SinC25: The “easy” [actually not so easy] part

To recap, Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, so book bloggers are participating in Barbara Fister‘s three-level challenge to help them celebrate. My introductory post provided the challenge in full, and this is my stab at the “easy” level:

write a blog post about a work of crime fiction by a woman author; list five more women authors who you recommend.

The not so easy part comes in having to make a decision about which writer to choose. After some thought, I have opted for a writer who is not so well known, is from a remote (to most of us) part of the world, and who is published by a small, independent press, not one of the giants. Her name is Unity Dow. As you can see from her Wikipedia entry, this extraordinary Botswanan woman is a writer, a lawyer, a human-rights activist and a high-court judge – yet her mother could not speak English and she grew up in traditional, rural surroundings.Unity Dow has taught and practiced in the USA, and she has won numerous international awards and honours, including the Légion d’honneur de France. As well as the Wikipeida biography to which I have already linked, you can read about Unity Dow at the African Success website.

She has written five novels, of which I have read one, The Screaming of the Innocent (link goes to my review). It is a harrowing and haunting read: in itself the book is a constructive, positive account of the changing values of Botswana and its many new opportunities for women. But also, the novel delves into the dark and ignorant souls of a superstitious community that harbours very evil people – and tells the heartbreaking story of a potential star who never had the chance to shine. If you can bear it, I recommend reading this novel – but it is likely to make you very angry. From the African Success website: ” The Screaming of the Innocent is described thus by Elinor Sisulu: “Unity Dow courageously voyages into uncharted waters in this gripping tale of ritual murder in contemporary Botswana. Strong female protagonists wage battle against the hypocrisy and evil of male abuse as the story moves inexorably towards its horrifying climax.” ” You have been warned, but do not doubt the sincerity and importance of this book. Many Western readers no doubt prefer the cosy, comforting nature of Alexander McCall Smith’s treatment of the same country in his Precious Ramaotse books. Those books are fine, and do address difficult issues in part (including the one forming the main plot of The Screaming of the Innocent), but only scratch the surface of the reality depicted by Unity Dow.

For the most part, Dow’s books are published by a small Australian press, Spinifex. Here are the publisher’s details for: The Screaming of the Innocent, The Heavens may Fall, Juggling Truths and Far and Beyon’. Another book has been published by Harvard. It seems to me very appropriate in the spirit of this particular challenge, to recommend Unity Dow and Spinifex, which describes itself as “an award-winning, independent feminist press, publishing innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge”.

Now I have to list five more women authors whom I like. In keeping with the tone of this post, I am going to name here five feminist authors who are unafraid to travel into the depths of the tortured soul in their crime novels:

Karin Alvtegen (Sweden) – try Shadow, but they are all very black, in different ways from each other.
Karen Campbell (Scotland) – The Twilight Time is the first of a varied and increasingly dark series.
Karin Fossum (Norway) – I suggest Black Seconds in this context.
Petra Hammesfahr (Germany) – The Sinner is a very black journey indeed. (I don’t recommend her other translated novel, The Lie.)
Asa Larsson (Sweden) Sun Storm is her first, her series is probably best read in order. They are all very gripping.

Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge.

My posts contributing to this challenge.

Book review: Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner
Elizabeth Haynes
Myriad, 2011.

After a slightly off-putting couple of pages of introduction, we read the transcript of a court case. It becomes clear that a man is on trial for his behaviour towards a woman. We read snippets of the transcript from the prosecution side and from the accused man. It’s impossible to form a judgement as to who is telling the truth.

The novel proper starts when we meet Catherine, an initially (to me) unsympathetic character: she works in an HR department and spends lots of time going to nightclubs or pubs, getting totally drunk and having brief flings with men. Not that I am judging any of these activities, but they aren’t ones with which I readily identify. Soon enough, though, her life changes as she meets a gorgeous man, Lee, a doorman at one of the clubs she frequents. Lee is a mysterious character with a real job he can’t tell Catherine about, and who does not seem to live anywhere. She does not mind, though, as she’s not into commitment – she slots-in her time with Lee in the gaps between seeing all her many friends in her active social life.

Things gradually change, though. We meet Catherine again, four years later, as a changed woman. She’s moved south to London, got a new job (still in HR!) and is a nervous, solitary person. She constantly checks and rechecks the locks on her flat’s door and windows, approaches her home by circuitous routes, and exists in terror. The novel switches between past and present, showing us how Catherine came to be in this situation, and what happens to her in her attempts to live a “normal” life. In the present-day sections, Catherine is befriended by a man who moves into the top-floor flat. He turns out to be a psychologist and tells Catherine that she probably has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He recommends that she gets some treatment for the condition – but will she be able to manage this? In the sections set in the past, we follow the arc of Catherine’s relationship with Lee as it becomes darker and darker, in a fascinating yet horrific account of his increasing grip on both Catherine and her circle of friends.

Eventually, matters come to a climax and Catherine has to make a few decisions as to whether she is going to try to gain the confidence and empowerment to return to normality, or stay in the world she’s created for herself in order to feel safe. Towards the end of the book, one of her closest friends from her past reappears in a clever subplot.

This book really grips the reader all the way through. Although sometimes one is a bit irritated with Catherine, and there are a couple of minor plot holes, the author provides a superb portrait of a young woman whose personality has been completely changed – interestingly not even directly by a dreadful physical ordeal, but by the mental war to which she was subjected. All the way through the novel, one is not quite sure whether to believe everything that Catherine remembers, experiences or reveals. It is not until a (slightly pat) ending that all becomes clear.

I very much recommend this book to anyone who likes psychological suspense novels (there is very little explicit violence in it apart from the first couple of pages). It is a very assured debut novel, both in its treatment of the main characters (particularly Catherine and her journalist friend) and in its ratcheting up of the tension to screaming point. This really is a book that is hard to put down once started!

I purchased the Kindle edition of this novel for 99 p.

Read other reviews of Into the Darkest Corner at: Euro Crime (Amanda Gillies), the Bookbag, Shotsmag (Ayo Onatade), and It’s a Crime.
At time of writing, there are 266 customer reviews of this novel at Amazon UK, 236 of which award it the maximum of 5 stars, and 19 give it 4 stars. This must be quite unusual for a debut novel.
About the book and the author at the publisher’s website.

SinC25 : Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge

As regular reader(s) of this blog will know, I am not very good at challenges, memes and all that. My attention span can’t really deal with the sustained creativity required. Nonetheless, there is one such, The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge, that I feel almost duty-bound to accept. It is dreamt up by the ever-readable author, librarian, reviewer and Scandinavian book blogger Barbara Fister, who writes:

Given that Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year at Bouchercon, it seems a good time to blog about women’s contributions to crime fiction.
Easy challenge: write a blog post about a work of crime fiction by a woman author; list five more women authors who you recommend.
Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.
Expert challenge: write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend.

The tag for these posts, which Barbara will aggregate at her blog, is SinC25 (#SinC25 for Twitter).

Given my on-record longstanding interest in women crime writers – not from any particular feminist perspective (as I like to read books based on how interesting they seem, not on the basis of the gender or other aspect of their authors) but because of annoyance of too many lazily compiled, all-male lists appearing elsewhere – I am clearly going to have to think about this one, as the “easy” challenge is in fact difficult, in the sense of having to choose five authors from a cornucopia. I’ll think on it and write my post in a couple of days.

In the meantime, you are warmly invited to take the Crime Scraps poll to identify your favourite Nordic woman crime writer. I warn you, it is a difficult choice!

Also in the meantime, you are again warmly invited to read an early post on this very blog, in which we identified many woman crime authors – some of whom I had never heard of then, but which are enduring favourites now.

Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge.

Book review: Prime Cut by Alan Carter

Prime Cut
Alan Carter
Freemantle, 2011.

This debut novel starts very well indeed, with a prologue set in Sunderland (North-east England) in 1973, when that town’s football team won the cup final. Stuart Miller is the police detective who investigates a horrific murder in which a woman and her children’s bodies are found on the sofa having apparently been watching the game on TV. The woman’s husband has vanished. This case haunts Miller, as the husband, the presumed perpetrator, is never found.

Cut to present-day Australia, and the main plot, which is about senior constable “Cato” Kwong, demoted from a higher-profile job to the Western Australia stock squad, which seems to be a kind of inferior police force investigating minor infarctions. After some preamble between Kwong and his less-able sergeant, the two are assigned to investigate the case of a body that has been washed up on the beach at HopeToun, a tiny seaside retirement town that is now inundated with miners who work at a nearby facility as the state’s nickel resources are being exploited. The local police force has the form of one officer, Tess Maguire, who not only is recovering from being attacked in a bar, but who also turns out to have had a romantic relationship with Kwong.

So far, we’ve seen how Kwong is subject to lots of casual racism in the attitudes shown to him by almost everyone he meets (apart from Tess). Even though his first name is Philip, he even refers to himself as “Cato” (a nickname awarded to him because of the sidekick character in the Peter Sellers “Pink Panther” films). It turns out that he’s been a poster boy for anti-racism in the Australian police force, but under pressure from his boss, he cut a lot of corners in an investigation and identified the wrong person in a crime case. When this was uncovered, his boss left him out to dry resulting in his demotion to the boondocks and threatening his marriage. Kwong is therefore determined now to do the right thing in his investigation of the body, whatever the political pressures. Given the mine and its importance for the state’s economy, these turn out to be considerable.

I did enjoy this book, with its multi-angles about apparently different stories which one assumes will turn out to be connected. (As an aside, the Kindle e-book is very poorly formatted as there is no line-break between these sections. Sometimes a new section even runs on directly from the previous sentence, other times one does at least get the warning of a new paragraph.) However, I felt that the author was not entirely successful at keeping all the many (fascinating) balls in the air, for example the back-story of the Sunderland case, which may be relevant to the current one, was for me a bit disappointing, partly because of the Sergeant Miller outcome and partly because of a coincidence that seemed unlikely. Some of the resolutions of the various plots seemed slightly hasty or muddled – but I thought one of them, about Asian contract workers at the mine, was particularly well done. Tess is also a strong and attractive character, who could be developed further in future novels.

Even so, despite a sense that the book did not quite meet its initial potential, I enjoyed it and would be keen to read more about Kwong, who is a very interesting character compared with the usual crime-fiction detective. He’s certainly a real person, with all the associated complexities in his attitudes to his job, his personal life (in particular his ambivalence about his wife and son, and his feelings for Tess), how he feels about all the racism around him, and how he decides to carry out his investigation whatever his boss says. Another aspect of this book I like very much is its depiction of ways of life in this part of Western Australia.

I purchased the Kindle edition of the book as this is the only format available to UK readers.

Read other (Australian) reviews of this novel at: Mysteries in Paradise, Fair Dinkum Crime (Bernadette), and AustCrime.

Prime Cut was shortlisted for the 2010 CWA Debut Dagger award.

About the book at the publisher website.

Book review: Witness by Cath Staincliffe

Cath Staincliffe
Constable, 2011.

This novel is a thoroughly absorbing account of the aftermath of a death. A teenage boy is shot by someone driving past in a car one morning in Hulme, part of Manchester in the north-west of England. Fiona, a midwife, sees the incident as she leaves the house of a new mother. Rushing over to the injured boy, she realises that she assisted at his birth years ago. Fiona does what she can to help, but the boy dies.

As well as Fiona, three other people saw what happened: Mike, who delivers parcels and is in his van when he sees the murder; Cheryl, a young single mother, sees the car drive past and recognises the occupants – then hears the shots; and Zak, a homeless youth, is robbing a house when he sees the incident out of the bedroom window. The novel follows all four witnesses, describing not only their personal reactions and thoughts to the terrible event; but also the pressures they feel from the neighbourhood’s attitude to the shooting. The criminals are part of a gang, and there’s a conspiracy of silence due to people’s fear of intimidation and retaliation. So as well as their own emotions concerning the boy’s death, the witnesses have an ethical dilemma about whether to let the police know what they’ve seen, and whether they will testify in court.

The novel’s structure is to alternate chapters from the point of view of the witnesses. We don’t directly read about the police investigation or the subsequent court case, but see elements of it from the various characters’ perspectives. This device works really well to keep up the tension and avoids the possible tedium of a linear, conventional narrative. I very much liked people’s different reactions to the events, and the way in which their family and friends influence them – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. The policeman who is the main liaison with the witnesses, Joe, is sympathetically portrayed, and the scenes involving the courts in the run-up to the trial seemed very realistic.

I highly recommend this novel, which uses four people in very different life-situations to highlight the worries that anyone would have if they found themselves in the same situation. The fact that we only see events in which each witness participates adds to the air of menace and fear about anonymity and possible reprisals from the accused or their associates. There is a nice (if chilling) thread in which one witness is intimidated in various ways, but this person is not the one who saw the crucial events that could lead to a conviction. The four main characters are exceptionally well-drawn, though I do think that in a couple of cases the outcomes were slightly too much on the wish-fulfillment side at the expense of reality. That’s a very minor flaw in what is otherwise a compelling book.

I purchased the Kindle version of this book for 99 p.

Read other reviews of Witness at: Euro Crime (Lizzie Hayes), Lovely Treez Reads, and Deadly Diversions (PDF).

At time of writing, there are 23 customer reviews of this book at UK Amazon, 18 of which award it the maximum of 5 stars.

Other books written by Cath Staincliffe, with reviews of some of them, are listed at Euro Crime.

Author’s website (part of the Murder Squad of crime authors from northern England: Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Stuart Pawson, Margaret Murphy, John Baker and Chaz Brenchley being the other members).

Book review: The Chatelet Apprentice by Jean-Francois Parot

The Châtelet Apprentice
by Jean-François Parot
translated by Michael Glencross
The first Nicholas Le Floch Investigation
Gallic books, 2008.

The first of this series, immensely popular in France, is set in 1761, slightly less than 30 years before the French Revolution, which adds a bit of anticipatory spice to the action. Young Nicholas Le Floch travels to Paris from the countryside to study with the monks as a legal clerk. He is called back home when his guardian is ill; when the old man dies, Nicholas is surprised to find his guardian has organised for him to join the Parisian police service, reporting to the secretive M de Sartine. He attempts to see his childhood sweetheart before he leaves, but her father (also Nicholas’s godfather) is strangely annoyed at this and sends Nicholas packing back to Paris. Sartine tells the young man to live at the house of commissioner Lardin and to investigate possible police corruption, but to be totally discreet about what he finds.

What follows is a fairly standard crime investigation, as Nicholas, complete with an older, lower class (ie suitably deferential) officer, follows all kinds of leads as people disappear and a dead body needs identifying. At the same time, there is lots of local colour about the debauched and disgustingly dirty city that was Paris at that time, when the monarch (Louis XV) lived in complete luxury at Versailles in his own sealed-off world. It is very easy to see the roots of dissent in this novel, as the aristocracy and the clergy grind their heels into the poor. Nicholas, however, rises above all this and pursues his investigation, complete with a sidekick who seems rather like Hastings in the Hercule Poirot books. This involves some quite gruesome aspects, in particular a fairly pointless detailed description of a horrific hanging, drawing and quartering of some poor person who inadvertently touched the king – apparently based on a true event but not exactly relevant to the plot.

And this is where I often part company with historical fiction. This novel is really two stories, one of “historical France” with lots of detail and descriptions of life as it was lived then; and the other a murder investigation which frankly is so sub-Agatha Christie as to be risible. The climactic scene, where Nicholas assembles all the suspects and police officers in the same room and goes through the case, tricking a suspect into self-incrimination by a hoary device, is really so clunky, rendered even more irritating by Nicholas’s boss and colleagues constantly interjecting admiring comments about the brilliance of the young man – extending even higher, by the time the book is done.

There is nothing wrong with this novel: it’s a brisk, light read, and if you don’t know much about 18th century France you might learn a bit. However, for regular readers of crime fiction the plot is very obvious (the identity of the criminal can be determined by a very easy method) and the unveiling of Nicolas’s true identity at the end rather predictable also. So my verdict is “not my cup of tea”, though if you like historical novels with a pretty straightforward plot and an amiable young hero, this may be a book for you.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this novel at an offer price of 99 p. The rest of the series is more expensive, but the fifth title, The Saint-Florentin Murders, was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger.

The whole series has been reviewed at Euro Crime.

Other reviews of this novel: Euro Crime (Laura Root); A Work in Progress (nice post providing some “teasers” about the novel); Chasing Bawa; and Mondo’s Info. All these reviewers except the last liked the book much more than I did.

What’s next to read

Having recently been on holiday for a week I am now in the enviable position of having caught up with myself reading-wise, excepting John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga which I recently bought to re-read. I am letting that sit for a while as I saw the TV adaptation on DVD too recently. Well, that’s my excuse for not immediately reading a nine-book tome with a few “interludes”! I did enjoy the novels years ago, though, so I am sure I’ll get around to them again soon enough.

Because of my zero backlog, I have therefore purchased a few books on which to embark next ;-). In print form, I have purchased a mere three novels: All Yours by Claudia Pineiro from Argentina; Anger Mode by Stefan Tegenfalk from Sweden; and Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst from Norway. On Kindle, thanks to a tip from Laura about a cheap price offer, I’ve decided to be brave and attempt a book by the apparently pretty up-front Roger Smith, in this case Mixed Blood (South Africa). I hope these will keep me occupied for a week or two, in between writing up a backlog of reviews.

Book review: Fire and Ice by Dana Stabenow

Fire and Ice
Dana Stabenow
Kindle edn, Gere Donovan press, 2010.

Having read the first of Dana Stabenow’s series about Alaskan investigator Kate Shugak, A Cold Day for Murder, I decided to try the first in the author’s more recent series about Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell.

Fire and Ice opens when Liam arrives at the remote bush town of Newenham, having recently been demoted owing to a complex back story that is revealed in the first half of the novel. As the plane comes in to land, Liam and the other passengers witness a horrible death, a man who is killed by the propeller of his small plane. As it is his job to investigate, Liam dashes to the scene and is rapidly unsettled by two events: one that the death was clearly not an accident; and two that the plane is owned by his old flame Wyanet Choinard (great name!). I suppose one of these characters is Fire and the other Ice but I am not sure which is which. Anyway, Liam is plunged into a chaotic series of events as he encounters various eccentric characters who boss him around and otherwise prevent him from finding somewhere to stay, causing him to kip in his office and deal, sleeplessly, with many overlapping crises that constantly arise.

Wyanet is a herring-spotter, hired by the fishermen of the region to fly above the sea for the time when the FDA opens a time-window during which the fish can legally be caught. The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the descriptions of this unusual profession and the schemes that the pilots and seamen use to outfox each other to grab the biggest catch. Less successful is the overblown romance between Wy and Liam, but thankfully that is soon overshadowed by Liam’s investigation. The last third of the book comes to life as a detective novel, as Liam puts together the pieces of a sad tale of abuse and lies that underlie the crimes.

Although this novel is brisk and enjoyable, and provides plenty of local colour and comment, it does not have much depth. It relies too much on repeating the formula of the Kate Shugak novel I read, substituting a male protagonist for a female and a few other cosmetic changes – but the issues addressed, as well as the romantic agonising, characters and situations encountered, are very similar. I liked the book as a light read, but don’t feel compelled to read any more of the series.

I purchased the Kindle edition for 69p, but I note that it is now free on UK Amazon. According to the author’s website it is 99c on US Amazon (I am blocked from seeing US Amazon Kindle prices).

Author’s website.
Other reviews of Fire and Ice are at: The Mystery Reader and Publisher’s Weekly.

My holiday reading August 2011

I’ve just returned from a week away, where owing to circumstances of various kinds, I spent a lot of time in a villa with nothing to do but read. Hence, even though I took a few printed books and stocked up on Kindle back-ups before I left, I ran out of books to read about two-thirds of the way through the holiday. This event made me so thankful for the Kindle – a trip to an Internet cafe at a local taverna allowed me to download two books via the USB port and charging lead. When I found that I’d finished these two books by the last day and was thus bookless for the return journey (horror!) I tried the same trick in a taverna in a different town near the airport. Here, the security settings were set so high that although I purchased a book I could not download it, and nobody on the premises was in the least bit Internet-savvy. Thinking I was doomed, I discovered that the next-door taverna offered free wi-fi, and our chairs were near enough to it for me to access it via my Kindle device – so the just-purchased book magically appeared. Wonderful stuff!

I hope to review all the books I read, if I can remember them all, so I’ll list them here to help my memory at least to that extent. I’ll add a star rating to each just in case I don’t get around to writing a review of any of them (5 being excellent and 1 why bother). For fun, I have indicated which Kindle books were outrageously cheap; by default you can assume the rest cost between £5 and £7, more than fair. The print books are all publishers’ advance copies, either direct, via Euro Crime or in one case, Vine – two exceptions being one I borrowed and one I’d previously purchased for a daughter.

Asa Larsson: Until thy Wrath be Past, tr Laurie Thompson (Martinsson #4) [print] *****
Hakan Nesser: The Unlucky Lottery, tr Laurie Thompson (Van Veeteren #6) [print] ****
Dana Stabenow; Fire and Ice (Liam Campbell #1) [Kindle 99p] **
Jean-Francois Parot: The Chatelet Apprentice, tr M Glencross (le Floch #1) [Kindle 99p] *
Cath Staincliffe: Witness [Kindle 99p] ****
Alan Carter: Prime Cut [Kindle] ***
Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner [Kindle 99p] ****
Sofi Oksanen: Purge, tr Lola Rogers [Kindle 99p] ****
Jarkko Sipilla: Against the Wall, tr Peter Leppa (Helsinki Homicide #1) [Kindle] ***
Deon Meyer: Trackers, tr Laura Seegers [print] *****
Marco Vichi: Death in August, tr Stephen Sartarelli (Insp Bordelli #1) [print] **
Stephen Gallagher: Rain (left behind by previous occupant) [print] *
Stephen White: The Last Lie (Alan Gregory # 16) [Kindle] ****
C J Box: Cold Wind (Joe Pickett # 11) [Kindle] *****
Graham Greene: The Third Man (borrowed from younger daughter) [print] ***
Diane Janes: Why Don’t You Come For Me? [Kindle 99p] (still reading)

Crime fiction from Sweden

Having recently covered crime fiction from Norway, including books by authors not so well-known to English-language readers, I thought I would do the same for Sweden but from a slightly different perspective. Over the past year there have been repeated, often identikit, articles in newspapers and magazines as well as on blogs and internet sites that don’t usually cover crime fiction, about Nordic – largely Swedish – crime fiction. I write “identikit” because almost all these articles take as a starting point the exciting Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson – and more recently, the similar-ish exciting Three Seconds by Roslund-Hellstrom (winner of the 2011 CWA International Dagger).
I do not intend to write here about these novels (you will probably be relieved to know), as Stieg Larsson in particular has been covered from every possible angle, with every last drop drained out of his novels and life-story by a range of opportunists, to screaming point. What I do intend to write about is the more typical Swedish crime fiction (in my experience), which is not usually a genre of breathlessly exciting, casually expressed thrillers, but is a more suspenseful, psychological and, yes, often gloomy world. Don’t think that Stieg Larsson or Roslund-Hellstrom’s Three Seconds is typical of Swedish crime fiction, because neither is (Three Seconds isn’t even typical of Roslund-Hellstrom’s earlier translated novels!).

I’ll soon begin highlighting Swedish authors who I think more “typical” than S Larsson, but first I should as usual mention Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the originators of the modern crime-fiction genre (whether in Sweden or anywhere else). These authors wrote a series of ten books with the umbrella title The Story of a Crime, which followed the life of Martin Beck and colleagues as they investigate various cases (each one a take on a different crime subgenre) against a background of the crumbling of the 1970s Swedish welfare state much admired outside the country but less so by these Marxist authors. I mention these books for two reasons: one because they are not thrillers, even those that deal with bombs and other acts of group terrorism; and another because they influenced so many other Swedish crime writers to write their own novels in a similar style. First of these (to my knowledge) was Henning Mankell; subsequently authors such as Ake Edwardson and Kjell Eriksson started on their own 10-book series, well before Stieg Larsson decided to do the same (but only got as far as book 3).
I’ll go on to discuss these and some other authors whom I consider to be more typical of the output of the region – with the usual corollary that these are, of necessity, books translated into English.

Henning Mankell. First and until Stieg Larsson the most well-known of Swedish crime writers post Sjowall and Wahloo, his ten-book series about Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystaad police focuses on issues facing Swedish society as well as the character of the lugubrious Wallander and some of his colleagues and family (particularly his daughter Linda). My own take as a reader is that Mankell is more interested in these issues than his rather silly crime plots: the first novel in the series, Faceless Killers (first published in 1991), was inspired by issues of immigration and racial prejudice that had not figured in Martin Beck’s era of the 1970s. Subsequent novels addressed many of modern society’s problems, but with a veneer of sadness and depression, such as Kurt’s relationship with his father and broken marriage. Linda, Kurt’s daughter, is initially a rebellious and troubled teenager, but gradually becomes the life-force of the books, most clearly articulated in the final novel of the series, The Troubled Man, in juxtaposition with the ageing Kurt’s memories and decline. [Mankell’s Wallander series was written over many years with long gaps in between; the author has also written books that are not part of this series and which feature his take on the global sociopolitical agenda far more stridently, as well as children’s books, plays and polemics. Of course there have been popular Swedish (2) and English TV series based on the Wallander books.]

Hakan Nesser is another author of a ten-book series whose first title, The Mind’s Eye, was published in 1993 (first English translation 2009); the first six have been translated and a seventh is coming up soon. Inspector van Veeteren and team are in an indeterminate country (I see it as the Netherlands but others disagree) and, like Sjowall/Wahloo, each book (and case) is about a different crime subgenre (legal thriller, “locked room”, secretive religious community, etc). Unlike Edwardson and Eriksson (see below), Nesser shares with Sjowall and Wahloo a bleak but very funny sense of humour; and a strong disillusionment by the main character in police work and the crimes he has to investigate. After book 6, Van Veeteren is poised to quit the police force and buy a bookshop, an interesting departure from the police-procedural norm. Hakan Nesser also writes another, more recent series about Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish police inspector of Italian descent. This series has not (yet?) been translated into English but the first book is called Human without Dog.

Ake Edwardson was an academic at the University of Gothenburg, where he sets his Inspector Erik Winter novels, of which I think five have so far been translated – starting in 1997 – with at least two to follow. Like Sjowall and Wahloo, these novels focus on a group of police detectives and their professional and personal interactions as they accrue evidence and talk through the progress (or lack of progress) of their cases. Winter is the youngest Inspector in the Swedish police force, and during the series becomes the father of a baby, with associated domestic challenges. Again like those of Sjowall and Wahloo, the books are about the problems of modern society – disaffected youths, unemployment, foreign “guest” workers, racial harassment, teenage prostitution and child abuse. The author also writes non-fiction and children’s novels, so depicts his younger characters vividly.

Kjell Eriksson, the same age as Edwardson, writes a police-procedural series set in Uppsala. Three of these novels (from mid-series) have been translated into US editions, with a fourth one to follow later this year. Billed as “Ann Lindell” mysteries, these books really lost out from being translated out of order, not least because of the domestic situation of Ann, which is confusing for English readers who have not read the early books (the first one was published in 1999). Erkisson has written 10 crime novels, but I don’t know if they are all part of this series. Of the three I’ve read, these books tend more to the pyschological and bleak than focusing on social comment, with quite detailed investigations of the foibles and worse of various characters, though of course unemployment, immigration and so on are in the background of the cases the police investigate.

Helene Tursten is the last author of the overt Sjowall/Wahloo successors I’ll discuss in this post. She writes about Inspector Irene Huss of the Gothenberg police, with the first book, Detective Inspector Huss, first published in 1998. Unfortunately only the first three titles have been translated into English – in US editions. A fourth is apparently due out in English next year. Irene is a very attractive character – independent, happily married mother to two teenage girls, clever and intuitive. The other two translated books, The Torso and The Glass Devil, are increasingly bleak, and possibly a trademark is that Irene visits Denmark and England, respectively, in them- making me wonder if she goes to a different country in each book. Inspector Huss is also a very popular TV series in Sweden. I am very fond of these books and recommend them highly as excellent examples of classic crime fiction with a modern take – as well as a great female role model in the main character.

The authors above wrote their series starting in 1991 (Mankell), 1993 (Nesser), 1997 (Edwardson), 1998 (Tursten) and 1999 (Eriksson). Stieg Larsson’s first Millennium Trilogy novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was first published in Sweden in 2005, and in the UK January 2008.

I’ll move on now to Swedish crime fiction authors who don’t follow the police-procedural route originated by Sjowall and Wahloo. Just as Mankell is the first “icon” of these, Kerstin Ekman is perhaps the best equivalent for the rest. Ekman is more of a literary than a crime novelist, writing about a particular region in the north of the country, but her 1993 novel Blackwater (containing some characters from other novels) was the first of this set to be translated into English. I have read it but found it very dense and quite hard-going, perhaps because I had no earlier context for the large cast of characters. At its heart, it is a book about a woman who goes missing while camping, her past, and the effects of this situation on the small community of Blackwater. Its plot is very, very sad in one particular. I don’t know if this book has been influential to subsequent Swedish crime novelists, but it seems to me to be the origin of many common elements – isolation, a hard climate, a struggling small community, characters suffering inner despair or hiding deep secrets, and so on – while being on no level sensationalistic. To learn more about this fascinating author and her fictional world, please read the 2010:1 issue of the Swedish Book Review, featuring articles about her and some new translations of her work.

Asa Larsson is writing six (I think) novels about Rebecka Martinsson, a financial lawyer initially based in Uppsala who comes from Kiruna, in the far north of the country. Sun Storm (2003, aka The Savage Altar) follows Rebecka’s attempts to help an old childhood friend who is accused of murder, in the process having to confront the horrors of her own childhood. One of the many strengths of this haunting novel is the depiction of the old people in the northern village, and their way of life, in particular an old neighbour Sivving. The next two books (The Blood Spilt and The Black Path) follow these themes of small communities, religious or spiritual beliefs, and the struggle of a young woman to overcome her internal demons and some real threats to her life. The detective elements are satisfying too, with Anna-Maria Mella (mother of several children and heavily pregnant in book 1) and her increasingly complicated deputy, Sven-Erik. After a gap of 3 years, I am delighted that MacLehose Press has taken over the UK publication of this series and that the next book, Until Thy Wrath Be Past, is out in the UK this month. [Rebecka Martinsson’s name is said to be a tribute to Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck.]

Karin Alvtegen, another favourite author of mine, has written five non-series novels of psychological suspense, of which I most highly recommend Missing (2000, foreshadowing The Girl Who Played With Fire), Betrayal (2003) and Shadow (2007), all very different – Missing is very exciting, but the novels are bleak, grim, and not always leaving the reader with any hope. At a recent literary event, the author spoke about her increasing abhorrence with violence and the way it is so casually depicted on TV and other media, so has challenged herself to write a suspenseful book with no violence. I am sure she can do it, and the result will probably be my perfect crime novel!

Liza Marklund is another firm favourite of mine, in her superb depiction of a journalist, Annika Bengtzon, from her sad childhood and days as in intern with a ghastly boyfriend, desperately trying to keep her place as a subeditor in a newspaper office, to her role as a well-known journalist struggling to produce “real” stories with integrity while the media industry plunges downmarket, and equally struggling to be a good parent to two young children. Her friend Anne works in TV so we also see the crushing effects of that industry on the moral values and lives of those working in it. Annika’s job brings her into contact with dramatic stories of course, and her senior “deep throat”-like contact in the police force does her investigations no harm. She stays one step ahead of the game in the world of newspaper politics but it isn’t so clear that she’ll manage the same in her personal life. The first four books in the series were published a while ago; after a gap they are now being republished and the new novels (there are 9 so far) being translated for the first time, beginning with last year’s Red Wolf. The author is interested in journalistic values, political/historical issues (for example, sex-trafficking is the theme of the strongest (in my view) novel in the series, Paradise, and Red Wolf examines whether modern terrorism could have originated in the anti-war protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s); less so in providing “solutions” to the crimes, which are usually tossed over to the police to sort out. Hence, Liza Marklund is the perfect “anti-overblown ending” crime author – and for all these reasons is one of my very favourites.

Inger Frimansson writes very good psychological novels: so far translated are a pair and a standalone (I’ve reviewed them at Euro Crime). Disturbed protagonists, inadequate police investigations, small and superstitious communities – it is all here.

Johan Theorin is writing a marvellous quartet set on the small island of Oland, the first one published in 2007. In common with other novels in this second “tranche”, he writes so well about the old communities and residents (especially the 80-something fisherman Gerlof), embedding his novels with the superstitions and legends of the island. I can’t recommend the first three novels highly enough (the fourth one is not yet written); these novels are crime fiction at its very best. (See my Euro Crime reviews of them.)

Camilla Ceder is a new (to English speakers) novelist who on the basis of her first novel, Frozen Moment, fits into the Kersten Ekman mould. The novel is a vivid yet freezing portrait of small communities in the countryside round Gothenberg, a mystery that has its roots in the past, as many good mysteries tend to do. Both the police characters and the various witnesses and residents are portrayed with subtlety and individuality, so I am looking forward to seeing how this series develops.

Two favourite Swedish authors who don’t seem to fit neatly in either of these categories are Camilla Lackberg and Mari Jungstedt. The former writes a series set around Fjallbacka, so far there are nine titles (five translated) beginning with The Ice Princess (2008). The protagonist is Erika Falk, a journalist and true crime author, who gets involved in various local cases, not least because of her relationship with Patrik Hedstrom, the sharpest of the local police force (though he isn’t as sharp as most readers!). Part crime novels and part domestic romances, these books are very popular. Mari Jungstedt sets her novels on the island of Gotland. Like Lackberg, they have police-procedural elements in the team led by Inspector Anders Knutas, and a strong romance theme involving Stockholm-based TV reporter Johan Berg and Emma, a woman who lives on the island. There are nine books in the series so far, of which the first five have been translated. Both these series contain dark themes and other typical elements of crime fiction, but they are both more preoccupied with the romantic lives of their characters than is common in a crime novel. Both series are very readable and involving, addressing many of the same contemporary themes of social and personal ills that figure in most crime novels; I very much enjoy them both.

Are these the only Swedish crime novels I’ve read? No. But they all started before Stieg Larsson began publishing his novels, or in a couple of cases began to publish at the same time. None can therefore be said to have been influenced by the Stieg Larsson phenomenon, and all can be read and enjoyed in their own right. A few details:

Mons Kallentoft’s first novel Midwinter Sacrifice will be out soon: I have read it and think he is an author worth looking out for – he writes about small-town life and has a female police detective as a main protagonist. There is also a slight supernatural element.
Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist received a lot of publicity when first published (the authors are a husband and wife team) but my view is that although it has some good elements, it degenerates into a horror-thriller that I found too commercially driven for my taste, more hype than substance.
Lief G W Persson’s books are being translated now. The one I read, From Summer’s Longing to Winter’s End, was far too long and tedious for its content. It was as if someone had taken the “establishment conspiracy” elements common to the LeCarre end of the genre (as used by Stieg Larsson in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), created a few onion skins out of them, and added a bit of brutality to a slowly moving whole. It is the first of a trilogy but I don’t think I have the will to find out more about which spook turns out to be not as we thought, etc.
Roslund-Hellstrom’s Box 21 (aka The Vault) is perhaps the bleakest and most anger-making novel I’ve read in a long time, focusing on sex-trafficking and police corruption. Very good indeed.
Arne Dahl’s well-regarded novels will soon be available to English readers in US editions – I for one am looking forward to those.
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist is not really a crime novel in the sense of having a perpetrator or much suspense – it has elements of science fiction – but I do highly recommend it as a haunting, thought-provoking study of both character and society.

More Swedish crime fiction authors (and reviews of some of their books) are at Euro Crime’s regional listing. If any readers of this post can recommend other Swedish authors who have been translated into English not mentioned here, I’d be very grateful and happy to read their books. [I should also note that there are writers from other countries who set novels in Sweden, of course. One I would recommend as being in the Eckman tradition is Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida, though for me it does not quite have the same resonance as the books discussed here written by Swedish authors. There is also a recent novel called Meet me in Malmo by Torquil MacLeod which is worth checking out.]

Thanks are due to the many translators who have bought these books to English-language readers: Laurie Thompson, Steven T Murray/Reg Keeland/McKinley Burnett, Joan Tate, Anna Patterson, Tiina Nunnally, Ebba Segerberg, Neil Smith, Marlaine Delargy and many others.