Friday, June 27, 2014

Sun and Shadow - Ake Edwardson

A policeman with relationship problems? No. Does he have a drinking problem? No. Any existential crisis? Not really, unless you consider the adjustment period when two people decide to get together to be a existential or relationship crisis. Ake Edwardson's ErikWinter does not check many of the standard tropes of the main protagonist of a police procedural and that itself is a refreshing change and gives him a head start over his other contemporaries who are busy solving crimes. Oh yes, there are references to the type of music that Erik likes and so it is not as if Edwardson is striving to make Erik completely different from other fictional policemen.

'Sun and Shadow' sees Erik Winter getting ready for his girlfriend to move in with him. He is also awaiting their first child. He has to juggle changes to his personal life with a series of murders of couples who don't seem to have been related to each other in any way.  Edwardson takes his time setting up the story which is interleaved with Erik's personal life, his professional interactions. The motive for the crimes is hinted at the very beginning and can be guessed quite easily. It is also clear by the middle of the novel that the case is going to hit close to home for Erik. Edwardson though, throws up a unexpected twist at the end regarding the identity of the perpetrator.  The ending too is totally 'Scandinavian' in the sense that there are no bangs or frills, just a seriously dangerous situation handled in a matter of fact manner. 

Edwardson has a narrative style which is not loud or too violent, which makes even the more violent crimes a bit more palatable. You don't get the feeling of being rushed headlong towards the end, it is a more logical progression of being carried by the natural flow of investigation towards it. Edwardson nearly loses it though while going into great detail about sub-plot concerning Winter's parents. I get that Edwardson is trying to create a specific universe for Winter so that he feels more real and the reader more close to him, but the digression becomes too long, (nearly 1/4th of a 400 plus page novel) where the rewards do not match the effort put in it. Having read his 'Frozen Tracks', it seems that these digressions are a pattern with him, where he nearly loses track of the main story line. Notwithstanding these digressions, and if you dig the placidity (which as mentioned earlier is very natural) of the narrative this is a series worth your time.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Last Temptation - Val Mcdermid

It is interesting to see how a series of novels (in any genre) develops over the course of time. The quality of the series (which is subjective) is one thing, other things that are of interest include the themes/canvas/setting that the author chooses over the course of the series and any change in them. Some authors seem to be clear right from the beginning about how the series is going to go. For instance, right from 'Faceless Killers', once can sense/see the themes that Mankell would expand upon in his next works. 'Sjöwall and Wahlöö apparently had a plan for 10 books alone, right from the beginning. Some authors are different, it does take time for them to find their voice, like Rankin for instance. The initial novels of Rebus series like 'Tooth & Nail', 'Hide & Seek' etc could be termed as slasher novels. They were good yes, but it is with novels like 'Black Book', 'Black & blue' that you see Rankin finding his feet and his preferred zone of writing. 

Similar is the case of 'Val Mcdermid's Tony Hill. Yes, the series made a splash right from the beginning with the unique protagonist 'Tony Hill' , which was in a way, the emasculation of the dominant masculinity of crime fiction. So, you had a unique main character and  antagonists whose evil shocked many, but they still remain dangerously close to slasher novels. The third novel in the series 'The Last Temptation' falls in this category.The interplay between characters, the well-drawn story lines of the earlier series are missing in them. 

'The Last Temptation' sees Carol Jordan going undercover in Europe to nail a gangster. (Too?) coincidentally, Tony too lands up in Europe as part of an investigation into the serial killing of psychologists. The two strands proceed in parallel and result in a gory end. The killing of the psychologists is gory, but not well thought out with the main intention being to shock the reader. Carol's thread had a lot of potential, which the latter day Val Mcdermid would surely have fleshed out well, the dynamics between Carol and the Gangster, the blurring of the lines between reality and the part one is playing etc, but as such what we get are the flashes of potential that we see to fruition in the later novels, but which remain underdeveloped here ultimately. Even the intentions of the serial killer has potential with the weight of history lending credence to it. But here again, it remains an interesting idea that didn't achieve it's full potential. Mcdermid takes the easy way out in the convergence of the 2 threads towards the end. The revelation about an event which helped Carol to enter the gangster's world is totally incredulous. One actually guesses it beforehand, but still holds hope that Mcdermid would never go for such a far-fetched scenario, and hence is disappointed when our guess turns out to be correct. One thing is consistent though. Right from the first book, Mcdermid has never been squeamish about blood and gore, (at the same time avoiding gratuitous violence) and putting her characters in difficult places, both emotionally and physically. 

As a crime fiction novel, it is middling at best. But  since it tells us why the Tony-Carol relationship is the way it is in the later novels, it is important in that sense and hence is a must read if you are a follower of this series.

Broken Skin - Stuart Macbride

In Stuart Macbride's 'Broken Skin', DS Logan McRae  gets thrashed by a young kid on one occasion. While the image of a grown up eating humble pie at the hands of a kid is funny, it is tempered by the fact that the kid in question has seriously injured another person while attempting a theft. What causes a kid who was well behaved a few months ago, to go on this violent streak? Throughout the DS Logan series , Macrbide keeps doing this macabre dance between being ferociously funny and brutally violent.

Life is as usual for Logan (i.e.) multiple cases to solve, being bullied by Roberta Steel and Insch, trying to slope of work and the bullying. But he has the knack of being involved in anything and everything he tries to avoid. In addition to searching for the delinquent kid, he has to track a serial rapist and a suspicious death which seems related to the S&M industry.

Careful plotting , red herrings and a twist based on something mentioned earlier on in the novel, these are not the strong points of this series. Macbride sets up the various cases/threads of the novel and set Logan running off on his own. The resolution of the novels are a bit too fast, towards the end each case gets solved one by one with a twist that doesn't seem sudden or shocking but as a kind of halfhearted cop-out done just so the novel could end. This could indeed a problem with Macbride's books which run to over 400 pages and in some cases over 500. After reading nearly 3/4ths of these novels, one could feel shortchanged about the ending, which can have an adverse impact on your reading the other works in the series.

All these are overcome by the strengths of the series, which is mainly propelled by the sheer narrative force, the dialogues and the quirky characters.  'Roberta Steel' is still such an engaging character, Insch is true to form, Rennie is suitably slovenly and Richards is a good addition to this weird and funny bunch. As usual Logan hovers on the borderline of being wimpy and reluctant hero. And the dialogues, Macbride just creams this part, the series is worth reading just for them. Beware though, Macbride is not just about dark humor, he can and does dark things to his characters which one cannot just imagine. So you never feel safe with even the main characters of the series because, you never know or rather you know that they can be subjected to unexpected disasters. It is never gratuitous, just Macbride's way of telling us that crap happens and it happens often and at the most unexpected times. This is a compelling series not to be missed if you have the stomach for it.

A heads up for reading the Garnethill Trilogy by Denise Mina

The major issue in reading a crime series is that most of the time, we read it in an order that is different than the one in which they were written. There are multiple reasons, it could be that the order of translation itself is incorrect, or the order in which we get access to the books is wrong, etc. But generally it doesn't cause much confusion other than some seeming inconsistencies in the main protagonists of the series, due to our reading of the series in a different order. The story line of each novel though is mostly self-contained and rarely spills over into the next novels in the series.

It is due to this confidence that I started reading 'Exile' the second novel in Denise Mina's 'Garnethill Trilogy', the first being 'Garnethill'. The confidence was misplaced as the initial parts of the novel tell of events that reveal the main antagonist of the first novel. The writing in this novel is of very high quality,  which isn't surprising for me having read a few of her standalone works, but the revelations about the previous novel (which is perfectly right from the perspective of the main character 'Maureen'.) have kind of put me of the entire series, which is sad, because it is rare to see such powerful writing.

Anyway, heads up to anyone wanting to read the 'Garnethill' trilogy, read them in the order they were published. That's the best way to do it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Snow White must die - Nele Neuhaus

'Tobias Sartorius' has served 11 years in prison after being convicted of killing 2 girls and has been released as Nele Neuhaus's 'Snow white must die' begins. Though Tobias has always maintained that he is innocent, he also cannot remember anything of the events of the day when he is supposed to have killed the 2 girls. The beginning does remind us of Hakan Nasser's 'The Return' and Tana French's 'In the Woods',  but Neuhaus creates her own path to the murky depths of human behavior. 

A mystery set in a small village could be an easy cop-out, just mention that the village is small, that everyone knows everyone, throw a bit of gossip and you have a small town mystery. But right from the prologue Neuhaus gets the setting, tone and mood perfect. The prologue starts of with a disturbing image. It begins as what seems to be a common enough scenario in crime fiction, where someone seems to be imprisoned and the person who has imprisoned the captive has come to see her. He makes sure that the captive has everything that is needed, including playing music etc. But something seems to be wrong, it doesn't seem to be a case of kidnapping and slowly we realize that whoever had been imprisoned is not alive (and has been probably dead for quite a long time) and the person has been taking care of a corpse. Scary. (Having communicated implicitly that the captive is dead, why did Neuhaus have to state it explicitly at the end of the prologue? A bit more confidence in the reader would do writers a whole lot of good).

The setting of Altenhain village, between 2 mountains, with the woods nearby add to the eerie atmosphere. Add to this the mob mentality of the villagers when Tobias returns to his home, the various characters who all seem to be disturbed by his return (unlike a majority of the villagers who just seem to hate having a murderer in their village,  these characters seem to be  personally involved in events of the past), a young man suffering (apparently) from autism who seems to know more than what he lets on, an curious teenager (who is also an outsider) who is interested in the past, you get a novel (and the village in it) waiting to explode.

Nelehaus maintains the narrative tension for the first half well, with multiple scenarios for what could have happened in the past and several suspects for them. Nelehaus is ambitious in the scope of the novel and even if there are too many threads going around, all them are neatly tied with the core of the novel and do make sense. The motivation of each character is pitch perfect, but the manner in which the investigators (and Nelehaus) arrive at it is not. And that's because, she overextends herself,  gets entangled in her own web of threads and is in such a hurry to resolve every doubt that she had sown in the mind of the reader (and the investigators), that the unraveling of the mystery seems more like the unraveling of her narrative skills. There are the obligatory parallel threads of the personnel life of the lead investigators which is functional. In a way, it is actually a good thing because we are not distracted from the core of the novel, but it could also be a deterrent in case of a series (as opposed to in a standalone mystery) when you are not invested into the main protagonists. 

The novels works more as a powerful human drama than as a taut mystery. A drama of power, and its abuse in various forms. The cunning manifestation of power masquerading as compassion, the power of sexuality and the sexual jealousy it causes. The drama of families broken apart by a tragic event, the tragic event itself acting as a canvas where the villagers can paint their 
pseudo-solicitousness and holier than thou attitude all the while harboring great glee at the opportunity to gossip and badmouth others and reveling in the misfortune of others. The sad state of Tobias's father is one such instance. His once famous restaurant had to be closed due to lack of patronage, his farm had to be mortgaged, house went to seed, got divorced from his wife, he also has to bear the taunts of the villagers. One could argue as to why he should suffer for what his son did and one could rationalize that it was an unfortunate, but unavoidable side-effect of what his son did (or what the villagers thought he did). But towards the end, when one gets to know the truth behind the events,  it is clear that more than righteousness  or moral outrage, it  was the jealousy and spite that the villagers harbored towards the family to Tobias that made them turn against them without any compunction. 

This is also about how being a complicit bystander, where one chooses to not do/to ignore/turn the other way,  causes as much heartburn as what one actually does. And it is the power and depth of this human drama, that makes one hope that Neuhaus can provide us more tighter mysteries without compromising on the human core.

As is the case in the translation of most authors, it looks like Nele Neuhaus's books are being translated out of order. This seems to her 7th book (as per one of her interviews) and it is not clear whether her earlier works were standalone novels or if they too had the detectives  Pia and Oliver in them. Early on in this novel, there is a reference to an earlier investigation. If that investigation is indeed an earlier novel in this series, the reference here could work as a kind of dampener as one of the suspects is mentioned as being not being innocent. However, It must be said that this novel looks (and reads) like the first of a series, so the reference mentioned here may have no major impact.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hans Koppel - Two novels - She's never coming back/You're mine now

Hans Koppel's 'She's never coming back' starts with the kidnapping of Ylva. Koppel adds an audacious and macabre twist to it as her kidnappers keep her captive in basement of a house that is right opposite Ylva's. The room where she is captive has a live camera feed for transmitting images from the front of her own house.

The plot has multiple threads to it. The core one is of course the mystery of who has kidnapped her and why. The relationship between Ylva and Mike (there is a mention of an affair between Ylva and another person sometime earlier), with Mike seemingly prone to bouts of depression is another, as is the thread of how Mike and his daughter try to pick the pieces of their lives and move on.

All of these could have made the novel as much a psychological drama as it is a mystery. But Koppel doesn't much time on these, not even time to give enough information for the reader to un-spool the unsaid by  himself. It's one thing, if Koppel had completely ignored the other threads and kept it as a straight forward thriller. But looks like he was caught in two minds, one to add more emotional heft to a thriller and at the same time feeling a compulsion to write a fast paced thriller. The result is that we get a few tantalizing insights, like the dynamics of the husband-wife relation, how relatively easily the family (seemingly) gets over Ylva's disappearance. The relationship between Ylva and her kidnappers is another thread that had immense possibilities. But Koppel rushes from one situation to another, running at breakneck speed towards the end, making all the above superfluous. 

The mystery itself is nothing much to speak of. The identity of the kidnapper is a surprise (though a bit contrived, it's purpose being to lead to the conclusion) , but the manner in which they do it (and also the other crimes they do) is glossed over. It just looks like the kidnapper got up one day and decided to do it. There is no hint of the planning etc done by them, particularly about the other crimes committed. The reason for the crimes is a sad enough story, one that we have heard about countless times. There is also another parallel thread about a couple of people who were classmates of Ylva, which gives some hints on why the kidnapping could have happened, but there is again a 'ex deus machina' in this thread to take the story forward.

With some many plot-lines, each with potential of their own, this could have been a cracker of a novel, but remains a middling one at best.

Koppel's 'You're mine now' pretty much follows the same pattern. Anna has an affair with an younger 'Erik' and it leads to unforeseen consequences. The dynamics of Anna's relationship with her husband (Magnus) is interesting here too. One good thing about both the novels is that the women in them are quite capable of taking care of themselves and don't always need a shoulder to cry on. The men, though not wimps come very close to being one. Magnus is a better etched character than Mike, the reason being Koppel spends more time on showing us their relationship. When Anna decides to break off the affair, Erik shows another side of his. The transformation (to the reader and Anna) of Erik is brought out well. Instead of telling us directly, Koppel makes us understand through the actions of Erik. Sometimes he is submissive, disconsolate,  yearning for Anna, cajoling her and sometimes he is aggressive, spewing hatred and trying to create problems for her, telling reader (and Anna) that he is unstable. The reason for Erik's actions is a controversial plot line which is completely skimmed over by Koppel other than a few hints here and there. 

Mention should be made of the role of police in both the novels. The policemen here are not existentially scarred persons fighting ghosts of the past. Their concerns seem to be like when the baths or cinemas would open rather than justice.  It's also probably an indicator of how police view some (supposed) crimes in reality. When Ylva is first reported missing, the police take quite a long time to decide that she has indeed gone missing against her and will and their first (and major) suspicion is on the husband. When 'Anna' reports about Erik pestering her, the policemen do not take it too seriously. Even when a character goes missing and Erik seems to be in the thick of it, they take Erik's word and decide that he has nothing to do with it. One could say that they are being realistic or incompetent, depending on how you view it.

If one is looking for a reasonably fast paced thriller, these two novels offer a bang for the buck. But does the bang has as much an impact as it sounds? And what after the bang? Though both novels fail to scale the heights they promise to, the story-lines that Koppel takes up, the (infrequent) moments of startling insights into relationships that the books have make one hope that Koppel may achieve this promise in his future books.