Friday, September 14, 2012

Invisible Murder, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

The first book by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase, was among the best international crime fiction of recent years, and I was grateful when SoHo Press sent me a review copy of the sequel, Invisible Murder. Kaaberbøl translated the first book herself, but this time the translation into English is by Tara Chace, who also did a great job. The prose is clear and moves along very well.

Invisible Murder is almost as good as the first book--I say "almost" because one of the pleasures of The Boy in the Suitcase was discovering who the main character was going to be, among the plethora of characters vying for attention. Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse, hardly seemed the most likely and it is to the authors' credit that she takes and holds the center of the story very well (as she continues to do in the second book). I have a bit of a quibble with the ending, something other reviewers have mentioned, but only in that after the vivid story up to that point, the end is a bit flat.

The book begins in Hungary, where two boys seeking salvage find a way into a sealed hospital abandoned by the Soviet Union at the end of their occupation of Hungary. We see little of what they find there, but the whole story flows from their discovery. One of the boys, a Roma, has a half-brother who's studying law in the capital, and we follow him, partly from his point of view, throughout the story (the narration is third-person).

In Copenhagen, Nina, who has promised her husband not to volunteer for the asylum network (which got her into trouble in the first novel) while he is away on an oil platform at sea. But she gets a call asking her to help some sick Roma children living in an abandoned garage. When she arrives and tries to offer medical assistance, she is rebuffed and threatened. But her attempts to help the children bring her story and that of the half-Roma law student toward each other.

No more plot details: the reader will have figured out what's going on long before Nina or a police officer who also occupies a good deal of the narrative--it's one of those books that make you want to shake the characters and yell at them to make them understand what's going on. But the authors keep them in the dark in very convincing ways. A reader might also want to grab Nina and tell her to pay more attention to her family: Nina's family life is an integral part of the story and is the focus of the most effective parts of the ending.

Kaaberbøl and Friis have created not only one of the best new crime series, but also one of the most unusual, in terms of the characters, the plots, and the way the crimes are integrated into the story. Their two books so far available in English elevate the crime fiction genre as a whole and are unique among Scandinavian noir (at least in what's available in translation) for the credibility and intensity of the stories.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Unwanted, by Kristina Ohlsson

Kristina Ohlsson's first novel, translated as Unwanted in English, takes some interesting angles on the standard police procedural. At the beginning, the leader of the investigative team, Alex Recht, seems to be the main character. But gradually the reader's interest and the motion of the plot shift to another person, Fredrika Bergman, who is a civilian academic working on the police team (judging from a couple of recent Swedish crime stories, this must be common in Sweden). Recht and his younger assistant, Peder Rydh (who is in his own mind the ace detective of the unit, at least at the beginning) discount Fredrika's abilities because of her civilian status as well as plain old sexism.

In fact, one of the interesting characteristics of the novel is the abuse, mental as well as physical, exerted by almost all the men in their personal relationships. Partly, this aspect of the book is a generator of red herrings, since the person they are tracking is clearly an abuser of women. But it seems to be a deeper point, made more subtly than in the Dragon Tattoo books, about men's attitudes, even in the supposedly enlightened land of the midnight sun.

The story begins with the disappearance of a young girl from a Stockholm-bound train, while her mother is distracted by a phone call. The husband and father is immediately and obviously the main suspect, with only Fredrika willing to keep her mind cracked open enough to see other leads that need to be followed up (and there is some obvious telegraphing of the plot as the story shifts over to her point of view--plainly she's going to be proved right at some point). There is also a large plot point that will be quite obvious to the reader long before anyone, even Fredrika, figures it out. But the procedural format frequently includes that sort of dramatic irony, so I don't really fault the novel on that point. Karen at Eurocrime makes the point that Alex, supposedly a star on the police force (at least he is in Peder's mind) doesn't really demonstrate anything that would give him that status--he's as dense as Peder most of the time.
The English title refers to a word written on his victims by the perpetrator of the crimes; the Swedish title, Askungar, actually means, literally, "ash children," or "Cinderellas" and both words have resonance in the plot. In English, though, Cinderellas would have been a misleading title, at least here in the land of Disney. The UK. cover, showing a young woman's face, is certainly apt, but the U.S. cover, showing the same red shoes as the original Swedish cover (though in a different design) has an interesting relationship to the story that's missing from the U.K. cover--one might think they refer obliquely to the young kidnap victim's shoes, abandoned on the train, but they don't, and the misdirection makes their actual significance more interesting.

I liked Unwanted, though it's perhaps not as good overall as a book I was reading at about the same time (the newly translated Nina Borg book, Invisible Murder, but Kaberbøl and Friis, which is difficult to compete with) but it's a good sign that a first novel by a Swedish crime writer has been translated very soon after its original appearance in Sweden: more please, not only of Ohlsson but of other new Scandinavian crime writers (and in the order of their original publication, please).

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Donna Leon's Non-Brunetti

I received a digital copy of Donna Leon's new novel, The Jewels of Paradise, from NetGalley and began reading it without having any prior knowledge of the book or its history. For a while, I kept expecting Commissario Brunetti to pop up somehow, but gradually I figured out that it's her first non-Brunetti novel. It's part of a larger project on which she collaborated, dealing with a production of Baroque opera (which is in fact her real interest in art and life).

The story is a novelty in one other sense, her main character and the person through whom we see nearly everything is a woman, an Italian native who has been pursuing an academic career outside Venice for a number of years and is tempted back to her native city by an offer of a temporary job, assessing the papers of a lesser-known Italian composer of the Baroque era.

She quickly becomes embroiled in a web of family and greed that readers will recognize from the Brunetti books: Leon's view of contemporary Italian society is unromantic. But the primary intrigue is what she finds out about the composer's life through his papers. Leon has used an actual composer (I won't give his name because part of the intrigue at the beginning of the book is whose papers are being researched and why). There are crimes in the book, though mostly in the composer's life, as he struggled with personal, religious, and political situations beyond the scope of his musical career. The resolution of the book in the present day grows organically from that nexus of the composer's interests.

I found the book to be fascinating, and the research intriguing. It's not a thriller or even, in the usual sense, a mystery or a crime novel. But there is plenty of tension, and the satirical impulses evident in Leon's other books are deployed even more here. It's also interesting to see what Leon can do when freed from the usual structure and cast of characters. I read the book on an iPod Touch, and it's a testament to the story and to the quality of the writing that I didn't feel any strain at all in reading the novel on such a small screen.