Now that I have read all the books on the shortlist for the International Dagger award 2009, the question on everyone's mind is "am I sticking to my earlier choice of winner?" That earlier choice was made exactly one month ago today, on the basis of having read four of the six novels.
The books, with links to my reviews, are:
Karin Alvtegen – Shadow (translated by McKinley Burnett)
Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Played With Fire (translated by Reg Keeland)
Johan Theorin – Echoes From The Dead (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Fred Vargas – The Chalk Circle Man (translated by Sian Reynolds)
Arnaldur Indridason – Arctic Chill (translated by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb)
Jo Nesbo – The Redeemer (translated by Don Bartlett)
Two of the novels are exciting thrillers – Redeemer and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Only one of them, Shadow, is not a police procedural, in whole or part. They are all very sad -each of them facing up to the cruelties of human nature. Two of them, Shadow and Echoes from the Dead, are explicitly about the lasting effects of the Second World War on the present, and one, The Redeemer, has its roots in the horrors of more recent conflicts in the Balkans. Arctic Chill is an indictment of racism and, in common with The Redeemer, condemns the attitudes of comfortable cultures on those less fortunate. The Chalk Circle Man is an oddity – not necessarily because it is French whereas the other books here are Swedish, Norwegian or Icelandic- but because it is a fable. Even so, what gives it its heart is the same as the core appeal of the other books – its identity with the weak, the old, the abandoned child, the immigrant, those whom society would ignore.
All the books share one feature in common – they are all superbly translated by people who have real empathy with the text and seem to genuinely interpret the intention of the author, as well as the actual words. Perhaps it goes without saying that they all have a committment to showing the truth – either via a detective or via one or more of the characters who aren't formally investigators, but who also are the conscience of the events that are described. The books all also share the accolade of being impossible to stop once you start. You live with these books while you are reading them, and for long afterwards.
All, then, are worthy winners. None of these books is noticeably "better" than the others. All these books have a heart, and speak for those who don't usually have a voice: children, women, the poor, the bereaved, the old, the forgotten. For me, the emotion evoked by the sadness of Shadow and Julia's enduring grief in Echoes from the Dead possibly lift these two books onto a higher plane. But these are personal reactions from one who recognises the suffering. Arctic Chill is an utterly sympathetic portrait of depression and of the awareness of life's pragmatic disappointments. The Girl Who Played with Fire is a sprawling, occasionally flawed novel of immense heart and passion, burning with revenge in a cold, fierce heat. The Chalk Circle Man is a magical, glassy, brittle affair, told with baroque detail and with a splinter of ice in its heart. Echoes from the Dead identifies not only with the impossible grief of a mother who has lost her child and has no subsequent engagement with life, but is also an elegy of old age – the enforced patience, the slow death of faculties physical and mental. Shadow is Chekhovian in its unblinking portrayal of lives, old and young, destroyed by ambition – and Shakesperian in the playing out of the roles of the characters.
All of the books except Shadow are series. The Chalk Circle Man and Echoes from the Dead are the first in their respective series (Echoes from the Dead is a debut with the second yet to be translated; The Chalk Circle Man has been translated long after several later installments). The Redeemer and Arctic Chill are relatively late entries, and probably suffer slightly if you haven't read the earlier volumes. The Girl Who Played with Fire is second in a posthumous triology and definitely requires a previous reading of the first volume.
My main advice is to read all six books. All of them transcend the mere labelling of genre. All of them present characters who live outside the page, and provide an involving, exciting plot. All of them will involve you, will make you laugh at times and make you feel sadness, anger and despair. None of them should be consigned to a genre. It's a very worthy list indeed: I commend them all.