Monthly Archives: May 2013

Review: A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen

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A Conspiracy of FaithA Conspiracy of Faith (British title: Redemption) by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Dutton Adult, 2013)

Department Q series #3

 

Blurb: Two boys, brothers, wake tied and bound in a boathouse by the sea. Their kidnapper has gone, but soon he will return. Their bonds are inescapable.
But there is a bottle and tar to seal it. Paper and a splinter for writing; blood for ink. A message begging for help…

Her husband will not tell the truth: where he goes, what he does, how long he will be away. For days on end she waits and when he returns she must endure his wants, his moods, his threats. But enough is enough. She will find out the truth, no matter the cost to him—or to herself.

In Copenhagen’s cold cases division Carl Morck has received a bottle. It holds an old and decayed message, written in blood. It is a cry for help from two boys. Is it real? Who are they and why weren’t they reported missing? Can they possibly still be alive?

 

A Conspiracy of Faith is the third book in the Department Q series, which chronicles the accidental creation and subsequent success of a Copenhagen cold case squad. Detective Carl Mørck would rather be napping, but he manages to direct the efforts of Assad, his enigmatic Syrian deputy who grows more intriguing with every page, and Rose, his chameleon-like assistant.

A detective in Scotland contacts Mørck with a message in a bottle that was discovered many years ago by a colleague, and subsequently forgotten. The note, written in blood, is a plea for help: a young boy and his brother have been kidnapped, and their death is imminent. Mørck and his team must determine the identity and the fate of the writer—no easy task given the culture of silence that permeates non-mainstream religious sects in Scandinavia—and the kidnapper.

As with previous books in the series, this is not a mystery but a thriller that relies on psychological insight, deft plotting and nonstop action to build and maintain suspense right up until the very end. Well-placed humor keeps the book from being overly stark, and although the heart of the story is the kidnapper and his victims, we do get to know Mørck and his colleagues a bit better—just enough clues to keep me wanting more. In the hands of a less capable author the team might come across as a grouping of stereotypes—Assad’s unusual turns of phrase are a running gag—but three books in, the characters come across as genuine, and genuinely fond of each other beneath the constant ribbing.

While the main plot was compelling, the side plot, which involved Serbian gang activity apparently connected to arson in Denmark, was distracting and at times a bit confusing. Assad’s insights were crucial to the arson investigation, which gained him some (well-deserved) respect in the police department, and I’m hoping this is going to lead to more of his story in future books.

One last note: the translator did a fantastic job, in my opinion—translating humor isn’t easy, especially humor that relies on wordplay, and it seemed effortless here.

 

This ARC was provided by Penguin via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Another Time, Another Life by Leif G.W. Persson

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AnotherTimeAnotherLifeAnother Time, Another Life by Leif G.W. Persson (Pantheon, 2012)

 

Blurb: In 1975, six young people stormed the West German embassy in Stockholm, taking the entire staff hostage. They demanded the immediate release of members of the Baader-Meinhof group being held as prisoners in West Germany, but twelve hours into the siege, the embassy was blown up, two hostages were dead, and many others were injured, including the captors. Thus begins Leif GW Persson’s Another Time, Another Life

The story, based on real events linked to the still-unsolved assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, picks up in 1989, as the seemingly unrelated stabbing death of a civil servant is investigated by officers Bo Jarnebring and Anna Holt. Under the supervision of their cantankerous, prejudiced, and corrupt superior, Evert Bäckström, the case gets surreptitiously swept under the rug, and the victim is tied to a string of sex-related crimes, despite evidence to the contrary. 

Another ten years pass before the confounding truth about the murder victim is unearthed. Just as Lars Martin Johansson, a friend of Jarnebring’s, begins his tenure as the head of the Swedish Security Police, he inherits two files from his predecessor, one of which is on the murder victim—who turns out to have been a collaborator in the 1975 embassy takeover. Revealed now are not only the identities of the other collaborators but also the identity of the murderer: an intelligent, capable lawyer a heartbeat away from the top position in Sweden’s Ministry of Defense. With masterfully interlaced plotlines pulled from the darkest corners of political power and corruption, Another Time, Another Life bristles with wit, insight, and intensity.

 

This is a difficult book to review. I’ve read a lot of Nordic crime fiction and most of it translates well, but this particular book was a lot more difficult for someone from a different society/culture to absorb. The author is a well-known Swedish criminologist, and this book interweaves actual events (the occupation and bombing of the West German embassy in Stockholm, the murder of Olof Palme) with a fictional murder. It is the investigation of this murder that ties everything together.

The author assumes a certain level of knowledge not only of the embassy siege and Palme’s murder, but of European politics during the Cold War and the effect on internal Swedish politics. This plays a crucial role in both the murder itself and in the investigation, so if you’ve no interest in politics, particularly Cold War politics, this likely isn’t a book that’s going to hold your interest.

A central theme of the book did resonate with me: the notion that we are different people at different times in our lives, and that the actions of the person I once was might be completely unthinkable for the person I am now—which leads to the moral/ethical question of should I now be held responsible for the actions of the person I used to be.

I appreciated the author’s humor, especially as regarded the detectives involved in the original murder investigation (for a number of reasons, this investigation lasts for some 25 years). While the plot was slow to advance, I didn’t find myself skimming or growing impatient while I read the book, although I do think it picked up about halfway through and got more and more interesting.

I’m giving the book a solid 3.5 stars, and I’ve rounded that up to 4 stars because I do have an interest and a background in Cold War politics.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen

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DisgraceDisgrace (American title: The Absent One) by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Penguin, 2012), Department Q series

Blurb: In The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen introduced Detective Carl Mørck, a deeply flawed, brilliant detective newly assigned to run Department Q, the home of Copenhagen’s coldest cases. The result wasn’t what Mørck—or readers—expected, but by the opening of Adler-Olsen’s shocking, fast-paced follow-up, Mørck is satisfied with the notion of picking up long-cold leads. So he’s naturally intrigued when a closed case lands on his desk: A brother and sister were brutally murdered two decades earlier, and one of the suspects—part of a group of privileged boarding-school students—confessed and was convicted.

But once Mørck reopens the files, it becomes clear that all is not what it seems. Looking into the supposedly solved case leads him to Kimmie, a woman living on the streets, stealing to survive. Kimmie has mastered evading the police, but now they aren’t the only ones looking for her. Because Kimmie has secrets that certain influential individuals would kill to keep buried . . . as well as one of her own that could turn everything on its head.

 

Last year I picked up The Keeper of Lost Causes based solely on the title, and was blown away. I’ve been keeping Disgrace on my reward shelf as a treat, and it definitely delivered. I would recommend reading these books in order, as some familiarity with the characters is assumed.

The characters make these books. Mørck is as sharp an investigator and as lovesick as ever; Assad continues to be mysterious in the best possible way (with hints dropped here and there that I assume will be fleshed out in subsequent books); and Rose, the new member of Department Q, by turns exasperates and impresses Mørck. Disgrace lacks the laugh-out-loud humor of Lost Causes, but it wouldn’t have felt right here. There’s still humor when Mørck and Assad interact, but it’s much lighter, and it balances the more grisly aspects of the story.

The bad guys in this book are intriguing, and they are the true focus: Kimmie, who lives on the streets, was once the darling of Danish high society—and she knows enough of her former friends’ secrets that they’ll do anything to keep her quiet. Her story is both chilling and tragic, and while I found myself drawn to her, I was repelled by her as well, which for me is a sign of a well-written character.

Much more a thriller than a mystery, Disgrace is full of twists and turns as the various dramas play themselves out. The climax of the book was as surprising as it was inevitable. Definitely a series to keep reading.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Red Glove by Holly Black

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Red GloveRed Glove by Holly Black (Margaret K. McElderry, 2011)

Blurb: In Cassel Sharpe’s world, they go together. Cassel always thought he was an ordinary guy, until he realized his memories were being manipulated by his brothers. Now he knows the truth — he’s the most powerful curse worker around. A touch of his hand can transform anything — or anyone — into something else.

That was how Lila, the girl he loved, became a white cat. Cassel was tricked into thinking he killed her, when actually he tried to save her. Now that she’s human again, he should be overjoyed. Trouble is, Lila’s been cursed to love him, a little gift from his emotion-worker mom. And if Lila’s love is as phony as Cassel’s made-up memories, then he can’t believe anything she says or does.

When Cassel’s oldest brother is murdered, the Feds recruit Cassel to help make sense of the only clue — crime-scene images of a woman in red gloves. But the mob is after Cassel too — they know how valuable he could be to them. Cassel is going to have to stay one step ahead of both sides just to survive. But where can he turn when he can’t trust anyone — least of all, himself?

Love is a curse and the con is the only answer in a game too dangerous to lose.

White Cat is one of my favorite YA urban fantasy novels. In many ways, Red Glove seemed to have middle-child syndrome: while White Cat had the benefit of a relatively simple story (albeit one with a wonderfully twisty-turny plot), Red Glove introduces many new characters and a lot more action. It’s a lot more complex than the first book (White Cat), and it doesn’t have the same gut-punch twists and turns. But it does have more in-depth characterization and plotting–and something I consider important in YA: it doesn’t rely on stereotypes.

Cassel, the main character, continues to struggle with the morals and ethics of who he is–as a curse worker, as a member of a crime family, as a human being. He grew up believing he had no magical abilities and that he had killed the girl he loved, only to discover that neither of those is true. The girl he loves is right beside him—only Cassel’s mother, in an attempt to “help,” has put a love curse on Lila, so that her feelings for Cassel are as not-real as his are real. Cassel’s relationship with his brother Barron has improved, but there too, Barron’s memory has been so affected by blowback that nothing he says can be taken at face value. Luckily for Cassel, his friends Sam and Daneca continue to stand by him. Though they’re secondary characters, they’re witty and well-developed.

Definitely going to check out Black Heart to see how this ends.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Daybreak by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

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DaybreakDaybreak by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson (Amazon Crossing, 2013)

Blurb: When the shotgun-blasted body of a goose hunter is discovered, the police believe they have a list of suspects who may have wanted the victim dead, from his young wife to the caretaker of his property. But then a second body, another hunter, is found with a similar fatal wound. And then a third. As the pattern emerges—all goose hunters, all shot at the break of dawn—Reykjavik policemen Gunnar and Birkir face the terrifying possibility that a serial killer is stalking the idyllic Icelandic countryside.

Gunnar and Birkir set a trap for the one they call “the Gander,” but it quickly becomes a wild goose chase as the murderer plays some tricks of his own. With the clock running out and the discovery of another body all but guaranteed, the cops must determine if there is a thread connecting the victims or if the killings are all part of a twisted game.

 

Daybreak is a competently written, plot-driven crime novel that has been well translated from the Icelandic. While I enjoyed reading it, I can’t say it will stay with me or that I would read additional books if it were to become a series. There was a generic feel to the novel, as though it could have been set almost anywhere—it didn’t have a strong sense of place or character.

The detectives assigned to the case, Gunnar and Birkir, are both outsiders themselves; Gunnar is of German heritage, Birkir Vietnamese. The author did a good job of conveying the distance they felt from Icelandic society, but unfortunately in doing so he also created too much distance between the reader and the characters. They both had the potential to be interesting, yet because of the lack of development, both struck me as stereotypes: the overweight, sloppy detective and the silent, inscrutable one. I had hoped the author would use the setting to greater advantage, since Iceland is such a remote, bleak landscape, but with its focus on plot, there’s not a lot of description.

Some of the elements that I most enjoy about Nordic crime fiction were missing from this book—strong sense of setting, a greater social awareness—but that’s not necessarily a criticism. This was a solid, compelling mystery novel, perfect for a beach read or on the airplane, when you want a fast-paced, quick read.

 

This ARC was furnished by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt

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Blessed Are ThoseBlessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt (Scribner, 2012)

Blurb:  It is only the beginning of May but in Oslo a brutal heat wave has coincided with an alarming increase in violent crime. In the latest instance, police investigator Hanne Wilhelmsen is sent to a macabre crime scene on the outskirts of town. An abandoned shed is covered in blood. On one wall an eight-digit number is written in blood. There is no body—nor any sign of a victim. Is it a kid’s prank or foul play? Is it even human blood?

As more bloody numbers are found in isolated locations throughout Oslo, Hanne’s colleague Håkon Sand makes a startling discovery: the digits correspond to the filing numbers of foreign immigrants. All are female, all are missing. Is there a serial killer on the loose in Oslo? How does the killer have access to immigrant data?

Meanwhile, as the trail heats up, the victim of a horrific unsolved rape case and her father have each decided to take justice into their own hands. Hanne and Håkon soon discover that they aren’t the only ones on the hunt for the killer.

 

Although the translation is fairly new, the book is not; it was first published in Norway in 1994. I point that out not because the book seems dated but because it does not—the theme of immigration and its impact on Nordic society runs through Nordic crime fiction, and it’s especially interesting for me as an American to see this kind of commentary on the impact of generous refugee policies on a previously homogeneous, liberal society.

Oslo is experiencing both a heat wave and a crime wave—although strictly speaking, though the police are investigating multiple blood-drenched crime scenes, without any bodies, they have no corresponding crimes to investigate.

Hanne Wilhelmsen is exhausted. With so many violent crimes to investigate, she’s working too much, and although she relaxes by taking long rides on her rose-colored Harley-Davidson, the strain of keeping her fifteen-year lesbian relationship a secret is draining her. Her colleague, Håkan Sand, has a similar balancing act; he must keep secret his ongoing affair with Karen Borg, his married colleague. Kristine Håverstad is the latest rape victim. Assaulted in her own apartment, she retreats to her childhood home in her father’s house, where he and she silently—and independently—plot revenge against her attacker, whose identity they manage to uncover at the same time as the police.

At only 211 pages, the book is short and fast-paced. Holt provides some insight into Wilhelmsen and Sand, but where this book shines is its depictions of the victims: Kristine Håverstad, crippled by shame and hopelessness; Finn Håverstad, driven by tremendous guilt and helplessness; and the Iranian asylum seeker who lives in the apartment beneath Kristine’s and whose fate is in the hands of the Norwegian bureaucracy. Holt is able to maintain a sense of tension and unease right up until the very last page.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Stonefly by Scott J. Holliday

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StoneflyStonefly by Scott J. Holliday (Haley Road Publishing, 2013).

Blurb: Jacob Duke has come back to Braketon­—a sleepy, backwoods town bordering Dover, the mental institution where he spent his formative years. Jacob’s intention is to enjoy Braketon’s woods and water for the first time as a free man, but he soon discovers that Dover isn’t through with him yet. Driven by a curse that compels him to grant any wish he hears, Jacob is drawn back into his disturbing former life by a young boy’s desire to see his own father dead.

Complicating things are Lori Nelson, Jacob’s friend who continues to put new boyfriends in his path, and Motown, Jacob’s friend from his years at Dover, who carries a secret that rocks Jacob’s foundation and makes him question his own morality.

Stonefly has an intriguing setup: Jacob Duke suspects his father is a genie who has given him the worst kind of curse: When he hears someone make a wish, Jacob is compelled to make that wish come true—or the wisher will die. The world-building around Jacob and his birthright is well thought out and presented; there’s not too much information, just enough presented exactly when it’s needed to have the most impact.

Jacob’s curse has led him to do some unthinkable things. At the age of ten, he killed a classmate. Not long after, he punctured his own eardrums with a pencil. But when ten-year-old Frankie wishes someone would kill his father, Jacob is faced with the worst kind of moral dilemma.

This was a competently written book, and I think with a little work it could have been better. I think it was self-published, and there are some rough edges that could stand to be smoothed (primarily interrupting action with flashbacks, which bled the tension at the worst possible moments), but all in all this was an enjoyable read.

This ARC was furnished by the author via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars