Quicksand is a courtroom drama centered on the trial of an eighteen year old girl charged with murder during a school shooting. The story opens in the classroom, which is a classic gambit to hook the reader because it’s unclear who all did the shooting and who all died (it’s a brief opening interlude). A good chunk of the beginning is a courtroom procedural, and I think it was the strongest part of the book. The book slowed down for me as Maja, the narrator, went into the long background story about her relationship with Sebastian, the boyfriend she allegedly incited to murder.
I thought this book would take a more unreliable narrator turn than it did: it really is a story about a senseless crime spree instead, and in that way it reminded me of Laura Lippman. Ultimately, it’s a book about a hugely unsympathetic group of characters, teenagers and adults, and Maja still remained a mystery to me, which I think is the point. The book is also smart about race and class, which was a welcome part of the story.
Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Other Press, March 2017
Originally published as Störst av allt
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
I’m catching up with one of my favorite series, this time reading The Black Path, book 3 in the Rebecka Martinsson series. The book starts off pretty close to the ending of the previous installment, now finding Martinsson in a mental hospital after her breakdown at the end of the last book. It’s heartbreaking. The police procedural aspect starts a bit later: Rebecka continues to improve and starts working for the prosecutor in Kiruna. She helps Investigator Anna-Maria Mella on a murder case by digging into the victim Inna Wattrang’s financial and business past. She worked for a mining company, and the financial side deals with the expansion of mining operations in Uganda.
The elements of murder and big financial operations are there and could have turned the story into a thriller of sorts, and there are definitely sections of the book that feel more fast-paced, but Larsson is most interested in characters. She spends a great deal of time in all of her characters’ heads as they are going through the time of the police investigation, but the actual investigation fades into the background quite often.
The strongest parts of the book for me were the sections told from Rebecka’s perspective and from the perspective of Ester, an artist who is the half-sister of Kallis, the mining company executive. She is a painter whose clairvoyance felt a bit off to me. She was adopted by a Sami family and lives with her half-brother after her mother dies, and the scenes of her painting are quite good. The link between Rebecka, who lost her mother at a young age, and Ester, who was adopted as a baby, is quite good. Like I said, the characters’ and their pain affected me more than the murder plot. This is a good entry in the series.
The Black Path by Åsa Larsson, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Originally published as Svart stig, 2006
I bought my copy of the book.
Hour of the Wolf by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson
Originally published as Carambole, 1999
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
It’s been a few years since I’ve read Nesser, and I was happy to skip to book 7 in the series, Hour of the Wolf. I know I missed a few resonances in the characters in the police’s backstory because I haven’t read Münster’s Case, for example, but I didn’t feel too lost.
Hour of the Wolf begins in the mind of a killer, and after a decent amount of time the focus changes to the police. The beginning follows a man who kills a teenage boy while driving drunk and leaves after hiding all evidence of his crime. He is later blackmailed, and he kills the supposed blackmailer at their arranged pickup time. Unfortunately the murdered man is someone close to Van Veeteren, and the sections of the book dealing with Van Veeteren’s grief are quite sad.
Van Veeteren is a bit of a stereotype: pessimistic, atheist, loves chess and esoteric classical music and antiquarian books. Thankfully the focus isn’t only on him so his persona doesn’t become too onerous. He does have a profound effect on the inspectors he trained, especially Reinhardt and Moreno, and even when Van Veeteren is not in the book, his presence is obvious.
It’s not a fast-paced book in any part. It’s quite procedural heavy, but the detectives’ conversations again are sometimes reflective and sometimes funny. Tone-wise, it’s a heavy read because it’s disheartening to be in the mind of the killer. That said, I still enjoyed the book a great deal. Now to catch up on a couple installments I’ve missed!
The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Originally published as Nattfåk, 2008
I bought my copy of this book.
I’ve read more Swedish books than books set any other country this year besides the United States. This is book 7, and my second Theorin novel, and also this is the second book of the Öland quartet. Öland is a Baltic island, and this particular story takes place on the northwest coast of the island at Eel Point, home to two lighthouses and a haunted manor house. It’s a great setting for a story: an isolated coastal home with a history of deaths. Eels disturb me to because they are so much like snakes. And Theorin mentions things like a sacrificial peat bog on the island just to up the strangeness of the story. It’s simply the most matter-of-fact ghost story I’ve read, and I like the style because I haven’t seen it/ read it lots of times. Additionally, the harsh weather was more frightening to me than the ghosts were creepy.
The story centers on Joakim and his family. His wife Katrine moved from the Stockholm suburbs to Eel Point with her two young children while her husband finished teaching for the school year. Her family has ties to Eel Point: her mother and grandmother lived there when her mother was a teenager, and her grandmother painted a series of famous and missing blizzard pictures. The story weaves stories of the past into the story of the present. After Katrine dies shortly after Joakim moves to Eel Point, he reads the stories of other deaths at Eel Point over many years in a book that his mother-in-law wrote. I was frustrated by how little I learned about Katrine throughout the book: she is really not the focus of the story while her grieving husband is.
The connecting thread in the series is not only the island and the sea but the character of Gerlof Davidsson. His grandniece Tilda is the main police character in this story, and she has, true to form, have a complicated personal life and is an accomplished young police officer. His family history is another thread of the story, and he’s a great character.
This is one of my favorite series.
Linda, as in the Linda Murder by Leif GW Persson
Translated by Neil Smith
Originally published as Linda — som i Lindamordet, 2005
Evert Bäckström book 1
I borrowed this book from the library.
I’ve been mulling over this book for over a week now: in part that’s a sign that there’s much to delve into in this book, and in part it’s because my reaction is so mixed. Persson dedicated this book to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and I feel like this book was part homage to the Martin Beck series and part a whole different animal: this is the most procedural-heavy writer I’ve come across. Though the book has a lot of pages, the story passed briskly in parts and felt slow in parts. There are some flourishes I liked a great deal, but overall I’m left feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the book.
Linda, as in the Linda Murder focuses on the murder of a trainee police officer in Smaland. Evert Bäckström , a comedically horrible character from Stockholm somehow ends up leading the investigation in the summer months. I found Bäckström a bit easier to take in this book than in He Who Kills the Dragon, the next entry in the series. His attachment to his goldfish, was ridiculous to balance out his extreme sexism, etc. And his particular ending was satisfying.
The book goes into detail into the investigation with the national police team and the local team, much like the other Persson novels I’ve read. While this makes the book realistic to a certain degree, it makes it a slog for me. I could have done without the shenanigans in the police hierarchy, and the “voluntary” DNA collection from possible suspects went on a long time. I understand the point Persson was making about the sketchiness of the police’s actions, but he could have made differently. I think I prefer procedurals to be a bit less realistic than what Persson writes.
Finally, I will say that I was a fan of the ending, particularly the coda to the story. I needed more of the character of Lisa Mattei and other voices of reason in the story. The ridiculousness of Bäckström and several other characters could have been tempered a bit more.
Reading Persson has made it difficult for me to watch hourlong crime dramas. I can spot the clues a mile away after being awash in information while reading this book.
The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Originally published as Brandbilen som försvann, 1969
Sphere Books, 1973
I bought my copy of the book
Martin Beck book 5
I’ve arrived at the halfway point in the Martin Beck series and I’m still surprised by the books.
- They feel contemporary, despite the references to late 1960’s political crises and the Vietnam War.
- The plotting, even when the pace mimics the first installment, Roseanna, was still shocking.
- I’m surprised that I can keep so many detectives straight. It’s not just Beck and his team that’s made up of distinct characters: the investigation calls on a detective or two in another city and those characters are distinct as well.
- I appreciate a few homages to the series that I see in Henning Mankell and Leif G.W. Persson now. Persson’s Bäckström is an extreme version of the character Gunnar Larsson in this book. The neverending car smuggling ring that Wallander investigates is central to this particular episode of the Beck series.
- I’m taken aback by how young the sex workers in this book are.
The Fire Engine That Disappeared focuses on a horrible fire that kills a number of people in an apartment building as well as someone’s suicide that happened around the same time. It’s not surprising that the two events are related: it seems especially obvious in a book as short as this. There’s no room for plot digressions. The arson scenes and explanations of the fire investigation are incredibly vivid and harrowing. The actual investigation is slow in parts and then incredibly fast in others, and the fact that the arson was so extreme amps up the tension throughout the story. Finally, I’m particularly fond of this installment because we actually get some of Beck’s backstory- why he became a policeman, his childhood, and his family life today. It’s about time.
On a side note, I thought of Moira’s blog during a description of a particular blue corduroy suit that is very 1969.
I continue to be a huge fan of this series, and I’m inclined to finish reading this series soon. It might not make for the most varied blog fodder, but reading a few authors in bulk seems to be my latest reading pattern.
To the Top of the Mountain by Arne Dahl, translated by Alice Menzies
Originally published as Upp till toppen av berget (2000)
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, August 2015
Intercrime book 3
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher
I’m a fan of this book about a big, major, complicated set of crimes that sees the A-Unit of the first two books in the Intercrime series back together again. Compared to what I’ve been reading lately, it’s bigger, more brutal, and full of characters, as the A-Unit is made up of a large number of investigators. To the Top of the Mountain is in part a police procedural focusing on the elite A-Unit that deals with big crimes of an international nature and in part a sort of conspiracy thriller. It begins with Paul Hjelm and Kerstin Holm investigating a killing in a crowded bar and soon becomes a much larger investigation into drugs and child pornography. It’s difficult subject matter, but thankfully there are lots of plot threads to give the reader a break from the more harrowing parts of the story.
So far my favorite of the series is still the opening book, Misterioso. The investigation and the novel felt brisker than this one, and the crimes weren’t as hard to read about. I also think it’s best to start the series from the beginning instead of reading this installment first. There is too much backstory about the detectives and about the A-Unit itself to make this a good starting point.
Woman with Birthmark by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009
Originally published as Kvinna med födelsemärke, 1996
It’s been over two years since I’ve read Nesser, and getting back to the Van Veeteren series was a delight. I know it sounds a bit off to call a book with multiple murders a delight, but I’ll try to explain. Parts of the story felt very familiar: first there’s an unhappy, lonely detective in an imaginary Scandinavian city, a team of police working a seemingly impossible set of cases, and a strong social conscience, but the story gelled for me and is one of my favorite reads of the year.
Van Veeteren and his team investigate a series of murders of men killed the same way (shot in the chest and the groin), and the first half of the book is the search to find the link between the victims. The second half of the book is the chase, and it’s a truly sad ending for the victims and the perpetrator. I’m usually not fond of books with sections in the mind of the killer, but I didn’t mind it in this story. Nesser has such sympathy for the killer and the killer’s life that led her to her crimes: it was a very well-done story.
There’s a bit of an odd passage in the book that sounds a bit like the fact that I feel a bit ambivalent about enjoying this book about horrible crimes: Beck at one point muses that he could have been a criminal because he enjoys hunting the killer as much as the killer must enjoy hunting his/her prey. As he gets closer to catching the killer, he is usually horrified by their motives and wonders what kind of society he lives in that breeds such criminals. While I liked the book for the chasing-down-the-murderer plot, I was also impressed with how sympathetic Nesser made the killer. It was a tragic story.
I bought my copy of the book, and I have the next three books on my shelves. I’m very much looking forward to them.
The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Translated by Alan Blair
Originally published as Den skrattande polisen, 1968
This edition: Vintage Books, April 1977
I’m very happy to get back to the Martin Beck series, even if I was a little weirded out by the cover of this book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a huge assault rifle on the cover. The cover stands in stark contrast to the source of the title, a 1920s novely record called The Adventures of the Laughing Policeman.
The Laughing Policeman is a compact story about a horrible crime rife with social commentary. The political commentary seems to grow as the series goes on. The crime at the center of the story is the mass shooting of 9 people on a double decker bus on a cold rainy night on the border of Stockholm and the suburb of Solna, the same night that most of the police force is at an anti-Vietnam protest. One of the murder victims was Stenström, a young member of Beck’s squad, but no one knows what he was doing on the bus.
The Martin Beck books tend to be heavy on the procedural part of a police procedural: it’s not just interrogations, but it’s scientific tests and strategy sessions. Because the crime was so large and garnered so much media attention, there are lots of characters as Beck’s squad receives reinforcements from all over Sweden.
It’s a compact story, which is a great change of pace. It feels quite contemporary, which speaks to the couple’s influence on current crime writing. But parts of the story definitely place it in the 1960’s: Gunnarson’s rants are pretty retrograde, on purpose; and there is a bit of victim-blaming that reminded me very much to the first book in the series, Roseanna. This is my favorite entry in the series so far.
Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Öland Quartet book 1
Originally published as Skumtimmen, 2007
It’s quite early in the year, but it’s obvious to me that Echoes from the Dead is going to be one of my favorites reads of the year. It’s an enchanting story, it has very vivid characters, and it weaves the past storyline with the present extremely well.
The book begins with the unsolved disappearance of five-year-old Jens Davidsson years before: he escaped from his grandparents’ back garden and encountered an old man calling himself Nils Kant. Nils Kant’s story, beginning with his childhood and his crimes, takes up the other half of the book. Jens’s depressed mother Julia returns to Öland, the vacationer’s island in the Baltic Sea, when her father Gerlof says there have been developments in the case. The story alternates between the present day missing persons investigation- unofficially carried out by Gerlof and his daughter Julia–and the story of Nils Kant, whose story remains mysterious as well. It takes quite a bit of skill to have two story lines keeping me guessing.
Theorin is so good at capturing the slightly fantastical story, reflecting Gerlof’s love of scary stories told at twilight since he was a boy. The tone works so well and Theorin earned so much goodwill in my eyes that one little bit of action at the end of the book didn’t bother me if it had been in another story. Julia, Gerlof, and even Nils Kant are nuanced characters who I cared about immensely, and that doesn’t happen regularly.
Other glowing reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, EuroCrime Reviewing the Evidence, and Reactions to Reading.
I bought my copy of the book.