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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.

Apr 242013

Now that I’ve accepted that this series is about Patrik and not Erica, I found I enjoyed Camilla Läckberg’s The Gallows Bird and am happy to recommend it even to people who think they don’t like Scandinavian crime fiction.

Set in Fjällbacka, Sweden, the series focuses on Patrik Hedström, who starts off the book by visiting what seems to be a car accident — but there’s something wrong with the scene, and Patrik can’t help but think there’s more going on than is immediately apparent. Eventually he recalls something that reminds him of another incident reported by an officer in another district, and he and his colleagues, including a promising new female officer, gradually realize that something very wrong is taking place.

In the meantime, there’s much more to think about: a wild reality show being shot in the town, Patrik’s own wedding to Erica Falck, who’s dealing with her sister and her children following their own family tragedy from a previous book, and of course their own child, who’s changing every day. The book is almost as much about Patrik and Erica’s personal lives as it is about his investigations.

Moreover, the end of the book sets up the possibility of an investigation for Erica involving her own family. Lackberg’s previous books briefly mentioned that Erica and her sister had been raised by an unfeeling mother; in this book Erica realizes that she knows almost nothing about the woman, and what little information she has points to deeper mysteries that might explain her coldness to her children. I hope Erica (and Läckberg) follows through on her desire to learn more.

Mar 052013

Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series continues with #7, The Abominable Man. This is one of those stories where you feel so sorry for the victim, until you begin to understand who he is.

I think “abominable” is probably the right word for him.

The Abominable Man begins with the murder of a senior police officer, in his hospital room. You’re made to feel sorry for him because the poor guy is weak and afraid; who’s more vulnerable than a patient in the hospital? But it turns out that “the poor guy” has a long history of vicious, undeserved, and illegal attacks on citizens of Stockholm who in many instances weren’t even doing anything wrong. As Martin Beck and his team dig into Stig Nyman’s past, they find any number of complaints filed against the officer and his men, yet nothing was ever done by the police hierarchy to punish him or even to curb his future behavior.

But only one of the victims of this man’s abhorrent behavior decided to do something about it. Unfortunately for Stockholm, and especially the police, killing the person immediately responsible just isn’t enough, and Martin Beck will have to risk his life to bring an end to the killing.

I’ve only got three books left in the series and find myself in that weird place of wanting to read/not want to read the rest because I’m getting too close to the end. The commentary on society that goes along with each mystery, in this case the role of police in society, is never heavy-handed because it’s vital to understanding the solution to the mystery, yet is pointed and incisive. The more I read of the series, the more I can see it reflected in many of the more recent Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve been reading. It really sets the Scandinavians apart.

Feb 052013

I’ve read three books in Helene Tursten’s series so far. As much as I liked Detective Inspector Huss, I was only minimally interested in The Glass Devil — not that I disliked it, but it says something that I never got around to reviewing it. I’d be hard pressed to tell you now what it was even about.

But I really like Irene Huss, investigator, wife, mother of teenaged twin girls, friend, and a woman whose thoughts you might recognize as your own at times. And so I read Night Rounds, written earlier in the series than The Glass Devil but just recently translated into English. And I seriously couldn’t put it down.

The plot concerns the murder of a nurse in a private hospital in Göteborg. Someone cuts the electricity and the backup generator, kills the nurse, and walks away. Two separate witnesses see the hospital’s ghost, Nurse Tekla, gliding away in her old-fashioned nursing sister’s uniform — she haunts the hospital where she committed suicide, apparently after having been dumped by the current head of hospital’s father.

Although none of the investigators believe a ghost was the perpetrator, the old story clearly has some connection to current events, even more obviously as the investigation continues and further crimes occur, and Irene insists on following up, even though it’s hard to see how something that happened 60 years ago could have any bearing on the murder. In fact, one of the less likable cops on the team with Huss calls her a “ghostbuster” for her efforts.

So now I’m off to look for the other Irene Huss mystery that’s been translated into English, hoping it’s at least something like this one.

Jan 102013

Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted fell flat in the end, but nonetheless I found much to like in this debut novel.

The story concerns a child, Lilian, who goes missing from a train when her mother steps off to make a phone call and is distracted by an injured dog just long enough for the train to leave the station. The police investigating the case in Stockholm are Alex Recht’s team, especially Fredrika Bergman and Peder Rydh, who change throughout the book, both as investigators and as people, because of the case.

Fredrika is a civilian training to be a detective; she’s good at analysis and theories, but lacks the patrol-car background of her colleagues. They see her as cold and unemotional, when in fact the strong emotions of police work are what force her to shut down. They also have no idea that she’s in a long-standing, on-again off-again relationship with the married man who was her professor at university.

Peder (I interject here to state that as child I had an imaginary friend named Peder, name stolen from a kid at nursery school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — a place not unlike the Nordic countries, now that I think about it) is married with twin baby sons, but after a year of his wife’s severe postpartum depression, he’s finding solace elsewhere. If Fredrika is cold and unemotional, Peder is eager and spirited.

Alex is well-known in Swedish law enforcement, but it’s hard to see why based on this case alone. He steers the team down a path that turns out to be wrong, over Fredrika’s objections, which is particularly unfortunate when additional children turn up missing under similar circumstances.

It’s hard for me to say what I didn’t like about the book without giving too much away, so I’ll only say that I thought the solution, the identity of the perpetrator, was unfair to a reader like me who tries to solve the mystery as the book goes along.

Still, I liked Ohlsson’s writing — the book moves quickly and flows well, and the characters, mostly Fredrika, drew me in — and I’ll definitely read her next book, Silenced, as soon as I can find a copy.

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