Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

As you might have noticed from this blog, I do really enjoy a good Scandinavian crime novel. I treat them as leisure reading, as opposed to books I have to read for work or reviews. That being said, most books give me real pleasure to read, but you know how sometimes you just want a really good, easy, rollocking crime novel to get your mind into different gear.

But when I began reading Karin Fossum's latest offering, I realised this was a crime writer who didn't adhere to the usual rules. She's been quoted saying that she likes to write about the death not the killing, and this is certainly true in Bad Intentions. Her main - recurring - character Inspector Seijer (this is the seventh in the series) is a mere spectator in the plot, and only appears a third way through the narrative.

Her main point of view is one of the three young men who at the start of the novel are spending a night in a log cabin by Dead Water. One of the boys is drowned in the aptly named lake. A few days later another young man's body is found in another lake and so the plot thickens.

Bad Intentions has been described a 'whydunnit' rather than 'whodunnit'. I think this is an excellent description of this intense semi-phsylogical thriller. The pace and intensity increases towards the end to such a fever point that I had to finish reading the novel in the middle of night, in tune with the Englishman's gentle snoring.

Although there is no direct mention of the far right in the book, and racism is only hinted at - or rather being taken for granted, if you like - I couldn't help but think back to the awful recent events on the island of Utoe in Norway, where the books are set (country not island). The society Fossum describes in her books is chillingly Nordic in flavour. You can almost taste the dissatisfaction and disassociation from society of these young men. For me, the plot of Bad Intentions was almost too true to life.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum
Vintage Books, £7.99

Thursday, 5 May 2011

My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Yrsa Sigurdardottir
It's refreshing to read a Scandinavian crime thriller that hasn't got a middle-aged, morose male as the heroic detective. I do love Wallander and his Scandinavian angst, as well as the dark political intrigue of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, but sometimes it's lovely to have a heroine who is intelligent, funny and has no piercings.

Although the life of Yrsa Sigurdardottir's female lead, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is all but perfect: as a divorced attorney, she's a single mother. She has an ongoing argument with her ex; her secretary is ignorant and lazy and her finances are in disarray. Yet, Thora also possesses the crucial characteristics needed for a crime novel heroine: curiosity and single-mindnedness.

In My Soul to Take, Thora is thrown into the middle of a murder investigation in a new-age hotel in a remote part of Iceland. The owner, Jonas, believes the place to be haunted and wants compensation from the local family who sold him the old farm buildings. When a woman is found dead in the grounds, Thora cannot but get involved. Stubbornly she brushes away the rumours of ghostly goings-on. She investigates the past but finds almost everyone is reluctant to give her information. Is that because in the cellar amongst the old boxes she finds an old Nazi flag and leaflets?

The plot of the novel is cleverly crafted around a time-honoured device - that of an isolated location. Nothing could be more sinister than a remote, haunted hotel, half-empty of guests, and full of idle staff such as sex therapists and tarot card readers.

Everyone around Thora seems to be convinced that something supernatural is present at the site. Even her German lover, who turns up at the hotel unannounced, hears the cries of a small child in the dead of night.

There's also great humour in the book; Thora's teenage son, who's girlfriend is heavily pregnant, decides to leave the care of his father because of the father's annoying habit of constantly playing SingStar on the children's Play Station.

The novel is full of twists and turns - the tension holds to the last moment. The end and the culprit were a complete surprise to me - and that is rare thing indeed.

Three of Yrsa Sigurdardottir's thrillers have been translated into English and a fourth one, Blessed Are the Children is due to be published in the UK by Hodder next year.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir will be talking about her writing and signing copies of her books at England's Lane Books on 18th March at 7 pm. Entry is free, so if you are able, come along and listen to this fascinating new Scandinavian crime writer.

My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Published by Hodder at £7.99.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The Year of the Hare became a classic in Finland as soon as it was published 1975. Only two years later it was made into a film. It has since been translated into 25 languages and has also been selected as one of the representative masterpieces of literature by UNESCO.

It's midsummer and Vatanen, a newspaper journalist, together with a photographer from Helsinki; 'two dissatisfied, cynical men, getting on for middle age,' are on an assignment in Heinola, central Finland. 'The beauty of the Finnish summer evening is lost on them both' and they run over a hare. Vatanen jumps out of the car in search of the injured animal and instead of re-joining his colleague, spends the night in 'a sweet-smelling hayloft' with 'the hare lying in his armpit'.

So begins an adventure involving a man and a hare which includes a separation from his 'not very nice' wife, an arrest and friendship with a District Superintendent, a forest fire, a milk maid, a bear hunt, a Soviet border crossing, a drunken binge or two (this is a Finnish book about a Finnish man after all) and a love affair.

As you read this book you begin to realise none of these things could really happen to just one man. What Arto Paasilinna's sparse prose describes instead is the common dream of all city dwellers - to up sticks and leave for the wilderness. He expresses the basic human need to be one with nature. It's admirable how Herbet Lomas has managed to convey the simple tone of the book in his excellent English translation (first published in the UK in 1995).

Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare was published the same year as the Good Life was first screened on British TV; it was a time right after The Oil Crisis when people started to realise that the earth's resources were limited; when moving back to the country and appreciating old rural way of life became fashionable. But in the past thirty years this book has not lost any of its significance or topicality. The Soviet Union may have disintegrated, the Berlin Wall fallen, but we are still burning oil at a rate of knots and bears are still roaming free around the Eastern borders of Finland.

The Year of the Hare is also a wonderful insight into the Finnish psyche, particularly the mind of a Finnish man. I do not wish to comment on the lack of positive female role models in the book - unless a simple, undemanding milkmaid could be seen as one. The book was after all written about the time when my mother would have burned her bra - and as all Finnish women know, the Finn was one of the last to evolve into something even closely resembling a modern man. (You guessed it - that is a completely different conversation and one I should be conducting elsewhere - perhaps here?) Suffice to say that if you overlook a few issues of sexism and animal rights, this book is a delight to read - whether you are Finnish or not.

The Year of the Hare was the first Finnish book I bought The Englishman all those years ago. He liked it so much he recently reread it and again laughed out loud at the adventures of Vatanen and his hare.

For me, that's enough of a recommendation.