I’m reading The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Unit I am totally absorbed in The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, which has very kindly been sent to me by the translator, Marlaine Delargy. I've read good things about this book on various blogs, and on Amazon, so I was quite keen to try it, even though I was not sure if it was going to be science fiction or crime fiction. It is an appealing mix of both, written with an effortless style (I am sure, due in no small part to the faultless translation) that just keeps you reading.
Assuming the book could be classified as crime fiction, I'll write a review and submit it to Euro Crime, so will not say more about the book here. I will, however, reproduce a short passage from the opening page:

Even the bathroom was monitored. There were no fewer than three cameras within that small space, two on the ceiling and one underneath the washbasin. This meticulous surveillance applied not only to the private apartments, but also to the communal areas. And of course nothing less was to be expected. It was not the intention that those who lived here should be able to take their own lives or harm themselves in some other way. Not once you were here. You should have sorted that out beforehand, if you were thinking along those lines.
I was, for a while. I thought about hanging myself or jumping in front of a speeding train or doing a U-turn on the highway and driving toward the oncoming traffic at full speed. Or simply driving off the road. But I didn't have the courage. Instead I just obediently allowed myself to be picked up at the agreed time outside my house.

The book is published by the Other Press, New York, and the translation was supported by a grant from the Swedish Arts Council.

Review of The Unit at Kittling: Books.

Review of The Unit at The Complete Review.

Q&A with the author and other reviews at Amazon (US site).

More about violence in crime fiction

I wasn't intending to write a blog post about the endless rehashing over the past week of an article written by Jessica Mann in Standpoint magazine at the beginning of September. In that article, Jessica wrote that she was no longer going to review books that contained "outpourings of sadistic misogyny". I wrote a post here about it, to which several people kindly responded. Martin Edwards also wrote about this article and topic, a few days previously, and an interesting discussion ensued.
All calmed down until last weekend, when The Observer and The Telegraph ran belated articles, picked up by many other newspapers, magazines and blogs,  stating that Jessica Mann is giving up reviewing crime fiction – untrue, as summarised in this excellent post by CrimeFictionReader of It's a Crime! blog, and this equally interesting post (with long comment discussion) by Sarah Weinman at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog.
Enough written on the subject, I thought, until today, when author Val McDermid weighs in at The Guardian, in a blog post with the title Complaints about women writing misogynist crime fiction are a red herring. Val McDermid is an internationally best-selling crime-fiction author who has written books that are pretty close to being sadistic enough for me to consider quitting reading her – though her last few novels have been far less explicit, and all the better for it. Val McDermid's thesis in her Guardian piece is that women are no "worse" than men in writing sadistic serial-killer novels, and that it has all been going on for a very long time anyway. She points out, quite correctly, that there are excellent novels being written that address very dark topics, and very poor novels being written that are about cosy, "safe" mysteries.
All fair enough, but I can't agree with her concluding paragraph: "I wish we could get over this pointless gender squabbling and address the really interesting question of why we are so fascinated by the threat, the fact and the consequences of violence." I think Jessica Mann was right to draw attention to the unacceptability of some current commercial fiction – and to point out that in some cases women are writing it. Of course, such judgements have a large element of subjectivity, but I'd personally like to see more marketing budgets devoted to novels that aren't quite so sick – I'm sure they could do just as well, even better. (Stieg Larsson is one example.)
I also take issue with this alleged "fascination with the threat, fact and consequences of violence". What Jessica Mann was speaking out against, I believe, was not "violence" but  "sadistic misogyny", which is different – excessive dwelling on torture, in effect. Although I am not "fascinated" with any aspect of violence, I have no objection to it if it isn't done to unnecessary excess. I do like reading a dramatic story – by which I mean a story with drama in it. There probably is some aspect of violence in any drama, almost by definition. But one does not have to be "fascinated" by it or even interested in it. A good author can engage the attention and sympathy of the reader in very many ways, without dwelling on this aspect – think Arnaldur Indridason for example, or Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben or Diane Setterfield. Some novels I read are more upfront about violence than others, and I don't mind that at all. I just don't go out of my way to read about it. In other cases (eg Jo Nesbo) I'm quite happy to read the book and skip over the odd page here or there when it all gets a bit much.
I think there are some lazy novels being written (by men as well as by women) that are wholly poorly constructed and feature repeated set pieces of violence in what seems to be the main reason for their existence. Quite a few of them are "best sellers". Although books like this have always been written, it's nice that one has so much choice that one can decide not to read them, and instead turn to books that are less formulaic, reflecting the individualistic imagination of their authors.

A few random things I found out yesterday

Both my daughters, one at high school and the other at university, have to run their essays and other written work through the institution's anti-plagiarism software procedure before submitting them for assessment and marking.

Iceland's three Mcdonalds' restaurants will close on Sunday because nobody can afford to eat there. According to Lyst, McDonald's Icelandic partner, costs have doubled since the krona dropped almost 80 per cent against the euro.

I was told that nobody on the infamous "Nick Griffin BBC question time" panel presented immigration in a positive light, but only as a greater or lesser "problem". Why am I not surprised by that? Disappointed, yes, but not surprised, even though I also learned yesterday that a survey by the Legatum Institute (of which I had previously never heard) ranks Britain as the 12th most prosperous country in the world, ranked by "wealth and happiness" and second in the world (top in Europe) for "entrepreneurship and innovation". Make the connection.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Leif Davidsen

D The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen, one of Karen of Euro Crime's top reads of 2007,  is a very tense thriller about a visit to Denmark by an Iranian author under threat of a fatwa. The story concerns the local journalist who is covering the story, the policeman in charge of the security arrangements, and the putative assassin. Chapters switch between the viewpoints of these three characters: we learn about their domestic lives, pasts, and emotions, all of which cause sympathies to alternate and lead to an almost-unbearable level of excitement. It is really very good indeed: a book that threatens to make you to miss your stop if reading it on the bus or train.
Here's what Karen wrote in her Euro Crime review: "First published in Danish in 1996, THE SERBIAN DANE feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Davidsen brings to life Copenhagen the place, the people who live there and the political scene. Vuk is a cold-blooded killer but has moments of vulnerability at night when he's unable to sleep. You don't want him to succeed but it's fascinating to watch how he plans his job and the lengths he goes to. THE SERBIAN DANE is a cracking thriller, which I was hooked by. The excellent translator, Barbara J Haveland, has also translated the Jonas Wergeland trilogy by Jan Kjaerstad for Arcadia."
The Serbian Dane is one of six novels by Leif Davidsen, three of which have been translated into English, according to Wikipedia. One of these is his first novel, The Sardine Deception (1986), which must be one of my favourite titles ever. The book, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Steve Murray, was reviewed earlier this year by Norman (Uriah) at Crime Scraps, who wrote: "This fast paced political thriller is  a very easy read, which is a tribute to the translation, and as well as a complex plot has interesting character studies. It has stood up amazingly well to the passage of time and is worth reading if you can find a copy."

This post is part of a weekly series on the crime-fiction alphabet. Previous Petrona posts are collected here.

The crime-fiction alphabet project is the brainchild of Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise.

The Consorts of Death by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett

I've now read the only three books in the Varg Veum series by Gunnar Staalesen that I'm able to read, and I'm convinced on this basis that this series is a worthy addition to the very top of the stellar PI series that are out there. Maxim Jakubowski calls the series "an upmarket Scandinavian Philip Marlowe", and I agree (not so sure about the upmarket, though) that if you like Chandler, Macdonald, and those who have followed in their footsteps, you surely have to love these books.

I've just finished The Consorts of Death, which I enjoyed the most of the three novels in the series I've read. Although it is the 14th (or 13th?), you can start with this one as most of the book consists of back-story and flashback (not in the least boring, it is an exciting case that can only be solved in the present because of three separate cases in the past, all involving the same person at the centre). Consorts of Death has the added advantage of being translated by the superb Don Bartlett, who also translates (among other authors) Jo Nesbo and K. O. Dahl.

As with the best of PI and other crime fiction, the appeal of the Varg Veum books is not only their plots and the gradual development through the protagonist's life and times, but their sadness at the human condition, a strong sense of social justice, and their wonderful sense of place. All the best novels have this poetic element that can speak to the readers' emotion at another level from the events in the plot. Here is an excerpt:

It was beginning to get dark as I drove into Osen where the Gaular waterway plunged like a faded bridal veil towards the fjord. High up above the mountains the moon had appeared, the earth’s pale consort, distant and alone in its eternal orbit around the chaos and turmoil below. It struck me that the moon wasn’t alone after all. There were many of us adrift and circling around the same chaos, the same turmoil, without being able to intervene or do anything about it. We were all consorts of death.

I shall say no more here as I must now write my review of the book and submit it to Euro Crime. Until then, however, if you are short of a book to read, perhaps sad that Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is over, or tired of waiting for the next Temple or Connelly or Crais, give The Consorts of Death a try. I don't think you'll regret it.

Some related articles:

The Consorts of Death reviewed in the Independent. (Positive review of the book which gives due credit to the translator.)

Simon Clarke's Amazon review of The Consorts of Death. (Another positive review.)

The Consorts of Death at the Arcadia website.

Gunnar Staalesen at Euro Crime.

Varg Veum films discussed at International Noir Fiction in July, August and September.

Reviews of The Writing on the Wall at Scandinavian Books and at Euro Crime. 

Doing myself out of book deals

One aspect of Thursday night's Kingston Killers evening at Waterstones was that books by the nine authors present were being sold on a three-for-two offer for that event only. I wanted to buy the paperback edition of Echoes of the Dead by Johan Theorin because the translator, Marlaine Delargy, had told me that it contains a little photo essay about Oland by the author not present in the proof I had previously read. However, after poking about among the piles of other books, I could not see two others that I wanted to buy (I already have review copies, or own, or have read, quite a few of them), so conscious of my vast quantity of unread tomes at home, I only purchased that one book.

Next day, I was describing Ariana Franklin's talk and novels to Prof Petrona, who expressed an interest in reading one of them. So I have bought Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in the series. By buying it a couple of days after the Waterstones event – and by buying at at a different bookshop – I missed out on my "3 for 2" offer. But, never mind – because I also bought York Notes: William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and a rather colourful notebook, I qualified for W H Smith's offer of the day – "spend £15 and buy any top 30 hardback for £5.99". Excitedly I went to the display – and again, could not see any book I wanted to buy, even at that price. (I have already read Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid, and have previously purchased the Guiness book of Records and The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown – for other family members, not me!). To be honest, "rather sad" was my mental reaction to the "top 30" display of celebrity bios and cookery books, etc. Then I remembered I had in fact only paid £4.99 for The Lost Symbol and not much more for the Guiness Book of Records, so cheered up a bit.

The last book deal I missed out on was the one I thought the best. In yet another bookshop, which just happened to be on my route home so only required the tiniest of detours, I noticed next to the till an offering of the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson and a large bar of Galaxy chocolate, all tied up with a gold ribbon, price £20. Now that is what I call a special offer worthy of take-up! I asked the woman at the till if she'd read them and she hadn't, though she said she "kept hearing good things about them" – so I recommended that she snap them up as great reads at a bargain price (even without the chocolate). 

How many plots are there?

I spent a most enjoyable evening at Waterstones in Kingston last night with Karen of Euro Crime website and blog, at Killer Reads, an event devised by Chris Simmons of CrimeSquad. Yaba Badoe, Chris Carter, N J (a.k.a. Natasha) Cooper, R J Ellory, Ariana Franklin, Johan Theorin (fresh from his CWA dagger John Creasey/New Blood award the night before for Echoes from the Dead), Cathi Unsworth, Nicola Upson and Laura Wilson all read from their novels and talked about their writing as well as the usual topics about the appeal of the genre. One inevitable result is that I now have even more books for my reading list.

Among the interesting perspectives provided was one by R J Ellory, in jetlagged yet energetic mode, who emphatically opined that there are only three kinds of British crime fiction (cosy village murder, gritty urban police procedural, and I forget the third!), which is why he writes novels based in different times and places in the United States, where there are (in his view) far more regional and temporal differences. I find this point of view exceedingly unconvincing. Probably so did everyone else, but they were too polite to say so. He also went on to say that there are only three kinds of author, but I have even less memory of those generalizations – other than it is good to aspire to write a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or In Cold Blood.

It was amusing in this context to read Sharon Wheeler's post about Nick Hay's selection procedure for books to read for review for Reviewing the Evidence. "Oh look, here's a mad monk running around mittel Europe in search of a religious icon. And there's another, with added Freemasons at no extra cost. Yes, and there's yet another, with a beautiful woman to help our intrepid hero track down said mad monk. If the writer's feeling particularly radical, there'll be a mysterious library in there somewhere." Many other books fall into a couple of other categories: Mr Average in small-town America avenging himself on threat to family; and thrillers involving former military heroes charging round the United States.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Robert Crais

C I decided to follow the lead of some others and find an old post to recycle this week. Already, a lot of good Cs have been taken(the perils of leaving a weekly task to Tuesday!) – Connelly, Christie, Cotterill, etc. So who is left? I decided to look through my old posts, betting with myself that the first C would be Coben or Crais. So - was I right? (Clue is in the title of this post.) Here is a post from 18 February 2006 (one of six posts that day! How my blogging frequency has decreased over the years):

Last night I finished reading Robert Crais' latest book, The Forgotten Man, just out in paperback in the UK (though I got it in hardback a couple of weeks before the paperback release from Amazon UK, where it was heavily discounted to below the p/b price to clear out stocks in anticipation, presumably).

Crais is, if nothing else, an object-lesson in writing series. About 3 chapters in, after drawing you in to the current plot, he writes a short (paragraph) recap of where we were at in the last book. Thanks!

The latest of the Elvis Cole novels is focused mainly on Cole (not much of Pike in this one) and his will-they-won't-they relationships with Lucy and (nascently) with Starkey. I much prefer the character of Starkey to that of Lucy, so I know which way I hope it comes out.

As usual with Crais, the plot is pacy, prose spare and the whole an absorbing read. The author has a talent for conveying the emotions hidden by the laconic exterior of Cole's character. The search for his unknown father is poignant, both in the flashbacks to Cole's life as a boy and in the present-day. This area of emotion, which Cole thought he had long-since packaged away ("forgotten"), is gradually shown to be unrepressed — and the resultant clouding of his judgement in the case he's involved in is brought into focus by the solution to the mystery.

I look forward to the next in the series.

Mysteries in Paradise crime fiction alphabet meme.

Previous letters at Petrona.

About Double Exposure, by Michael Lister

In her Boucheron wrap-up post at Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room, Alison Janssen writes that "Tyrus author Michael Lister became an instantly buzzed-about author when his latest novel, Double Exposure, was cited by Michael Connelly as one of the best books he's read recently. I KNOW, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!"

So I went over to the Tyrus website to take a look at this book, and sure enough:

Double Exposureis absolutely riveting! I sat down, plugged in and didn't get up until the last page. With elegiac prose, insightful characterization and a wonderfully ingenious plot, Michael Lister has squeezed every ounce of terror and thrills out of a dark night in the woods.”
Michael Connelly

Here is the blurb about the book:

September 2009
(according to Amazon UK, available in "1-3 weeks")
216 pages
Paperback | ISBN 978-0982520925 | $14.95
Hardcover | ISBN 978-0982520932 | $24.95

"Following his dad’s death, Remington James returns to the small North Florida town where he grew up to assume his father’s life—taking care of his dying mother and running the local gun and pawn shop.One fateful fall evening, as the sun sinks and the darkness expands, Remington ventures deep into the river swamp to try out some new equipment and check his camera traps. Encountering the kind of wildlife that made him want to be a photographer in the first place, Remington gets some of the best shots of his life, but he’s about to happen upon the most dangerous animal of all—a feral, patient, sociopath who wants Remington dead."

Hmm, well, on the face of it, not a book I would usually pick up and read, but with a recommendation like this, I probably should give it a try.

Author information, including bibliography.

Read an excerpt from Double Exposure.

About Tyrus books, where Alison Janssen is Senior Editor.

Book review: Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg

Academic intrigue is deeply entrenched at Tilton University. Graduate student Nick Merrill has devised Learn It!, a computer program to help students learn English, which seems from initial trials to be very effective. Nick asks Connor Hadley, his academic mentor, to go through his write-up of his results before submitting them for publication, without realizing that Hadley himself is due for tenure and desperate to impress the committee that is about to decide his fate. Nick is also carrying on affairs with two women, a juggling act that can’t go on for ever, and attracts envy from other students by his application for a prestigious scholarship.
Publish or Perish is a brisk, engaging account of the hectic lives of the students and faculty of Tilton. Teaching, committees, observations, research and writing fill up the time of the academics, all desperate to stay on the ladder of success, or, in the case of the students, steady employment for a year or two.
Before too long, there is a death – could it be murder? Professor Joel Williams thinks so. Williams is a retired cop who has retrained as a teacher, and is now on the faculty of the criminal justice department at Tilton. He was a colleague of the victim, and uses his contacts with the police to investigate the crime – if there was a crime.
Publish or Perish is a literate, light yet engaging read. The account of life at Tilton University rings authentically true, as one might expect from the author’s credentials as an associate professor at a prestigious US university. The pace never flags as the investigation narrows down to a small group of suspects, and previous associations become clearer.
I thoroughly enjoyed Publish or Perish, and can recommend it to anyone who wants to be taken out of themselves for a couple of hours, and who is curious about the backstabbing and doublespeak that can go on in the groves of academe.

Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg (Eloquent books, New York).

Publish or Perish reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise.

Confessions of a Mystery Novelist is Margot Kinberg's blog. Such a good blog, with consistently well-written, thoughtful, constructive and engaging posts daily – that it made me want to read her book.