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!
The Shadow Woman, published last year, is Ake Edwardson’s second novel in his series of novels featuring Chief Inspector Erik Winter and set in Gothenburg. However, if you are like me then you will have been reading them all in the wrong order, as the early novels have more recently been published by Penguin in the US, whereas the later novels (Sun and Shadow, Never End and Frozen Tracks) have all been available in the UK for a few years now. But reading the books out of order is an interesting exercise in itself, disrupting the authorial intention at least.
I thoroughly enjoyed the later three books, all of which have the relentless pace and energy of Jo Nesbo, but was slightly disappointed when I finally got hold of Death Angels, the first in the series. I found it somewhat underdeveloped in both plot and character and full of loose ends and unexplained connections. It felt very much like the novel of a writer who was just beginning to experiment with the genre. The Shadow Woman provides a good bridge between the early and the later novels. The central characters are more developed and three-dimensional here and the plot has a much greater complexity and it ultimately makes for a more satisfying read than Death Angels. Yet there are still a few leaps of narrative faith that are expected of the reader.
Winter is typical of the modern detective, especially the Scandanavian or North European detective, in that his professional and private lives stand in stark contrast to each other. As obsessive and successful as he is professionally, he is negligent and dysfunctional privately. Whilst Winter is not as hopeless as many fictional detectives in his private relationships (nor is his private world as bleak), the novel is punctured with the narrative of his inability to make a commitment to his long-suffering girlfriend, Angela, and remains distant from his parents and sister. Winter may be able to solve a crime and bring a perpetrator to justice through his dogged commitment to the policing process, but the failures of his private life are marked by an equal lack of commitment. Winter’s private world, like society itself, remains broken.
One of the biggest problems about writing separate reviews about a whole series of books is that you increasingly run out of original things to say, unless you arte prepared to resort bto simply recounting the plots of the different books – which has never been the purpose of this blog. For that you can just as easily read the publisher’s synopsis on Amazon. Additionally, the whole idea of ‘the series’ is particularly important to the Martin Beck books because, although the series consists of ten separate novels (of which The Fire Engine That Disappeared is the fifth), they insisted that the ten novels together constituted a single, larger novel that created a picture of Swedish society, as seen through the prism of the detective novel. That said, and having no wish to repeat myself, this and the next two reviews to appear on this blog will be relatively short.
The Fire Engine That Disappeared begins with an arson attack and a real fire engine (or rather a fire engine that does not turn up, but it is a child’s toy fire engine that inexplicably gets lost that provides a key to solving the mystery and gives the book its title – typical of the kind of games played so mischievoulsy by Sjowall and Wahloo. It is another story of the underbelly of Stockholm society and, like the other novels in the series, Martin Beck does not always appear to be the central character in the narrative. Here it is the unpopular, boorish and violent Gunvald Larsson who plays as key a role as anybody. These are not books about individual heroes but about the fruits of collective hard work.
In his introduction Colin Dexter, who confesses to not having read a Martin Beck novel before, harks back to a time when authors (and readers) of detective novels did not require a degree in forensics and anatomy. He also suggests that “the best criterion of a good read is to wish that it had gone on a bit longer. I felt that here.” I couldn’t agree more.
This is the second volume in Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (the final volume was published earlier this week in the UK) and I found it an even more satisfying read than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The same series of characters play their part and Larsson’s anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is his most masterly creation. The Girl Who Played with Fire is as complex as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and perhaps more so – it certainly has a greater sense of urgency. But the book is much more than a crime thriller. It is a damning indictment of sex trafficking and the criminality of the powerful, the hypocrisy of the establishment and the complacency of society at large that allows the vulnerable to be exploited and abused. And if this weren’t enough, Larsson never misses an opportunity to make well-aimed political attacks on oppression and injustive wherever he sees it – and he does it without grandstanding or even the hint of a moralising tone. The hard-work and dedication that has gone into the writing of these books is almost tangible.
I had put off reading this book for a while, purely on the basis of th large amount of hype that has surrounded it in the last twelve months in the UK. Last year it was one of the ‘must-reads’ of the summer. So I waited for this summer to read it.
The author, Stieg Larson, who died suddenly, shortly after completing the final book in his Millennium Trilogy, of which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first, was a journalist and committed socialist. His politics is a key part of the context to the story. At one level the whole novel is a biting critique of wealth and privilege. But it is also a very complex and superb crime novel.
It first seems as if the novel will centre around the character of Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist working on a left-wing magazine which specialises in the exposing of corruprion in the corridors of power and high finance. However, the real hero of the book is Libeth Salander, a part-punk, part-avenging angel, a twenty-something with a troubled past that has left her emotionally illiterate (there is also a suggestion of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome) and unable to form meaningful relationships with other human beings, especially men. But she is superbly intelligent, fearless to the point of being foolhardy, and with a strong, if rather unconventional, sense of morality. She might not be the kind of person you would want to spend much time with in the real world, perhaps, but she is a brilliantly complex character (both invincible and vulnerable), with whom you definitely want to spend time between the pages of the novel. For once this is a novel that lives up to its hype – a suprbly plotted thriller with political bite.
I would not normally want to compare one book with another in terms of favourability, but Ake Edwardson’s Frozen Tracks, the third of his Inspector Erik Winter novels to find its way into English, is everything that The Return was not. It weighs in at almost 450 pages, but feels neither too long nor too short. It is extremely carefully and intricately plotted and makes for a far more satisfying read as a result.
Here we have Winter investigating two seemingly unconnected crimes (or series of crimes), which turn out, of course, to be very connected. The Whodunnit element is not so much about who is the perpetrator of the crimes, but what or who lies further behind in the background – who is the bigger criminal? In this sense, the lines between victim and abuser , the innocent and the guilty, are shown to be both clear and blurred at the same time.
The novel alternates its setting between the cosmopolitan city of Gothenburg and the rural backwater of Sweden with its vast flat landscapes, brooding and featureless (one of the reasons, it is suggested, why Sweden has such a high suicide rate). Edwardson, like Henning Mankell, is skilled in using the landscape to create atmosphere, capture mood and also to act as a metaphor for a troubled and dysfunctional society.
Winter himself is a workaholic, but one who recognises his own weakness. He is constantly torn between his job and sense of duty and his love for his long-suffering and tolerant partner and their young daughter. What Edwardson does so well is to use the stories of the personal lives of Winter and his colleagues to create a more quotidien reflection of the social issues surrounding the criminal investigation. In doing so he introduces a sense of added realism to the sensationalism of the thriller genre, and to provide a degree of social commentatry in his writing. Interestingly, perhaps, Edwardson is also a professor in creative writing at the University of Gothenburg. As might be expected then, this is masterful and intelligent stuff.