The 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.
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.
David 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.
Fans 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 Autumn, I 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.