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Review: Jo Nesbo – The Son

Nesbo is an interesting writer. He’s hugely popular around the world it’s not difficult to see why. His books are always immenseson-jo-nesboly readable and he is able to create larger than life characters that jump off the page. His novels are substantial reads. The Son runs to 496 pages but, once you are into the narrative, it’s virtually impossible to put down. Although not part of the series featuring detective Harry Hole, after the disappointment of Nesbo’s previous standalone, HeadhuntersThe Son is a return to form. Assuming, as always, you can stomach the violence.

Sonny Lofthus is the son of a policeman who killed himself when he was revealed as the mole in the Oslo police department who was passing secrets to a criminal known as The Twin. Sonny is a drug addict incarcerated in prison who has become famous for his confessor-like status amongst inmates. During one confession, he discovers something that brings into question his father’s guilt. Escaping from jail, he wreaks justice on those he holds responsible for the destruction of his family. Simon Kefas, a colleague and friend of Sonny’s father, pursues the fugitive convinced that he can also unpick the truth about the identity of the real mole.

Nesbo is one the main proponents of Norweigian crime fiction and, in his earlier books, brought to life the city of Oslo for those of us who have never been. The Son is unusual in that, at times, I forgot it was set in Scandinavia. The narrative world is insular, focusing mainly on life inside a hostel for drug addicts and then the wider criminal community. As in previous Nesbo books, there’s a shocking reveal as part of the plot which I only guessed in the preceding few pages.

The most successful part was the depiction of the life of Sonny Lofhus. In many ways he’s not a particularly innovative creation and yet Nesbo always manages to make me sympathise with his criminals. In particular the tension in his relationship with hostel worker, Martha, was well depicted however improbable the scenario.

Nesbo will continue to divide readers, I’m sure. I’ve read a few reviews of this book and some of them have been brutal. But I started reading crime fiction as a teenager because I loved the fact that, once started, I couldn’t put the books down. Nesbo, for me, carries on this tradition.

Thanks to Karen at Eurocrime for my copy. The translation was by Charlotte Baslund.

TIndridasonhe story of Reykjavik detective Erlendur seemingly came to a conclusion in Strange Shores, published in the UK in 2013. As I mentioned in my review at the time, there was a prequel to the series that was in the process of being translated. Finally we have Reykjavik Nights which gives us a slice of 1970s Iceland and a glimpse into the formative years of Erlendur as a policeman.

A vagrant’s body has been fished out of a pond near a housing development in Reykjavik. Police dismiss the case as either suicide or a drunken accident. However the fate of the dead man, Hannibal, touches the conscience of young traffic cop, Erlendur. He gets in touch with the family of Hannibal and discovers a tragedy that occurred years earlier that led to his spiral into destitution. Reykjavik police are focusing their energies on the hunt for a missing woman who disappeared after a night out with colleagues. The discovery of an earring, by Erlendur, in Hannibal’s squat links the two cases and the policeman embarks on a secret investigation of his own.

The success of Indridason’s Reykjavik series has been propelled largely by the character of Erlendur. Traumatised by the disappearance of his brother in a snow storm years earlier, he matches what we expect from a detective and yet has a distinctive back story that could really only be Icelandic. Indridason has published novels without Erlendur but it’s those containing his enigmatic detective that we really want to read. Writing a prequel has given the author the chance to show how factors other than Erlendur’s brother’s disappearance influenced the detective he became. Later in the novel we meet Marion Briem, Erlendur’s mentor, whose gender is never revealed. Indridason is very good at restraining himself when portraying the detective’s childhood trauma. Although impelling him to investigate a dormant case, the connections are subtly made. It is the mark of a very good writer.

In terms of plot, the story is slighter than some of Indridason’s other books although he is never a writer to focus on a multitude  of narratives. Instead, the depth of characterisation and sense of place are the reasons we return to Indridason time and time again. Fans of this author, who critic Barry Forshaw calls the king of Icelandic crime fiction, will love this book, I’m sure. I did.

Thanks to Karen from Eurocrime for giving me her copy of the book. The translation was by Victoria Cribb.

I attended a Danish crime fiction event on Monday evening as part of the Manchester Literature Festival along with Karen EEgholmMeek from Eurocrime. Karen has given the evening an excellent write-up on her website and it was good to see that, judging by the turnout, the Scandinavian crime fiction wave is still going strong. In advance of the event, I read one of the featured authors’ books. Three Dog Night by Elsebeth Egholm is a solid read with an interesting premise. It was also the book that author spoke about at length and once more I was struck by how interesting it is to hear of how a novel came into being.

Ex-convict Peter Bautrup moves to a remote rural community following his release from prison. His nearest neighbour is Felix, a woman bearing the scars of a past accident. When they both stumble on the body of Ramses, a man Peter knew in prison, their fragile peace is shattered. The discovery of a young girl’s body in the town’s harbour doesn’t appear, at first, to be connected to the convict’s death but the remote community is harbouring old secrets that are finally resurfacing.

Three Dog Night has a great sense of place that communicates itself to the reader from the first page. A frosty New Year’s Eve provides the backdrop to the introduction of the main protagonists and conveys to the reader the isolation of the community. Egholm has created an excellent cast of characters who have interesting back stories. Peter, in particular, struggles to disentangle himself from his former life. There is a strong emphasis on sickness, in terms of both physical and mental exhaustion. While this adds to the sense of a community fraying at the edges it can occasionally make it difficult to distinguish the individual characters. However, I was impressed by the well constructed plot with a convincing ending which I find is sometimes a weakness with Scandinavian crime fiction.

Egholm’s sequel to Three Dog Night, Dead Soulsis out in November. Featuring once more Peter Bautrup, the blurb suggests that it promises to be an equally intriguing read.

Thanks to Headline for my review copy. The translation was by Charlotte Barslund and Don Bartlett.

Black NoiseFinnish author Pekka Hiltunen sets his thrillers in London which can make him a difficult writer to review. Is he part of the Scandinavian crime fiction wave, or should he be looked at alongside other British writers who set their books in the Capital? I thought the first of Hiltunen’s books to be translated, Cold Courage, a solid thriller although not enough was made of the hint of supernatural or ‘otherness’ of Mari, one of the protagonists. This is partially addressed in this second book which although very readable is marred by an unbelievable plot.

Videos are being loaded on YouTube which show young, gay men being kicked to death outside pubs and clubs around London. They come to the attention of ‘The Studio’ a group created by Mari to avenge wrongs that society appears unable to prevent. Mari’s latest recruit to the Studio is Lia, a fellow Finn, who has a day job as a graphic designer. Convinced that the police will never be able to discover the perpetrator of the crimes, the group investigate the murders with tragic consequences for one of their members.

This is a difficult book to review without giving away huge spoilers. If you’re planning to read the book, I suggest you skip the next part.

The initial premise is promising. Given the dominance of social media, murders that are documented on YouTube have a sense of both the possible and the luridly surreal. The problem is that the Studio discover that the killings are connected to a fan’s obsession with the rock group Queen. What follows is an almost farcical plot that concludes with the group visiting Freddie Mercury’s place of birth in Zanzibar. Hiltunen has clearly done a huge amount of research into Mercury’s life but if, like me, their music leaves you cold, it’s hard to care what happens for the rest of the book.

There are some touching moments in the novel. We learn about Mari’s experimental upbringing at the hands of socially progressive parents and the immense damage it caused her family. There are also moments of camaraderie amongst members of the Studio which suggests that there is plenty more mileage left in the series.

Like Cold Courage, Black Noise was readable and the story cracked on at a great pace. The book wasn’t for me, I’m afraid, but perhaps Queen fans might take a more benign view of the plot.

Thanks to Hesperus for my copy. The translation was by Owen F Witesman

 

AegeanToday is National Poetry Day. It’s come around so quickly I can’t believe it’s been a year since my last post on the subject. I notice my previous two choices were poems written by men and part of me feels compelled to redress the balance. However, I always feel you should read what you’re moved to pick up and the poem that I’ve been thinking about recently is Cavafy’s Ithaka.

One of the best things about being a teacher, as well as a writer, is how much you can learn from your students. This poem was ‘given’ to me by a Greek cardiologist who was learning English and discovered, in the course of our discussions, that I liked poetry. I had recently arrived in Greece and it had a profound effect on me. I’ve since passed it on to other people and I think its time it made an appearance on Crimepieces.

I’m not going to say any more about the poem. If you like it, there are plenty more on the Cavafy archive here. But I’d love to hear what poem you’ve been thinking about recently. And, on that note, Happy National Poetry Day.

 

ITHAKA

by CP Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

A trilogy can be a powerful self-contained series if done well. There are plenty of examples in crime fiction including Peter May’s World of TroubleLewis books which have been reviewed on this blog. It’s also a useful publishing device. If you read the first book in what you know is going to be a trilogy, you are likely to want to read the rest of the series if you have engaged with the characters and setting. This has never been more so the case with Ben H WInter’s Last Policeman books set in a world where an asteroid is due to crash into Earth with catastrophic consequences.

In World of Trouble, there are now six days left until the day of reckoning. US society has fractured to the extent that the violence that characterised earlier months has now morphed to an uneasy wait for the October day that the asteroid is due to hit. Former policeman Hank Palace, sitting in a safe house with colleagues from the Concord Police Department, embarks on a final mission to find his sister, Nico. She is part of a group of people who believe that they have a practical solution to stop the asteroid hitting the planet. But Hank senses that his sister is in trouble and makes the long journey to warn and protect her.

The most successful aspect of Winters’ trilogy has been his unflinching look at violence and the effects on his protagonists. In the first book, The Last Policeman, Hank’s girlfriend is killed which is a shock to reader and unsettles the narrative to create an uneasy read. To be able to develop this tension in the context of a society that is about to end is no mean feat. As the final reckoning approaches we, as readers, race along with Hank to discover if the asteroid will indeed destroy the world.

The problem with writing is a trilogy is that each book feeds into the next and I’m not sure the extent to which World of Trouble works as a standalone novel. For fans of Winter’s writing this isn’t a problem and is a fitting ending to an unusual series. I’ve noticed that a couple of reviews give horrendous spoilers for the end of this book. I hope you don’t read them but instead luxuriate in the writing and plot of this excellent trilogy.

Thanks to Sam at PGUK for my review copy.

It’s been years since I read an Ellroy novel. However, as I’ve booked tickets to see himJames Ellroy in November, I wanted to do some catching up. His latest book, Perfidia, is out now. I’ll be reading it in the next couple of weeks as Barry Forshaw has given it a very interesting review in The Independent. However, Killer on the Road had been on my list to read for a while so this seemed the logical place to start before tackling Perfidia. Reading one of Ellroy’s earlier books, it was a reminder of why I liked his writing in the first place despite finding his work a perennially uncomfortable read.

Martin Michael Plunkett is a famous serial killer finally captured for the murders of four members of a family. While admitting these killings, investigators from various US states are convinced he is responsible for a decade long slay of violence. When he announces that he is writing his memoirs Plunkett, who sees himself as the ‘shape shifter’, finally reveals the tortured mind that leads him to the path of terror.

Serial killers are somewhat old hat now and yet this book, written in 1999, has managed to retain its freshness. Part of it is the clinical nature of Ellroy’s writing. We get a mix of forms of prose: straightforward narrative, diary entries, press clippings and, therefore, various points of view. But it’s the insight into Plunkett’s mind that provides much of the grisly fascination to the reader. Genuinely disturbed, there is nothing to redeem the character and we watch in horror as the killings span the decade of the 1970s.

But this is more than a psychological thriller. There are a couple of nice plot twists and the reader is often well ahead of law enforcement agencies. The blurb on the front of the book quotes Jonathan Kellerman stating this is the scariest book he’s ever read. It had me wanting to check under the bed while I was reading it. Classic Ellroy.

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