back-cover blurb, that Larsson was emulating too closely the storyline of The Savage Altar—both books are, after all, about the savage slaying of a Kiruna-area priest, an event in which Martinsson somehow becomes entangled from the initial remove of Stockholm, hundreds of kilometres away—and yet, while there is undeniably a loose commonality of theme, the stories are quite distinct in detail, in mood, and in structure. The Blood Spilt is, I would say, a more complex story than its predecessor: it lacks the full-on desperation of the last third of The Savage Altar, but it’s quite its match for barbarity, and some of the atrocity revealed is only tenuously foreshadowed (if that); as a result, it’s all the more confronting. (Larsson does not treat her characters with kid gloves.)

It’s probably inappropriate to describe a book which is (in parts) this bleak as a ‘triumph’, but it’s certainly a tour de force. The emotional depth and the empathy on display here, even in the most grim of contexts, is what makes Larsson’s writing work.





Book review: Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

28 01 2017

The series of ten ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals written, in the sixties and seventies, by Swedish duo Sjöwall and (the late) Wahlöö is their most widely-known and influential creation; these works have a reputation as the wellspring from which every subsequent Scandinavian crime novel (and many a non-Scandinavian one also) has either directly or indirectly drawn inspiration. They’ve also given rise to an enviable total of 46 movies, with the role of Beck taken by actors including Derek Jacobi and Walter Matthau.

The books are known for their careful construction, for their deliberate social realism, and for the quantity of preparation with which the series was planned: published one per year from 1965, each novel progresses the circumstances of Beck and those around him by one year, so the series maps out—in background—a decade of social development in Sweden.

Both Sjöwall and Wahlöö also wrote separately (indeed, I think Sjöwall is still active as a writer, as well as a translator), though little of their individual output has seen English translation. There are a few Wahlöö titles in English (I’ve reviewed Murder on the Thirty-First Floor here), but I’m not aware of any of Sjöwall’s work (including Danish Incident, coauthored with Bjarne Nielsen, and The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo, coauthored with Tomas Ross) that has yet appeared in English.

roseanna

Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965, translated by Lois Roth) is the first book in the Martin Beck series. It opens with the discovery, during dredging of the Göta Canal at Borenshult in the summer of 1964, of the waterlogged, unclothed body of a young woman, dead some two or three days. The local police in Motala open an investigation into the woman’s death, but after two weeks no headway has been made by Gunnar Ahlberg and his associates, and the assistance of the Stockholm homicide bureau is sought. When Detective Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues Kollberg and Mellander arrive on the scene, the woman’s identity remains unknown; there are no suspects; there are no clues as to any motive for her death; all that is known, beyond the contents of her last meal and the approximate time of death, is that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The practical, dyspeptic Beck sets about attempting to elucidate further information about a murder for which, it seems, no clues exist. Very gradually, during the next half year, the crime emerges from a fog of near-total uncertainty.

The pacing of this crime novel is, by more modern standards, somewhat slow, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative: it allows space for the calm, undemonstrative characterisation to take hold as the story unfolds. And though the novel does not conceal the sense of often-directionless ennui that must accompany a six-month-long investigation, it also provides definite flashes of humour and of heightening tension along the way. The prose has the same sense of quietly ironic detachment as is a feature of Wahlöö’s Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, though Roseanna feels richer, busier, more sharply defined by place (because it is, after all, a novel inhabiting a specified and recognisable set of localities within Sweden rather than within an effectively-allegorical futuristic mid-European state). And the pacing and plotting also make plain, by comparison with a society now half a century newer, just how much difference is made by the technological furniture of the time. This is an investigation conducted by typewriter and mail delivery, at a time before the fax machine, a time when telephones were inevitably-deskbound devices for the sole purpose of verbal communication. (The past is a different country, etc.)

This is an effective, ingenious, and detailed novel; it’ll be interesting to see how its nine successors compare with it.





Book review: Strange Bird, by Anna Jansson

15 01 2017

Anna Jansson is a Swedish crime writer (and lung clinic nurse) who has written over twenty novels featuring Detective Inspector Maria Wern. The series—originally set on the Swedish mainland, but subsequently relocated to the island of Gotland (where Jansson was born)—appears to be well-regarded in Sweden, and has seen a spin-off TV series as well as movie adaptations of several of the novels; while several of the books have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, French, and Italian, only two have yet seen English translation.

strangebird

Strange Bird (Främmande fågel, 2006, translated by Paul Norlén) is Jansson’s eighth book in the Maria Wern series, though the first to have been translated into English. It opens on an idyllic summer evening, with pigeon-fancier Ruben Nilsson reminiscing about his distant past while he waits for his pigeons to return to their rooftop cote. They bring a friend: a bird from Belarus (according to its leg-ring) that appears to have been exhausted by its flight. Ruben takes the new bird under his wing (so to speak) until it’s nursed back to health. But the bird deteriorates, and Ruben starts feeling under the weather, to the concern of his busybody neighbour, Berit Hoas, who brings care packages for the ailing Ruben and who agrees also to check on his birds for him.

Readers are advised not to grow too attached to Ruben, nor to Berit, nor, indeed, to the bird from Belarus.

As the Gotland authorities grow aware of the H5N1 bird flu epidemic unfolding in their midst, panic sets in among the island’s inhabitants. Wern is personally involved in the crisis: her 11-year-old son Emil is one of eighty children at a soccer camp, all of whom are quarantined as a precaution when Berit Hoas (who has been assisting with their lunches) falls ill. Maria is caught between concern at her son’s predicament and her police duties, which involve investigating the circumstances of an unregistered migrant’s murder. The investigation takes the back seat to the escalating medical crisis, until questions start to surface regarding how the bird flu outbreak erupted …

The book is carefully plotted, the (substantial) medical detail seems authentic—which is not, I suppose, surprising given Jansson’s considerable nursing experience—as does the pigeon-racing content. The characters, too, are well drawn: Maria is a likeable blend of impulse and duty, other characters cover a reasonable range of traits, although I did have a little difficulty keeping two or three of the ‘persons of interest’ entirely distinct from each other. I also felt, in a couple of passages within the book, as though I was being infodumped on: there are a few conversations where the purpose seems too obviously to convey information for the benefit of the reader. The prose, also, is sometimes lacking in fluidity. But the story is an intriguing one, and clever, and plausible, and disconcerting. (If you believe yourself to have hypochondriac tendencies, you might find the book triggering.) As it was, I often found myself washing my hands after having read a chapter or two: the book’s subject matter can have that sort of effect on one.

The book (and, by extension, Jansson’s entire Maria Wern series) almost inevitably invites comparison with Mari Jungstedt’s ‘Inspector Knutas‘ series that is similarly set on Gotland. I’ll shy such comparison, because I think Jansson and Jungstedt are rather different kinds of authors (and, in any case, Gotland appears comfortably large enough, at a shade over three thousand square kilometres, to sustain the fictional-murder rate required for both series). I think a more natural similarity with Jansson’s style, based on what I’ve read so far, can be found in the work of Helene Tursten, or perhaps Finland’s Leena Lehtolainen.

While it is probably too much to hope that the entire Maria Wern backlist might find its way into English translation in the near future—my spidey-sense tells me that the international market for English-language translation of Scandinavian crime fiction is possibly starting to taper—it would nonetheless be good to see a few more of Jansson’s titles available in English. (Currently the only other one available is Killer’s Island.)





Book review: Shadow, by Karin Alvtegen

22 12 2016

Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish crime fiction author whose works generally eschew plot pyrotechnics in favour of ever-more-sinister undertones, gradually teased out from a disturbing but plausibly-realised setting. I’ve previously reviewed her Glass-Key-award-winning second novel, Missing, here.

shadow

Shadow (Skugga, 2007, translated by Steven T Murray) opens with the abandonment of a small boy in Stockholm’s open-air museum, Skansen, and then proceeds to explore the sequence of events set in train by the death of Gerda Persson, the reclusive former housekeeper for the tragedy-marked family of celebrated author (and Nobel laureate) Axel Ragnerfeldt, whose daughter Annika was killed many years ago in a hit-and-run accident at the age of fifteen. As the bedridden Axel’s philandering son Jan-Erik seeks to provide a social worker with some form of biographical background for the barely-remembered Gerda, he uncovers a dark secret which has long lain dormant within his family.

The story underpinning Shadow is slow to emerge, as the several characters are introduced. Chapters are presented from the various perspectives of Jan-Erik, his bitter alcoholic mother Alice, his unhappy wife Louise, and his stroke-incapacitated father Axel, as well as from Kristoffer, the man whose earliest memory is of having been abandoned at Skansen, and Marianne Folkesson, the social worker tasked with bringing some sense of closure to the death of Gerda. This multiplicity of viewpoints, each of which is presented with a dispassionate immediacy and intimacy that at first seems sympathetic, ensures that the reader is repeatedly conflicted as to the precise heading of the story’s overarching moral compass. (In this regard, the puzzle which is presented to Axel at around the book’s midpoint—where he is asked to assess the relative culpabilities of five protagonists within a short narrative—is instructive; the puzzle can be seen as a minimalistic distillation of the tensions exposed within the wider story. Though the puzzle is presented as parable or, perhaps, symbol, with no complete alignment between its characters’ straightforward choices and the far more knotty dilemmas faced by Shadow‘s players, it nonethless becomes clear, at least, which of the puzzle’s characters most closely maps out the role played by Gerda as the story moves to its ominous conclusion.)

One of the themes within Shadow is the darker side of literary ambition, with several characters—Jan-Erik, Alice, Kristoffer, even Axel himself—struggling with the ongoing weight of Axel Ragnerfeldt’s status as the author of several well-received books and one acknowledged classic. While I don’t doubt that the particularities of the Ragnerfeldt family’s circumstances are the product of Alvtegen’s writerly imagination, the specifics of Alvtegen’s heritage (she is the grandniece of Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren) lend this side of Shadow a powerful sense of authenticity and credible detail.

This is, as noted above, a decidedly slow burn of a book, as Alvtegen pares back each civilising layer to present a progressively more grim and disturbing image of the depths to which people can sink. It is remarkably well done, but I don’t know that I’ll be trying anything more by Alvtegen for the next little while; I think I need to rebuild some trust in human nature before then.





Book review: Unspoken, by Mari Jungstedt

26 11 2016

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and writer whose ‘Anders Knutas’ police procedurals have placed the large island of Gotland, a favoured summer-holiday location for Swedish mainlanders, firmly on the map as a locus of Scandinavian crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed Jungstedt’s accomplished debut, Unseen, here.

unspoken

Unspoken (I den stilla natt, 2007, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is the second in Jungstedt’s long-running Anders Knutas series. It opens with a piece of very good fortune for alcoholic photographer Henry Dahlström (an eighty-thousand-kronor haul at the last trotting meet of the season, from a lucky sequence of bets), followed a day or so later by a piece of exceptionally bad fortune (an unexpected encounter with a brutally-wielded blunt instrument at the door to his basement darkroom). It’s several days before Dahlström’s decomposing body is found by one of his drinker mates, and Knutas’s team initially has very little to go on in the hunt for the killer. Nor is it possible to determine whether it’s premeditated murder, or merely the disastrous inadvertent outcome of a spontaneous drunken brawl. But then a horse-obsessed adolescent loner schoolgirl, Fanny Jansson, goes missing on her way home from the racing stables. Is there some kind of trackside connection between Henry’s murder and Fanny’s disappearance?

While the book naturally devotes the bulk of its narrative attention to the Dahlström and Jansson investigations (in which the most fully-fledged and interesting protagonists are Chief Inspector Knutas and his offsider Karin Jacobsson), a subsidiary thread focusses on the continuation of the adulterous relationship between Stockholm-based journalist Johan Berg and local housewife-and-mother Emma Wingarve. This isn’t entirely a gratuitous addition to the storyline—Berg is covering the crimes in Gotland, after all, and even makes his own active contribution to the investigation—but it’s not as intimately interwoven with the detectives’ efforts as was the case in Unseen, nor does it occupy such a substantial portion of the book. Still, it adds both colour and emotional depth to the novel, with the affair’s highs and lows expertly documented; and it cuts out at exactly the right point, setting matters up brilliantly for the sub-plot’s expected continuance in the third book. (On the evidence presented here, I’d say that Jungstedt could also turn her hand to romance writing, to very good effect, if she ever tired of crime.)

There are, perhaps, a few too many red herrings in Unspoken, but Jungstedt’s prose is beautifully smooth and expressive, and the crime that unfolds is unexpected yet fully plausible. It’s a wonderfully readable example of Swedish crime fiction, with which my only genuine quibble is a structural one: while the organisation of the book into chapters, each detailing the course of a day’s unfolding investigation into the crimes, is logical and sensible, the intercalation into some chapters of passages headed ‘Several months previously’, detailing elements of the backstory relating to Fanny Jansson’s disappearance, does seem clunky and a bit arbitrary. Otherwise, the book holds up as a finely-crafted and detailed depiction of the brutality that can lurk within the most tranquil, most civilised setting.