Book review: Sebastian Bergman by Hjorth Rosenfeldt


Sebastian Bergman
by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt
translated by Marlaine Delargy
Trapdoor/Little, Brown 2012
first published in Sweden 2010
Sebastian Bergman #1

Sebastian Bergman is a slightly overweight, messed up criminal psychologist. He has not practised or done any work for about 6 years, since a devastating personal tragedy. He has a recurring terrible dream, and having tried abusing prescription drugs and alcohol, he’s settled into being a sex addict. He’s very good at seducing 40-something women and abandoning them before the next morning.

Yet Sebastian is a likeable chap, and one whom the reader wishes to know better. His mother has died before the novel opens, so Sebastian travels to her house in Vasteras (a “polite” small town in Sweden) to sell up. He did not get on with his parents, to the extent that he does not want to know how his mother died, and has not attended her funeral. While roaming round the house one night, he finds some letters written to his mother thirty years ago: letters that change his life.

In parallel with Sebastian’s story, a murder has taken place. Sixteen-year-old Roger Eriksson has gone missing. Because of the incompetence of the local police, nobody begins to look for the boy for a few days, whereupon his body is found in a lake – and drowning was not the cause of death. Internal police politics ensure that a small specialist team from Riksmond, led by Torkel Hoglund, is bought in to take over the investigation.

Vasteras is a small place, so Sebastian becomes aware of the investigation when he witnesses the delinquent son of his neighbour running across his garden, away from the police who want to question him. It turns out that Sebastian is an old colleague of Torkel, and that the two men have helped each other through some difficult personal times in the past. Sebastian isn’t in the least interested in helping with the murder case, but calls in favours to get himself on the team and, he hopes, access to the police computers which will help him track down the information in the letters he has found.

The juxtaposition of the police investigation, which brings up more and more nasty secrets of small-town life, and the unwelcome Sebastian’s contributions, make an interesting and unusual tale. After the chapters outlining the set-up, the action slows down considerably as the police follow up boring and useless leads, but the personalities of the local and specialist police-force make up for this lack of pace. Sebastian himself is a fascinating character, as he gradually becomes drawn into the investigation despite himself, and finds some degree of rehabilitation in doing so. In the end, he’s left as a bit of a frustrating enigma, doubtless to be explored further in future books. I look forward to reading them, not least because of Marlaine Delargy’s characteristically excellent translation.

———

I bought this book.

Sebastian Bergman has been made into a TV series, together with the second (as yet untranslated) book – the authors are TV producers. The first episode tells the story of the book I’ve reviewed here. Although the TV show sticks to the plot of the book, it is far more superficial (and violent), and the character of Sebastian exaggerated almost to caricature. The show is reviewed here by Mrs Peabody. I much preferred the book!

Although the book has been available to purchase for a while, I can’t find any (proper) reviews of it (even Amazon UK only has one), though there are lots of reviews of the TV show out there. (A search of Trapdoor’s or Little, Brown’s websites does not turn up the book, either!) There is some reader discussion at GoodReads, mostly in Swedish.

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Book review: The Wandering Soul Murders by Gail Bowen


The Wandering Soul Murders
by Gail Bowen
McClelland and Stewart 2004
first published 1992
Joanne Kilbourn #3

In the third novel of this engaging series, Joanne Kilbourn has moved back to Regina to establish a home for her new daughter Taylor. As ever, a strong element of family ties pervades this novel, as Jo’s eldest daughter Mieka has returned to live with Jo while she establishes a second branch of her Saskatoon catering business. Mieka’s wedding is looming, so Jo is both concerned with the arrangements, and with her worries about Mieka, who has given up her college degree course to start her business.

A couple of coincidences kick-start the mystery plot. First, Mieka finds the murdered body of her temporary cleaner in a garbage can behind the city hall site of her business. Then, an unwelcome visitor turns up: a manipulative woman called Christy who was engaged to Peter, Jo’s eldest son. The young couple had broken up and Peter is currently away working, but Christy tells Jo that they have now got back together again and that Peter has invited her to Mieka’s engagement party weekend at her future in-laws’ house. Reluctantly, Jo includes Christy in the trip to the party, slowly realising the extent to which Christy is obsessed with her. Christy is also abruptly rude about the dead girl, upsetting Jo by her lack of sympathy. The second coincidence arrives in the form of the next murder victim.

Jo is determined to uncover some truths about the blight that seems to be hanging over her family. There is also some good news, though, as an old friend invites her to be a panellist on a TV show about Canadian politics. One of the other participants, on a different side of the ideological fence, is Keith, the uncle of Meika’s fiance Greg. Jo becomes romantically interested in Keith.

Although the main framework of the novel concerns Jo’s family relationships and domestic arrangements, there is a strong undercurrent of social tragedy underlying events, which gradually builds to a tense climax when Jo and little Taylor are on a lakeside holiday.

The Wandering Soul Murders is a compelling, easy read: the account of Jo and her family’s life carries the reader along. The darker themes are handled well on an emotional level, but perhaps not so strongly in terms of plot. I do recommend this series: I’ve now read the first three books and shall definitely read more.

I bought this book.

Other reviews of The Wandering Soul Murders: Kirkus reviews and Books in Canada. The book has also been made into a TV film, which from the IMDB plot summary differs in some central respects from the book.

Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan: posts about Gail Bowen and her books.

My reviews of the first two books in this series: Deadly Appearances and Murder at the Mendel (in which Taylor is introduced).

Author’s website.

Book review: In the Darkness by Karin Fossum


In the Darkness
by Karin Fossum
translated by James Anderson
Harvill Secker/Vintage, 2012
first published in Norway in 1995
Inspector Konrad Sejer #1

The opportunity to read Karin Fossum’s first novel in her series about Inspector Sejer is very welcome. Originally published in 1995, In The Darkness already contains all the elements that are familiar to readers of this excellent Norwegian novelist. As with the second couple of novels (chronologically), there is more about Sejer as a character, and about the police team, than there is in more “fabular”, abstract, recent books in the series.

The tale here, as readers familiar with Fossum will expect, is deceptively simple: Eva and her six-year-old daughter Emma discover the body of a man in the river one night. Although Eva tells her daughter she has called the police, in fact she has not. Later, however, another person reports seeing the body, and so Inspector Sejer awards himself the case.

In his characteristic laid-back but observant style, Sejer has befriended the widow and young son of the dead man, who has been missing for six months. Unable to progress, but now knowing he has a murder case on his hands, he decides to look into the only other case of unnatural death that has been reported to the police in the past year. Sejer’s slow but methodical investigation gradually brings to light some small clues that he can follow up. Whether or not the two cases are linked becomes gradually clear to the reader, but the author keeps some surprises up her sleeve.

The book is in two halves: the first half tells the story of the investigation and of Eva’s life from the point of discovery of the man’s body; the second is from Eva’s perspective of previous events, providing a rich psychological portrait of a woman struggling to make ends meet without compromising her artistic integrity, and retain her sanity, in the wake of a divorce and some very stressful life-events. The details of small-town life, together with the touching portrait of two lonely widowers (Sejer and Eva’s father) adjusting to a solitary existence, are very moving and beautifully observed. The book is not without humour, particularly in a scene about an unconventional hiding place Eva is forced to use, which will be familiar to readers of Headhunters (written much later) by Jo Nesbo, another Norwegian crime author.

The author wastes no words in telling her tightly plotted story with its hidden depths, ensuring that the reader will be haunted by it, and Eva’s struggles in particular, for some time after finishing it.

I obtained this book from Amazon Vine.

Other reviews of In The Darkness: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), Irish Independent, Finnish and Scandinavian Review.

Euro Crime: The Inspector Sejer series in order, with links to reviews.

Book review: Another Time, Another Life by Leif G W Persson


Another Time, Another Life
by Leif G W Persson
translated by Paul Norlen
Doubleday/Transworld 2012
First published in Sweden 2003
Johansson/Jarnebring trilogy #2

Another Time, Another Life is a marvellous book. Part of a trilogy subtitled “The story of a crime”, it begins with a terrorist attack on the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975. This was the year that the last Martin Beck book, The Terrorists, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, was published in English translation; as might be expected from the use of the same overarching title, Persson’s first section directly continues the themes of this novel, both in content and in style. Based on a true event, some young radicals manage to get into the embassy and take some people hostage: the police and authorities are taken unawares, but in the end cannot investigate the crime as government ministers do a hasty deal to return the surviving perpetrators to their native Germany. There are one or two loose ends, however, concerning the local support that the terrorists must have received.

The presentation of this first, short section of the book is so distinctive, setting the tone for the rest. It is measured and sober, describing enormities of violence, procedural deficiencies, and institutional stupidities in dispassionate terms, allowing the reader to absorb their full impact. The author’s refusal to be overtly opinionated at first gives his words a face-value authority, but as the book progresses one sees the extent to which the author is wooing the reader to his particular subversive perception of his country’s criminal justice system.

After the end of the embassy siege, the action moves forward to the autumn of 1989, and a murder investigation by the Stockholm police, under the command of the odious DI Backstrom. The lead detectives, Bo Jarnebring and Anna Holt, conduct an impeccable investigation into the murder of a government statistician in his apartment, but Backstrom continually undermines them by stealing liquor from the murder scene and, more importantly, by his inherent, longstanding but evidence-free conviction that the victim was gay and that the murder was a squalid crime of passion.

The crime investigation ultimately seems to lead nowhere, and the book shifts into another “Another Time” section describing the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the origins of the Swedish secret police organisation SePo. Slowly and cleverly, all the themes raised in the novel converge, in terms of international and national spy-politics, in terms of some individuals on either side of the law, and in terms of the two main crimes whose investigations are described with such thoroughness.

In parallel with these accounts, Persson conveys something of the inner thoughts and machinations of his principal characters, some in the “public facing” police force and some in the “private” branch of SePo. The full degree of the author’s indictment of the way in which his country is run behind the scenes is simply brilliantly conveyed, a superb extension and development of the ten-novel “story of a crime” – post-war Swedish society – depicted by Sjowall and Wahloo. The intelligence, thoughtfulness and tension delivered in Persson’s novel are rarely encountered in crime fiction (or probably any fiction), as the author shows how the “solution” to a crime is only the beginning of the story.

I don’t like the common tendency to liken authors to other authors, but I will do so here because this book is reminiscent of Le Carre at his best: think of Smiley’s People, which starts with an apparent “petty” crime on Hampstead Heath, then mushrooms in many unanticipated directions. Persson writes from the perspective of the police institutions and how they, and the individuals within them, have adapted to survive in the changes that have taken place (in this case) between the 1970s and the turn of the millennium. By then, the goals of the police force are even more removed from those for whom they supposedly existed to help in the first place, and those in power in the service are those who have adapted to these immoral and illegal “high level” purposes. Persson also shows his colours concerning the institutionalised sexism of the police, somewhat unclear in his earlier novel Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, but here presented in an uncompromising fashion via his team of three female detectives and the inevitable comparisons readers will make with the self-interested male policemen depicted in this book.

There are many layers of subtlety in this gripping novel which I haven’t addressed in this brief review, but which I greatly appreciated – in particular the acute characterisations, including (in some cases) the disparities between people’s thoughts and actions. I can only urge you to read it. I eagerly devoured every word, even though it is a very long book. In its superb anatomy of Sweden using the police and criminal justice system as a metaphor, as well as many of the ways characters are presented and evolve, Leif Persson is the true heir of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, authors of the best crime-fiction series ever written. (My reviews of nine of those ten books can be accessed at Euro Crime.)

——-
I thank Karen for a proof copy of this novel. The UK cover of the novel is a generic “Scandinavian” picture of a person walking in the snow, which does not seem to reflect anything in the book. The lower cover image is the US version, which is aesthetically nicer and somewhat less generic.

A small point that interested me is that the name of the main victim is Kjell Eriksson, also the name of a well-known Swedish crime novelist. And the admirable female detective, Anna Holt, has a name reminiscent of Norwegian crime author (and ex-justice minister) Anne Holt.

Other reviews of Another Time, Another Life are at: Euro Crime (Laura Root), Crime Scraps and International Noir Fiction.

Book review: Sail of Stone by Åke Edwardson


Sail of Stone
by Åke Edwardson
translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Simon & Schuster, 2012 (US edition)
First published in Sweden, 2002.
Chief Inspector Erik Winter #6

Sail of Stone is a book of two parts: a rather mystical, music-name-checking-heavy first half in which nothing much happens; and a more down-to-earth, faster-moving second half. Following the tradition set in earlier books, there are two main plots in Sail of Stone. In both of them, it is not clear whether a crime has been committed, consequently much time is taken up with obfuscation, hesitation and ponderings as to whether there is even an investigation to be undertaken.

Both storylines involve Gothenburg’s team of police detectives. In one, Aneta Djanali follows up a neighbours’ report of possible spousal abuse in the downmarket area of Kortedala. The woman concerned, Anette Lindsten, will not open the door, and when Aneta returns later to allay her feelings of unease, she encounters a bizarre scene. It becomes Aneta’s mission to find Anette and discover what is happening to her and who is responsible, questions that are frustratingly intangible but which lead in unpredictable directions. During her investigation, Aneta reflects on her African heritage – her parents were immigrants from the Upper Volta, a country that since changed its name to Burkina Faso – and also continues her relationship with her colleague, the widower Fredrik Halders, a touching sub-plot.

The other storyline concerns Erik Winter, who is more concerned with buying a piece of land by the sea and building a house for his partner Angela and their daughter Elsa, than in his work. (This is a change of character caused by dramatic incidents in a previous novel, Frozen Tracks.) However, when an old girlfriend who lives on an island on the archipelago contacts him because her father has gone missing in Scotland, Erik eventually decides to act. After much introspection, he contacts his old friend Steve Macdonald from the Met; the two men, together with their partners, travel to Scotland to unravel the mystery.

Åke Edwardson’s novels are idiosyncratic. The separate stories are told in paragraphs within a chapter, together with what seem to be random paragraphs about un-named people (at least one of whom seems mad). In addition, several characters in Sail of Stone have the same, or a very similar, name. This can be a disorienting experience for the reader, and together with elements such as all the music references and the various reflections on sea, stone and sail, make the first half of the book seem a little self-indulgent. One advantage of this style, however, is that the atmosphere of Gothenburg is extremely well-depicted, and is a most enjoyable component of the novel.

The second half of the book is in many ways much more satisfactory, in that things actually happen and reader becomes genuinely involved in how both stories will pan out. However, it skates over many obvious questions, particularly in Aneta’s investigation, in which she does no checking of the characters she encounters, nor does she interview any of the neighbours who have allegedly observed and reported the problems. The ending of the book is disappointing in that the resolutions take only a couple of pages, which feels too truncated after such a long preamble and build-up. Despite its discursive, leisurely nature, Sail of Stone is a very enjoyable book for all the reasons I’ve given; because of the excellent translation; and because of its evocative descriptions of the sea and of the fishermen’s trade.

A note about the order of the series and my reading of it: the first books to be translated were Sun and Shadow (#3), Never End (#4) and Frozen Tracks (#5). (Click on the titles to read my reviews at Euro Crime.) Then, the first two books, Death Angels (#1) and Shadow Woman (#2) were translated and published. Because reviews of these books were mixed and because I did not feel that enthusiastic about going backwards in the series, I haven’t read these. I hope that future books in the series will be translated in chronological order! (The next up is Room No. 10 (#7), so it looks as if my wish is granted in the short term, at least.)

I thank Barbara Fister for so kindly sending me this book. Her review of it is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Other reviews of Sail of Stone are at: International Noir Fiction and Nordic Bookblog.

Book review: Killer’s Island by Anna Jansson


Killer’s Island
by Anna Jansson
translated by Enar Henning Koch
Stockholm Text (e-book) 2012
First published as Drömmen Förde dig Vilse (The Dream Led You Astray), 2010
Maria Wern #11

The island of the title is Gotland, best known to me as the setting for Mari Jungstedt’s novels. Killer’s Island is the first in the Maria Wern series to be translated into English but in fact is 11th (or according to some, 10th), chronologically. The books have also been filmed as a very popular TV series in Sweden.

Maria is a criminal inspector in the police team on the island. On the way home from a night out with her colleague Erika, she witnesses a boy being attacked by three men and tries to help him. She herself is seriously injured and ends up in hospital. Much to her annoyance, she can’t investigate the case because she is a witness, but she follows progress with interest.

Maria is not inactive for long, as a few days later the body of a woman is found, clad in a wedding dress, in the botanical gardens. The victim is found to be a nurse at the same hospital where Maria was treated, who has been consulting a local doctor because of insomnia – a doctor who turns out to be the new love-interest of Maria’s colleague Erika.

Killer’s Island is a very quick and compelling read. However, it is very much a mystery in the Agatha Christie style than one that is realistic. The reader is only told information if it is (or will be) relevant to the plot. Everybody turns out to be connected to everyone else. The identity of the killer is not a surprise. He or she is someone who, we learn at the start of the book, has hacked into a Russian satellite that monitors an oil pipeline, and uses this information to track people on the island. He or she is also able to hack into police and hospital computers so knows everything about the potential victims and the investigation. So there isn’t much of a crime puzzle element to the book, though there is plenty of suspense.

The strongest element of the novel is its depiction of the characters, including the members of the police team and their various romantic and other dilemmas. Clearly there is a lot of background that the English language reader cannot know about, but even so, the individuals and their problems are real, often involving their children (almost all of them are divorced). The other characters – witnesses, suspects and victims – are also presented well so that the reader becomes involved in their concerns and lives. Another strong element of the book is its local atmosphere, providing a fascinating picture of daily life on Gotland.

Killer’s Island is an old-fashioned book (despite its nods to mobile phones and the internet). It is rather like the books that have been churned out non-stop by crime authors since the Golden Age of Christie, Sayers and Allingham. If that’s your cup of tea, I am sure you’ll like this engaging, pleasing account in which everything is solved and tied up in ribbon at the end. I enjoyed the book as a change from my usual reading, but I am not converted to this subgenre.

I bought this book.

Other reviews of Killer’s Island: Criminal Element (includes interesting information about visiting Gotland), Simon Clarke (Amazon), Rhapsody in Books and International Noir Fiction.

Stockholm Text: about Killer’s Island.

Wikipedia: Anna Jansson and her books (titles in Swedish!).

Book review: A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller


A Killing in the Hills
by Julia Keller
Headline, 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed this superb debut novel. Here is an author who not only can write, but clearly loves writing. A Killing in the Hills is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

What’s so good about this book is not the mechanics of the main crime plot (which do not work, in my opinion), but the characterisation, storytelling and atmosphere. The narrative is a layered one, and revelations about the layers occur at different points in the book, providing far more reader interest and engagement than is usual in a typical crime novel.

Belfa (Bell) Elkins is a prosecuting attorney in the impoverished West Virginia hamlet of Acker’s Gap. She was a trailer kid, but when she was about 10 her home burnt down – more is revealed gradually. As the book opens, a man walks into a diner, shoots three elderly men, and walks out. The aftermath of the shooting forms another narrative framework. One of the witnesses to the killing is Bell’s daughter Carla, who has just been to her teen anger-management course – and boy, does she need it! Another theme of the book is Bell’s relationship with Carla and with Sam, her ex-husband: all portrayed realistically and compellingly with an originality rarely encountered in contemporary crime fiction (which regularly features stroppy teenagers). Another theme is a case involving the death of a small boy in a game gone wrong: Bell has to decide on the charge to be made against the person responsible.

Bell is the heart of the book; her past, her professional life, her relationships with colleagues and an elderly couple she’s befriended, and her close, movingly portrayed friendship with the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong. All the characters, important or minor, are vividly conveyed, though the diner gunman is the least successful.

The intertwined plots play out against a beautiful portrayal of this rural area, a wonderful portrait of a community riven by poverty and hopelessness. The main story, that of the gunman and his actions subsequent to the initial shooting, is not credible in various ways – and the final revelations also lack believability. But this does not derail this excellent novel: there is so much to like about it that I can only urge you to read it for yourself, and discover this very talented author.

Although the cover of the book shows a beautiful picture of some mountains, here is an extract from the book:

This was what morning in West Virginia really meant, Chill thought. Not the pictures they were always sticking on postcards – sunrise over the mountains, the scooped-out gorges, and all the wildflowers – but a traffic jam in a 7-Eleven parking lot, the dirty pickups and the cars with mufflers hoisted up and tied there with rope. Kids crammed in the backseats, looking out the side windows, and if you looked back at them, they gave you the finger. Don’t see that on any postcard. Hell, no.

I received this book from Amazon Vine.

Aunt Agatha’s: another (glowing) review of this book.

YouTube: trailer for the book (very beautiful).

About the book at the publishers’ websites: Australia, USA (pdf) and UK.

Book review: Gone in Seconds by A J Cross


Gone in Seconds
by A J Cross
Orion, 2012

Gone in Seconds ticks all the boxes for a contemporary crime novel: but is that enough? The heroine, Kate Hudson, is a senior lecturer in criminology at Birmingham University who works in parallel for the West Midlands police force’s unsolved crime unit. She’s divorced from an unpleasant barrister who defends obviously guilty people, and has a 12-year-old daughter Maisie with whom she has an up-and-down relationship. Kate’s main professional interest, as disclosed in a lecture she gives to new students in chapter 1, is in men who abduct girls and/or young women. She emphasises to her students how many of these men operate under the radar, because society has no way of alerting the public to them: we tend to follow cases in the media when someone disappears, or a case in court when someone is caught, but Kate’s line is that women in general need to be much more “switched on” in their daily lives, to avoid this fate.

The first few chapters introduce too many characters and themes at once. The police unit staff comprise a full compliment of genre staples: handsome/sensitive American FBI-type, the boss from hell, gruff grandfatherly figure, obsessively accurate pathologist, scene-of-crime men (one nice, one nasty), and Julian, one of Kate’s students who helps with all the computer “stuff”. Kate herself has a caricature of a cleaning lady, on-tap to look after Maisie at inconvenient times, as Kate is a workaholic. Maisie is usually out at her friend Chelsey’s house, causing Kate much angst about how much parental control to try to insist upon.

Once the book gets over all the scene-setting, it settles into the main plot, in which the remains of a teenager who went missing ten years ago are found. The book focuses on the identification of the body, and on Kate’s psychological insight which enhances the police procedural aspects of the investigation (despite the boss’s fury on the topic). More bodies are found, more suspects identified, and soon it dawns on everyone that the criminal might be one of the unsolved crime unit’s staff……

Although this book is a solid read, particularly strong in the sections about the parents of the missing girls, it has a sense of being “made for TV” (there are regular name-checks of branded clothing and fashion accessories) and is utterly predictable in its plot as well as in its stock cast of characters. After I’d read the first few chapters I made a note of what I thought would happen, and 400 pages later I was correct on all counts, short of precisely naming the villain.

I would have liked this book a lot more if it had been 250 pages in length rather than 420, which meant the pace was very slow and the content padded, given that almost every event was so predictable. I was disappointed by the one element that seemed to me to be potentially original: Kate’s insistence that the “serial killer” popularised by the media does not exist, but that what does are people she calls “repeaters”. I did not see how the two differed at all, on the evidence of this novel.

Those who don’t read as much crime fiction as I do (or watch the many TV programmes that concern forensic crime) may well find Gone In Seconds is a competent, satisfying genre novel. It certainly has a nice sense of its West Midlands setting, but there is not anything in it to make it stand out from the pack.

I obtained this book via Amazon Vine.

Another review: Entertainment Focus.

Publisher website: about the author, who is a forensic psychologist.

Book review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach


The Collini Case
by Ferdinand von Schirach
translated by Anthea Bell
Penguin/Michael Joseph 2012
(first published in Germany 2011)

The Collini Case is a novella: 160 or so pages of large type, with each chapter starting on a right-hand page (so plenty of white space). Therefore, any review is likely to give away too much in advance for the reader of this brief tale.

The centrepiece of the book is a courtroom drama. The defendant, Collini, is an Italian who has lived in Germany for all his adult life, first as a guestworker. As the book opens, he enters a hotel and, on the pretext of being a journalist, brutally kills an elderly industrialist millionaire. Collini does not try to escape, but he won’t speak to anyone, either.

The pleasures of the story are in the procedural details of the case (including a few pages of detail about the post-mortem which are hard to read if you are the slightest bit sensitive). The defending lawyer, Caspar Leinen, is a young idealist; part of the book tells his life-story and his connection with the victim’s family, which is very poignant and well done.

As a defence lawyer, of course, Leinen feels a moral obligation to find out why Collini committed the crime, even though Collini himself will not speak. Eventually, he thinks he has found a clue, but inevitably simply discovering the truth is not going to be sufficient to see that justice is done. Perhaps the revelations near the end will not come as a surprise, but they are nevertheless moving and powerful.

The Collini Case is an extremely readable book, ably translated by the highly honoured Anthea Bell. It is easy to see why it has been a bestseller in Germany since it was first published there in 2011.

I obtained this book via Amazon Vine.

Spiegel online: fascinating article in which the author discusses his grandfather’s past. I recommend not reading it unless you don’t mind knowing in advance what this book is going to be about.

YouTube video about the book.

Every blurb and review I’ve read of the book gives away far too much of the plot for such a short book, so if you plan to read it I suggest you do as I did and just read it without knowing anything about it! (The John Grisham-style cover is a sufficient hint as to the contents.)

Book review: Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin


Playing Dead
by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine Books (pb), 2012

This debut novel is set mainly in the wilds of Texas. The narrator is Tommie, in her early 30s and an equine psychologist by profession – she rehabilitates children whose lives have been shattered in some way by encouraging them to ride and train horses. Tommie was set to be either a great pianist or a rodeo star, but her hopes for both potential professions were dashed in one fell swoop when, as a young girl, someone ensured she rode a “banned” steer, so she fell and broke her hand when it trod on her.

If this preamble gives you a hint that this novel has elements of an overblown soap opera, you would be right. Tommie is one of those well-educated but daffy protagonists, who is paranoid about her safety yet is always getting herself into avoidable, dangerous situations. She has a few useful men to protect her – an Afghanistan vet boyfriend, her parents’ ranch hand, an old Southern lawyer, a crack journalist and a taxi driver. Tommie is scared because she has received a shocking letter just after her “Daddy” has died. The letter says that Tommie’s mother is in fact a woman married to an infamous, jailed mobster. The woman who Tommie has always thought of as her mother is in a care-hospital suffering from Alzheimer’s, so cannot communicate with her daughter. Tommie’s sister Sadie and her cute niece Maddie provide useful support and a sounding board for her concerns.

At the bottom of this novel is a good mystery story, actually quite simple. Yet the author makes it appear extremely complicated by filtering everything through Tommie’s unreliable perceptions and memories of her childhood on the ranch as a sort of tomboy-rich-girl. Tommie is, obviously, desperate to find out the truth about her origins, yet at the same time fearful. Most of the first half of the book is taken up with her feelings of insecurity, her dreams and hallucinations as she fears the people she has to meet but also makes sure that she does not have any help or back-up when she does so. Somewhat crazy things happen, such as Tommie is told to wear green clothes to visit the woman claiming to be her biological mother – it turns out, so that she is well-camouflaged when sitting in the conservatory. She also has a phone relationship with an exceptionally irritating fellow-inmate of the mobster, a woman whose calls pepper the narrative. There were moments when I almost did not continue. But there was enough interest underneath all the baroque paranoia to keep me going.

Eventually, Tommie sharpens up a bit, and follows up some of the clues she finds – for example she was told by the authorities a while back that her social security number was given to her in error. Towards the end of the book, she decides to follow up on the person who had the number she thought was hers for most of her life. Right at the end of the book, one of the characters provides another clue (which he could have done on page 10) that rapidly allows all the loose ends to be tied up – and it is certainly the case that many of the hints throughout do turn out to have relevance to the plot (though it was pretty easy to guess the main twist), even if some of them, in particular the ones involving the mob, are over-hastily resolved.

I don’t think that Playing Dead is the best debut novel I’ve read recently, but it has promise. The novel has a strong element of the author trying to be too clever in deliberately obscuring the plot and laying on too thick the Texan/Southern clichés – it reminded me a bit of books by Gillian Flynn. The characterisation in some cases is weak. A man who tells Tommie he is a journalist helps her one night at her ranch when she’s taken some of her father’s prescription drugs. The next time we meet this character, he is very drunk – Tommie reflects that he is always drunk, as if the previous event had not occurred. I think the author has a good way with language and will go on to write interesting books, but I hope with fewer circular elements and more consistency.

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

Other reviews of Playing Dead: Jen’s Book Thoughts, Kirkus reviews and Life in Review.

Author website.