Book review: Last Will by Liza Marklund

Last Will
by Liza Marklund
translated by Neil Smith
Emily Bestler books/Atria/Simon&Schuster 2012
First published in Sweden 2006, as Nobels testamente
Annika Bengtzon #6

Last Will is a fantastic, intelligent crime thriller, containing all the elements I love about the genre. Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter for the Evening Post, a tabloid newspaper. She’s attending the annual Nobel banquet for the paper, a formal ceremony in which the new laureates dine with the Swedish royal family and assorted dignitaries. Annika is dancing with another reporter when shots are fired – the laureate for medicine and the head of the Nobel committee are hit. Because Annika is a witness, the senior police investigator “Q” slaps a non-disclosure order on her under terrorist legislation.

Annika’s boss is only too keen to find an excuse to keep her away from the office for a while, so she agrees to a period of paid leave. She and Q go back a long way, however, so she keeps up with the investigation, soon realising that the official solution as reported in the papers is a long way from the real truth of the events of that night. Annika also gets to know some of the biological scientists who work at the Karolinska Institute, finding out about their work and how the Nobel prizes are decided upon each year.

During this time, Annika moves house into a rural suburb just outside Stockholm, using the money she was awarded in Red Wolf, the previous novel in the series. Annika’s marriage to the selfish, smug Thomas is on the rocks — though she is a devoted mother to her two young children and would not do anything to jeopardise their well-being. Thomas not only exploits Annika on the domestic front, but is becoming politically incompatible with her: he has moved from his original job in local government to a new position in the Ministry of Justice, helping to prepare stringent new anti-terrorist legislation that Annika finds appalling. Not only are things bad with Thomas, but Annika’s oldest friend Anne, who regular readers will know has gone through many ordeals with Annika in the past, has become increasingly unstable and unsympathetic as her own life and career implode, criticising Annika while at the same time sponging on her.

Last Will is by no means overwhelmed with domestic trivia, however. It is a clever, muscular thriller, combining exciting action with analyses of many contemporary issues: the dangers of security and terrorist legislation, in particular in the tragic case of a man accused of the Nobel atrocity; the plight of modern journalism and what proprietors do to survive in the internet era; the politics of the science profession and the scope for corruption by the financial interests of drug companies; some great descriptions of biological research; the ethics of scientific publication; and, underlying it all, a cracking, puzzling crime – why was the Nobel victim chosen, who was behind the events of that night, and what is the relationship between the first and subsequent crimes? None of these themes is treated as a cliché or in any predictable way; each is attacked with a fresh perspective by the author, abetted by Annika’s characteristic refusal to compromise.

One of the strengths of this novel is the author’s ability to convey vividly the stresses of modern parenthood and family life, from apparently trivial incidents with difficult neighbours to dangerous events between school “friends”. Without overdoing it, many of the elements in the story turn out to be either related or to have a direct impact on the climactic events towards the end.

I can’t recommend this novel too highly. This series has always been one of my very favourites, but here the author has surpassed herself with a great story, some intriguing historical elements, and convincing human interest – Annika’s dilemmas as a mother, wife and dedicated professional journalist are conveyed in a completely convincing manner that had me rooting for her at the end when she is forced to make a critical decision. And the crime plot is as solid and multi-layered as any I’ve read, as Annika’s tenacity and courageous nature force her to try to uncover what’s really going on. Neil Smith’s translation is remarkably natural, matching the author’s message with perfection. This novel is going to be hard to beat as my crime novel of the year.

I purchased the US edition of this book. The UK edition is apparently not out until September, but second-hand versions of the US edition are available on UK Amazon.

Other reviews of Last Will: The Mystery Gazette, Marianne Delacourt and Bookreporter.

Euro Crime: listing of Liza Marklund’s books, with links to reviews.

Wikipedia: about the author and her books, including the Annika series in reading and chronological order.

Movie news: this book has been made into a Swedish film called Nobel’s Last Will, first in a series of six based on the novels, starring Malin Crepin (pictured above) as Annika – who is dark-haired in the books. The series, made by Yellow Bird, has been sold to the USA, Australia/NZ, Brazil and Benelux.

Book review: The Suspect by L. R. Wright

The Suspect
by L R Wright
Felony & Mayhem 2008; first published by Doubleday 1985
Karl Ahlberg #1

The Suspect is an absorbing, short book about the aftermath of a crime, set in Sechelt, a small town on the beautiful-sounding Sunshine Coast of Canada (click on map below to enlarge). In the opening chapter, the elderly George Lomax, we are led to believe, has killed another octogenarian, Carlyle Burke, by hitting him on the head with a shell casing. Shaken, George goes home, but becomes worried about the fate of the dead man’s parrot, so returns to the house, “discovers” the body and calls the police.

Staff Sergeant Karl Ahlberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is the senior office in Sechelt and hence in charge of the investigation. He’s a taciturn man, divorced with two daughters who are both at university in Calgary. He is unfulfilled in his unaccustomed solitary state, and so has taken to answering personal ads in an attempt to find female companionship. By this method, he meets Cassandra, the local librarian, an independent, 40-year-old woman who is a friend of George’s.

The police investigation forms the framework of the novel, but what brings it to life is the depiction of George, Karl and Cassandra as they all deal with their separate lonelinesses in their different ways. In addition, the book presents a picture of life in this (I am convinced!) beautiful region of Canada which sounds wonderful, not least in its almost year-round warm climate and the enticingly described lush vegetation. In its treatment of a local community and the effects of a crime on the assumed perpetrator, rather than on the more conventional puzzle of whodunnit, the book is absorbing, partly because the author does not push the concept too far in keeping the whole thing short and focused. The underlying reasons for the crime, some of which reach back far into the past, and others of which are subtly presented and left for the reader to deduce, conspire to create a haunting whole. The psychological insights provided, together with the sharply observed characterisations of Karl and Cassandra, leave the reader eager to read more of the series.

I purchased my copy of this book, which was the first Canadian novel to win the Edgar award for best novel, in 1986.

Other reviews of The Suspect: Mysteries in Paradise and Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan (the review which made me decide to read this book),

About the book at the author’s website.
Wikipedia: The nine Karl Ahlberg mystery novels in reading order.
January Magazine: interview with the author (2000).

Book review: Containment by Vanda Symon

by Vanda Symon
Penguin (New Zealand), 2009.
Sam Shephard #3

Sam (Samantha) Shephard has been promoted to Detective Constable and has transferred to Dunedin’s criminal investigation bureau. She loves her job and gets on well with her partner Malcolm Smith (“Smithy”), but suffers at the hands of the unpleasant DI Johns. For this latter reason, Sam is sent as the police presence when news comes in that a body in a wet suit has washed up in the harbour. Sam is delighted, though, when it turns out that the swimmer had not died naturally – as first officer on the scene, she will lead the subsequent investigation whatever her boss thinks.

The plot becomes more complicated as the identity of the body is eventually found, via some clever forensics work. It seems likely that the victim was involved in drug dealing, but information from his associates is sparse (if the associates can even be found, that is). DI Johns is soon able to annoy Sam again, as the case comes to intersect with an earlier incident in which Sam was assaulted by a looter when she tried to stop people from stealing the cargo of a ship that ran aground on Aramoana beach. Johns uses this fact as an excuse to reassign Sam to more tedious tasks – tasks that may well also become relevant to both investigations.

As well as her role in the crime plot, Sam finds herself in a romantic dilemma as her current boyfriend Paul tells her he’s transferring to Dunedin. Sam is very against the idea of committing herself in a relationship, despite the advice of her long-suffering flatmate Maggie, who tells her she should leap at the opportunity to settle down with Paul.

Containment is a classic police procedural novel with a contemporary twist provided by Sam’s perspective as a female outsider in an elite, male team. She’s a tough cookie, but at the same time insecure about why she was fast-tracked into the squad. The book provides a vivid portrait of Dunedin and environs, as well as conveying New Zealand attitudes and culture to those of us who live on the other side of the world. I very much enjoyed this novel and will certainly be reading more of this series.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Other reviews of Containment are at: Mysteries in Paradise, AustCrime, Reactions to Reading, and various posts with links to reviews at Crime Watch.

I have read and reviewed the first book in this series, Overkill, but have not read the second, The Ringmaster (for UK availability reasons). There is now a fourth novel in the series, Bound. The author’s most recent novel is a standalone, The Faceless. You can read synopses of all these books, and find more information, at the author’s website. There is also a post about the Sam Shephard series at Crime Watch.

Internet choice: April 2012

I haven’t written a post of links for a long time. This is because I’ve been using Google + to share these links, ever since the “share” facility on Google Reader was closed to make way for the new “plus” era. Google + is a very quiet place, though, so I will post here some of the stimulating, fun or plain annoying articles that caught my eye in April.

Gyrovague: Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)
E-books will be obsolete within five years.  Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, they are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.” I am not sure that I agree with the contention, very common among tech types, that a one-device-for-all-purposes is something that everyone wants: I quite like having a dedicated e-book reader. But his points about sharing, rights restrictions, proprietary formats and so on are well-taken.

I very much like the poems of Carol Ann Duffy so I was pleased to see that the Poet Laureate is going to write her own versions of traditional fairy tales for a stage show this Christmas season (BBC).

I like this new way of occupying one’s time while at the station: maths problems to work out how long you have to wait (Going Underground blog).

Only for strong-minded authors: The Rejection Generator Project. “The Rejection Generator rejects writers before an editor looks at a submission. Inspired by psychological research showing that after people experience pain they are less afraid of it in the future, The Rejection Generator helps writers take the pain out of rejection.”

Appnewser: iPhone diorama (video). This is a beautiful little idea – I haven’t watched the video but the initial still is so lovely. Maybe someday iPhones will be personalised like this – and I might even buy one if so!

Debtonation: We can learn from Iceland’s crash – and their recovery. I sure hope so.

Author Barry Eisler takes an unfashionable view in the Guardian: Why trailblazing Amazon should take on the publishing establishmentWhile most people in the world are either wary or downright hostile about Amazon’s presumed monopolistic ambitions, Eisler begs to differ, arguing that it is the “legacy publishers”, as he calls them, who have the monopoly, and that Amazon is the route to freedom. There are, naturally, some dissenting views in the comments, politely put and well-argued for the first page of them at least.

And in the Guardian’s Sunday sister, The Observer: The talking penguin’s guide to climate change. “Darryl Cunningham is using the graphic novel format to address the most serious issues in science and to fight disinformation.” Killan Fox, author of the Observer piece, writes: “He [Cunningham] has done a good job of representing the subject in all its ambiguities, but ultimately it is a snapshot of how we understand climate change at this time. As new information emerges, that understanding will be expanded and refined. As his Afterword says: “Good science is testable, reproducible and stands the test of time. What doesn’t work in science falls away and what remains is the truth.””

O’Reilly Radar has a great weekly feature on visualisations. I particularly liked The history of shipping routes, a visualisation of 100 years of sea trade, by Ben Schmidt (I am not going to mention the T word in this context).

Book review: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

In the Bleak Midwinter
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
St Martin’s 2002
Clare Fergusson #1

The words of the famous carol that form the title of this novel also provide the backdrop for events in the town of Miller’s Kill, New York – in the far north-east of the United States. A kill, I learnt, is a local name for a creek or shallow river in the farmlands and mountains of the Adirondacks.

This début novel, which won six prestigious awards on first publication, introduces the characters of Russ Van Alstyne, the town’s longstanding police chief, and new resident Clare Fergusson, an ex-Army helicopter pilot turned Episcopal priest. The two meet when a newborn baby is found abandoned on the steps of Clare’s church, with instructions that he is given for adoption to a couple who worship there regularly. Russ (whose wife is conveniently absent for the whole book) and Clare hit it off; he takes her out on patrol the next evening so she can get to know the town, but when they drive up the snowy paths to the kill, they stumble across the body of a young woman. A woman, it turns out, who has recently given birth.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a novel that draws in the reader, at first by both the vivid characterisation of Russ and Clare as well as by the atmospheric descriptions of the region; but later by the deepening plot, as the case becomes darker and more complex. The pacing is superb, as the confident (then first-time) author avoids the common trap of introducing a cardboard cast and having each one suspected then eliminated as the criminal. Even the over-used device of the “woman in peril” is given a freshly credible treatment.

In addition, though, the author represents unusually well the emotional cost of crimes. She is not afraid to examine the grief of loved ones or the emotions of those desperate to have a child at any cost. Nor is she afraid to demonstrate how Clare provides succour and comfort to the bereaved or the (wrongfully?) accused. Taken together with the unspoken sexual tension between Russ and Clare, both tough yet decent people who have weathered some of life’s less fair blows, this novel is an excellent achievement. I shall certainly be reading more in the series to see what happens in Miller’s Kill next, and where the relationship between Russ and Clare might go.

I purchased this book (mass market paperback edition). I was encouraged to try it by Keishon, whose post here describes her love for the series as well as listing the books in reading order (the author’s website is disabled currently).

Read other reviews of In the Bleak Midwinter at: Murder by Type, Kittling: Books, Dear Author (the reviewer also inspired by Keishon to read this book), S. Krishna’s books and Mervi’s book reviews.

Lesa’s book critiques: Julia Spencer-Fleming at the Poisoned Pen.

Wikipedia on the fascinating history, geography and culture of New York state.

April reading report

In April, while the country endured continuous heavy rain as illustrated, I reviewed 16 books: three for Euro Crime; two for Bookgeeks and eleven here at Petrona. Only four of these are translated books, to my shame. Six are from England; one is set in England but written (originally) in German; three are from the USA; and one each is from Italy, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Ireland and Australia. Of the 16, six are by authors who are new to me. And of the 16, seven are by women and nine by men. I think four of the total are debuts.

Which of these to nominate for my book of the month? My favourites according to the ranking scale are Hour of the Wolf, The Mistake, Phantom, Broken Harbour, The Potter’s Field and Defending Jacob. It is very hard to choose a winner out of these very different and highly enjoyable novels, so if you have time and haven’t read them all, I recommend that you do! Defending Jacob and The Mistake show grippingly the personal costs involved when the law tramples over apparently happy families. Broken Harbour is an excellent police procedural set in Ireland, depicting the desperation of a ruined economy. Phantom is the usual edge-of-the seat ride for former Oslo detective Harry Hole. The Potter’s Field is one of the strongest entries in the marvellous Sicilian series about Inspector Montalbano, and Hour of the Wolf is again, one of the best books in the classic Scandinavian series featuring the irritable yet very funny retired Inspector Van Veeteren and his erstwhile colleagues. Both of these final two books are darker than some of their predecessors. I am sorry, but I just can’t choose one “best read” from these! And many of the rest of my April reading were good, solid and engaging crime novels.

April’s reading list, with links to my reviews:

Euro Crime:
Hour of the Wolf by Hakan Nesser, tr Laurie Thompson (Sweden) 4/5
The Other Child by Charlotte Link, tr Stefan Tobler (Germany, UK setting) 3/5
The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri, tr Stephen Sartarelli (Italy) 4/5

Defending Jacob by William Landay (USA) 4/5
Stay Close by Harlan Coben (USA) 2.5/5

Force of Nature by C J Box (USA) 3.5/5
Lifeblood by N J Cooper (England) 3/5
Broken Harbour by Tana French (Ireland) 4/5
Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah (England) 3/5
Revenge of the Tide by Elizabeth Haynes (England) 2/5
The Loyal Servant by Eva Hudson (England) 2.5/5
The Mistake by Wendy James (Australia) 4/5
White Heat by M J McGrath (Canada – Ellesmere Island/high Arctic) 2.5/5
Phantom by Jo Nesbo, tr Don Bartlett (Norway) 4/5
Killer Instinct by Zoe Sharp (England) 3/5
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez (England) 3/5

As usual, check out Mysteries in Paradise for other bloggers’ “book of the month” selections.