Review: Arne Dahl – To the Top of the Mountain

Arne-DahlArne Dahl has rightly gained a reputation for producing taut thrillers with a strong political slant. We’ve had two of them translated into English, The Blinded Man and Bad Blood and are, therefore, a long way behind the series in its original Swedish language. To the Top of the Mountain picks up the threads of the now disbanded Intercrime team following the tragic end to its last case. The detectives are spread around the city in different departments and the unit’s leader, Jan-Olov Hultin has retired to his country cottage.

An explosion in a high security prison is closely followed by an attack on a well-known drugs baron and a shocking massacre. The events may be connected but it needs the skills of the Intercrime to pull together the strands of what appear to be random attacks. But a complex child pornography case is occupying Gunnar Nyberg and he is given permission to continue with this investigation. A couple on the run with a suitcase containing the keys to a security box may hold the answers to the violence unfolding in the city.

Dahl’s skill as a writer is evident in how the narrative of To The Top of the Mountain is structured. He holds back from reassembling the team too early in the story and instead we get vignettes of how each former member of the elite unit is now functioning. This is as interesting as the main crime story for readers of this series. In fact, it isn’t until the middle of the book that Hultin finally makes his entrance.

Once the investigation is underway, the story cracks along briskly, a style we have come to associate with Dahl’s books. I found this one to be less violent than his previous ones, in particular Bad Blood.  However, more than the crime story, it was the relationships portrayed that I most enjoyed. Chazez, the Swedish-Chilean policeman, finally meets his match in love and Kerstin Holm and Paul Hjelm’s relationship shifts once more. And, on a personal note, I love the fact that two of the central characters are choristers.

This is my favourite book so far from this solid series. It’s always gratifying to read an author who gets better with each book.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Alice Menzies.

Advertisements

Review: Arne Dahl – Bad Blood

Bad BloodArne Dahl’s The Blinded Man was a book I managed to read before its UK publication via a US copy entitled Mysterioso. It confirmed for me that the accompanying hype was justified as it managed to give us a slightly different style of Scandinavian crime thriller with a strong cast of central characters. We’ve had to wait a while for the next book in series, which has been preceded by its dramatisation on BBC4. However, Bad Blood proved to be an excellent read and not marred by my familiarity with the story.

Detective Paul Hjelm and his team at the special unit within the Swedish National Criminal Police receive an urgent call from the FBI to say that a notorious serial killer has boarded a plane to Stockholm after killing a Swedish national. The ‘Kentucky Killer’ murders his victims by squeezing shut their vocal cords with a torturous implement. When the killer escapes detection at the airport, the team have to try to unravel why the American killer has travelled to Sweden and who his next victims are likely to be.

Dahl’s writing is always a pleasure to read, detailing in equal measure a complex police investigation along with the relationships that form within a tightly-knit unit. The characters that we got to know in The Blinded Man are back but most of the relationships have subtly shifted: Paul Hjelm is back with his wife, his colleague and ex-lover Kerstin Holm is mourning the death of her partner, and former Mr Sweden, Gunnar Nyberg, is trying to atone for past sins. The book’s title is one that has been used by other writers but it sums up the central theme of the novel – how family relationships can often destroy lives.

Dahl has previously stated that he wrote ten books in his Intercrime series partly as an homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. I could see the influence of the crime writing duo’s series on this book: the trip that Hjelm and Holm take to New York had echoes of Roseanna  in it and the tone of the novel had the restrained feel I often associate with Swedish crime fiction, with the exception of the conclusion. The villain, when caught, is a larger than life figure which, while befitting the monstrosity of the crimes, gave the ending a Hannibal Lecter feel.

Overall Bad Blood, written in 1998,  is a worthy follow-up to The Blinded Man and there is plenty of mileage left in the series. I just hope the remainder of the books are translated as soon as possible.

Scandi Crime Fiction Events Round-Up

Barry Forshaw, Jo Nesbo, 2013Last week-end was a crime fiction bonanza as I attended events in both Manchester and Scotland. I could have saved time by seeing all of the authors in Stirling as part of Bloody Scotland. However, I was keen to support the launch the Manchester Literature Festival by watching Jo Nesbo being interviewed by the excellent Barry Forshaw. I first saw Nesbo in Harrogate around seven years ago when The Redbreast had just been published. Since then he has achieved superstar status as evidenced by the tour he has been undertaking around the country to promote his latest book, Police. In Manchester, the event filled the banqueting room in the Town Hall with fans interested to know the impetus behind Harry Hole’s latest story.

For me, what was interesting was the writing process behind Nesbo’s lengthy books. Nesbo creates a long synopsis, up to 100 pages in length, and then proceeds to ‘damage’ it in the writing process. Police, which I’ve just started reading, was described by the interviewer as one of Nesbo’s most sexually graphic novels. This may, in part, be due to a need to counterbalance Harry’s sobriety in this latest book. I quite liked the sober Harry in Nesbo’s first book, The Bat, so it should make interesting reading. It promises to be a bumper year for fans of this series, with book 2, Cockroaches, set to be published in November.

Bloody Scotland, now in its second year, featured a wide range of authors from around the world. En route to friends in Edinburgh, I wanted to catch two Scandinavian writers who I haven’t yet seen: Arne Dahl and Mons Kallentoft. Despite arriving late for the Dahl event due to a horrendous M6, I found him to be a fascinating speaker and, again, the room in the Albert Halls was packed for his interview with Peter Gutteridge. Dahl also creates detailed synopses for his writing which helps shape his complex plot lines. His explanation for the popularity of Swedish crime fiction was interesting: that its style is close enough to British and American thrillers to be recognisable. I’ve just finished book 2 in the Intercrime series and can attest to the book’s complexity which is one of its greatest strengths. The review is to follow later this week-end.

Mons Kallentoft’s books are a personal favourite of mine. He seems to divide readers with his distinctive style and alcohol soaked female protagonist. I was interested to hear the background to Malin Fors’s creation. Looking at British crime fiction he liked the idea of a central character with a raft of personal problems and decided to use them in a female protagonist.  There is a stong sense of place in Kallentoft’s books but Linköping, the town where his books are set, was a place he couldn’t wait to leave as a teenager. As a reader, I am pleased to hear that in Kallentoft’s next book The Fifth Season which is due to be published next year we get to find out what happened to the rape victim whose case has been a preoccupation of Malin’s since the first book.

One common theme to all three interviews was the adaptation of their books to film and television. Nesbo’s Harry Hole series has yet to make it onto the big screen although the books have been optioned by Martin Scorsese. Arne Dahl’s Intercrime series, which has been shown on BBC4, is one of the reasons for the author’s popularity. I personally prefer the books to the series but I suspect I was in the minority at the event. Kallentoft revealed that he had turned down TV offers. Apparently  for every decent Scandinavian crime series there are plenty that are well below standard. BBC commissioning editors take note!

All three authors paid tribute to their English translators: Don Bartlett, Rachel Willson-Broyles and Neil Smith. The quality of English translations are, in my opinion, one of the reasons the books are so popular here. It’s good to know the authors recognise this.

Thanks to Barry Forshaw for sending me the photo of him and Jo Nesbo. As usual, mine were dire.