Arctic crimes: Olivier Truc’s Forty Days without Shadow (Lapland)

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow, trans. by Louise Rogers LaLaurie (Trapdoor 2014)

Opening lines: It was the most extraordinary day of the year, pregnant with the hopes of humanity. Tomorrow, the sun would be reborn.

The prize-winning novel Forty Days without Shadow came my way as a submission for the Petrona Award. Although by a French author, it’s eligible due to its Scandinavian setting and its publication in English translation (our slightly quirky rules allow some unusual works to be considered for the prize, which is highly welcome in my view).

The author – journalist and TV producer Olivier Truc – made a documentary in 2008 on the fascinating subject of the Norwegian Reindeer Police (Reinpolitiet), which deals largely with herder disputes, and covers 56,000 square miles of Lapland with just fifteen personnel. Truc paints a wonderful portrait of this highly specialised police force in his absorbing debut novel, and in the process places the Arctic and its indigenous cultures centre stage. In these respects he has a lot in common with British author M.J. McGrath, who successfully deployed the research she carried out for her non-fiction book The Long Exile when creating her ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series, set in the Canadian High Arctic.

Reindeer Police

At the start of Forty Days, we see Sámi-Norwegian reindeer policeman Klemet Nango and his young partner Nina Nansen being pulled into the investigation of a theft. A priceless Sámi drum has disappeared from the local museum, and needs to be recovered before a UN conference on indigenous peoples takes place in the region. Shortly afterwards, Sámi herder Mattis is found dead, and ‘Patrol P9’ finds itself grappling with two crimes that could well be interlinked, and whose roots lie in both the recent and more distant past.

The novel uses its criminal investigations as a means of exploring different aspects of Lapland and its history. One fascinating point is that present-day Lapland lies across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (see map below), which on the one hand leads to tensions, but on the other encourages international cooperation. However, those borders are relatively recent – only a few hundred years old – and are insignificant as far as the reindeer are concerned, which follow their usual migratory patterns, blissfully unaware of national jurisdictions. The borders are thus exposed as artificial constructs, imposed by colonising governments out of tune with the natural world, and prone to exploiting the land and its indigenous populations rather than safeguarding them.

The novel brilliantly evokes the winter setting of Lapland – the end of the long darkness of forty days of winter night, and the slow, welcome return of the sun, which shows itself for a scant twenty-seven minutes on its first day back. Through the interactions of various characters – some nuanced and some symbolic – we’re also shown the tensions between Norwegians and Sámi, and the impact of religion, politics and modernisation on the traditional Sámi way of life. Simultaneously entertaining and insightful, with an engrossing plot, this is a cracking debut that illuminates a world most of us know little about. The final section of the novel has shades of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow about it too, which is never a bad thing.

As the novel celebrates Sámi culture and present-day efforts to reclaim a Sámi cultural identity, I thought I’d finish by linking to the Sámi allaskuvla or Sámi Educational College, which works with ‘the Sámi community, particularly with young people, to preserve and promote the Sámi language, traditions, occupations, skills and knowledge’, and ‘supports Sámi society’s progress towards equality with the majority society’. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Crime in the summertime

I’m still busy writing, editing and researching, but am allowing myself the odd foray into international crime fiction as the summer sun works its magic. Here are some gems:

Happiness Is Easy

Happiness is Easy (published 17 July 2014 by Doubleday) is the second novel by Brazilian author Edney Silvestre. Its story is deceptively simple – the kidnapping of the wrong child from a rich man’s chauffeur-driven car – but is told with elegant brilliance, moving from past to present in such a way that we gain in-depth portraits of the characters involved while following the fall-out from the crime. Silvestre, who’s also a journalist, uses the genre to critique the corruption of Brazilian politics, the gulf between rich and poor, and the booming kidnap ‘industry’. It’s a bleak read in places, although not without hope. Nick Caistor does a great job translating from Brazilian Portuguese, and I’m now keen to read more from the country hosting the Football World Cup.

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs (trans. by Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press, 2014) comes to us already garlanded with prizes – it won the 2012 Riverton/Golden Revolver Prize and the 2013 Scandinavian Glass Key. I’m not remotely surprised, as this eighth novel in the William Wisting series (the third to be published in English) is one of the best Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read. Much has been made of Horst’s extensive policing experience, but for me, it’s the fantastic writing, plotting and characterisation that stand out in this novel, which sees Wisting suspended due to irregularities in a past case. Forced to re-investigate the murder of Cecilia Linde from the outside, he is helped by journalist daughter Line to uncover the truth. A top-notch summer read.

American author Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was published in 2002, but it’s one that I go back to every now and then, because it’s such an original crime novel. Set in the summer of 1973, it’s narrated by Susie Salmon, who’s murdered by a neighbour at the age of fourteen and witnesses the aftermath of the crime from her ‘heaven’. You’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds horribly mawkish, but the concept is brilliantly pulled off for the most part, and offers a sensitive portrayal of the effects of a murder on the family and friends of the victim. Be warned: when I first read the novel one summer holiday I found it *highly* addictive. It was subsequently made into a film by Peter Jackson (2009), which received mixed reviews.

Meanwhile, on the research front…

I’m about to start a 1968 crime novel by French-Jewish writer Romain Gary, entitled The Dance of Genghis Cohn. I came across it by chance when reading a piece on German film* and was immediately intrigued. It tells the story of a post-war murder investigation led by a Bavarian police chief (so far, so conventional), who is haunted by a Jewish comedian he murdered while an SS officer under National Socialism. Quite a starting point, isn’t it? Blackly humorous, it’s also an uncompromising critique of post-war West Germany’s reluctance to engage with the Nazi past. Intriguingly, it was adapted for television by the BBC in 1994 (starring Anthony Sher and Robert Lindsay) – something to follow up after reading the book.

*Frank Stern, ‘Film in the 1950s: Passing Images of Guilt and Responsibility’, in Hanna Schissler (ed.), The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany 1949-1968, (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 266-80.

#44 / Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar

Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar (ebook: Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2006)         4 stars

Opening line: The sluggish Bangkok traffic forced Jayne Keeney to slow to a crawl at Siam Square.

Behind the Night Bazaar is the first novel in the Jayne Keeney series by Australian author Angela Savage, and was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Best First Book Award in 2007. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for ages and am glad I finally have, as it’s an excellent debut that vividly evokes its Thai setting. As a bonus, it’s distracted me from the cold of the British winter and triggered some happy back-packing memories from my youth.

Jayne Keeney is an Australian private investigator based in Bangkok, who is pulled into a murder investigation when visiting her good friend Didier, an HIV-outreach worker in Chiang Mai. Certain that the authorities are guilty of a cover-up, Jayne sets out to expose the truth behind the case and to right some wrongs.

Among the many things I liked about this crime novel were the depiction of Jayne as an independent woman and highly capable investigator who speaks flawless Thai (being bilingual is an essential asset for her work); the inspiration Jayne takes from crime classics such as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple during her investigation (even as the narrative draws on the conventions of hard-boiled crime); the wonderful evocation of place and the insights we’re given into Thai culture (oh the food!); and last but not least, the guest appearance of a diva academic…(I promise we’re not all like that).

The author also explores larger social issues, such as HIV and the sex trade (drawing on her own time in Bangkok as head of the Australian Red Cross HIV/AIDS sub-regional programme), and I was impressed by the way that these were integrated into the main narrative. Savage takes care to avoid stereotyping, providing a nuanced examination of difficult issues, such as why women might opt to become sex-workers. Notable too, are the rounded depictions of the villains in the novel, which show us the flawed logic they employ to justify their crimes.

In sum, The Night Bazaar is a highly impressive opener, and I’m very much looking forward to the next novel in the series, The Half Child.

Angela has an author/crime blog that’s a great read, and has recently posted her crime picks of the year over at Pulp Curry – including the rather intriguing Australian/Icelandic novel Burial Rites.

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#42 / Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places (ebook; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) 4.5 stars

Opening line: I have a meanness in me, real as an organ.

I’m working my backwards through Gillian Flynn’s works after reading the incredible Gone Girl (see review here). Dark Places is the author’s second novel, and confirms my impression that she’s one of the most talented and original voices in crime today. Her novels are not necessarily perfect, but they’re extremely well written and have a narrative energy that makes them a red-hot reading experience. In the case of Dark Places, Flynn also takes on a very difficult subject and does so in a way that is both sensitive and groundbreaking. There is an authorial bravery at work here that I very much admire.

The principal narrator of Dark Places is thirty-one year old Libby Day, who in 1985, at the age of seven, survived a night-time massacre at the family farm that left her mother Patty and sisters Michelle and Debby dead. Her brother Ben, a teenager at the time, was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life imprisonment. Twenty-four years on, Libby is living alone, and has used up most of the $300,000 fund set up in her name after the murders. Petulant about the public’s dwindling interest in her, she resembles a former child film-star who can’t comprehend why the offers have dried up. So when she gets a call from a young man called Lyle, offering her money to appear as a ‘special guest’ at his none too subtly named ‘Kill Club’, she agrees to go. There she encounters a group of obsessives who have pored over every detail of the murders, and who are convinced that Ben is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. They offer her more money to talk to others close to the case – effectively positioning her as an investigator into her own family’s murders – and she accepts, partly for the cash and partly due to her own desire for closure. Her often darkly humorous account of events in the present is interspersed with sombre flashbacks to the day of the murders, narrated from the point of view of her mother Patty and brother Ben.

One of the key strengths of this novel for me was its characterisation. Libby, the sole survivor of the massacre, is clearly not depicted as a traditional tragic victim. She is spiky, surly, obsessed with money, and appears to have alienated everyone around her. But at the same time, hers is the voice that is the most moving in the novel, because through her, Flynn vividly realises the themes of grief, trauma and loss. Patty and Ben are also brilliantly portrayed: the thirty-two-year-old single mom trying to look after four children and keep the family farm going during a recession, and the troubled teenager struggling with the transition into manhood. All three characters give a sobering insight into the long-term effects of grinding poverty. Class is a big theme and is deftly handled.

There are some graphic descriptions of violence in the novel that readers may find upsetting. However, my own feeling is that Flynn uses these descriptions to convey the reality of the massacre as a violent and traumatic event, rather than with gratuitous intent. Crucially, we are told the physical details of what happened early in the novel, thus avoiding an excessive build up of readerly curiosity or their use as part of the narrative pay-off. There were perhaps just a few small details at the end of the novel that didn’t ring entirely true to me – a dash too much rural noir – but these don’t obscure the novel’s genuine strengths. Libby and Patty’s voices have stayed with me in particular.

In terms of larger literary influences, Dark Places surely reaches back to In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s seminal 1966 account of the massacre of a farming family in Kansas (Libby tells us firmly that her farm is near Kansas City, Missouri rather than Kansas City, Kansas, which I read as a neat in-joke that both acknowledges Capote’s influence and asserts an authorial distance from him). I’m also reminded of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s novel The Murder Farm (see my review here), which is very different in style and length, but is another successful literary re-imagining of this kind of case.

By coincidence, an article by Sarah Weinman recently appeared in Book Beast entitled ‘The Original Gone Girls: Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Other Forgotten Pioneers of Crime Fiction’. It focuses on earlier contributions to the psychological thriller by women writers and is well worth checking out.

Mrs. Peabody awards Dark Places an accomplished and memorable 4.5 stars

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#41 / Håkan Nesser, The Weeping Girl

Håkan Nesser, The Weeping Girl [Ewa Morenos Fall], translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London, Mantle 2013 [2000])  4 stars

Hmmm. Didn’t like this cover: at odds with the description of ‘the weeping girl’ in the book

Opening lineWinnie Maas died because she changed her mind. 

The Weeping Girl is the eighth in Håkan Nesser’s Inspector van Veeteren series, although its lead investigator is actually his very capable protégé Ewa Moreno, as signalled by its original title, Ewa Morenos fall (Ewa Moreno’s Case). I have to say that I much prefer the Swedish title: placing an emphasis on the figure of the policewoman rather than the ‘weeping girl’ who triggers the investigation feels right, as the novel offers a 360 degree portrait of Ewa’s professional life and personal circumstances. In this respect, it also reminded me of Indridason’s 1998 Icelandic crime novel Outrage, in which Elinborg takes centre stage.

Cover of the French translation, which retains the original title’s focus on the lead investigator

I’ve been a fan of Nesser’s work since reading Borkmann’s Point many moons ago (published in the UK in 2006). I remember loving the characterisation, the clever narrative construction, the gentle satirical humour, and the way the novel was situated in a generic European context, with people and place names that sound Dutch, German, Spanish or Polish. Six novels down the line, The Weeping Girl has maintained the very high standard of that earlier work (no mean feat this far into a series).

The novel uses a classic Golden Age trope: the detective pulled unexpectedly into an investigation while on holiday (e.g. Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane). Ewa is drawn into not just one but three investigations while staying in Port Hagen near Lejnice, the most prominent being the disappearance of a young woman, Mikaela, who has just discovered that her father – former school-teacher Arnold Maager – was convicted of murdering a teenager 16 years ago. Plotwise one could argue that there’s nothing especially new on offer here, but oh my, it’s extremely well done. Nesser balances the descriptions of the personal and professional aspects of Ewa’s life perfectly, provides us with a range of well-drawn and interesting characters (such as Lejnice police chief Vrommel), and combines the various narrative strands in such a way that makes you want to keep reading, but without ever feeling overloaded. All in all it’s a hugely enjoyable, quality read, and I’m now keen to catch up with the earlier novels in the series that I’ve missed.

A quick aside: the focus on team members other than the dominant investigator (such as van Veeteran or Erlendur) is a welcome development for the police procedural as far as I’m concerned, especially as it often places very interesting female investigators in the spotlight. It’s one I’ve only really just noticed, but must have been going since at least 1998 when Nesser published Münsters fall (Münsters Case)… Can anyone think of earlier examples?

Mrs. Peabody awards The Weeping Girl an expertly crafted and absorbing 4 stars

With thanks to Mantle for sending me a copy of this book (Petrona Award submission).

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#40 / Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (first review of Greek crime!)

What Lots Wife Saw

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas (Edinburgh: Black and White Publishing, 2013 [2007])  4.5 stars

Opening line: Perhaps reality is but a mass delusion, thought Phileas Book, watching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea breaking against the concrete quays of Paris.

Well! I was hoping for something a bit different when I opened this book, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Winner of the 2008 Athens Prize for Literature, What Lot’s Wife Saw is a dazzling, hybrid crime novel that takes readers on an extraordinary journey of the imagination.

The novel is set in the future, twenty-five years after The Overflow, a tsunami that destroyed large portions of southern Europe, and whose cause was the eruption of a highly addictive violet salt through the Dead Sea Rift. The harvesting of this valuable commodity at a remote ‘Colony’ is now controlled by the mysterious Consortium of Seventy-Five, but when the operation is placed in jeopardy following the suspicious death of the Colony’s Governor, an expert is asked to help investigate.

And this is where things get really interesting. The expert is Phileas Book, who works for The Times newspaper compiling Epistlewords, a new kind of three-dimensional crossword shaped like a Greek meandros or key pattern, which uses fragments of letters (and the ways in which their ‘soundhues’ interact with one another) as clues. For this reason, Book is asked to inspect six letters from inhabitants of the Colony who were close to the Governor, in the hope that he will be able to ‘detect’ the truth of what happened. Along with Book, we are given access to the letters, and invited to take up the role of investigators, by comparing and contrasting the accounts of these rather dubious individuals, and trying to sift the truth from what may well be a tissue of lies. The six letter-writers are Bernard Bateau, Presiding Judge; Andrew Drake, Captain of the Guards; Montague Montenegro, Orthodox Priest; Charles Siccouane, the Governor’s Private Secretary; Niccolo Fabrizio, Surgeon General; and Regina Bera, the Governor’s wife. All have secrets that they would rather not share…

What I’ve said so far doesn’t even come close to conveying the richness of the narrative, which manages – don’t ask me how – to combine a re-imagining of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah with a critique of multinationals and totalitarianism. From a literary perspective, the novel feels like a slightly bonkers mash up of Thomas Pynchon (think the tour de force that is Gravity’s Rainbow), Agatha Christie (won’t say which one) and The Usual Suspects (super-stylish narrative construction). Really.

If you’re looking for an easy read, then put this book to one side for now. But if you’re in the mood for a challenging, vividly imagined and highly original crime novel with plenty of chutzpah and heart, then this one could be for you. A compelling read that’s perhaps a little too long in the middle, but is redeemed by a bravura ending, What Lot’s Wife Saw will stay in my mind for a while to come.

Mrs. Peabody awards What Lot’s Wife Saw a staggeringly inventive 4.5 stars

With thanks to Black and White Publishing for sending me an advance copy of this book.

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#37 / Derek B. Miller, Norwegian by Night

Derek B. Miller, Norwegian by Night (ebook; London: Faber and Faber, 2013). 5 stars

Opening line: It is summer and luminous. 

I’m very excited about this book. Promoted as ‘a literary novel, a police thriller, and the funniest book about war crimes and dementia you are likely to read anytime soon’ (true), it’s also one of the best and most original novels you’ll ever read.

The star of the novel and its central protagonist is Sheldon Horowitz, a recently-widowed Jewish-American octogenarian and former Marine with possible dementia, who has been transplanted by granddaughter Rhea from New York to Oslo, so that she and her husband Lars can take care of him in his dotage. A few weeks after his arrival, following sounds of a violent argument in the flat above, Sheldon is faced with a life-changing choice: whether or not to open his door to help a mother and son in physical danger. His decision to do so, strongly influenced by the memory of the Holocaust, sets off a chain of events which have major repercussions for himself and those around him.

I loved this novel’s distinctive Jewish-New York voice and its brilliant characterisation of Sheldon, an old man trying to right past wrongs and protect a six-year-old boy from harm by drawing on the memory of his soldier’s training from half a lifetime ago. The narrative has the free-wheeling brilliance and humour characteristic of the best Jewish-American writing and is, quite simply, a joy to read (Miller’s work fits perfectly with others like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer). The following excerpt is typical:

Sheldon catches his breath and stands up again. He walks over beside Paul and says, “Right, now we start walking backward. If we’re lucky, we’ll go backward in time, before yesterday and the day before. Before you were born, all the way back to at least 1952 […] We could stop for lunch in 1977. I knew an excellent sandwich shop in 1977.”

The novel also explores an extraordinary number of larger subjects and themes, such as: fatherhood, parental regret and loss; aging, memory and dementia; Jewishness, identity, the desire to belong, masculinity and war; the German Occupation of Norway during World War Two, the Holocaust, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Balkan Wars; war crimes and justice; and, last but not least, criminality and policing in a global era. While hugely ambitious in tackling such a wide range of issues, the author – somehow – manages to integrate them successfully, along with three generations of Horowitz family history, into a thrilling plot.

Written by an American author based in Oslo, this is also very much a book about Norway and its relation to the world. Sheldon and Rhea’s outsider perspectives  – like the author’s own – provide the opportunity for wry comparative analyses of American and Norwegian cultural traits. Meanwhile, Police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård (another warm and wonderfully-realised character), allows the narrative to reflect on the globalisation of organised crime and the opportunities afforded to criminal networks through the softening of Europe’s borders. Norway is depicted as unprepared for the speed of these developments, with criticism levelled at its liberals (‘expounding limitless tolerance’) and conservatives (‘racist or xenophobic’), as well the failure of both sides to hold positions properly ‘grounded in evidence’. Here we see the author’s own background in international relations shining through: in a 2012 interview on the ‘Bite the Book’ blog, Miller describes how he has worked ‘designing “evidence-based” approaches to peace and security programming for almost a decade at The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’. The whole interview is well worth a read.

Norwegian by Night is by turns a hilariously funny, heart-breakingly sad and genuinely suspenseful novel that makes you care deeply about its characters – not least the irascible Sheldon. On finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again –  along with a stack of other books it called to mind (by Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and Michael Chabon, to name but three). You can’t ask for more than that.

With thanks to Raven Crime Reads for alerting me to this novel. You can read Raven’s excellent review here (which contains slightly more details of the plot than included above). There’s also an earlier Mrs P. post on Jewish detectives here.

Mrs. Peabody awards Norwegian by Night an utterly brilliant 5 stars

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#36 / Wendy James, The Mistake

Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin / Michael Joseph ebook, 2012). An outstanding portrait of a family in crisis and the repercussions of past mistakes  4.5 stars

Opening line: If, before all this happened, before her – before their – unravelling, she had been asked how her life was, she’d have said that life was good.

The Mistake is Australian author Wendy James’ fourth novel. Like her first, Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for ‘Best First Crime Novel’ and was shortlisted for the Dobbie women’s writing award, it’s a hybrid narrative aimed at a diverse reading audience (doesn’t that cover remind you of something by Jodi Picoult?). While not a conventional crime novel, it raises profound questions about legal and moral boundaries, and the media’s role in pre-judging those it deems to be guilty of transgressing social and cultural norms.

Jodie Garrow is a middle-class wife and mother living in the affluent New South Wales town of Arding. She has the requisite lawyer husband, two children and a dog, and is a respected figure in the local community. However, when daughter Hannah breaks a leg on a school trip to Sydney, Jodie’s carefully ordered existence begins to fall apart. The hospital Hannah is taken to is the same one where Jodie secretly gave birth to a daughter many years before, and when a nurse from that time recognises her, a damaging piece of information comes to light: there is no record of baby Elsa Mary having been given up for adoption as Jodie claims. In the absence of legal proof, the baby may have to be classified as a ‘missing person’ by the police, with suspicion of foul play falling on Jodie as the last documented person to see her alive.

While the question of what happened to the baby looms large, the exploration of the fallout from Jodie’s ‘mistake’ (whatever that turns out to be) is central to this rich, multi-layered narrative. The novel can be read simultaneously as a portrait of a complicated woman, of a family in crisis, of a possible crime, and of the vilification of ‘bad mothers’ by the press. The ‘bad mother’, in this context, is a woman who fails to show the requisite ‘maternal’ qualities or emotion to convince the public that she is innocent of wrong-doing (as in, to a greater or lesser degree, the examples of Lindy Chamberlain, Sally Clark and Kate McCann). We are shown in brilliantly-drawn detail the destruction of an individual’s reputation, and the social consequences for the entire family of the doubts raised about Elsa Mary’s fate.

What stood out for me in particular was the novel’s excellent characterisation, which allows a nuanced picture of Jodie’s identity and her relationships with others to emerge. There’s also a superb analysis of how Jodie is shaped by class, which helps to illuminate her response to her unplanned pregnancy at the age of nineteen. Fittingly for a novel that is critical of a rush to judgement, no absolute moral position is taken. It thereby success-fully avoids stereotyping and knee-jerk reactions, focusing instead on the very individual circumstances that lie behind the case.

I read The Mistake in almost one sitting, and can therefore happily testify to its properties as a page-turner. The plotting and pace are excellent (although there is one ‘lead’ that would surely have been followed up sooner), and its ending will stay with me for a long time to come.

My thanks to Angela Savage for encouraging me to read this novel following an earlier post on crime novels that critique the media (Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Yvonne Erskine’s The Brotherhood). You can read Angela’s own review of The Mistake here as well as Bernadette’s review at ‘Fair Dinkum Crime’ here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Mistake a thought-provoking and utterly gripping 4.5 stars

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#35 / Jason Webster, A Death in Valencia

Jason Webster, A Death in Valencia (London: Chatto and Windus, 2012). The second in the Max Cámara series provides some much needed summer warmth and a genuine insight into modern-day Spain  4 stars

Opening line: The green-and-white Guardia Civil patrol boat looked out of place so close to the shoreline. 

Fed up of our seemingly never-ending British winter, I found myself reaching for Jason Webster’s A Death in Valencia, set during a sweltering summer in Spain’s third largest city (and home to one of its most famous traditional dishes, paella). Being transported to the land of sun, sea and sangria proved to be an excellent move.

A Death in Valencia opens with the body of Pep Roures, a well-known paella chef, being recovered by Chief Inspector Max Cámara from the sea. The subsequent murder investigation is set against the background of a number of challenging events: the town hall’s commercially-motivated demolition of El Cabanyal, an old fishing quarter by the sea; the sudden collapse of an apartment block; the kidnapping of the director of an abortion clinic, and the visit of the Pope. Cámara, too, is going through a tough time, with the emotional fallout from Or the Bull Kills You (the first in the series) leading him to act rather unwisely on occasion, in spite of his grandfather Hilario’s sound counsel.

While the plot takes a little time to ignite, the novel builds to a satisfying conclusion, not least due to its rich depictions of Valencia and contemporary Spanish society. Readers learn about regional details such as the all-important rating system for paella, as well as larger issues, such as the fundamentally divided nature of Spanish society: conservatives with ‘traditional’ values rooted in the church on the one hand, and those who celebrate regional diversity and change on the other. The Valencian setting is also vividly evoked, especially the old El Cabanyal quarter (which really is under threat – see


El Cabanyal

If you’re a Max Cámara fan, or are interested in this series, you might like to read Mrs. Peabody’s interview with Jason Webster, recorded at the 2012 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and available here. Areas explored include the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, the role of Spanish proverbs, and the influence of the author Vázquez Montalbán.

Mrs. Peabody awards A Death in Valencia a highly enjoyable 4 stars and looks forward to meeting Max Cámara again soon. 

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#34 / Leif G.W. Persson, Linda, As in the Linda Murder

Leif G.W. Persson, Linda, As in the Linda Murder (Linda – som i Lindamordet), trans. from the Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Doubleday, 2013 [2005]). 5 stars


Opening line: It was a neighbour who found Linda, and, all things considered, that was far better than her mother finding her. 

The dedication at the front of Linda, As in the Linda Murder reads ‘for Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – who did it better than almost anyone’. In this newly-translated novel, first published in 2005, author Leif Persson undoubtedly pays homage to the godparents of the Swedish police-procedural, and in particular to the first in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, Roseanna, published exactly 40 years prior to Linda in 1965. Consider the following:

  • both novels are named after a young female murder victim
  • both open with the discovery of the victim’s body, on 4 July and 8 July respectively
  • both are set outside Stockholm in smaller Swedish cities (Motala and Växjö)
  • both depict the police investigation in exhaustive detail
  • both critique misogynist attitudes in Swedish society and foreground the female victim
  • and … the murderer’s name in Linda echoes the murderer’s name in Roseanna!

However, the lead investigator in Linda, tasked with solving the murder of 20-year-old trainee police officer Linda Wallin one hot summer night, is no Martin Beck. Meet Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström, also known as ‘that fat little bastard from National Crime’, whose egotistical, sexist, racist, homophobic, vain and supremely-blinkered mind we are invited to see in all its dubious glory. Bäckström is a darkly comic tour-de-force, a monstrous creation who cares solely about his financial interests, maintaining a steady supply of drink, and the welfare of his pet goldfish Egon. His character is used to shine a spotlight on a less-than-heroic side of Swedish policing: while he is busy impeding the progress of the investigation, capable detectives such as Jan Lewin are forced to work around his prejudices and incompetence as best they can.

Thus, at the same time as paying tribute to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Persson stamps his own style on the Swedish police procedural, imbuing it with a highly satirical edge. Other aspects of Roseanna, such the critique of the press’s prurient interest in female murder victims, are also extended further in Linda (see my earlier post on crime fiction and the media for details).

In the context of Persson’s own work, Linda forms a departure from his first two hugely ambitious novels, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End and Another Time, Another Life, which are set against the much larger political and historical backdrop of post-war Sweden and the Cold War. In Linda, the focus is kept deliberately local, with the exploration of the consequences of just one crime, and strongly drawn characters such as detectives Jan Lewin and Anna Holt, as well as the murderer and the victim’s mother. Hats off also to translator Neil Smith, who captures Persson’s dry, satirical tone perfectly.

In sum, Linda is a rich and satisfying read from an author who’s now one of my absolute favourites.


A useful further note from Neil Smith on Persson’s novels – poached with Sarah’s kind permission from the comments of the excellent Crimepieces Linda review  and with a couple of additions from me in square brackets:

Neil says >> As so often happens, Leif’s books are being published in a slightly different order in translation to their original Swedish publication.

The three books Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (Sw. 2002, tr. 2011), Another Time, Another Life (Sw. 2003, tr. 2012), and Free Falling, as if in a Dream (Sw. 2007, tr. 2014), together make up a trilogy entitled ‘the Decline of the Welfare State’.

One of the main characters from that trilogy, Lars Martin Johansson, takes the lead in a later novel, The Dying Detective (Sw. 2010, as yet untranslated) [and appears a bit in Linda as well].

Evert Bäckström [who appears as a secondary character in the ‘Welfare State’ trilogy] is the focus of a further series of books, of which Linda, As in the Linda Murder (Sw. 2005) is the first. He Who Kills the Dragon (Sw. 2008), due to be published in English in October 2013, is the second in the series, and will be followed by Pinocchio’s Nose (not yet published in Sweden). <<

Mrs. Peabody awards Linda, As in the Linda Murder, a wonderfully rich and satisfying 5 stars

With thanks to Transworld for sending me an advance copy of this book.

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