Review: Erik Axl Sund – The Crow Girl

The-Crow-Girl-by-Erik-Axl-Sund-665x1024The Crow Girl is a book that I’ve been dying to read for the last few months. It’s been marketed as this year’s hottest Scandinavian thriller and I was intrigued to discover what makes it stand out amongst the other Nordic offerings. It’s also been translated by my favourite Scandi translator, Neil Smith. His translations are always a joy to read which is crucial for this book because, at 768 pages, the prose has to be compelling enough to keep the reader interested. I don’t mind reading a book this length, at least not once in a while, but it’s impossible to carry around the hardback in your bag which meant snatched chapters here and there when I sat down to read.

However, one sleepless night I got seriously into the book and read about half of it into the early hours. It’s the perfect time for a book where the violence is dark and shocking. Regular readers of this blog know that excessive descriptions of gore don’t do it for me and you should be warned that the threat of horrific death is there from the first chapter. However, like Pierre LeMaitre’s excellent, Alex, the violence is essential to the plot. For the crow girl of the title is the damaged Victoria Bergman whose abuse from an early age is explicitly detailed. This is more than a story of the abused becoming an abuser, however. The relationship between Victoria and her psychiatrist Sofia Zetterlund is complex and contains plenty of surprises as does Sofia’s romance with detective Jeanette Kohlberg.

Unusually I’m not going to precis the plot. It would be too easy to giveaway spoilers and one of the book’s strengths is the complexity of the narrative strands where nothing is as it seems.

So what keeps the interest going for such a lengthy book? Firstly the character of Victoria is fascinating in its complexity and the reader never feels comfortable in making any assumptions about her motives. Secondly the authors (Erik Axl Sund is a pseudonym for Jerker Ericsson and Hakan Axlander Sundquist) have cleverly constructed the plot so that reader is sent in all directions. The chapters are very short, sometimes you feel ahead of the police and others you’re left scratching your head as to what is going on.

Like all great crime novels, the resolution pulls all the narrative strands together  although I must admit there are a couple of points where I’m not sure I understand what happened. What I should do at this point is reread the book but I’ll have to leave that to a time in the future.  However, in my opinion The Crow Girl deserves the plaudits it has received and I was delighted to read a book where neither the length nor extremity of violence felt gratuitous.

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Review: Liza Marklund – Without a Trace

512YKfQrIgL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Swedish journalist Annika Bengtzon is one of my favourite investigators in modern crime fiction. She’s the principal reason that I read Liza Marklund’s books because, as a character, Annika is so believable. As readers we’ve been taken through a series of failed romances, childbirth, house disasters and work traumas. Annika has remained the same person throughout: tenacious and brave. It’s always a pleasure to revisit her and I’m sorry that we’re nearing the end of the series.

In Without a Trace, Annika is assigned to the story of former politician Ingemar Lerberg who has been found tortured and half-alive in his home. His wife, Nora, is missing and is being hunted by a team led by Nina Hoffman from the National Police Force. But at Kvällspressen, Annika’s paper, her editor-in-chief is being hounded over a documentary he made years earlier about a missing billionaire’s wife, Viola Söderland.

Marklund’s plots often mix politics, work troubles and family life and Without a Trace follows in this vein. She cleverly links the disorder of the victim’s family with that of Annika’s as the journalist attempts to create a home with her new boyfriend, Jimmy, and his children. Her estranged husband, Thomas, is festering after the trauma of captivity in Somalia and his bitterness toward Annika seems extreme but in keeping with his character.

There’s a fair amount of violence at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter isn’t for the faint hearted (like me) but it was great to revisit Marklund’s world. It’s a series that always manages to combine good writing with interesting plots.

Thanks to Transworld for my review copy. The translation was by Neil Smith.

Review: David Lagercrantz – Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Image.ashxDavid Lagercrantz has recently become known as the writer who will be continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. His book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, will be published at the end of August and, I’m sure, a review will appear on this blog in due course. Meanwhile MacLehose have just published a translation of one of Lagercrantz’s earlier books Fall of Man in Wilmslow. I pushed it to the top of my reading list partly because of the focus on the death and life of Alan Turing but also because it’s set in Wilmslow, a Manchester suburb near where I grew up. I was interested to see how a Swedish writer would tackle the setting in particular. Wilmslow has distinctive identity that I think makes it hard capture in a book. And, on balance, I think he did a pretty good job.

On the 8th of June 1954, mathematician Alan Turing is found dead in his Wilmslow home having eaten an apple dipped in potassium cyanide. Turing is a convicted homosexual who has been forced to take the female hormone oestrogen as a possible ‘cure’. The coroner has no problem delivering a verdict of suicide but the policeman investigating the case, DC Leonard Corell becomes fascinated by his work and the links to the intelligence services. But as he studies Turing’s life he is increasingly under pressure by his superiors to close the investigation and concentrate on hunting out other ‘deviants’ in the Manchester area.

The life of Alan Turing is fairly well-known and he holds a particular affection amongst the people of Manchester despite the fact that it was that city that treated him so shabbily. Turing’s life, although forming a pivotal position in the narrative, nevertheless doesn’t dominate the plot. It was good to read about Turing’s end rather than his war work. It’s desperately sad and his naivety seems to have contributed to part of his downfall. The sheer grimness of suicide by poisoning is particularly well described. The focus of the plot is on Corell’s increasing obsession with Turing. His sexual identity is confused and his Marlborough and Cambridge education out of place in a suburban police force.

What I was most prepared to dislike was the Wilmslow setting, an area I know very well. It’s archetypal suburbia with a northern slant. But I thought he captured it pretty well. The road names were accurate, descriptions of the houses well done and I got the feel of an area. It’s an example that it’s a good idea to put your prejudices aside when you pick up a book. The plot is fairly slow-moving. It’s a book to be enjoyed at leisure and my main gripe would be the ending seemed a bit lame. But overall I though Lagercrantz an impressive writer.

Thanks to MacLehose for my review copy. The translation is by George Goulding.

Review: Henning Mankell – An Event in Autumn

An Event in AutumnFans of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books will know that the series has come to an end. Wallander, for reasons that were narrated in The Troubled Man, will investigate no more cases. However, it appears we have one last story. According to the book’s afterword, An Event in Autumn was originally written for a Dutch publisher to give away to purchasers of their crime novels. It’s not really a novella, more a longish short story but it is, nevertheless, very nice to revisit Wallander’s world.

The now ageing Wallander has always dreamt of owning a house in the countryside around Ystad. His colleague, Martinsson, tells him about a dilapidated house that he has inherited and which Wallander might want to visit with a view to purchasing. However, while inspecting the garden, Wallander discovers a skeletal hand and the police dig soon reveals the presence of two bodies. All the evidence suggests that the victims have been in the ground for a long time, so Wallander is forced to go back decades in time to discover the origins of the tragedy.

While reading An Event in AutumnI couldn’t help thinking that it would have made an excellent full length novel. The story reminded me a little of Colin Dexter’s Morse book, The Wench is Dead It was not only the historic aspect to the narrative but also the part played by Wallander. He’s always been a character who is fails to take his own health seriously. But in this short tale, there’s a foreshadowing of the trouble that comes in the final book.

There’s a decent plot and it’s a shame it wasn’t given the opportunity to open out in Mankell’s trademark way. There could have been plenty of twists and turns before we reached the final conclusion but the length of the story didn’t allow this. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable both for the glimpses into fifties Swedish attitudes and also for the descriptions of the wonderful Scanian countryside that we got when Wallander visited his father in earlier books.

Wallander fans will have already read the story, I’m sure. There’s an interesting essay at the back of the book by Mankell which confirms that this is it. There are no more Wallander tales and we really have reached the end.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.

Review: Fredrik T Olsson – Chain of Events

Chain-of-EventsI’m a fan of crime novels set amongst cataclysmic events. Of course, as crime readers, we are used to the opposite. From the country house murder in golden age crime fiction to the cold climate of Scandinavian thrillers, it is the thought of evil that runs against the natural order that gives us the biggest shiver. But there is something to be said in setting a crime in the middle of circumstances so monstrous that they are almost imaginable. I’ve reviewed a few of these books on this blog: Ben H Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy, Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn and The Healer by Antti Tuomainen. Now we have a debut by Swedish writer Fredrik T Olsson that envisages a different type of scenario that threatens to wipe out the human race.

William Sandberg was a respected cryptologist but a series of family tragedies lead to a failed suicide attempt. When he disappears from his hospital room, his ex-wife Christina refuses to believe he has vanished voluntarily and sets out to discover the identity of the kidnappers. Sandberg finds himself in an ancient castle in a mountainous country and is given mysterious code to decipher. A chance meeting with someone inside the citadel reveals the true nature of the DNA sequences that William is studying and the potential implications of his failure to decode the messages.

Olsson comes from a screen writing background which is immediately apparent in his mastery of how to keep a reader hooked into the narrative. The book is, literally, a page turner and, although long, I can imagine it being possible to finish it in one sitting. There are multiple points of views which, again, I’d expect from someone with the writer’s background. These also work well, the characters are well drawn enough to be distinguishable, but sometimes depth of characterisation is sacrificed to momentum.

Although a Swedish crime novel, Chain of Events is much more located in the international thriller genre. The pandemic that threatens to wipe out civilisation needs a fair amount suspension of disbelief and yet the writer also manages to make the chase to decode the biological time bomb fun and interesting. The ending is, perhaps, a little pat but that’s the problem with dystopian narratives. Once you stare over the abyss, how can anything be the same again?

Thanks to Sphere for my review copy. The translation was by Dominic Hinde.

 

 

Review: Mons Kallentoft – The Fifth Season

Mons Kallentoft’s series, featuring detective Malin Fors, is now on its fifth book and is aptly titled The Fifth Season. Kallentoft’s earlier novels featured The Fifth Seasonsingle investigations that were concluded at the end of the books. However, one case has hovered uncertainly in the background throughout the series. The brutal rape of Maria Murvall was first touched up in Midwinter Sacrifice and the police’s failure to solve the crime haunts Malin Fors throughout each subsequent book. In The Fifth Season the case is finally solved.

The body of a mutilated young girl is found in the woods outside Linköping. The method of her killing reminds Inspector Malin Fors of Maria, who is still traumatised and unable to speak following her rape years earlier. When a third attack is identified with similarities to the others, Malin pushes for the cases to be investigated together to discover the perpetrator. But their investigation takes them to the top of Swedish society, and men who are at pains to conceal their role in the crimes.

This is a solid series by Kallentoft that always makes interesting reading. It’s improved considerably since Malin has given up alcohol and the narrative is less concerned with her battles with drink. It’s also good to have the Maria Murvall narrative concluded. It’s been a disturbing case for the reader too and I think has been brought to a conclusion at exactly the right time in the series.

Many of the motifs that we associate with Kallentoft are present in The Fifth Season. The present tense narrative, the voices from the murder victim and the focus on the personal as well as the professional life of Malin. The book could have had an ‘end of era’ feel to it and it’s a credit to the character construction and plotting that this isn’t the case. Instead we get a well-crafted murder story that once more shows the violence done to women.

I know the sixth book is currently in translation which is good news as there’s plenty of mileage left in this series.

Thanks to Hodder for my copy. The translation was by Neil Smith.

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