Tag Archives: Swedish

Review: Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole #2)

Standard

CockroachesCockroaches by Jo Nesbø (2014, Vintage): Harry Hole #2

I began reading this series about four years ago starting with book 3, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. I was frustrated at being unable to read the series in order, starting with the first book, but now that I’ve finished the second, I’m beginning to understand the logic behind leaving these until last.

Cockroaches begins some time after Harry Hole solved a serial killer case in Australia and returned to Norway (this takes place in book 1, The Bat). He’s back to his old ways—drinking and brooding—which is exactly what Norwegian authorities are looking for. A diplomat has been murdered in Bangkok, and the situation is delicate; a known drunk should give the Norwegian authorities just the surface-level investigation they need. Clearly they didn’t know much about Harry Hole! As always, his amazing ability to notice inconsistencies and things that aren’t quite right help to solve a complex case.

The book is a good balance between the investigation, the various players (Thai police officers, underworld characters, and the city of Bangkok itself), and Harry. He lacks the hint of optimism that briefly glimmered in The Bat and is developing into the tormented Harry Hole of the later books, but this is an intermediate step on that journey.

The first two books, The Bat and Cockroaches, are set in sun-drenched, exotic locations, while the rest of the series takes place in Norway. In a way, this makes sense: part of the reason I enjoy Nordic crime fiction is its setting, which is so different to where I live, so I’d expect that perhaps Norwegians feel the same way. But as an introduction of a long-running Nordic series to English-language readers, the first two books—both of which take place halfway around the world from Norway—perhaps aren’t the best choice. Nesbø’s writing gets better and better as the series progresses (especially his use of alternating POV and complex interwoven plot lines), so Cockroaches was a step back in that regard, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying it.

I’d recommend the Harry Hole series to anyone who enjoys crime fiction with a strong character development arc. These books are fantastic.

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

Standard

TheHypnotistThe Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Blue Key, 2012; originally published 2009)

Blurb: Tumba, Sweden. A triple homicide, all of the victims from the same family, captivates Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate the grisly murders—against the wishes of the national police. The killer is at large, and it appears that the elder sister of the family escaped the carnage; it seems only a matter of time until she, too, is murdered. But where can Linna begin? The only surviving witness is an intended victim—the boy whose mother, father, and little sister were killed before his eyes. Whoever committed the crimes intended for this boy to die: he has suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and lapsed into a state of shock. He’s in no condition to be questioned. Desperate for information, Linna sees one mode of recourse: hypnotism. He enlists Dr. Erik Maria Bark to mesmerize the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes. It’s the sort of work that Bark had sworn he would never do again—ethically dubious and psychically scarring. When he breaks his promise and hypnotizes the victim, a long and terrifying chain of events begins to unfurl.

This is a monster of a book, and I mean that in the best way possible. The plot seems simple: the discovery of a man’s body leads police to his home, where his family has also been murdered, but somehow the son, Jack, has survived—barely. Hoping to find the boy’s missing sister—is she a suspect? is she another target?—Detective Inspector Joona Linna calls in Dr. Erik Maria Bark (and yes, there’s a “Boy Named Sue” joke in there) to help get information about the brutal attacks. And that’s where things get interesting. The last time Bark used hypnosis on a patient, the results were tragic and he was disgraced, both personally and professionally. In helping Linna, Bark breaks a promise, and the consequences are horrific and extend well beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

As with many Nordic crime novels, this one has multiple interwoven plot lines, and it’s not clear until the very end exactly how they fit together—or if they’ll fit together. This is a book where the subplots add depth and suspense to the main plot rather than detracting from it. What seems to be a relatively simple crime with a known perpetrator having complex motive turns out to be a series of crimes with equally complex motives, and no clear suspect. It kept me guessing right up until the end. The ending in particular was satisfying; in a book as dark as this one, that delves into the worst parts of the human psyche, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of light at the end.

Although this is the first book in the Joona Linna series, as the title suggests, the central character is Bark, the titular hypnotist. I’m curious to read the next books to see how Linna’s character develops as the series progresses.

As an aside: “Lars Kepler,” actually a husband-and-wife writing team, was another of the new Swedish authors to be hyped as “the next Stieg Larsson.” I am hoping this need to compare everything to the one Swedish author most Americans have ever heard of will stop, and soon; I also enjoyed Larsson’s books, but the more Nordic crime fiction I read, the more tempted I am to go back and lower my ratings of the Larsson books. Just because they were my (and many other readers’) introduction to Nordic crime fiction doesn’t mean they’re the best examples or even that they’re representative of the genre.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Buzz by Anders de la Motte

Standard

BuzzBuzz by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014): Game #2

Four months after Henrik Pettersson (HP) got out of the Game, he finds himself bored silly. He’s spent time in Thailand and India, smoking weed, having sex, and lounging around. He meets up with some acquaintances in Dubai, and that’s when things take a strange turn: a fun day out with friends ends in murder, and HP is the prime suspect. He manages to prove his innocence, but his appetite for hedonism is gone, and he returns to Sweden. But now he has a mission: to find out who really killed Anna Argos. Assuming the identity of his good friend, an IT whiz, HP takes a job at ArgosEye—and realizes the Game is even bigger than he’d imagined.

Meanwhile, HP’s sister Rebecca is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and her career following a disastrous assignment in Africa. Bad enough that her team isn’t backing her up, but Becca discovers she’s the target of a vicious online attack aimed at ruining her credibility. Who is this mysterious attacker, and why is he trying to destroy her? And more important, who can she trust to help her find out more?

Buzz has multiple subplots that only slowly come together to tell the whole story. HP’s and Rebecca’s stories are intercut in a way that adds to the tension and the sense of confusion; like Game, the first book in the series, this is a quick-moving story that would be absurd if it weren’t on the fringes of what is possible. The depiction of social networking and professional “trolls” rings true—and if that kind of targeted online action works to sell products and services, who’s to say it couldn’t be used to further a political or military agenda?

HP is still a slacker, still making all manner of bad decisions, but he’s a little older and wiser than he was in Game. If nothing else, he’s realizing that his actions have very real consequences for the people he cares about, and that sense of loyalty endeared him to me. The two siblings seemed to have little, if anything, in common in Game, but Buzz makes clear that Becca is just as much of an adrenaline junkie as HP. She’s got a dependable boyfriend and the option to be a career cop. Instead, she’s a bodyguard for Swedish diplomats who’s sent on assignment to places like Darfur, and she cheats on her boyfriend at just about every opportunity. I found myself wondering what would happen if Becca ever got curious enough to ever play the Game.

The final book in the trilogy is Bubble, and I’m excited to see how it ends.

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Review: Game by Anders de la Motte

Standard

GameGame by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

Henrik Pettersson is a slacker. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have friends, he spends most of his time gaming and smoking weed. He lives on unemployment benefits and the occasional petty theft. Then one day, riding the subway, he finds a cell phone. He’s planning to sell it for some cash, but then the intriguing message appears on the screen: “Wanna play a game?” At first he ignores the message, but when it instead says, “Wanna play a game, Henrik Pettersson?” he can’t resist. He presses “yes” and becomes a player in the Game.

The Game involves a series of challenges that are filmed, both by the player (using the cell phone that is the primary means of communication between the player and the Game Master) and by others, and uploaded for fans to see, rate, and comment on. Some of the challenges are simple pranks, but the longer Henrik—or HP, as he calls himself in the Game—plays, the more complex the challenges become. Not to mention risky and illegal. And possibly deadly. When the Game puts the one person HP cares about in danger, that’s when he vows to find out who’s behind it, and he begins his search for the Game Master.

Let me just start by saying the entire premise is unrealistic—a secret game involving participants at all levels of society who all cover for each other?—but as a reader, I didn’t care. I was hooked immediately, and the skillful pacing kept me hooked right up until the end. The two primary characters—Henrik and Rebecca Normén, a young cop with a bright future—are sympathetic and interesting, and their relationship to each other is both complex and believable, and laid the groundwork for their actions throughout the novel. This was a fun, quick, enjoyable read.

Game is the first book in a trilogy; the other books are Buzz and Bubble, both of which I’m eager to read.

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Before the Frost by Henning Mankell

Standard

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: Bad Blood by Arne Dahl (Intercrime series)

Standard

BadBloodBad Blood by Arne Dahl (Pantheon, 2013)

Bad blood always comes back around.

It’s been a year since the Power Murders, and the A-Unit of the National Criminal Police in Stockholm is trying to justify its existence. There haven’t been any “violent crimes of an international character” lately and so the various group members have been loaned out to other units. None of them necessarily want such crimes to occur in Sweden, but if one did, at least then they’d have something to do.

Enter the Kentucky Killer, an American serial killer who has just murdered a Swedish national before boarding a flight to Stockholm. Thus begins a fast-paced and intriguing investigation. Rather than being a simple matter of identifying an individual and tracking him down, the situation almost immediately proves to be much more complicated: there was a fifteen-year gap in the American murders, and the death of the primary—really, the only—suspect almost ended the career of the American FBI agent assigned to the original case. Why did the killings resume, and why kill a Swedish literary critic? Within days of arriving in Sweden, K commits more murders in his signature style, which is particularly gruesome and which was developed as a method of interrogation during the Vietnam War by the American armed forces.

Dahl doesn’t provide the details of the torture, but instead paints in broad strokes the instruments used and their effects on the body, as well as the investigators’ reactions to seeing the results. This, to me, was far more effective; seasoned detectives breaking down in tears while reviewing the case files had a bigger impact on me than a vivid description of what they were seeing would have. As with the previous book, Dahl infuses the story with humor, which provided a welcome relief from the never-ending Stockholm summer rain and the A-Unit’s frustration with their inability to quickly solve the case.

The A-Unit is made up of an interesting group of characters, who have their flaws and eccentricities but are all excellent investigators. There was only a hint of their personalities in Misterioso, the first book in the series, but they are more developed in this book, both individually and in their relationships with each other, which adds another dimension to the storytelling. So far the series is a compelling mix of well-paced, complex plotting and strong, unique characters. I’m looking forward to the next book!

 

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Misterioso by Arne Dahl

Standard

MisteriosoMisterioso by Arne Dahl (Pantheon Books, 2011)

 

Blurb: After dismantling a bloody hostage situation at a bank outside Stockholm, Detective Paul Hjelm is dropped into an elite task force assembled to find an elusive murderer with a sophisticated method. The killer breaks into the homes of Sweden’s high-profile business leaders at night, places two bullets in their heads with deadly precision, then removes the bullets from the walls—a ritual enacted to a rare bootleg recording of Thelonious Monk’s jazz classic “Misterioso.” As Hjelm and the rest of the team follow one lead after another, they must navigate the murky underworld of the Russian mafia, penetrate the secret society of Sweden’s wealthiest denizens, and battle one of the country’s most persistent ills: a deep-rooted xenophobia that affects both the police and the perpetrator.

 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. That’s what I was thinking as I read this book. Originally published in 1999 but only recently translated, Misterioso is as relevant today as it was then. Wealthy men are being killed in Stockholm—men who profited greatly while others suffered during the Swedish banking crisis of the 1990s. Could this be the killer’s motivation—payback? It’s a sentiment that resonates in a post–Occupy Wall Street society.

A special task force is formed to investigate the murders—a sort of island of lost toys, if you will. These are not the cream of the crop in Swedish law enforcement, but as the investigation proceeds and we learn more about them, it’s clear why each has been chosen and what special contribution each can make to the group. The interpersonal dynamics are fascinating and well presented, with just the right balance between insight into the characters and procedural details of the murder cases.

Many Nordic crime novels are very dark in tone. Misterioso has its dark moments, to be sure, and some disturbing imagery as well (the Russian mafia is not known for being gentle). But there are flashes of humor throughout that keep the book, and its characters, from being too intense. While all of the investigators have their problems—they’ve been pulled from various regions of Sweden, and one of them actually lives in the police station—these are not the stereotypical tortured detectives that one associates with Nordic crime. This is the first book in a series with an ensemble cast, so we only scratch the surface in terms of getting to know them all, but what we do see indicates that this will not be a solely plot-driven/procedural series and that these characters will continue to develop.

Dahl’s writing is smooth and effective—his descriptions of music are superb, one of the high points of the book—and the translation is unobtrusive and idiomatic. This was a fine debut crime novel, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: More Bitter Than Death by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff

Standard

MoreBitterThanDeathMore Bitter Than Death by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Blurb: It’s a rainy evening in a Stockholm suburb and five-year-old Tilda is hiding under the kitchen table playing with her crayons when a man enters and beats her mother to death in cold blood. The only witness, Tilda can’t quite see the murderer or figure out who he is. But she’s still a witness.

Across town, Siri Bergman and her best friend, Aina, are assisting their old friend Vijay with a research project on domestic abuse. They host a weekly self-help group for survivors, and over the course of several dark, rainy evenings, these women share their stories of impossible love, violence, and humiliation. When the boyfriend of one of the women turns out to be a prime suspect in a high-profile murder case, it isn’t long before Siri finds herself embroiled in the investigation. But as she draws closer to finding the murderer, unexpected developments in her own life force her to wonder: Can she learn to trust a man again in spite of being surrounded by women who have been so deeply betrayed by love?

 

The last few years have been difficult for Siri Bergman. She’s lost her husband and she’s been the victim of a vicious stalker. But things seem to be looking up: her friends are supportive as ever, and she’s got a new man in her life who knows firsthand what she’s been through. But when Siri and her best friend/business partner Aina agree to host a self-help group for women with PTSD, Siri is once again forced to confront her own past: she too has been betrayed, and she too must make a decision—to remain on her own, or to take that leap and trust a man, her boyfriend, the detective who investigated her stalking case. It’s a decision made even more complicated when she finds out she’s carrying his child.

Like the first book in the series (Some Kind of Peace), this is a psychological thriller more than a mystery. In fact, the focus of the book is the women in the self-help group, although the murder of Tilda’s mother is always in the background. And like many Nordic crime novels, this one deals with broader social issues rather than an individual crime, in this case, the issue of violence against women—not just the women in the group, but in all of Sweden. However, this also makes the book difficult to read. Violence against women takes many forms, and enough of them were explored in the self-help group, and in enough detail, that I had to set the book aside from time to time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if the intent is to hold up a mirror to society, the authors have succeeded.

The biggest flaw in this book, for me, and what makes this much weaker than the first book, is that there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense or tension regarding the outcome of the investigation. Like Siri, we’re kept at arm’s length. While I was worried about Siri and what was going to happen to her, I didn’t have the sense of immediacy or urgency about the other characters that I did with Some Kind of Peace. One of the strengths of the series is that the authors have chosen patients whose issues resonate with Siri. But while it’s easy to accept a homicide detective or a crime reporter becoming involved in—or at least closely following—major crime investigations such that they’re personally affected, I’m not certain how well that will work out for a behavioral (i.e., not criminal) psychologist. I’d like to continue reading the series, in large part to see the answer to this question.

 

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

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff

Standard

SomeKindofPeaceSome Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff (Free Press, 2009)

Blurb: Siri Bergman is a thirty-four-year-old psychologist who works in central Stockholm and lives alone in an isolated cottage out of the city. She has a troublesome secret in her past and has been trying to move on with her life. Terrified of the dark, she leaves all the lights on when she goes to bed—having a few glasses of wine each night to calm her nerves—but she can’t shake the feeling that someone is watching her through the blackened windows at night.

When the lifeless body of Sara Matteus—a young patient of Siri’s with a history of drug addiction and sexual abuse—is found floating in the water near the cottage, Siri can no longer deny that someone is out there, watching her and waiting. When her beloved cat goes missing and she receives a photo of herself from a stalker, it becomes clear that Siri is next. Luckily, she can rely on Markus, the young policeman investigating Sara’s death; Vijay, an old friend and psychology professor; and Aina, her best friend. Together, they set about profiling Siri’s aspiring murderer, hoping to catch him before he kills again.

But as their investigation unfolds, Siri’s past and present start to merge and disintegrate so that virtually everyone in her inner circle becomes a potential suspect. With the suspense building toward a dramatic conclusion as surprising as it is horrifying, Siri is forced to relive and reexamine her anguished past, and finally to achieve some kind of peace.

 

I’ve always enjoyed reading about characters who have it together professionally but are a mess in their personal lives, which I think is why I enjoy Nordic crime fiction so much; the brilliant detective whose life is a shambles is a stock character. This book is a little bit different: The primary character, Siri Bergman, is a behavioral psychologist who is in desperate need of a behavioral psychologist. She drinks too much, she’s afraid of the dark, and she’s doing her absolute best to avoid working through her grief and anger. When she starts to suspect that someone is watching her, even stalking her, at first nobody believes her; after all, she’s a basket case.

Siri’s own conflicts are mirrored in the book’s characters and setting. Her home is isolated, alone, outside the city where nights are fully dark. Her nightly ritual is to turn on every light in the house, even the stove light, before she goes to sleep. Yet she is fiercely resistant to the idea of moving into town, closer to friends and family. Her remote cottage works well with her forced aloofness toward the people in her life. Her patients—all of whom have control issues—play up her own need to maintain the illusory control that keeps her from facing the truth about her husband’s accidental death. Along with her patients, Siri must recognize that her self-destructive behavior is her way of protecting herself from the pain of life.

Still, Siri appears to be in control of her medical practice—at least as much as she can be, considering someone is sending anonymous letters to her patients warning them of her incompetence. Siri’s confusion and frustration are palpable, as is her sense of being completely overwhelmed by what is going on around her. Who can she trust? Who would want to hurt her? What has she done that has made somebody so very angry? While the setup is familiar, the presentation is unique. One of the authors is a psychologist, and it shows; there’s a level of insight into the characters—not just Siri, but her patients and colleagues as well—that gives this more depth than the usual thriller.

 

My rating: 4 stars

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

Standard

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