Monday, 22 October 2012

The Bat by Jo Nesbo

I really wanted to like this first Harry Hole novel, but I'm afraid I found it rather far fetched and dull. 

For me the best thing about Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole novels is their dark and moody Norwegian setting, so perhaps I didn't like The Bat because it's set in Sydney. 

A Norwegian girl is found brutally murdered, and the Australian police send for a Norwegian policeman to pacify the country's Embassy. 

What follows is Australia through the eyes of a damaged, t-toal, young Norwegian policeman. There are several long passages explaining the multiculturalism, and the racial relations, in Australia. At times it felt as if the Australian tourist bureau had paid for the translation of this novel.

Harry, the foreigner, is teamed with another outsider, a senior aboriginal detective, and together they make inroads into the mystery killing. But it seems his fellow policeman knows rather more than he is willing to reveal. 

Harry, who himself is struggling to come to terms with already a checkered police career at home, tries to make sense of murder mystery down under. As usual he first fails, but his doggedness pays off and in the end, he finds the solution and the murderer.

But before we get to this, there's a love affair, several wrongly accused people, more bodies and so many characters that in the end I started skimming the text instead of reading each word. I just wanted the book to end. 

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Human Part by Kari Hotakainen

The Human Part is an abstract and quite one-sided view of modern Helsinki (and Finland), but as long as you remember this fact, Hotakainen's quirky novel is a joy to read.

The format of the novel is refreshingly different. The story starts with the narrative of the subject of the book, Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas, a a retired haberdashery shop owner. Salme meets an author with writer's block, and for a vast sum of money, agrees to sell her life story to him. (I wonder if authors are wealthier in Finland?) But soon they disagree on the truthfulness of the end product. Salme does not like 'made-up books', but the author cannot help himself, and turns Salme's colourful life into fiction.

Or does he?

A major tragedy 'a certain very sad thing' looms large over the telling of Salme's story. But because Salme is adamant it's not going to be included in her life story, we are left guessing what has happened. All we know is that Salme's husband, Paavo 'is temporarily mute' because of it. But there are further sad things in Salme's life which she herself seems oblivious to. Her three children who all live in and around Helsinki, are not how they appear either. Or has the author invented their other lives, the problems their mother doesn't know about?

As you can see this book is a complicated read, one which I would have enjoyed so much more, had the writer not constantly force-fed a his ideology (capitalism is bad) down my throat. Political theory is much more complicated than that, as is real life.

The Human Part is a good read, and it is especially interesting to fellow author. How would we like it, if while writing our novels, we came face to face with our main character, insisting we are doing a bad job of it? Scary thought...

Thursday, 26 July 2012

In the Darkness by Karin Fossum

In the Darkness is one of 10 books this prolific Norwegian queen of crime, Karin Fossum, has written featuring the reticent Inspector Seijer. This first book in the series, which came out in Norway in 1995, has only now been translated into English, even though the other nine titles have already been published here.

I am a great fan of Fossum. Her plots keep you in as much suspense as, say Jo Nesbo, but she sheds much less blood on the pages. With a lesser body count, the writing has to perform better, and this is indeed where Karin Fossum excels. Her characters, often ordinary people faced with and doing extraordinary things, are well drawn. Fossum relies heavily on physiology rather than caricatures and manages to get away from the traditional plot of a head scratching policeman, who of his own back goes in search of a killer, only to find another victim, and so it goes on, until the said ridiculously (stupidly) brave detective finds himself face to face with the killer, and wins the day.

In this first book in the Seijer series, the complicated central character is Eva, an ambitious artist and single mother to Emma, an overweight six-year-old. Struggling with money, Eva meets an old friend who offers her a way out of poverty. But as you may have guessed, there is no such thing as easy money.

The novel is set in a small industrial Norwegian town, which is 'only beautiful after dark', with a fast running river being its only redeeming feature. Both the river and the mountains framing the town feature heavily in the plot. The feel of the book is contemporary, but the lack of mobile phones, or GPS technology, makes the plot seem a little unconvincing. This was most marked in the beginning of the book where, when she finds a body floating in the river, Eva makes a call to the police from a public phone booth. Had I known the book was in fact written in the early 1990's, I would have probably enjoyed it more. Instead I kept thinking, why is communicating so difficult for these people?

But on the whole I definitely enjoyed In the Darkness. It has a good, fast plot, with an excellent twist in the end, which I sort of guessed, but had forgotten about while I worried for the heroine. Plus all the people in the novel were very convincing. Nobody is wholly bad, or wholly good.

The beauty of having enjoyed this book is that there are nine more to read straight away. Hurrah!

In The Darkness by Karin Fossum is published by Harvill Secker

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Unwanted by Kristina Ohlsson

This crime story, set in modern Stockholm, is Ohlsson's debut novel. It has a gruesome subject matter of disappearing children, a current favourite topic amongst Scandinavian crime writers, it seems. (See Boy in a Suitcase by Leene Kaarbol and Agnette Friis, for example.)

'Unwanted', however, is a very engaging story and not as harrowing as the subject matter would suggest.

The narrative opens with the point of view of a man who obviously has some serious mental problems. In the dead of night he's lying awake next to a woman who he has previously abused. Again, it seems a current trend in crime fiction to reveal the madman at the centre of the story (Jo Nesbo does this too).

Usually when a crime novel begins with a prologue in the head of the perpetrator, my heart sinks a little, but Ohlsson weaves the many points of view nicely into the story. Even though the reader knows 'who dunnit', this fact doesn't make you want to read to the end as fast as possible in order to find out why and how.

The narrative moves to a train journey during which a child goes missing. At first the estranged father of the little girl is suspected until she is found dead, dumped naked outside a hospital.

The main protagonists, trying to solve the crime in the book, are three very different policemen: a respected older police inspector Alex Recht, a younger policeman with marital problems, Peder Rydh, and a woman, Frederika Bergman, who has just entered the police force. She is a 'civilian', and an academic. It's clear from the beginning that Frederika doesn't fit into the cosy mutually respecting and lighthearted club the two men in the team have set up. Both Alex and Peder are constantly suspicious of Frederika's rather stiff official manner, or her different ideas on how to move the investigation forward.

But when another child is abducted, Fredrika's methodological approach to investigating a crime is shown to be more successful than the old-fashioned, instinct-driven way Alex and Peder are used to working.

This internal conflict between the three policemen is like a breath of fresh air in the story of murder and mayhem; it makes the narrative much more interesting when the characters are multifaceted.

There are also a few red herrings littered along the plot lines, something which again makes the reader want to carry on reading. And the ending is satisfyingly drawn-out while not being stupidly so.

If you're into your Scandi crime and are looking for a new talented writer in the genre, you could do much worse than read Christina Ohlsson.

by Christina Ohlsson
Translated by Sarah Death
Published by Simon & Schuster
Paperback £12.99 /Kindle £6.99