Devil’s Peak by Deon Meyer, translated by K. L. Seegers
LIttle Brown, 2007
Originally published as Infanta, 2004
Source: I borrowed it from the library.
Deon Meyer has been on my list of authors to read for quite a long time now, and I chose to start with Devil’s Peak because it’s the first of the Benny Griessel series. It does feature a character from an earlier novel in a central role, so my plans to be unspoiled by starting with this book were foiled. I was very impressed with the beginning: the writing was good, the characters were very complicated, but by the end I was disappointed with the plot.
Griessel is an inspector leading an investigation into the murders of people accused of hurting children. He’s an alcoholic policeman with marital troubles, which is a story I’ve read before, but his experience as a policeman both before and after apartheid and the differences in those organizations (it was the Force during apartheid and the Service after) made the novel stand out to me. Meyer divides the story among Griessel the investigator, Tiny Mpayipheli the killer, and a young woman who is a sex worker who is making some sort of confession to a minister.
It’s an interesting structure with interesting characters, but a couple things bothered me: First, it’s a vigilante story. I’m not very interested in this theme (I’m almost as tired of vigilantes as I am of serial killers) even though this book features the twist that there is a vigilante in a country that recently abolished the death penalty. Second, the final fifty pages falter plot-wise. It features a plot twist that I see all too often in thrillers (I’m trying to avoid spoilers), and the last batch of antagonists is a very cruel and violent crew who aren’t really developed as characters.
I saw a lot of promise in the first half of the book, and I hope that other Meyer books don’t use such overused plots.
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
Knopf, March, 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
I picked up Ayelet Waldman’s newest novel because I really liked Red Hook Road, which I read before my blogging days. I was expecting a smart novel with affecting characters, and I wasn’t disappointed. So much literary fiction drives me crazy or I feel like I can’t write about it much, but Love & Treasure was a great read and I have a few things to say about it.
The story centers on art looted by the Nazis and held by Americans after World War II on the Hungarian Gold Train, the treasure of the title. Specifically, the story centers on an enameled brooch of a peacock and a Hungarian painting featuring the brooch on a woman with a peacock head (it’s a bit surreal). It takes place in three timelines: the present, where the granddaughter of Jack, a deceased US Army captain, inherits the brooch; the aftermath of World War II when Jack lives in Salzburg and guards the train, and, finally, the early twentieth century in Budapest where the first owner of the brooch lived.
It’s a complicated story both politically and personally: none of the characters are totally good or totally bad, the issue of reparations for art stolen by Nazis is complicated, and most importantly, Europe after World War II was a mess in terms of dealing with displaced persons. I tend to gravitate to fiction more than non-fiction, and I’m grateful to have delved into such a complicated issue in a novel that was evidently very thoroughly researched instead of just reading a really long New Yorker magazine article about it. Fiction is more affecting, I think. It’s hard to tell people to pick up a Holocaust novel, even though I know lots of people picked up Sarah’s Key, for example as it was made into a movie or lots of book groups read it, but I encourage you to give this book a chance. It’s not manipulative, and it’s very well-researched.
Maigret and the Black Sheep by Georges Simenon
Translated by Helen Thomson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983
Originally published as Maigret et les braves gens, 1962
I chose to read this book to meet a couple of my personal reading challenges for the year: it’s a book I already own, and it’s an older crime novel. It’s my first Maigret novel, and it definitely won’t be my last. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a quick police procedural, and I have 74 other novels to choose from. It also felt a lot lighter than more contemporary crime novels, which was refreshing.
Maigret investigates the murder of a former cardboard box factory owner Rene Josselin, who is found shot in his armchair at home by his wife and daughter when they return from a night at the theater. The investigation stalls for a bit as Maigret feels the deceased family is withholding information. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it’s such a brief book, but it feels a bit like a futile warning because thetranslated title of the book as well as the description on the back give away a great deal of the story. The motive is the main surprise of the story.
Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo
Translated by Edith Grossman
Originally published as Abril rojo, 2006
I’m a bit ambivalent about reviewing this book because I nearly gave it up after the first 200 pages (there’s a big shift in tone then), but ultimately I decided to finish it to see what the book was trying to do as a whole. I think Roncagliolo intended the book to be so brutal for a reason, but it made for an uneasy read.
I chose to read this book because it’s hard to find books about or from Peru translated into English, because it’s won a couple big literary awards, and because it was billed as a sort of crime novel. Conspiracy thriller actually seems a bit more accurate because the murder near the beginning of the novel seems like a small part of the story until the final section of the book.
But this is most definitely not crime novel. The main character is a prosecutor who willingly left Lima for a provincial town of Ayacucho, and he deals with a stifling bureaucracy to investigate a murder in an area where Shining Path is supposedly inactive. This book is about the crimes perpetrated by the terrorists and the government trying to quash them, and along the way there are also a series of murders in the region.
The novel is horrifying in terms of the bureaucratic obstacles to Chacaltana’s investigation into the murders, it’s horrifying in terms of the remnants of the 20 year conflict between Shining Path and the Peruvian government, and it’s brutal in terms of the series of murders that Chacaltana investigates. The action is a bit strange and unbelievable, but the aura of violence feels real. I think my real ambivalence about the book comes from the fact that I didn’t expect there to be any hope at the end, and my assumption was correct. I’m glad I read it, but I’m ready for something less serious and brutally violent next.
Other reviews appear in Novel Insights and Reading Matters.
What Is Mine by Anne Holt, translated by Kari Dickson
Also published as Punishment
Warner Books, 2006
Originally published as Det som er mitt, 2001
While I’m eagerly awaiting the translation of more of Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen novels, I’m digging into her Vik and Stubo series, which was translated first. This was a very satisfying read that felt a bit different than the other series. Johanne Vik is an academic psychologist who consults on a case of series of child abductions. She is a sort of profiler, but that is not the bulk of the work she does in the novel. Stubo is a widower whose story is quite sad: he returned to the detective inspector post after his wife’s death, and this book feels only partly like a police procedural.
This novel has a lot of plot and a lot of characters. Vik begins the novel investigating the wrongfully imprisoned Aksel Seier: after serving nine years in prison for murdering and raping a very young child, he was released from prison without explanation. Later she becomes involved in a series of child abductions after resisting a great deal, and realistically so, I believe. And why do I recommend reading a novel about such horrible crimes? Because Holt is very good at developing her characters. This is a novel about how to work with such horrible crimes or how to live with such horrible crimes (or horrible events, period), and the portraits cover a range of grief and other responses.
This novel is a bit long, but that only stands out to me because the first and last sections of the book are very quickly paced (complete with lots of short chapters) while the middle is a bit more ponderous. The relationship between Vik and Stubo is not typical because they’re both a bit odd, and other characters stand out as well. It’s not exploitative of the horrible plot that is the center of the book, and that’s quite a feat.
I’m glad I read The Collini Case a significant amount of time after reading lots of reviews of it and the media coverage related to it: first of all, it’s a very short book, and most reviews give away quite a few significant details about the plot, which this piece will as well. Second of all, it’s definitely a book that makes for interesting discussion because it helped lead to discussions in the German government about reexamining the Ministry of Justice.
I usually shy away from legal procedurals because it’s hard to ignore dramatic license with American criminal procedure, but I have less of a problem when I’m reading about another country’s legal process. Caspar Leiner takes his first murder case just 42 days after he was admitted to the bar, and this book covers the length of his representation of the retired Collini who doesn’t deny murdering industrialist Meyer.
The book has a few sections taking place in Casper’s past and Collini’s past, which lead to the motive for the killing, but the main thrust of the book is the horror of the law that allowed Meyer to avoid prosecution for war crimes. The actual story was fine but not fantastic, but the ramifications of the case were the strongest parts of the book, if that makes any sense. What the book achieved outside the story is what’s more important to me, and I think that can be a valid reason to decide to read a book.
This book has sparked lots of discussion, and the following posts include lots of interesting comments and other articles to read: Mrs. Peabody Investigates, The Game’s Afoot, and Reactions to Reading.
Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum, translated by Felicity David
Originally published as Se Deg ikke Tilbake!, 1996
I chose to read the second Inspector Sejer novel because I wanted to try a new-to-me author of a well-reviewed series, and I’m glad I did despite being burnt out by police procedurals in general in the last several months. The first novel in the series, Eva’s Eye, also published as In the Darkness, was published in 2013 in the US, but I’ve had book 2 waiting on my shelves for awhile so I chose to read it first.
Sejer is a widower still mourning the loss of his wife to cancer, and in this novel he works with Skarre, a young policeman half his age. Their district is large, covering a population of over 100,000 people, while the scene of the crimes at the heart of the novel take place in an incredibly small mountain town.
The subject matter of the book is pretty off-putting: a very young girl is missing in the first chapter of the book but found safe, and in the second chapter of the book a teenage girl is found dead by a mountain lake. Because the crimes took place in such a small community, there’s a bit of a locked-room feel, and there’s a bit of peeling away of people’s facades as Sejer and his colleague Skarre interview lots of residents. The stories Sejer and the rest of the police uncover are quite sad, and they lend emotional depth to the investigation.
Despite the sadness of the story, Sejer himself doesn’t seem overly gloomy, which is appealing in a protagonist. He feels empathy for the people he interviews not only because they were touched by the crimes at the center of the novel but because of their lives together in their small town. I’m glad I have several more novels in the series to get to soon.
Other reviews appear in Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reactions to Reading and The Crime Segments.