The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer

sweetness of lifeThe Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press, December 2014

Originally published as Die Süsse des Lebens, 2004

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Hochgatterer is a child psychiatrist and novelist, and this particular book features both a child psychiatrist lead character named Horn and a police officer named Kovacs. They investigate the gruesome murder of an old man whose horribly disfigured body is discovered by his five-year-old granddaughter. This is not a story that just follows the investigation and the psychiatric sessions with the mute granddaughter: we get a lot of background about the main characters, and during the course of the investigation, it strikes me just how odd most of the people in the small town where the murder took place are. It’s a small town in the Alps, and it feels quite isolated. Horn and his wife moved there from the city so she could pursue her musical career at a neighboring orchestra, and Kovacs learns more and more about people’s sad lives in the town.

Unlike books by Jonathan Kellerman, who also worked with children but as a psychologist, not psychiatrist, The Sweetness of Life doesn’t seem overly sensationalistic: the murder is gruesome, there are other violent and disturbed people in the town, but it doesn’t single out one violent perpetrator. It’s more ominous a story than that. Also, Hochgatterer spends quite a long time describing the therapy sessions with the young granddaughter, and for that I’m grateful. It was interesting to see how play therapy with mute, traumatized children may work.

This isn’t an action-packed novel, and it’s not just a moody piece either: it’s thoughtful, and, to be honest, a pretty bleak portrait of a town. I’m interested in reading more.

Other reviews appear in EuroCrime, Reactions to Reading, and The Crime Segments.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon

act of passionAct of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated by Louise Varèse

Originally published 1947 as Lettre á Mon Juge

This edition: New York Review Press Classics, 2011

 

Act of Passion is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. It’s one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, ones he called romans durs. It’s also rare in Simenon’s novels because it’s a first person story.  Dr. Charles Alavoine after being found guilty of manslaughter (the act of passion in the title), writes a letter to the examining magistrate explaining how actually he planned the murder. The letter is his plea to be understood, and it’s pretty obvious that someone who wants to declare how he planned murder is not the most easy character to read.

It’s a book about a criminal’s mind, and the story gets worse as it goes along as we approach the recap of the murder. Alavoine’s view of women is quite horrid, and his crime is quite horrible as well. I couldn’t stop reading in part because this book is such a contrast to the Maigret series and because I mistakenly thought the narrator would have a flash of insight.

A few things in the novel place it in 1947 for me:  (1) the focus on psychoanalysis; (2) Alavoine’s journey from the provinces to a larger city strikes me as particularly of the period; and (3) the mention of tubercular husbands..

It’s not a pleasant book. Alavoine is  not a sympathetic main character. And it’s a book where the main character’s rationalizations do not make sense to me either. I don’t feel like a psychoanalyst, but I do feel like a gawker by reading this very unsettling book.

Finally, a couple suggestions for further reading: first an interesting conversation in the comments about recommended Simenon novels see Asylum, and this lengthy piece in Open Letters Monthly discusses the romans durs along with a spoiler-laden discussion of this particular novel.

I borrowed the book from the library.

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe

all she was worth

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Kodansha International, 1996
Originally published as Kasha, 1992
I borrowed the book from the library.

It took quite awhile for me to find a translated crime novel from Asia I’d like to finish for the Global Reading Challenge– a problem I ran into last year as well. First of all, there aren’t so many crime novels written by Asians that are translated into English. Secondly, I tried a few novels I just wasn’t in the mood to read because their tone was too noir (Yoshida) or or something I can’t quite label (Higashino).

Despite the very disturbing cover, I liked this book. The story centers on a missing persons case: injured and recuperating police detective Honma investigates his cousin’s son’s fiancee’s disappearance, and the story revolves around overextended consumer borrowers who are harrassed by legal and yakuza bill collectors. From the description, the cover image seems a little on-the-nose.

The story is a bit slow and the plot relies a bit heavily on coincidences, complaints I feel like I make with other missing-persons novels, but Honma is an engaging character. Since he’s on leave from the police department, the book doesn’t get into office dynamics and instead focuses on his homelife with his young son and nanny (he was widowed a few years before the novel takes place).

Two aspects of the story make it feel particularly Japanese, one major and one minor: first is the background of the Consumer Finance Scare of the 1980’s, and second is Honma’s reliance on bullet trains. The easy credit part of the story is crucial to the missing persons case, and it sounds an awful lot like the housing bubble of the 2000’s. And the existence of bullet trains and the communities that grow around them stands out for me since I live in a part of the world without widespread train service.

Finally, I want to include the funniest bit from Miyabe’s author bio, “In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games and singing karaoke.” It reads a little like,”Authors: they’re just like us!”

Other reviews appear in Complete Review, Petrona, and Black Plume.

 

 

The Fourth Secret by Andrea Camilleri

fourth secretThe Fourth Secret by Andrea Camilleri

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Open Door Media, November 2014

Originally published as La paura di Montalbano, 2002

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a sucker for novellas or short stories featuring characters I really like, and this is an important installment in the Inspector Montalbano series for spoiler-filled reasons that I won’t mention. Montalbano unofficially investigates a series of industrial accidents that may not have been accidents after he receives a belated tip-off. He is driven by guilt because he was unable to prevent the death of one construction worker, and he’s also driven to investigate the accidents because he would like to outdo the carabinieri, the military police, who are also pursuing the accidents.

Wikipedia led me to find out that this story was one featured in a collection titled La paura di Montalbano, and I’m not sure why this translated edition is just one story instead of six. Reading just a one-off makes it a bit difficult to say much more about the story or the context, but I enjoyed the story.

 

 

Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason

voicesVoices by Arnaldur Indriðason

Translated by Bernard Scudder

Vintage,2006

Originally published as Röddin, 2003

 

While he was waiting Erlendur looked at the souvenirs in the shop, sold at inflated prices: plates with pictures of Gullfoss and Geysir painted on them, a carved figurine of Thor with his hammer, key rings with fox fur, posters showing whale species off the Icelandic coast, a sealskin jacket that would set him back a month’s salary. He thought about buying a memento of this peculiar Tourist-Iceland that exists only in the minds of rich foreigners, but he couldn’t see anything cheap enough. p. 185

Voices takes place in a sort of version of Tourist-Iceland. Inspector Erlendur investigates the stabbing death of a hotel Santa Claus found in sordid circumstances in the basement of said hotel just before Christmas, which is peak tourist season. Erlendur takes up residence in the hotel for less than a week, but this is not a sort of locked-room mystery: there are too many people coming and going from the hotel and he’s pressured not to alarm the guests too much so the hotel is not on lockdown during the investigation.

Parallel to the murder investigation, Elinborg is handling a trial of suspected child abuse that she can’t avoid being affected by, and Erlendur remembers many more details about the disappearance of his younger brother, a story I was eager to read after the last installment in the series.

The story of the deceased Santa, a former child star on the brink of international fame as a pre-pubescent choirboy, was affecting in parts and a bit predictable in parts. I do admit the actual murderer was a surprise for me though. Elinborg’s case was more affecting and surprising to me.

This series is one of my favorites, and though this book didn’t affect me as much as Silence from the Grave, it was still a good story. Sometimes I actually get back to series I love more than once a year, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a reminder to me to spend less time on new releases and catch up on older books.

Other reviews appear in EuroCrime (Norman), The Game’s Afoot (Jose Ignacio), and Novel Heights (Suzi).

I bought my copy of the book.

Rough Trade by Dominique Manotti

rough tradeRough Trade by Dominique Manotti

Translated by Margaret Crosland and Elfreda Powell

Arcadia Books, 2001

Originally published as Sombre Sentier, 1995

I borrowed my copy from the library.

I was eager to read Dominique Manotti’s first novel after loving The Lorraine Connection earlier this year, and my verdict is that The Lorraine Connection is a tauter, more interesting novel than this, her first. Rough Trade begins with a very violent murder of a young Thai prostitute, and the investigation is led by Theo Dauquin of the Paris Drugs Squad. It’s an investigation that begins with a couple characters “on the fringe of a very complicated case,” (p. 88) that quickly becomes very far-reaching, and it frankly was a bit too complicated for me to enjoy. The novel is quite violent, the plot is very involved, and the crime syndicate Daquin investigates is involved in about every kind of unsavory criminal activity I could think of. It’s not my favorite Manotti because it feels more sprawling than The Lorraine Connection. That’s not to say that the pacing was slow or that the writing wasn’t good: it’s just a very relentless crime story.

The setting for the novel is the Sentier neighborhood, center of the garment industry in Paris, in 1980. The political backdrop is the push by Turkish immigrants to get legal working papers, and one of their leaders is also a police informant having a personal relationship with his handler, Daquin. Manotti’s background as a trade unionist came into play in this story. The tone of the story is very dry and reads a bit like a reporter’s diary of the case and the environs where the story takes place: there are lots of stories inside the general assembly of the undocumented workers as well as in several workshops manned by undocumented workers.

Finally I want to mention that the translation felt a bit stiff to me. The translators kept referring to the “rag trade,” instead of the garment industry, and at one point mentioned “a man of straw,” instead of a straw man, and those phrases felt like clunkers to me.

Other reviews appear in Euro Crime, and I enjoyed this lengthy interview with Manotti and her translator Amanda Hopkinson.

An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell

event in autumnAn Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell

Translated by Laurie Thompson

Originally published as Handen, 2004

Vintage, August 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

So An Event in Autumn  is the last Wallander story to be published. Chronologically, it fits in right before The Troubled Man. It’s been adapted for television, and it was written as a free story to be given to book purchasers for a month in the Netherlands some years ago.

It’s difficult to review short pieces, but suffice it to say that this feels like a Wallander novel that’s been condensed. It’s a story about an old murder that gets Wallander thinking about his mortality and how the police force has changed, and it also involves Sweden during World War II and how it treated refugees. This isn’t a story I’d recommend as an entry into the Wallander series: the prequel stories in The Pyramid work much better for that, but it’s a satisfying read for people who love the series.

The Second Deadly Sin by by Åsa Larsson

second deadly sin

The Second Deadly Sin by by Åsa Larsson
Translated by Laurie Thompson
MacLehose Press, August, 2014
Rebecka Martinsson book 5

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a big Åsa Larsson fan: the first two books in the series are some of my favorites. Rebecka is not a typical heroine, her cases are tough on her, and the setting in extreme northern Sweden is different and vivid.

This particular outing in the series is not as great as the others. I’ve read. Martinsson takes a back seat in the investigation of the murder of a middle-aged waitress who was brutally murdered. There is also a parallel story to the murdered woman’s grandmother, Elina who moves to Kiruna to take a position as a school teacher in the booming mine town at the start of the First World War.

Rebecka’s sexist boss is not my favorite type of character (and he feels a bit undeveloped to me), and the actual mystery wasn’t as strong as I’d like, but the contemporary storyline of Rebecka as well as the details about life in a company town before World War I were the strongest parts of the novel.

Other reviews appear in Crimepieces, Reactions to Reading, Avid Mystery Reader, and Crimescraps.

 

 

 

Shame by Karin Alvtegen

shameShame by Karin Alvtegen, translated by Steven T. Murray

Canongate, 2006

Originally published as Skam, 2005

I discovered Karin Alvtegen in Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate, and I started with Shame (the books are not part of a series) just because that’s the book I located first. I was quite impressed with Shame, and I’ve seen several blogs mention that it’s not her strongest work: I’m looking forward to reading more.

While the blurb on the cover calls it a “compulsive thriller,” I think the book is more suspenseful than full of thrills. Shame is the story of two unconnected women who are dealing with unresolved shame issues about their pasts. Monika is a doctor whose teenage brother died about twenty years before, and Maj-Britt is a woman who became a homebound morbidly obese woman because of her inability to deal with her past. Alvtegen doesn’t exploit her characters: she goes deep into the minds of these damaged women and conveys the depths and changes in their feelings very closely. The book is a compulsive read too because Alvtegen alternates perspectives in each chapter: the cliffhanger at the end of one character’s chapter isn’t resolved until two chapters later. Also, this is a book that deals with psychology, sex, religion, and death, but it’s not really centered on a crime.

I’ve read a few repressed-memory or woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown books in the past few months (Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Peter May’s The Blackhouse), and I’m spent. I recommend Shame with the caveat that it can put you through the wringer emotionally.

Other reviews appear in Euro Crime and How Mysterious!

I bought my copy of the book.

Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøll & Agnete Friis

invisible murder

Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøll & Agnete Friis, translated by Tara Chace

Soho Crime, October 2012

Originally published as Et stille umærkeligt drab, 2010

It seems I’m returning to series I liked this month–or at least this is the second book in the row that meets the criteria– and I enjoyed Invisible Murder, the second installment in the series featuring Nina Borg, a nurse who moonlights as a nurse for refugees in Denmark. Her work with the Network not only endangers herself, but it has exacted a huge toll on her husband and family, and this book is no exception.

The story centers on two young men who are Roma from Hungary, the younger of whom tries to sell something dangerous to a buyer in Denmark and implicates his brother, a law student on the verge of graduating. The story of Tamas and Sandor is the most affecting part of this book, and I was more invested in their plights than I was in Nina’s. Kaaberbol and Friis also create other sympathetic characters, including the aging investigator Soren Kirkegaard and retired building inspector Sklou-Larsen who has a rocky marriage to a much younger woman. I’m not sure why they don’t portray Nina as a bit more sympathetic: she’s pretty single-minded.

I enjoyed the first and final thirds of the book more than the middle (the second third wasn’t very mysterious to me): the first section told Sandor’s story, and the last section was very brisk as the case came together, but that is my only complaint about the book. I’m not sure why it took me over two years to get back to the series: I’ll be seeking out the rest.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews appear in EuroCrime, Reactions to Reading, and International Noir Fiction.