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.

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Review: Jo Nesbo – Phantom

Jo Nesbo led the charge of Scandinavian noir in the UK when The Devil’s Star was published in 2005. It introduced the inimitable Harry Hole and Nesbo’s unique take on the darker forces of Norwegian crime. Following its success the books were then translated more or less in order, starting with The Redbreast. More recently the standalone, Headhunters, was published which I found disappointing so I was looking forward to the return of the alcohol ravaged Harry Hole and his dysfunctional approach to policing.

I’ve always enjoyed Nesbo’s books but what I found when I came to reading Phantom was that I couldn’t remember where we had left Harry Hole the detective. Nesbo’s books are weighty thrillers with complex plots and, perhaps because the very early books haven’t yet been translated, there is a sense of dislocation when it comes piecing together Harry’s life. This book was similarly complex, but I found some of the plot themes of previous books coming together.

Harry Hole returns from exile in Hong Kong to help exonerate Oleg, the son of his former girlfriend Rakel, from a murder charge. Oleg has become mixed up in the dealing of a new drug on Oslo’s streets. Named ‘violin’, it is a synthetically manufactured opiate with devastating effects. When the drug’s main dealer Gusto is found murdered, DNA evidence implicates his closest friend Oleg. By returning home to face old and new adversaries, Harry also has to reflect on his shortcomings as a father figure to Oleg as he was growing up.

The book’s central theme is drugs – the damage inflicted by the substances themselves and by the dealers, pushers and gangs that operate openly in Oslo’s seedier districts. The descriptions of that life are detailed and convincing and Nesbo cleverly shows that although faces and the nature of the substance may change, the way of life remains constant. Even a sub-plot involving a drug smuggling airline pilot is effective in showing the human face of the drug industry. The creation of ‘violin’, a new generation of drug was well thought out as was the development of a character known only as ‘Mr Dubai’ who is seen through the eyes of the ambitious and damaged Gusto.

As we would expect from Nesbo the plot was convoluted and the different narrative voices moved the drama around the city and between the past and present. The voice of the dead Gusto was initially quite irritating (I don’t like narrations from dead people, which is becoming a motif in Scandinavian crime fiction – see Midwinter Sacrifice and Until Thy Wrath be Past ) but showed us the evil of Mr Dubai in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. There were also some humorous moments involving Harry, such was when he sewed up his cut throat with a needle and black thread. Only Harry Hole could get away with this.

The phantom of the book’s title is eventually revealed and the narrative concludes leaving a number of possibilities for the future of Harry Hole. I found this book a return to form for Nesbo and could only marvel at the story he created.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Eurocrime , Crime Fiction Lover. and Milo’s Rambles.

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.

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)