Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

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The Land of DreamsThe Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Blurb: The grandson of Norwegian immigrants, Lance Hansen is a U.S. Forest Service officer and has a nearly all-consuming passion for local genealogy and history. But his quiet routines are shattered one morning when he comes upon a Norwegian tourist brutally murdered near a stone cross on the shore of Lake Superior. Another Norwegian man is nearby; covered in blood and staring out across the lake, he can only utter the word kjærlighet. Love.

FBI agent Bob Lecuyer is assigned to the case, as is Norwegian detective Eirik Nyland, who is immediately flown in from Oslo. As the investigation progresses, Lance begins to make shocking discoveries—including one that involves the murder of an Ojibwe man on the very same site more than one hundred years ago. As Lance digs into two murders separated by a century, he finds the clues may in fact lead toward someone much closer to home than he could have imagined.

The Land of Dreams is the opening chapter in a sweeping chronicle from one of Norway’s leading crime writers—a portrait of an extraordinary landscape, an exploration of hidden traumas and paths of silence that trouble history, and a haunting study in guilt and the bonds of blood.

 

The Land of Dreams is a psychological mystery story, and most of the narrative is the introspection of the main character, Lance Hansen. When he discovers the body of a murdered Norwegian tourist, Hansen begins a process of questioning, not so much about the current murder but about the past, about his family and the other immigrants who settled on the shores of Lake Superior, the stories that have been handed down for generations. The present and the past become intertwined as he discovers that many of the local legends that are accepted as truth by residents and tourists alike might not have happened quite the way he’s been led to believe.

The Lake Superior setting and the region’s history are integral to the story, which has its benefits and its drawbacks. As one of the characters discovers, “neither Lance Hansen nor the story about Baraga’s Cross had any place in Eirik Nyland’s world. They would lose all luster and weight. Both belonged here, in Cook County.” What is true for the character is also true for the reader. Hansen’s introspection is so lengthy and detailed that it comes across more as a history text than a mystery novel; the murder investigation takes place mostly in the background, and Hansen focuses more on his family than he does on the case.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and as such it does not really stand on its own. Someone is arrested and charged with the murder of the tourist, but Hansen is not convinced of that person’s guilt, and it’s unclear where the trilogy will go from here, whether Hansen’s unease will drive his actions in the other books in the series, if he will see Nyland again, or if he will again spend most of his time immersed in the past. The book’s ending left me satisfied enough that I likely won’t continue with the series.

 

This book was furnished by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

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Review: Before the Frost by Henning Mankell

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BeforeTheFrostBefore the Frost by Henning Mankell (The New Press, 2005)

Blurb: In this latest atmospheric thriller, Kurt Wallander and his daughter Linda join forces to search for a religious fanatic on a murder spree. Just graduated from the police academy, Linda Wallander returns to Skåne to join the police force, and she already shows all the hallmarks of her father–the maverick approach, the flaring temper. Before she even starts work she becomes embroiled in the case of her childhood friend Anna, who has inexplicably disappeared. As the case her father is working on dovetails with her own, something far more dangerous than either could have imagined begins to emerge. They soon find themselves forced to confront a group of extremists bent on punishing the world’s sinners.

 

Henning Mankell is, for me, a hit-and-miss writer. While I’ve enjoyed the Wallander series (about a detective in Ystad), I haven’t particularly liked his other novels. Mankell tends to focus on the darkest aspects of the human psyche, and without the narrative device of the investigator (Kurt or, in this case, Linda Wallander), I can’t find much positive to hold on to, which is why I avoid the non-Wallander books these days. I would definitely recommend reading the other books in Wallander series before this one, as this appears to be a changing of the guard more than the start of a new series.

This book is told mostly from the perspective of Wallander’s adult daughter Linda, who has just finished her police training and is weeks away from becoming an official member of the police force. But her best friend’s disappearance is followed quickly by the murder of an elderly woman and a series of seemingly unrelated, bizarre events, and she’s soon convinced that the events are all linked—and despite her father’s admonishments, she decides to investigate. Being a rookie, she makes all manner of mistakes, but she’s got the support of her father, who is willing to listen to her conclusions and, once presented with the evidence, starts an official police inquiry.

The portrayal of the relationship between Kurt and Linda is uneven. Having read so much from Kurt’s point of view as he worked through his relationships with his ex-wife and with his own father, I enjoyed having another perspective. But some of Linda’s reflections on her father seemed less the thoughts of a daughter about a parent and more the thoughts of a parent about a misunderstood child, as though Mankell wanted to correct readers’ misperceptions of Kurt Wallander.

My reaction to this book is in some part an emotional response to the bookend device Mankell chose for its structure. The two events referenced are mass murders done for religious reasons: in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978, and on September 11, 2001. Religious fundamentalism is a global issue, but to me it was a bit jarring to have these two events—the victims of both of which were overwhelmingly American—used as the link for a story about a very small cult in Sweden. This is not to say that it was inappropriate; it wasn’t, and it was well done, but for me it just didn’t work.

 

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French

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BrokenHarborBroken Harbor by Tana French (Viking, 2012)

Blurb: Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.

 

This book is like the big bad wolf. It draws you in to a nice cozy cottage with promises of hot chocolate and a warm fire, gets you all bundled up and cozy, then pulls off its mask to reveal its truly wicked, sharp teeth.

Mick Kennedy, the central character, appeared briefly in the previous books in this series before taking center stage in Broken Harbor. He’s a cop who sees things in black and white; he may never be able to create order from chaos, but he’ll never stop trying. When he and his rookie partner are assigned to investigate the murder of a young family in a seaside housing development, Kennedy’s primary question is why. He begins with Why would someone murder this picture-perfect family and moves on to Why would someone punch holes in these brand-new walls, then clean up around them but not patch them and eventually Why are video monitors strategically placed beside these holes, and what was being recorded? What went on in this house?

The area now calling itself Brianstown was previously Broken Harbor, where Kennedy’s family rented a caravan for two weeks every summer. And just as homeowners lined up to buy homes based on glossy brochures showing model houses and then found themselves in a half-built ghost town when the Irish economy collapsed and the builders abandoned the development, Kennedy’s perception of Broken Harbor as the one place that made his mother happy was forever changed when she walked into the ocean one night and never returned. He arrives at the murder scene with a sense of betrayal that carries over into the investigation, which is only complicated by the arrival of his sister Dina, who never recovered after their mother’s suicide. His new partner Richie has his doubts about the guilt of their prime suspect, and it’s partly because of this that Kennedy is compelled to keep digging, trying to find the answer to his question: Why?

The first half of the book is interesting, as French sets up the crime and the crime scene, and provides the procedural details that allow Kennedy and Richie to find a viable suspect, but in the second half of the book you get the payoff. Little things that seemed tangential suddenly are put into context, and when the consequences of everyone’s actions become obvious, the overall picture is breathtaking.

As with her previous books, Tana French is able to create a unique and multidimensional character at the center of a complex crime investigation where no ground is as solid as it appears. The crime itself is almost a secondary concern to French; this book is an investigation into the dark side of the human psyche, and it’s very dark indeed.

 

My rating: 5 stars