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Sep 292014

Way back in July 2010, when How Mysterious! was in its infancy, I read the first Martin Beck mystery, Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and now here I am at the end. The Terrorists is the last in the 10-book series, published in 1975, and like the others it contains both a good mystery and some biting commentary on Swedish (and, in this case, global) culture.

As the book opens, National Commissioner of Police Martin Beck is attending the trial of a young woman who robbed a bank. It’s an open and shut case, because she doesn’t deny that she walked in, asked for money, and walked out. But her defense counsel soon shreds the prosecution, in part though the testimony of Martin Beck, and the young woman walks free. “Neither school, nor her own parents, nor the older generation in general have on the whole offered her support or encouragement. That she has not bothered to involve herself in the present system of rule cannot be blamed on her,” he tells the court.

It’s an important theme, and it along with Rebecka Lind will reappear in the book.

The main storyline focuses on ULAG, a new terrorist group that’s been assassinating political leaders around the world. With the impending visit from a famous American senator to Sweden, the whole country’s security forces are on high alert, and Martin Beck is tapped to oversee the motorcade trip from the airport to a wreath-laying ceremony in town. He gathers his team, whom we’ve gotten to know in the previous 9 books, and they pinpoint the most dangerous areas for the journey, creating a plan to thwart the terrorists.

When, just before the big moment arrives, they realize that at least one of the terrorists has made it into the country, they have to go forward anyway and hope their plans are good enough.

The unnamed American senator, clearly Barry Goldwater or a very close facsimile, provides some of the laughs that appear in every Sjöwall and Wahlöö book, as when the “tall, sunburned man with a winning smile and sparkling white teeth” raises his hat and “waved gaily at the demonstrators and policemen” despite the banners that proclaim “Yankee Go Home” and “Motherfucking Murderer.” If you’re like me you’ll be glad that when forced to shake his hand, Gunvald Larsson gripped the senator so hard that it made his hand hurt.

In the end Lennart Kollberg summarizes the series’ social commentary when he complains about the nationalization of the police force. “Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last ten years. You can’t stop or steer that avalanche on your own,” he tells Beck. “It just increases. That’s not your fault.” We’ve sunk to bad times when not even Martin Beck can save the day.


Jul 212014

One of my favorite crime fiction bloggers, Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, turns out to be a very fine crime fiction writer, as proven by her book Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles.

The book contains the stories of two characters; first, a young woman named Anna Jensen, whose intriguing neighbor Karin gets into a number of interesting and perhaps dangerous situations, and second, Anna’s farmor (father’s mother), Anna Märklin. Current day Anna doesn’t know much about her farmor and, despite her father becoming quite ill, no one seems willing to talk about her. REcognizing there’s a family secret buried here, Anna decides to investigate.

She begins with a trip to Småland with her boyfriend Lars — a man who is not entirely what he seems — where she learns that her farmor’s brother had been murdered. Obviously she was right: something deep and dark lurked in her family’s past. Later, when she finds some family papers, Anna begins to read her farmor’s life story in her own words and illustrations. What begins as a charming story of a pre-World War II childhood, however, begins to turn with the arrival of an older half brother and his friend, home from the university for vacation.

In the meantime, Anna’s neighbor Karin disappears, is featured in a scandalous news story, and reappears, only to disappear again. Like Lars, Karin is not all that she first appears, in both instances because Anna chooses to see and think of them in particular ways. Unwinding the story of her grandmother and eventually figuring out what happened to Karin gives her the strength to face what she’s kept hidden from herself. Although she goes through several difficult situations, Anna emerges a stronger and better person at the end of the book.

Finding a good book is always fun, but finding one written by someone you know (even if it’s just virtually) is even better. You can find Dorte’s e-book on Amazon.com.

Jun 032014

Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm is nothing like his Child 44 trilogy, which featured a rogue Soviet agent who insisted on doing the right thing despite his government’s laws and culture.

In fact, it’s much more like Thomas H. Cook’s The Last Talk with Lola Fay, in which mysterious past events are slowly revealed over the course of a dinner conversation.

As The Farm begins, Daniel gets a surprise phone call from his father. His parents had retired to Sweden, his mother’s home country, and he’d only been in sporadic touch since then — he loves his parents and had an idyllic childhood, but he has a secret in his personal life that he has a hard time revealing to them. So it’s completely out of the blue for his father to inform him that his mother has gone mad and has checked herself out of an asylum to fly back to London to see him.

When his mother shows up, she declares that she is in no way crazy, and that her father has become involved in a criminal conspiracy that she tried to reveal.

Daniel has no idea which parent to trust.

About 75% of the book focuses on Tilde’s long recitation of the chronology of her discovery and investigation of the plot, which includes not only her husband Chris but several neighbors and the mayor of the small town where they settled. Daniel does his best to remain objective, asking cogent questions while reassuring his mother that he won’t let his father find her.

In the meantime, his father flies to London, bringing along one of the suspected co-conspirators, which would seem to confirm Tilde’s suspicions, but Daniel can’t really be sure.

Like The Last Conversation with Lola Fay, The Farm reads much quicker than you’d expect given the lengthy dialogue that takes place. The premise is amazing — even my 9-year-old daughter was intrigued when I told her the problem Daniel faced and asked me to let her know who’s telling the truth when I finished. It’s hard to imagine being put in Daniel’s position, when two loving parents suddenly force him to decide if one is crazy or the other a criminal.

I don’t want to give the ending away, so I’ll just say I thought it was a satisfying resolution to what turns out to be a complex problem, one that gave Daniel the opportunity to take charge of his family’s fate after many years of passively going along with his parents.

I read an advance review copy of Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm, courtesy of the publisher through NetGalley.

May 212014

Cop Killer is a pointed, almost desperate attempt to illustrate the problems of Sweden’s national police force during the 1960s: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö at their best.

The story begins with the disappearance of a woman, Sig Mard, in Skane, a town far from Stockholm, where Martin Beck usually operates. But he’s called in because Mard’s next door neighbor is a convicted felon… arrested in Roseanna by Beck. It seems likely that the missing woman is dead, an assumption that everyone makes when Beck shows up because he’s the director of the national homicide bureau.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö make a great point of contrasting policing in the countryside (how it used to be) to what’s going on in the city (what it’s like under a national police force). The local police officer is a hardworking, caring man who knows the people in his district and treats them fairly and compassionately.

In the meantime, in a traffic stop gone bad, a couple of young men and a gun lead indirectly to the death of a police officer. The shooter is killed on the spot, but the other lad gets away; he’s labeled a “cop killer,” unjustly, and a nationwide manhunt ensues. The national police portrayed in this story line are overzealous thugs, tending toward violence and lacking any sort of compassion or even basic policing ability. It takes the more sensible people on Martin Beck’s team to resolve the situation.

As always there are moments of high humor in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö book, particularly here regarding the Swedish press at its tabloid worst, which helps lighten an otherwise pretty depressing atmosphere.

The ninth in a ten-book series, Cop Killer didn’t really give me the feel of a story arc almost ending, although it’s true that a couple of story lines are resolved, most notably through the resignation of one of the very best homicide detectives on Martin Beck’s staff (part of making the point that when poor policing is rewarded, good police will leave). Cop Killer could stand on its own, but I strongly recommend starting with Roseanna and reading the series through.

Dec 122013

No. 8 in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, The Locked Room, is my least favorite so far.

Perhaps it’s my fault for having high expectations about what Sjöwall and Wahlöö would do with a locked room mystery, or perhaps their social commentary is just too overwhelming in this one. Either way, I more or less had to make myself finish it just because I’m not going to miss a word of this classic Swedish series.

Oddly, my review of #7, The Abominable Man, specifically complimented Sjöwall and Wahlöö on not being too heavy-handed with the social commentary, but this time I think it does go too far. Half of the plot, which concerns a series of bank robberies, does nothing but point to the incompetence of the police, from inability to stop a crime wave, complete with a Keystone Cops-worthy attempt to capture two thieves who weren’t at home, to a purely vicious on peaceful demonstrators who can’t be allowed to disturb the peace at the American embassy. You really can’t even blame the citizen who lied to police about one of the bank robberies specifically because he’s kind of glad someone stuck one to the man.

The other half of the plot is much more enjoyable. It focuses on the locked room mystery of the title. Recovering from the previous book’s denouement, Martin Beck is handed another case entirely botched by the police in its earliest stages. An old man’s body was discovered in his quadruple-bolted apartment, windows latched and heater blasting, some weeks after he apparently committed suicide. Because everyone assumed it was a suicide, no one investigated closely until someone finally noticed there was no weapon in the room.

Beck’s physical recovery is going well, but mentally he remains off balance. It’s not that he’s jittery or angry, as you’d expect with a potentially PTSD-inducing experience; rather, he just doesn’t care about anything at all. He doesn’t care what he eats or who he sees, or even if he solves the mystery — it’s more an intellectual challenge than anything else. It’s more disturbing to read about this flat, unemotional man than the old depressed and bitter Beck.

But have no fear, that all changes when he meets Rhea Nielsen, formerly the landlord to the locked room victim, who throws him completely off balance. When Martin Beck laughs, even she recognizes it’s not something he usually does, at least not to signify that he’s happy. Is it possible that his personal life could become as successful as his professional life? I’ve only got two books left, but I hope it could be so.

Oct 232013

As I’d hoped, book #5 in the Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck series by Camilla Läckberg focuses more on Erica, who gets another chance to sleuth — into her own family history. Patrick is at home on paternity leave, a job he finds more difficult while simultaneously more boring than expected, and Erica is freed up to work on her latest true crime book.

But Erica finds herself vastly more drawn to the mystery in her own life, uncovered at the end of Lackberg’s previous novel: a German war medal wrapped in a tiny baby outfit, buried in a trunk with her mother’s journals. Erica’s mother had been a distant, unfeeling woman, so Erica is surprised to find some childhood artwork created by her and her sister. What on earth can it all mean?

Erica’s first step is to read the journals, written by her mother during high school and World War II, but they end rather abruptly without shedding light on anything except that this cold woman had once been a thoughtful and loving young woman. So Erica turns to people who’d known her mother during the time covered in the journals. Unfortunately, those people all seem to be dying, beginning with the man Erica had asked to investigate the German medal, a historian who knew all about Nazi memorabilia and who seemed somewhat taken aback by the appearance of the medal.

In the meantime, the other officers on the police force keep asking Patrik for help investigating their case — a homicide case; in fact, the same case that’s caught Erica’s attention. The two investigations obviously intertwine, although it’s difficult for anyone to understand how or why.

As always, we learn as much about the people of Fjallbacka — Patrik and Erica’s new marriage and adjustment to having a child; Erica’s sister’s new relationship, complete with children from previous marriages; Erica’s mother’s long forgotten friends who didn’t stay in touch even though they all still live in the same town. There are times that you might be forgiven for forgetting there’s a mystery to be solved. The interesting thing about this particular case is that in the end Erica knows more about her mother’s life than her own mother did, and it goes along way to explaining why her mother chose the life that she lived.

If you like exciting, twisting plots with emphasis on action and shocking or graphic violence, this is not the series for you. But if you like to learn about the characters’ lives as they investigate crimes past and present, you’ll truly enjoy Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child.

Jul 292013

Malin Fors is rapidly becoming one of my favorite fictional police detectives. She’s a complicated mess, an amazing investigator, a woman who still misses her ex-husband 10 years after their divorce, a mom who never feels like she does enough for her daughter, an alcoholic waiting to happen. And if she doesn’t exactly see dead people, she comes close.

Summer Death is the second (in English) Mons Kallentoft mystery featuring Fors, following Midwinter Blood, and summer turns out to be just as murderous as midwinter in Linköping, Sweden. It’s not just summer, it’s the hottest summer anyone can remember, with forest fires raging so close by the town smells like smoke and the sun so bright it’s hard to see. The mystery begins when a young woman is found sitting naked, confused and bloody in a park, with no memory of how she got there or what happened to her.

It only gets worse. The sun gets brighter, the fires gets closer, Malin’s daughter leaves for a Bali vacation with her dad, and a missing teenage girl’s body is found near a lake where people try to escape the heat with a swim.

Which leads to the one thing I didn’t like about this book: the dead girl speaks (in italics) in a Lovely Bones-ish way that gives the reader some insight as to what happened, and she speaks to Malin, who doesn’t really hear her but who seems to respond to what she says. If I could talk to Mr. Kallentoft, I’d tell him Malin doesn’t need supernatural help, and besides I don’t enjoy listening to a teenage girl mourning the loss of her own life.

Nonetheless, I really like Malin and her fellow police officers, struggling to get by in a miserable heat wave and doing their best to solve the mysteries while dealing with their own lives and problems. The book is fairly long, 450+ pages, because it delves into more than just the police investigation and because it shows that investigation, which begins with very little evidence, in some detail, the dead ends as well as the leads that point to more leads. In spite of that, or because of it, I never lost interest and sometimes had a hard time putting it down to do things like, oh, make dinner, or sleep.

I’m looking forward to the next Malin Fors mystery, and I thank Simon and Schuster’s Diana Franco for sending a review copy of Summer Death.

Jul 092013

In my continuing quest to catch up on the backlog of books I’ve read but not reviewed, this week I present: SCANDINAVIAN WOMEN CRIME FICTION WRITERS. First up: Karin Alvtegen.

I can describe Shame, the third of her books I’ve read, in a single word: Bizarre. This shouldn’t have surprised me, since I recommended Betrayed “if you’re looking for strong characters and psychological tension rather than murder and mayhem,” and the same thing can be said here.

Shame tells the stories of two women who on the surface appear to be completely different, but underneath it all are both consumed by life experiences that they just can’t let go. Maj-Britt’s life is spent in her apartment — she’s too obese to leave it often — and by alienating everyone around her, including the caregivers she regularly turns away with her sharp tongue and hateful attitude. It’s obvious how she’s trying to hide from her shame. Monika, however, is a successful doctor who’s recently met a wonderful man and who is recovering from the tragic death of her brother. Her shame isn’t obvious until a car accident kills a family man though she thinks it should’ve been her. Her response to this second tragedy brings her into Maj-Britt’s proximity, and that will have dramatic consequences for both women.

What makes Shame bizarre is why I felt so compelled to continue reading their stories. Most of the book consists of the inner workings of each woman’s mind, as we begin to understand why they feel guilt and shame as well as their responses to the events happening to them now. It’s hard sometimes not to want to shake them out of what looks like self-induced misery (particularly Monika), but isn’t that how shame operates? Alvtegen nails another one.

Shame is also known as Sacrifice.

Jun 072013

I still have never read any of Henning Mankell’s books, but the BBC series based on it is always worth watching.

Well, with one exception.

Season 3 includes three episodes, beginning with “An Event in Autumn,” a story about hopes dashed — both the victim’s and Wallander’s. First a young pregnant woman commits suicide by jumping off a ferry. But is it really suicide? Then, Wallander uncovers a body in the garden of the home where he’s just moved in with his significant other, Vanja. She’s a wonderful person so you know it can’t possibly go well for poor Kurt. He feels that somehow the body was left for him to find, although it’s not clear whether he thinks he’s expected to solve the mystery or if it’s just a plot to ruin his life. Either way, death and unhappiness seem to stalk him. As is typical of “Wallander” episodes, this one is melancholy when it’s not downright sad, but it’s well-acted, meaningful, and thought-provoking.

I can’t say that for the second episode, “The Dogs of Riga.” Two bodies are found floating in a boat in Ystad, and it turns out they’re involved in the Latvian drug trade. Wallander briefly works with a Latvian detective, Karlis Liepa, but when the detective is killed in the same spectacularly painful way as the drug dealers, Wallander rushes to Latvia where he manages to uncover a conspiracy and police corruption, despite the fact that he doesn’t speak the language, is completely unfamiliar with the culture and history, and has no connections to speak of. Oh, and his hotel room is bugged and he’s being shadowed. My friends, Wallander is a fine detective but no one could overcome those odds. Perhaps I was just annoyed and not paying enough attention, but I kept getting confused about who people were and which side they were supposed to be on, and in sum this is my least favorite episode, ever.

The final program, “Before the Frost,” concerns religious fanaticism, a topic I don’t remember from any of the previous episodes and not something I’d typically associate with Sweden. The episode begins with a crazy man setting fire to geese and killing a woman who witnessed too much. Her body is discovered buried in the woods with a Bible. Things get even more strange when Wallander realizes that the murderer was connected to a childhood friend of his daughter, a woman who has struggled with mental illness and is now a member of a fundamentalist Christian group. I particularly liked seeing Wallander interact with his daughter, Linda, as they struggle to reach an accommodation in their troubled relationship, paralleled by the problems her own troubled friend has with her mother.

I recommend the series in general and the last episode in particular, especially if you don’t mind a dark story and endings that are never really happy.

May 222013

If you have any qualms about sending your tax dollars to a state that has capital punishment, you will like Roslund and Hellstrom’s Cell 8. If you’re strongly in favor of capital punishment, forget about it.

Cell 8 refers to the longtime home of John Meyer Frey, convicted of murdering his girlfriend when he was just 17 years old, a cell on death row in an Ohio penitentiary. Frey eluded execution when he died of heart failure.

Years later, a cruise ship band member watches as a creepy drunk dude surreptitiously accosts women on the dance floor. John Schwartz is completely disgusted by the guy, so he calls hime out. When he refuses to leave, Schwartz brutally kicks him in the face from the stage, nearly killing the man. Schwartz then goes home to his wife and child, expecting the police any time.

He’s not disappointed. When our old friend Ewart Grens, grumpy insomniac police officer, hears that the victim may be brain damaged, he orders that Schwartz should be picked up immediately. If you’ve read previous Roslund and Hellstrom books, you’ll recall that Grens’s wife suffers from brain damage, so he of all people knows the severity of Schwartz’s crime.

There’s just one problem. A search of international police records indicates that John Schwartz doesn’t exist, and that the man held in a Swedish police cell — a man terrified by the mere thought of a cell door closing behind him — is actually John Meyer Frey. As the investigation continues, it becomes very clear that the authors and most of the characters are unapologetically, morally opposed to capital punishment, and those who aren’t are ugly Americans whom no one could support.

The conclusion may be somewhat outlandish, but the ugliest of the ugly Americans gets his due, and all of the loose ends are tied. In addition to the gravity of the capital punishment debate, there are lighter moments that have actually stuck with me as much as the main story: Grens attending a music concert (it doesn’t go well), his wife appearing to show some awareness of what’s happening around her, a boat ride for her benefit. Perhaps Grens can escape his years-long self-imposed misery.

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