Nordic Noir Round Up

I’ve been reading some interesting Scandinavian crime novels over the last few months, saving my reviews for a round-up post. There’s a feeling of nordic noir going through a readjustment at the moment. Long running series are coming to an end and, of the new authors being published, there’s an emphasis on psychological thrillers over the traditional police procedural. I’m sorry to see that some of my favourite authors haven’t got a book out this year – Leif GW Persson and Hans Olav Lahlum for example.

Caroline Eriksson has only recently been translated into English. The Watcher, the first book of hers I’ve read, has a Rear Window feel to the plot. A newly separated author takes a rented apartment and obsesses over the family living opposite her, becoming convinced that the woman intends to kill her husband. As she starts to write a new book, her own life and that of the woman opposite become entwined. I read The Watcher in virtually one sitting and it made for compulsive reading. The relationships were satisfyingly complex and, despite spotting the twist fairly soon in the narrative, it was a compelling read. The translation is by Tara F Chace.

Killed is the final book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series where Juul finally uncovers the events leading up to the fire which left him scarred and which killed his young son. There’s a large cast of characters, hugely satisfying to fans of Enger’s series although which might prove difficult for someone picking this up as a standalone. Killed is, however, a poignant end to the Juul books which have proved to be intelligent and satisfying thrillers. The translation is by Kari Dickson.

Quentin Bates is a writer who spent a decade in Iceland and knows the country well. His series featuring Officer Gunnhildur is always a delight to read. Rather than relying on descriptive passages of the Icelandic landscape, his books are interesting thrillers with a political edge. In Cold Breath, Gunna is in a safe house with the high-profile guest of a prominent politician and her loyalties are torn when details of his life emerge. Bates is excellent at creating tension in a modern-day Reykjavik setting.

Gunnar Staalesen is one of my favourite Norwegian writers and Big Sister doesn’t disappoint. His private investigator, Varg Veum, is asked by a woman who reveals herself to be his half-sister, to discover the whereabouts of a relative, Emma. Veum discovers that the girl has been contact with her estranged father and an act of violence in Emma’s past may hold a clue to her disappearance. Excellently plotted and very well translated by Don Bartlett, this is up with Staalesen’s best.

Podcast Review: Death in Ice Valley

I’ve had a month or so of reading non-crime novels but I’m about to attack my backlog this week. However, I haven’t been neglecting crime entirely. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to a podcast called Death in Ice Valley which I’ve found compelling.

On the 29th November, the charred body of a woman was found at the isolated  Isdalen Valley in Bergen. Next to her body were Fenemal sleeping pills, empty bottles and various items of her clothing. There was no identification and the labels from her clothes had been removed. Although investigated by the police, the woman’s identity was never discovered and the autopsy concluded that the woman had died from Fenemal and carbon monoxide poisoning.

I first became aware of the case from crime writing friend, Gunnar Staalesen. Gunnar won the Petrona Award in 2017 for his book, Where Roses Never Die. His Varg Veum books are set in Bergen and I saw him talk about the case at an event. The woman’s death has recently been subject of a podcast by the BBC World Service and NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster. If you enjoy listening to high quality journalism, I can highly recommend it.

The series opens with Norwegian investigative journalist, Marit Higraff, and British BBC radio documentary maker, Neil McCarthy, giving the background to the case. There are some fascinating details:  the pair of rubber boots that the woman bought in Stavanger, the seller remembering that she smelt strongly of garlic, and the suitcase discovered in an Oslo locker which contained, amongst other things, a coded note which has only partially been deciphered. This is what is already known but is fascinating not least because the images are shared in a Facebook group so you can see them for yourselves.

However, the journalists extend the investigation well beyond the original and there are some great potential insights once the woman’s jawbone is located and subjected to modern testing. The predominant theories are that either the woman was a spy, or a prostitute. She carried numerous fake passports but neither scenario fits the facts. As a spy she drew too much attention to herself and her choice of Christian lodgings mean it’s unlikely she took clients back to her rooms. Even her age remains unclear – this is a woman who appears to be without a history.

I can’t give too much else away without completely spoiling the series, and you might want to avoid the Facebook group until you’ve listened to all ten podcasts. Gunnar Staalesen makes an appearance in many of the episodes and suggests a realistic scenario  toward the end of the podcasts. I’m feeling slightly bereft now the episodes have come to an end.

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Nordic Noir round-up: Helen Tursten, Gunnar Staalesen & Katja Kettu

Apologies for the lack of reviews on Crimepieces in the last two weeks. As well as promoting  the publication of the paperback of A Deadly Thaw, I’ve also been proofreading the next book in the series, A Patient Fury,  which is out in September. This hasn’t stopped me reading, however, and I’m finally catching up with my reviews.

First up is a summary of the Nordic books I’ve read.

51l2hlts9l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Helene Tursten is a Swedish writer who isn’t as well known in the UK as she deserves to be. Her novels, featuring detective Irene Huss, are well plotted police procedurals that, in the finest Scandi tradition, also draw readers into the personal lives of the characters.

In her latest book,  Who Watchetha man is stalking his women victims and sending them gifts before strangling them. An early victim who survived the attacks remembers his unpleasant smell but nothing else. Huss is also being persecuted by a cyber stalker who is unhappy with Huss’s involvement in an earlier case. It’s been a while since I read Tursten and I think she’s one of the best Nordic writers around. The prurient nature of the killings is never overdone and Who Watcheth is enhanced by a finale that isn’t overly dramatic. The  translation is by Marlaine Delargy.

whererosesneverdie300Another favourite writer of mine is Gunnar Staalesen. His latest book, Where Roses Never Diefeatures the resurrection of an investigation into the disappearance of a missing girl and the social dynamics of a small housing estate in the 1970s. Staalesen’s detective, Varg Veum, is in a sorry state, drinking heavily and forced to take on cases he would normally reject.

As we expect from Staalesen, social issues are combined with a fine murder plot but the multi layers of the deception that’s revealed makes Where Roses Never Die his best book yet. The translation is by Don Bartlett.

51gues2nt2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Finally, I read in January an unusual and thought-provoking novel by a Finnish writer, Katja Kettu. In The Midwife, a woman unflatteringly named Weird-Eye by the small community where she delivers babies meets Johannes, a war photographer working for the SS. She takes a job as a nurse in a nearby prison camp to be near him but gets drawn into the mechanics of the surroundings as the war’s end draws near.

It’s a difficult book to review as I was completely captivated by the language of the story which must have been a joy to translate. The prose is earthy and brutal, describing a period in time where survival is a result of stamina, circumstance and finding a place in the community and landscape. I knew little of the stationing of German troops in northern Finland and the Lapp setting is woven into the narrative. The timeline makes for some challenging reading with the occasional inclusion of superfluous official documents but the story of Weird Eye is unique and moving. The excellent translation is by David Hackston.

 

Review: Gunnar Staalesen – We Shall Inherit the Wind

We Shall Inherit the Wind BF AW.inddGunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian author whose books haven’t had the attention that they deserve in the UK. Only a few have been translated into English leaving us with a tantalising glimpse into what looks like an excellent series. Now, however, Staalesen has a brand new English publisher, Orenda Books, and his first translation in a number of years, We Shall Inherit the Wind. It’s been worth the wait.

It’s 1998 and private investigator, Varg Veum, is at the bedside of Karin, his seriously injured girlfriend, in a Bergen hospital. Blaming himself for the attack, he takes the reader to the beginning of the story and his investigation into the disappearance of Mons Maeland. Maeland is reported missing by his wife who believes his disappearance may be connected to his desire to build a wind farm on his island. But there is already a mystery connected to the place.  Maeland’s first wife disappeared in the 1980s and is believed to have drowned although no body was ever discovered. The two strands of the case come together when a body is discovered and the realities of environmental activism are revealed.

Staalesen’s greatest strength is the quality of his writing. The incidental asides and observations are wonderful and elevate the book from a straightforward murder investigation into something more substantial. It’s soberly written but compelling story of passion and revenge.

Varg Veum is rightly revered in Bergen and he fits into the classic lone investigator role. It is his personality that carries the narrative and his relationship with Karin, which is gradually recalled in loving detail as she lies mortally wounded, is a moving part of the plot.

We Shall Inherit the Wind fits well with the other books by Staalesen that have been translated into English. Despite gaps in the series, there is a sense of continuity and I can’t wait to read more of this excellent writer’s work.

Thanks to Orenda for my review copy. The translation was by Don Bartlett.

The Best of August’s Reading

Gladstone libraryAugust was quiet in relation to crime fiction events for me, with the exception of the excellent launch of Martin Edwards’s new book, The Frozen Shroud. However, my reading continued at a slower pace and all the books that I finished were of a high quality, mainly I suspect I only read what I really wanted to. Three of this month’s books were by ‘new to me writers’: Martin Edwards, Linda Stratmann and A D Garett. I hope to carry on reading all of these authors.

My book of the month is Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House which is continuing a high quality series which is a must read for me, although the book wasn’t quite up to the standard of earlier ones.

The five books I read for Crimepieces were:

1. Everyone Lies by A D Garrett

2. Cold Hearts by Gunnar Staalesen

3. The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

4. Light in a Dark House by Jan Costin Wagner

5. A Case of Doubtful Death by Linda Stratmann

I have some cracking books set for September, so fingers crossed….

Review: Gunnar Staalesen – Cold Hearts

gunnarI’m a Gunnar Staalesen fan but his books are only slowly being translated into English. So I was delighted that the latest of Staalesen’s books to be published over here was submitted by its publisher, Arcadia Books, for the Petrona Award. Cold Hearts contains everything that I love from this writer. The cool dispassionate prose narrates a tale of exploitation and violence and, of course, Varg Veum is present to navigate his way around Bergen’s streets in the hunt for a killer.

The book opens with Veum visited by a prostitute who is concerned about the disappearance of one of her friends, Margrethe. The evening of her disappearance she had fled in terror when a curb crawler pulled up beside her and the girl who did enter the car was badly beaten up. Varg’s background as a social worker has led him to encounters with dysfunctional families such as Margrethe’s where lack of care spirals into abuse and prostitution. But Margethe’s brother in prison has also disappeared and when of the street girls turns up dead, Varg looks into the past for the roots of the spate of murders.

Staalesen is one of the best Scandinavian writers and deserves a wider audience in the UK. This is the second book in a row that I’ve read that deals with the murder of prostitutes and, once more, I found myself moved by the depiction of life on a city’s streets. In Cold Hearts  we get a sense of the failings of society that allows a clearly broken family to be ministered to by a group of do-gooders. Varg, with his social worker background, can see the flaws of this approach which allows him to unpick decades old events.

You always get a strong sense of place in Staalesen’s books and frosty Bergen, a place I’ve never visited, came alive. I hope we get to see much more of Varg Veum and this is the start of a wider readership for a writer who is one of the best.

I love the look of the new translation. The cover is very well designed and fits in perfectly with the tone of the book. The translation is by the excellent Don Bartlett. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book.

Review: Gunnar Staalesen – The Consorts of Death

After attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival last month I was determined to read one of Gunnar Staalesen’s books. They’re not easy to find in the UK. His publisher, Arcadia Books, has recently been bought out of liquidation and the company is likely to be relaunched next year. It remains to be seen if Staalesen will still be on their list. However most of this writer’s English translations are easily available from Abe Books and the consensus from a straw poll of other crime fiction bloggers was that I start with The Consorts of Death.

Private investigator Varg Veum receives a phone call from a former colleague from his days as a social worker. A boy that they have been involved with over the years is on the run after murdering a man, and he has a list of people who he believes has ruined his life. Varg Veum is on this list and he is warned that ‘Johnny Boy’ may be out to exact revenge. The book then goes back in time documenting each of Veum’s interactions with the disturbed child, from 1970 when the two year old is taken into care, in 1974 when a foster parent dies suddenly and in the 1980s when Johnny Boy is the suspect in a double shooting. Finally the book returns to the present day and Veum grasps the truth that has been alluding him.

The book is the thirteenth novel in the Varg Veum series and the  protagonist has a solidity about him which is almost certainly a reflection of his development over previous books. It’s an interesting idea, that of a social worker turned detective and I thought the historic scenes, of Veum working for social services, very convincing. Consorts of Death was originally published in Swedish in 2006 which I found quite surprising as the story had a slightly dated feel to it, although this could have been because much of the narrative took place in the 1970s.

The plot was an interesting one and told with an admiral restraint. No overblown scenes or melodramatic dramas but a solid story told well. I could see a clear link between some of the issues highlighted in the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö Martin Beck series and those highlighted here. Sadly the issue of child neglect and the failures of foster care have a universal resonance.

I’m going to try and track down other books by Staalsen and hope that some day the whole of the Varg Veum series reaches an English audience. Consorts of Death was translated by the excellent Don Bartlett.

I bought my copy of the book. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Petrona and in the Independent.