First post on International Dagger 2012

Now that the dust has settled on the 2011 CWA International Dagger award, which was won by the thriller Three Seconds by Roslund-Hellstrom, tr. Kari Dickson, we can begin to look at 2012! The rules are that the novel has to have been translated into English and published in the UK between June 2011 and May 2012. Karen Meek keeps an updated list of all the eligible titles at Euro Crime blog, of which at time of writing there are 49 either published or due to be published in this time period. In addition to her blog post, Karen has also created a lovely carousel of book covers (see Euro Crime blog) based on a Goodreads list: this is available via RSS feed so if you subscribe you’ll be alerted each time she adds a new title.

I don’t suppose anyone manages to read all the eligible titles per year, but the judges do publish a shortlist of six or seven titles a couple of months before the winner is announced, so one has an opportunity to focus on the eventual winner via reading the shortlist, if one so wishes. I tend to read most of the eligible titles apart from the historical ones and those that seem to be slasher/torture/serial killer/graphic violence-oriented, which is not my cup of tea.

Hence, of the list of eligible titles this year, I’ve so far read eleven:

Kjell Eriksson – The Princess of Burundi tr. Ebbe Segerberg (Sweden, my review from 2007 is of the US edition)
Andrea Camilleri – The Track of Sand tr. Stephen Sartarelli (Italy)
Arnaldur Indridason – Outrage tr. Anna Yates (Iceland)
Camilla Lackberg – The Hidden Child tr. Tiina Nunnally (Sweden, review submitted)
Ernesto Mallo – Sweet Money tr. Katherine Silver (Argentina)
Johan Theorin – The Quarry tr. Marlaine Delargy (Sweden)
Jan Costin Wagner – The Winter of the Lions tr. Anthea Bell (German, Finland setting)
Karin Fossum – The Caller tr. Kyle Semmel (Norway)
Mons Kallentoft – Midwinter Sacrifice tr. Neil Smith (@neiltranslator) (Sweden, review submitted)
Anne Holt – Fear Not tr. Marlaine Delargy (Norway, review submitted)
Yrsa Sigurdardottir – The Day is Dark tr. Philip Roughton (Iceland)

And already on my shelf, to read soon:

Asa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath be Past tr. Laurie Thompson (Sweden)
Deon Meyer – Trackers tr. K L Seegers (South Africa, language Afrikaans)
Hakan Nesser – The Unlucky Lottery tr. Laurie Thompson (Sweden)
Marco Vichi – Death in August, tr. Stephen Sartarelli (Italy)

Waiting keenly to obtain copies when published in the UK later this year (ie definitely plan to read):

Thomas Enger – Burned (Norway)
Gianrico Carofiglio – Temporary Imperfections (Italy)
Claudia Pineiro – All Yours (Argentina)
Kjell Eriksson – The Hand that Trembles (Sweden)
K O Dahl – Lethal Investments tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Roslund-Hellstrom – Cell 8 (Sweden)
Jo Nesbo – Headhunters tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Friis & Kaaberbol – The Boy in the Suitcase (Denmark)
(Also Arne Dahl’s Misterioso, but this may not be eligible as the translation is a US edition, I believe – though I shall definitely read it either way).

There are other upcoming books in 2012 that I shall also read, including some to redress the Nordic bias to date, but this list is getting a bit long as it is so I’ll leave those until a future post. Any recommendations from the full list are very welcome if you care to leave a comment. All I can say at this stage is that based on what I have read so far, and of what I can see of the books I am planning to read, 2012 is going to be a very stiff competition!

See all my posts on the International Dagger.

Official CWA International Dagger page, containing synopses and articles about the 2011 winner and shortlisted books.

Book review: Cold in the Earth by Aline Templeton

Cold in the Earth
Aline Templeton
Hodder, 2005 (2006 paperback).

Aline Templeton is one of those authors who has been on my radar for some time as her books seem to gather consistently good reviews. I’ve not managed to read one of her titles until now, however, when I decided to try the first in her DI Marjory Fleming series, Cold in the Earth. The book turns out to have a good, solid double plot, be well written, and have a great lead character in Marjory.

Laura Sonfeldt’s marriage has failed, so she quits her job as a psychologist at a New York women’s refuge and decides to return to her roots in England. Before she can return, though, her mother dies of a stroke. Clearing out her mother’s house and possessions reminds Laura strongly of her beloved half-sister Dizzy, who vanished some years ago when Laura was eight, and has not been heard from since. Moving to London as a temporary base, Laura writes a freelance article about her sister and the effect of a missing family member on those left behind. One of the responses from readers turns out to be from Max Mason, a young man who claims that the missing girl, whom he calls by her real name of Diana, worked as a housekeeper to his family. Laura and Max meet, and though she is not very taken with him, Laura decides to go to Scotland to see if she can find out more about what happened to her sister.

The second strand of the book concerns the police force in the Galloway region of Scotland as the first signs of the upcoming foot and mouth crisis are recorded. Marjory Fleming, as well as being a DI, is a farmer’s wife, so she as much as anyone is concerned by the news coming from the south. Gradually, hope is lost as farms are closed down and animals killed by the hated men from the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food – causing angst for Marjory as she has to protect the government vets while being out of sympathy with their actions and seeing her own livelihood threatened and her family split up. These sections of the novel are really very powerful, conveying not only a good knowledge of events during that time, but the devastating economic and emotional effects on the small community who love their livestock. Marjory’s husband Bill is a victim of the culling, as is Conrad Mason, Marjory’s hair-trigger sergeant, whose rich family owns a prize herd of Welsh bulls dating back to the old grandfather’s alleged friendship with Ernest Hemingway.

Conrad Mason is Max’s cousin, and hence the Masons are the link between the two strands of the novel. Upon Laura’s arrival in Galloway, the two parts fuse into one, as a body is discovered on the Masons’ land when a pit is dug to bury the slaughtered bulls. Could this be Diana; could it be Max’s mother, who abruptly left some years ago at roughly the same time as Diana; or could it be someone else? Despite the internal police politics and budget-watching culture, and the clout held by the ghastly Brett Mason (Conrad’s mother), Marjory and Laura press on to discover the truth.

The characters of Laura (in particular her use of psychology to deal with the difficult people she encounters) and Marjory (and her interactions with her family) are what makes this novel special, as well as the moving yet unsentimental account of the effects of the government’s foot and mouth disease policy on people’s lives and personalities, a policy heavily criticised here by an author who would have preferred the (alternative) vaccination strategy. The main weakness of the novel is in the final quarter, when the identity of the body becomes obvious and the rather few suspects float around doing things without anyone keeping an eye on them. The nutty Mason family and their varying obsessions with bulls sometimes seem rather hard to imagine in the 21st century, but I am no expert on life in remote communities. The plot resolution contains no surprises and is something of an anticlimax, even rather clunky, given the intelligence of the earlier part of the book. In addition, there is a subplot involving a woman who owns a dress shop that is initially promising, but turns out to be disappointing in that actions of those concerned in it are not believable but are merely there to support the plot.

Despite these slight let-downs, the book overall is a very good read, and I shall certainly look forward to reading more in this series, and possibly some of Aline Templeton’s other books.

I purchased my copy of this book (the 2006 edition paperback).

There are now six novels in the DI Marjory Fleming series. Cold in the Earth is the first, and the next five have been reviewed at Euro Crime. Before that, the author wrote half a dozen standalone novels. Read more about her and her books at her website.

Read other reviews of Cold in the Earth at: DJ’s Krimiblog; Suite 101 (ad alert); and The Scotsman (though you need to sign up to a “7-day free trial” to read more than the first paragraph). This novel does seem to have been quite widely reviewed when it first came out 6 years ago, but these reviews no longer seem to be visible on the Internet after a 10 minute search (the maximum amount of time I was prepared to spend). See also: Books from Scotland, fiction from Dumfries and Galloway.

Book review: The Caller by Karin Fossum

The Caller
Karin Fossum, translated by Kyle Semmel
Harvill Secker, July 2011.

With her characteristic, unnerving attention to minor details, Karin Fossum opens her compelling new novel with a description of a mother putting her baby daughter into a pram in the garden while the infant sleeps. The atmosphere of menace builds up to an almost intolerable point as we just know something terrible is going to happen. The plot shifts to the police investigation of the incident, focusing on Inspector Sejer as he ponders both on the crime and on his own personal life – which is rather nice to read as Sejer has taken a bit of a back seat in recent novels. While he is sitting at home thinking, he hears something being delivered through the letterbox; rushing to the window, he sees what appears to be a slim young man hastily leaving the area. The missive turns out to be a postcard, with a sinister image and message implying that there will be more crimes in future.

What follows is a series of nasty tricks: a dying man receives a call from the undertaker, a well woman reads her own obituary in the paper, a young boy goes off on his own on a trek, and so on. We see these events through the eyes of the presumed perpetrator (but nothing is as it seems in a Karin Fossum novel!), who is a bored teenager called Johnny. He lives with his drunk mother whom he hates, travels around the region on his moped, and pays regular visits to the one person he relates to, his grandfather. We also, however, see events through the eyes of the “victims”, following the consequences of the mean pranks that often are the trigger for quite significant events in the relationships of those affected. These vignettes are one of the author’s main strengths, as she draws the reader into the lives of her subjects even when they appear only briefly in the novel.

My favourite character in the book is a young girl, Else Mietner, who rides a blue bike and shouts rude comments at Johnny as he rides past on his moped en route to his grandfather. Else is another victim of a cruel prank, but her method of dealing with it is brilliant. She’s very independent and observational – qualities which allow the reader to know what happens at the end of the book as a grim trick or two turn the tables on the trickster – as well as (in my opinion!) qualities that would make her a very good police detective should the author wish to move forward a few years in her next novel. Else would certainly shake up Sejer and Skarre if she turned up one day in police uniform.

All Karin Fossum’s translated books are listed, with links to reviews, at Euro Crime.

Read other reviews of The Caller at Euro Crime (Karen Meek), and by Simon Clarke.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this novel.

Books reviewed in July

At Euro Crime last month I reviewed some books that were a real delight, including three with an Icelandic theme:

Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason set in Iceland, by an Icelandic author. “OUTRAGE is a classic crime novel, in the sense that it tells a story independent of modern technology and gimmicks. It’s also a traditional police procedural. Both these elements provide the reader with an excellent experience, and I think result in a book that is likely to stand the test of time.” Read on here.

66 Degrees North by Michael Ridpath, set in Iceland, by an English author. “The second in the Fire and Ice series is an intelligent, scorchingly paced, energetic thriller, relying for its effect on plot and character rather than explicit violence or trendy pyrotechnics.” Read on here.

The Day is Dark by Yrsa Sigurdardottir – set in Greenland (mainly) by an Icelandic author: “If you’ve enjoyed the previous three novels in this series, you’ll enjoy this one as it is very much par for this particular course. If you have not read any before, you can certainly start here and enjoy meeting Thora, an admirably brisk, intelligent, funny and warm person.” Read the full review here.

Finally on Euro Crime this month, a book that has nothing to do with Iceland, Blue Monday by Nicci French. “Nicci French novels are predictably good, exciting reads. Here, after many years of “standalones”, the authors (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) break their own mould and start a series. BLUE MONDAY is, naturally, a page-turner, very hard to stop reading it once started.” More here.

At Petrona, I reviewed Guilt by Association, by Marcia Clark. Unknown to me, the author is a celebrity apparently, which has put a lot of people off reading the book. I thought it was a pretty good, brisk legal thriller, though (without courtroom scenes). For why, see my review.

I also reviewed Nowhere to Run, part of the Joe Pickett series – which I recommend very highly. Joe Pickett is a Wyoming fish and wildlife warden, family man with a mother-in-law from hell, and an honest guy in a world of operators, criminals and charlatans. I'm now almost up to date with these novels: Nowhere to Run is the tenth, and available in paperback. The latest, Cold Wind, is so far only in hardback but it is on my list! If you want to check out the whole series, my reviews are collected here.

Also this month at Petrona, I reviewed Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo, the long-awaited follow-up to Needle in a Haystack, set in Argentina back in the 1970s and 1980s. Sweet Money fulfils the promise of the first novel, and is definitely a recommended read.

Although these are the only book reviews I published in July, I have one or two reviews submitted to Euro Crime waiting to go up, so soon you can know my opinions of The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler, The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, The Quarry by Johan Theorin and The Hanging Wood by Martin Edwards. In addition, I read several novels on a recent short break, so hope to be writing up reviews of: The Caller by Karin Fossum, The Sacrificial Man by Ruth Dugdall, Fear Not by Anne Holt, The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg and Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft – note the strong Nordic accent in this selection!

Crime fiction from Norway

Having been away for a few days since the tragic and terrible events in Norway, I have seen the news coverage shift into “features” on the topic, one of which has centred on Norway’s crime-fiction authors and whether they have or could cover the type of incident that occurred, or the problems with its society that gave rise to it. Examples include Jakob Stougaard at the Nordic Noir book blog, Brian Oliver in The Observer and Jo Nesbo in the New York Times (translated by Tiina Nunnally).

As is so often the case, many of these questions are non-questions. Norwegian society is no different at some granular level from any other society. Putting laws or masses of anti-terrorist security in place has not stopped warped individuals or groups from committing terrible hate crimes – which have occurred recently in the USA, the UK, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Spain as well as in less stable regimes. All societies are a mix of those who have no time for violence against a child, adult or group; and those who find at least one of these abhorrent activities justifiable under some circumstances.

But turning from political-social observations – not my strong point! – to crime fiction which I do know a bit about, I thought it might be interesting to look at Norwegian crime-fiction authors to see whether they have, in fact, been blissfully unaware of the “hate” problems that beset individuals or groups in their country or elsewhere, or whether they have been confronting these issues in the same way as done by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo for Sweden. These authors wrote a ten-book series with the umbrella title The Story of a Crime, which together formed a blistering criticism of the 1970s welfare state. The books are dated in some respects, not least their espousal of Marxism, but setting aside the authors’ “solution”, they are marvellous depictions of the flaws in that particular society and its organised structures. Since then, many authors have been inspired by these books – I would say that if you only read one crime fiction series in your life, make it this one, as all the elements are there.

But returning to Norway. The magnificent Euro Crime database lists authors from the region, which I’ve used over the past few years to discover many authors from this country, together with their wonderful translators. Here are a few of them, with my take on their ability to assess human nature (as opposed to them being blinkered by living in a paradise!).

Gunnar Staalesen. Perhaps the most clear carrier of the Sjowall-Wahloo baton, Staalesen started his series about PI Varg Veum back in the 1970s just about when Martin Beck was hanging up his metaphorical truncheon. Only four of the approx 20 books have so far been translated, of which I’ve read the three that are in print. Varg Veum is an ex-social worker; many of his cases involve damaged children (or those who were damaged as children), as he carries out his Philip Marlowe-like investigations. He’s at odds somewhat with the Bergen police force, but comes to an uneasy alliance with them as he’s pretty good at solving crimes, partly because of his inside knowledge of how the welfare system works and how it is abused. If anyone thinks that Norwegian crime authors have their heads in the sands, they would immediately be disabused by reading these hard-hitting, well-constructed stories. Veum is, apparently, getting rather old now but luckily in the first translated book he has a young son who is now of an age to be able to succeed him – or so the author has hinted on his recent trip to the UK.

Anne Holt has written four books about a profiler and psychology academic Johanne Vik and her partner, senior policeman Adam Stubo (whose Norwegian name is not Adam but got lost in translation!). This series perhaps comes closest of the Norwegian books I’ve read to an analysis of organised “hate” crime, in that Johanne has spent time in Quantico as an FBI profiler and Adam is in the national police squad that takes over investigations of serious crimes from local forces. Part of the charm of this series is the domestic juggling that Johanne, in particular, has to do (which unfortunately, like other fictional characters in her situation seems to make her a target for men and women to dislike – don’t people realise how hard it is to be a good parent – in her case one of her children has specialist needs – and hold down a high-maintenance job?). In the last two books in this series the author explores the topic of organised “hate” crime- in Death in Oslo the topic is the kidnapping of the US president on a state visit to Norway; and in Fear Not the topic is the targeting of victims on racial or “moralistic” grounds, but at the end of the day, for profit. Fear Not contains a section that analyses this problem in a way that is separate from the rest of the novel, and is quite fascinating. Anne Holt herself is an ex-lawyer who was once Norway’s justice minister, so she is confident and persuasive when writing about these topics. She has written another, longer series about Hanne Wilhelmsen, a police officer seriously wounded in the course of duty so confined to a wheelchair. So far, only one of this series has been translated, and it’s a late one (though Hanne is a minor character in some of the Vik/Stubo books), so the jury is still out for this second series as far as English language readers are concerned.

Frode Grytten is a Norwegian author probably nobody has heard of. So far he has written one very good novel, The Shadow in the River, about a freelance journalist living in a decaying industrial town called Odda. He ends up investigating an apparent racially inspired crime, and in the process uncovers plenty of miserable prejudice and lack of integrity. This novel is highly recommended, written by someone with a clear perception of some of society’s ills. I hope the author writes more books.

Ella Griffiths wrote two novels back in the 1980s about two Oslo police detective brothers. (She also published a collection of short stories, one of which was used for one of the Roald Dahl-inspired Tales from the Unexpected TV series.) Sadly these books are not in print but I hope some enterprising publisher will make e-versions of them at least. Murder on Page Three and The Water Widow pull no punches in their depiction of family break-ups, drug addiction and so on. No idealistic society here, in these brisk and engaging novels.

Karin Fossum. Often called “Norway’s queen of crime”, Fossum has had nine books translated into English since 2002, all of which I have read. These novels are often rather like fables or allegories, set in country villages, but with a really sharp splinter. They address “small” crimes against individuals, and follow the consequences, which usually spiral out of control. These novels are short and written with a deceptive simplicity which makes the punch, when it comes, land very heavily. Fossum’s books are very sad indeed, and do not depict a very happy world. Nominally, most of them are police procedurals involving Inspector Sejer and his younger sidekick Jacob Skarre, but the men usually function in a subsidiary capacity, to keep the plot moving or to debate issues such as whether paedophiles can or should be rehabilitated into society. Very bleak, but rewarding, tales in which muddled up racial prejudice is but one element in a rich mix of awfulness.

K. O. Dahl is an underrated author who writes very good Oslo-based police procedurals. Reading them in chronological (as opposed to translated) order helps, as Gunnerstrada and Frolich, grimly funny individuals, investigate crimes of drug addiction, the hidden past of World War II, and other similar matters. The first book available in translation, The Fourth Man (featuring a befuddled Frolich), is not a patch on the next two, The Last Fix and The Man in the Window, which are great traditional police procedurals with a bleak heart and strong characterisation.

Pernille Rygg wrote a wonderful book, The Butterfly Effect, about a young woman who takes over a case from her recently dead father, a private detective. She’s a psychologist with supposed personality problems, what is more she hates her bourgeois mother and stepfather, has a transvestite boyfriend, and gets tangled up with witches and satanic sects. Unfortunately, the second novel, The Golden Section, did not fulfil the promise of the first and so far as I know the author has not written more. But The Butterfly Effect (1995) certainly puts paid to the idea that Norwegian writers were or are unaware of the seamier side of society and some individuals within it.

Jo Nesbo, currently the most fashionable and best-selling Norwegian author, and of these examples the only one who writes pure thrillers. The main character is Harry Hole of the Oslo (again) police, a man on an increasingly suicidal track but with a great sense of humour. As well as his over-elaborate but rollercoasting, searing plots, Nesbo addresses all the contemporary issues of crime fiction – Norway’s secret World War II past (The Redbreast), refugees from the former Yugoslavia (The Redeemer), the Russian mafia (Nemesis) and religious sects (The Devil’s Star) are all grist for Nesbo’s mill, as well as Harry’s relationships with his colleagues and doomed attempts at finding peace in his off-duty life. Nesbo’s two most recently translated titles, The Snowman and The Leopard, have focused more on the serial killer/gruesome torture end of the genre, which sadly seems to have contributed to his international popularity, but I hope he will return to more interesting and individual themes in future.

All these novels are bought to use by wonderful translators who deserve our (English speakers’) thanks for their efforts – Don Bartlett, Charlotte Barslund, Kari Dickson, Joan Tate, Tiina Nunnally/Felicity David, Robert Ferguson, Margaret Amassian, Hal Sutcliffe, Basil J Cowlishaw, K E Semmel, and others. Our gratitude is due to them for enabling us to read these authors’ books.

One final comment – one could look at other nations’ crime fiction – England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Denmark and so on, and find as many books that address difficult, unpleasant but real issues in society as well as featuring good plotting, characterisation and stories. A sense of place marks a good novel, of course, but though place provides a specific snapshot, the issues faced by us are common ones wherever we live. Crime fiction provides a most appropriate lens with which to examine such matters, often being well ahead of the curve, while enjoying a good story as we go.

Above is a brief synopsis of books I’ve read by Norwegian authors. There are more authors and books from the region that I have not read, of course, which can be investigated via the excellent Euro Crime listing.