The Best of January’s Reading

January is always a productive time for crime fiction. Along with new publications, we also get advance review copies of Janus-Vaticannovels not hitting the bookshop shelves until spring and sometimes the summer. I reviewed a mixture of these, from Peter May’s recently published Entry Island to Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn which is out in March. I also caught up on some of my reading for the The Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction. Of everything I read, it was Welsh’s book that made the strongest impression. I’m a fan of apocalyptic fiction anyway but the quality of Welsh’s writing made this a compelling read.

The six books I reviewed for Crimepieces were:

1. The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson

2. A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

3. The Disappeared by Kristina Ohlsson

4. Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo

5. Entry Island by Peter May

6. Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason

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Review: Asa Larsson – The Second Deadly Sin

Asa Larsson’s books encapsulate everything that is great about Scandinavian crime fiction: they have a strong sense of place Second-Deadly-Sin-2-130x200combined with well-developed plots and interesting characters. That said, I’ve found the series featuring lawyer Rebecka Martinsson to be slightly patchy, not helped by the fact that the books have been translated out-of-order. The last novel to be published in the UK, The Black Path, was disappointing, principally because we lost that sense of a close knit community tying to protect itself from evil within. This is, thankfully, back in The Second Deadly Sin although, once again, I found the slightly over-the-top ending marred what was an interesting narrative.

In northern Sweden, hunters gather to shoot a wounded bear circling its community. Inside its stomach they find the remains of a human hand. In nearby Kiruna, a woman is found murdered in her bed with the word ‘whore’ daubed above her. Her grandson, Marcus, is traumatised by events and no-one is prepared to take on the responsibility of looking after him. Rebecka is assigned as prosecutor to the case, which is hampered by the refusal of the insular community to give up its secrets. But the key to the investigation is a crime that took place decades earlier.

The split narrative was one the most interesting aspects of this book. Both the modern-day murder investigation and the early twentieth doomed romance were depicted equally well. I became quite enamoured of the story of the young school teacher who falls in love with the local mine owner, despite it being clear from the beginning that it would end badly. The present day investigation worked best when Larsson was teasing out the complexities of relationships fraught with past disappointments. The actual resolution was less satisfying but that could have been because of the sheer pointlessness of it all.

I was looking forward to reading this book and overall enjoyed being taken back into the closed community of northern Sweden. It’s still a ‘must read’ series for me and the novel’s ending hints at new directions for Rebecka which should shake up future books a little.

Thanks to MacLehose Press for my copy. The translation is by Laurie Thompson

Review: Åsa Larsson – The Black Path

The Black Path by Åsa Larsson was published by Maclehose Press last week. The books have been published in the UK slightly out of order and this is the predecessor of the excellent Until Thy Wrath be Past which is on the shortlist for the 2012 International Dagger.

In The Black Path, Rebecka Martinsson is recovering from a psychotic episode brought about by the violent events that concluded the previous book The Blood Spilt. It is one of the greatest strengths of Larsson’s writing that the protagonists never spring back from the traumas they experience but remain marked by events into future narratives. After eighteen months of treatment, Rebecka retreats to her cottage in Kurravaara, a village near Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city. Kiruna is a mining community in the heart of the Sami region, an area covering the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland where the local Sami dialect is also spoken.

Despite her breakdown, Rebecka is asked to become a special prosecutor in Kiruna for a six month trial period. Rebecka accepts but her tendency to overwork both herself and her staff make her enemies within the office. However, detective Anna-Maria Mella comes to appreciate Rebecka’s dedication and attention to detail when a woman is found murdered in a fishing ark on a frozen lake. The victim, who has been stabbed and then electrocuted is identified as Inna Wattrang, an employee of Kallis Mining, one of the top mining companies in Sweden and headed by the self-made Mauri Kallis.

Although the investigations of Rebecka and Anna-Maria take up significant portion of the book, the background story of Mauri Kallis and his relationship with Inna Wattrang and her brother Diddi, form an interweaving narrative. Some of the story is moving, especially in relation to Ester the half-sister of Mauri Kellis who although adopted at birth, is integrated back into the family at great personal cost. I’m not sure that we needed quite so much back story as I felt this sometimes affected the pace of the book, although it did give a useful insight into how self-made men have to make significant compromises in the pursuit of success.

In the course of the investigation, it becomes clear that corruption and bribery are a feature of mining companies’ attempts to acquire contracts in countries with unstable political regimes. This was highlighted well with the trip Mauri and Inna make to Uganda and the resulting links that are then made with military regimes. The story of the investigation into Inna’s murder linked in well with the mining background although I found the denouement slightly disappointing as the scale violence seemed out of proportion to the rest of the narrative.

The book filled in some of the gaps that I had picked up when reading Until Thy Wrath be Past. It’s a shame that this series was published in the UK out of order but at least the books by this interesting writer can now be read in sequence.

The book has been reviewed at Yet Another Crime Fiction BlogEurocrime and at International Noir Fiction.

Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft

I’ve literally just finished Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft and rather than add it to my “Review” pile I feel the need to review the book while it’s still fresh in my mind. I found the book both wonderful and frustrating and I’m trying to work out why. I am a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. I think the books are largely well written, the authors have individual mannerisms that mean that they’re not a hegemonic whole but can be identified and remembered individually. Many of the books are also that lovely mixture of police procedural and reflective storytelling that seems to fit so well in the cold and sparse landscape.

In many ways, this book has many of the characteristics that I associate with the genre. It is set in one of the coldest ever Swedish winters and police detective Malin Fors is called to the countryside outside the town of Linköping where a man is found mutilated and hanging from a tree in the frozen wastes. Initial investigations suggest that it could be connected the ancient practice of a ‘midwinter sacrifice’, making offerings to the gods in return for happiness. However, the murdered man Bengt Andersson was a target for teenage bullies and his complicated family history may have a role in the crime.

I thought that the book was very well written. It is narrated in the present tense, something I personally don’t mind but not, I know, to everyone’s taste. The book started a little slowly but once it got going I did find it hard to put down. I liked the choppy nature of the narrative as the reader is moved around different characters. I also thought the characterisation was excellent, with minor characters such as Malin’s partner Zeke Martinsson and the journalist Daniel Högfeldt made interesting. He also writes well about the mother/daughter relationship although Malin does seem incredibly liberal in her attitudes.

What didn’t I like about the book? The parts written from the point of view of the dead Bengt Andersson were well written but I’ve come across a few books recently with passages incorporating the voice of the dead victim, most recently Åsa Larsson Until Thy Wrath be Past. The trouble is it rarely accords with what I would consider it like to be dead. I don’t find it distasteful, just extraneous I suppose to the narrative. The ending also left one particular plot strand without resolution. I found this disappointing mainly because the crime had been so horrific and I genuinely wanted to know the reason behind that particular savagery.  It’s unlikely to reappear in future books and I felt slightly cheated by the fact it remained unsolved, particularly as it involved a violent crime on a woman.

But I have to say the book caught me up in its narrative and it became impossible to put it down.

Other favourable reviews of the book can be found at crimesquad.com, crimesegments and at Eurocrime.

Do crime and religion mix?

I’ve read two books recently which had a strong religious setting.  The first was Evil Intent by Kate Charles billed as a ‘modern ecclesiastical mystery’ where the central character Callie Anson has started a new job as curate at All Saint’s Church in Paddington. The murder of a virulent opponent of women priests, Father Jonah Adimola, thrusts Callie into the spotlight and her religious mentor, Frances Cherry becomes chief suspect. The second book, published in 1966, was The Religious Body by Catherine Aird and is set inside St Anselm’s convent. Sister Anne is found murdered at the bottom of the cellar steps and Inspector Sloan of Berebury CID is called in to investigate. Suspicion falls on the entire convent, where every member is living under an assumed name and many have an unrevealed past.

I have to say that I enjoyed both books. The religious settings meant that the pool of suspects were largely (although not exclusively) confined to the respective church communites. This gave both writers the opportunity to examine in-depth the lives of people for whom the religious life is literally a vocation. Churches also, of course, make a marvellous setting for a murder. The creepy atmosphere, solid stone walls and chilly temperature combine to provide an ideal setting for a clandestine murder.

But there is a downside. There are so many vicars in Evil Intent that I kept losing track of who each character was. There is also the tendency to cliché. Is it really so easy to categorise, for example, religious sisters as neatly as Catherine Aird does? This led me to wonder how many readers would be put off by a religious setting.

I think I should say that I love them. From Cadfael to William of Baskerville, Father Anselm to Alexander Seaton, a cleric or even better ex-cleric is usually a good bet for me. And it seems that I’m not alone. There is a website, Clerical Detectives, that identifies 250 detectives in crime fiction with a religious background from authors as diverse as Edward D Hoch, Faye Kellerman and James Patterson. So there is clearly a market out there for these kinds of books.

But the vast majority of people in the UK don’t go to church. Are they less likely to buy a book with a religious theme than a secular one? Or perhaps people don’t care. Cadfael, for example, which is very popular in UK could perhaps be classified more as historical crime fiction than religious. But I have noticed in my internet surfing that some crime fiction websites in the US have a ‘no religion’ policy when accepting books for review. I’m not sure of the reason for this – unless perhaps there are books proselytising under the guise of crime fiction. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.

I’ve also noticed, however, that some of the excellent books coming out of Scandinavia often features non-mainstream religious groups. I’m thinking of Asa Larsson’s The Savage Altar or Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher which both look at the appropriation of religion for criminal intent. It seems to be a reflection of an aspect of Scandinavian life that writers think worth exploring.

What are your thoughts on this. Would a religious setting tempt or discourage you? Or does it make no difference?

I read Evil Intent after an excellent review of the book at Reactions to Reading where there also a dicussion on religious cults here.

SinC25: Åsa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath be Past

One of the things I most love about blogging is linking to other crime fiction sites. There are a wealth of good blogs out there and when I get the chance I want to compile a list of my favourites. Something I came across recently is the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge which aims to promote the contribution of women to crime fiction. Looking at my recent book purchases I notice that about 70% were by men and to redress the balance here is my stab at the ‘easy’ challenge – a review of Åsa Larsson’s new book Until thy Wrath be Past.

A girl’s body is found in the River Torne in the north of Sweden during the first spring thaw. Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, working in nearby Kiruna is drawn into the case after the dead girl visits her in the night. The investigation soon focuses on an isolated frozen lake where a plane carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht disappeared in 1943. It is a tale of memories which refuse to be buried and of violence which spills from inside a family into the wider community.

Larsson’s Savage Altar was a strong debut for the writer and I found her follow-up books to be of consistently good quality. This new book is an excellent although sometimes discomforting read. The main body of the murder investigation is interspersed with passages which take the point of view of the dead girl. This can be a difficult area for writers. They needs to be both convincing and yet open to the possibilities that this might not be everyone’s idea of being dead. I think Larsson deals with the issue very well and the final excerpt from the dead girl is very moving.

There is a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction out there at the moment and most of it of a high quality. What Larsson adds to the genre is a strong sense of place, setting her books in a rural Swedish community where the past strongly influences the present.  Her books also have convincing female characters and it is therefore a worth inclusion in the Sisters of Crime challenge.

As part of the challenge I need to recommend five more women crime writers. My only problem is keeping the list to five so I’ve decided to go for a geographical spread:

1. Mari Jungstedt (books set on the Swedish island of Gotland)

2. Fred Vargas (pseudonym of French historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. Features the detective Adamsberg).

3. Jennifer Egan (US author, books often have an element of crime/thriller)

4. Ann Cleeves (UK writer author of Vera Stanhope series recently televised with Brenda Blethyn)

5. Yrsa Sigurdardottir  (author of well-written thrillers set in Iceland)