The Killer’s Art bring us up to date with Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas novels that are available in English. As the title suggests the setting for the novel is the world of modern art – at least, the commercial world of modern art (the private galleries, collectors, investors and the trade in stolen art), rather than the concerns of the artists themselves. As with the earlier novels, the story is set on Gotland and, at least in part, explores the tension between Stockholm, the capital, and the provinces. It is a tension that is best exemplified by the character of the reporter, Johan Berg, who is constantly torn by his responsibilities to his Stockholm-based employers and his responsibilities to his Gotland-based partner and young daughter. It is also a tension that Jungstedt uses well to address the central problem that faces her as a writer – how do you write a novel that is set in the world of modern art, that is inarguably metropolitan in its focus, and which is also set on a provincial island known for a sense of remoteness for the modern centre?
It seems that Jungstedt’s writing becomes more confident with each novel and The Killer’s Art is her most accomplished to date. Nevertheless, there are moments of clunkiness in the plot that aren’t well explained and the occasional passages that are rather derivative. Also the very notion of setting a crime novel within a particular and closely-defined sub-world (in this case that of the art world) feels a bit ‘old hat’. As such the novel, as with her other ones, lacks some of the edginess and bleakness of other Scandanavian crime writers such as Nesbo, Mankell and Fossum. Nevertheless, it is still a good read – perfect for a night in!
Mari Jungstedt, another crime novelist with a background as a journalist, is one of the more recent arrivals on the Scandanavian, and specifically Swedish, crime fiction scene. Her first novel, Unseen, was an assured debut and introduced us to Chief Inspector Anders Knutas. Unspoken (and you can no doubt see a theme emerging here in the titles) is the second novel of four that have been published in English in fairly rapid succession, and shows an increased confidence in the writing.
One one level it is a straightforward police procedural in which Knutas and his team investigate the murder of an alcoholic photographer and the disappearance of a fourteen-year old girl. What starts off as two separate cases inevitably become linked. Some of the description and characterisation is redolent of Mankell (although Knutas is a far more subtle and functioning character than Wallander), but it lacks Mankell’s rawness and owes more, I think, to Sjowall and Wahloo. Like Martin Beck, Knutas is only one of a number of individuals who solve the case – it is a novel about the team, rather than individual – of dogged police teamwork, rather than the maverick gumshoe.
I have only two minor criticisms. Firstly, as this is a UK publication of a Swedish novel, I found the consistent use of American English a slight irritant. And secondly, I felt that Jungstedt, having built the tension very nicely, rushes to finish the novel off rather too quickly. It felt like something of an abrupt ending and she could have let herself and the reader enjoy the closing pages a little more.
The next two novels in the series are sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, and I am already looking forward to it.
And so to the final read of 2009, a debut crime novel by Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdadottir. In Last Rituals Thora Gudmundsdottir, a solicitor, is hired by the family of a German student, studying for his PhD in Iceland, who has been murdered and his body mutilated, to investigate the murder, after they become convinced that the police have arrested the wrong man. In her task she is aided by Matthew Reich, a German ex-policeman, and friend of the family.
This is a straightforward whodunnit, pleasurable enough to read and well-paced with enough twists and turns to keep the reader hooked, as the pair of sleuths, with their developing and confusing relationship, uncover the practices of a satanic sect. Well, I suppose it’s all a bit unlikely, but the charm of the book (which is also its weakness) is that it’s a rather old-fashioned crime novel. The main problem I found is that the murder victim and his unbelievably dysfunctional family are so disgustingly and unworthily rich, lack any kind of moral compass and have closet-upon-closets full of rattling skeletons that I found it difficult to hold them in nothing but contempt. Rather than have any sympathy for them as characters, I found myself rather glad for all their suffering. In many ways they come from a kind of Christie-era when detective novels revolved around the priveleged classes kiling each other off. This story could easily have been transposed into that world.
The persistent banter between Gudmundsdottir and Reich provides some welcome comic relief, as well as giving the author the opportunity to draw attention to the cultural differences between the two, or at least the distinctiveness of Icelandic culture. There is plenty to commend this book and I have to say that it was a pleasurable read in the run-up to Christmas. It weaknesses are probably those of a writer still developing their craft, so easily forgiven.
The Man Who Went Up In Smoke is Sjowall and Wahloo’s second book in the ten-volume Martin Beck series, republished with introductions by contemporary crime writers (this one is by Val McDermid). As with all the books in the series, it is both a crime novel and a vehicle for social commentary. The novel concerns the disappearance of a Swedish journalist in Budapest and indeed most of the novel takes place in the Hungarian capital. Bearing in mind the authors were both committed Marxists, the choice of setting is an interesting one, especially as the book was first published in 1966, in the middle of the Cold War and two years before the Prague Spring. The first English translation appeared in 1969, where its depiction of Budapest would have had different connotations. We are, perhaps, so used to portrayals of Eastern Bloc cities as being cold, grey, soulless and oppressive, that it comes as a bit of a suprise when Budapest is shown to be a rather pleasant, sunny, culturally rich city, full of citizens, not cowed in oppression, but enjoying a glorious summer with outdoor bathing and drinking in pleasant pavement cafes. Yet Sjowall and Wahloo do not go over the top in their enthusiasm. They are not depicting a Utopia here, but a city like any other European capital. And, of course, they are quite aware what they are doing – after arriving in Budapest, Beck finds himself being followed by a shady looking Hungarian policeman. We are led to think the worst, drawing on our knowledge of Cold War spy novels and ruthless, cunning communist agents, only to have our prejudices exposed when he turns out to be a rather pleasant and helpful colleague, who teams up with Beck to solve the mystery. Of course, it’s all great stuff!
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the much-anticipated final instalment of Swedish writer Stiegg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The weekend it was published it was already sat on my bookshelf (having pre-ordered it) and I came across two reviews of it. The first was a panel of reviewers on Radio 4 (I think it might have been Front Row) and all them absolutely hated the novel, describing it as slow, turgid, overwritten, unbelievable, etc. They speculated whether Larsson had had time to edit it properly before his untimely and sudden death. Of course, he had – Larsson died soon after this final volume was published. The second review was by Nick Cohen in The Observer, a fan of the first two books in the series and equally enthusiastic about this one too.
So, having enjoyed the first two novels, I started the third with a certain degree of trepidation. The novel begins where the second book ended with the young Elisabeth Salander in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds. I needn’t have worried – I found the novel to be a fitting ending to the trilogy. Once again it is a narrative whose complex plot winds around political intrigue, organised crime and espionage. Of course, it is rather rather unbelievable at times, but it is certainly not slow-paced.
Larsson no doubt saw himself writing in the same tradition as Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (who also died prematurely shortly after completed the last planned novel in the Martin Beck series), a left-wing journalist using the crime fiction genre to expose the contradictions, injustices and outrages in a society that is often held up as an example of a successful librael social democracy.
As for the reviewers, I agreed with Nick Cohen and I came to the conclusion that the worthy people on Radio 4 were literary snobs who neither liked nor generally read crime fiction.
Although this is the first of his books that I have read, Hakan Nesser is another award-winning crime writer who has helped secure the current supremacy of the Scandanavians in the genre. I have to say that The Return is a good read and I fairly raced through its 320 pages. This is testament to the excellent quality of the writing and (let’s give credit where credit’s due) the translation.
Where I was left a little disappointed was in the plotting, which I found a little lame. Nesser’s detective, Inspector Van Veeteren, is left to solve a murder from his hospital bed, whilst his tireless colleagues do the donkey work without making very much progress to speak of. I found myself frustrated on two counts. Firstly, Van Veeteren seems to solve the case with very little effort. The investigation appears to have come to a dead end when he suddenly declares that he knows who the murderer is and then refuses to tell anybody. Secondly, the solution to the murder turns out to be disappointingly straightforward, all the more so because of the intriguing scenario established in the opening pages of the novel. In other words, the pay-off doesn’t live up to what has been set up. In fact, about half-way through the novel, I was convinced that I had worked out what was going on. It turned out that I was completely wrong because my imagined solution was far more devious than what turned out to be the case! So I was left with a rather ambivalent feeling about this book. Some great writing, but with a less satisfying narrative.