Translated by Susan Beard
Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)
In the summer of 1978 young Marcus Brodin disappears from the cabin he is sharing with his mother in the remote woods of central Sweden. His mother claims he was taken by a giant, but her reliance on prescription drugs makes her an unreliable witness. A decade later, wildlife photographer Gunnar Myrén takes a photograph of a bear from his small aircraft; there is a small creature riding on the bear’s back. Gunnar is convinced that this creature is a troll. In 2004 Gunnar’s granddaughter Susso runs a website dedicated to proving the existence of so-called mythical creatures. When she is contacted by an old woman who claims that a tiny man has been watching her house, Susso finds herself coming face-to-face with irrevocable evidence that her grandfather was right, that trolls exist in the Swedish hinterlands. Now she must use her knowledge to find young Mattias Mickelsson before he suffers the same fate that Marcus Brodin suffered over twenty-five years earlier.
Trolls are a part of the global consciousness, mythical creatures that we’ve all heard of, and whose physical aspect, whether we know it or not, has been shaped by the work of the likes of Rolf Lidberg and John Bauer (right). Tapping into a wealth of Swedish folklore, Stefan Spjut has built a fascinating – if frightening – story around a credible and engaging premise. The strength of Stallo lies in the characters with which the novel is populated, from Susso and her mother, to Seved and Börje who act as keepers for the giant creatures of the novel’s title: stallo are mythical shape-shifting creatures from the far northern depths of Sweden. From the outset, we’re invested in the lives of these people, and it is as much our need to know who they are and what will become of them that propels us through the story as it is the relatively straightforward plot itself.
In the tradition of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In, of which Stallo is very reminiscent – even beyond the Swedish setting, there is something about the novel’s language and pace that will remind readers of that earlier novel – this is horror of the most quiet variety. There is little in the way of violence, and with the exception of one or two key scenes, much of the tension and sense of horror is built through suggestion as Spjut slowly reveals what these creatures are and what they want.
Spjut has pulled a very clever move in not making the trolls the true villains of the piece, but rather their human keepers. Much of the violence is perpetrated at Lennart’s command and while the stallo are certainly a frightening prospect, they play a decidedly passive role in the proceedings. The reader comes away with a sense that, in their own way, they are good and reasonable beings who have fallen under the care of people who epitomise the darker side of the human condition.
The novel’s setting will be familiar to many readers of the recent Scandi-crime wave. Set mainly in the northern city of Kiruna (which will be familiar to readers of the novels of Åsa Larsson), the action moves across much of the country, taking in the area around Lake Vättern in the south, as well as the country’s capital, Stockholm. The central characters are constantly on the move, and this allows Spjut not only to show off some of the highlights of his beautiful country, but also how the mythology of trolls differs from one end of the country to the other.
As the wave of Scandi-crime reaches its peak, it seems that Scandi-horror might be the next big thing in the world of genre literature (I have already been asked to look at a Swedish anthology of horror stories by some of the country’s biggest names in the genre, which I hope to review here soon). Very different from the type of horror we’re used to seeing here in the UK and in the US, Stallo is most definitely in the same vein as Let The Right One In. This is literary horror, designed to make the reader stop of wonder “what if…?”, to sow the seeds of discomfort and unease that grow over time, rather than to hit the reader with a short, sharp fright that they will laugh off and forget by the end of the chapter. Most interesting, perhaps, is the choice of creature, something that we see very rarely (the last I can remember is the 2010 Norwegian film, Trollhunter), which helps to make the story feel fresh and interesting, rather than another rehash of a tired old trope. Not that Spjut needs much help on that score: his characters are pitch perfect, his slowly unfolding plot engaging and surprising, and his use of language – ably translated into English by Susan Beard – sublime and beautiful.
Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.
Jon Wallace (jonwallace.co)
Today marks the publication of Steeple, the second book set in Jon Wallace’s post-apocalyptic world that we first saw in Barricade. To celebrate, we have a wonderful extract from the book, as well as a competition to win a paperback copy of Barricade.
I drain my cup of soup. Adede expects a pleasantry.
‘You have a good home,’ I say.
‘Thank you. Thank you.’
‘I must return to work now.’
I pick up my tool bag and leave the shack, heading for the north-south avenue. The sky over the city is suddenly dark, a new storm gathering.
I hear a commotion, children screaming in excitement. I turn towards the noise and a large group of young people laughing and yelling. They are gathered in a circle around a concrete slab.
William is the centre of attention, sitting on a BMX, absently watching as his sister lies down on the concrete. She holds out her arms, a huge smile on her face.
William waits for the crowd to settle, then sits up on his bike. He rolls it towards his sister and jumps the bike. He lands the front wheel between her right arm and chest. The crowd gasps, watching as he holds the bike, twisting on its front wheel, rear wheel aloft like bucking hind legs.
He spins anticlockwise, then jumps again, landing the front wheel the other side of Mary’s chest, rear wheel still raised. The children chant, arms thrown up:
‘Will-yam, Will-yam, Will-yam!’
He does not react, fixed in concentration. He jumps again, dropping onto his rear wheel this time, and begins bouncing the bike around his sister – to the left of her head, to the right, then either side of her chest, her waist, her legs, stopping below her feet. There he spins again, manipulating the bike like a fifth limb.
Huge excitement. Screams of disbelief. None are louder than Mary, who rolls and chokes on her laughter. William rides in a slow circle around her, acknowledging his audience with a wave. Such skill.
Then, over the children’s cheers, I hear a different sound: a wave of fright, rolling up the shanty from the south. William hears it too. He stops his bike.
I leap onto the nearest roof and peer down the hill. A crowd of men are pouring through a breach in the south fence. Most are on foot, but some are on horseback. They shoot down shanty dwellers, toss petrol bombs, hammer and kick at the shacks. Many of them carry flags, bearing a symbol like a wolf’s head. Under the icon is smeared the word ‘Truth’.
I leave the children and cut through the alleyways, heading for the avenue, almost knocking Adede over as I break into a clearing. I tell her to locate her daughter and get to the high ground.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asks.
‘I am going to expel them from the premises.’
‘Are you mad?’
‘They are trespassing. I am empowered to defend the site.’
‘They’ll kill you!’
I leave her, press on to the avenue and head for the slaughter at the southern fence. I can see an invader on horseback, directing the people on foot. His nostrils are as flared as his mount’s.
I leap, drag him off his steed, toss him back towards the fence. I claim his seat, but his horse bucks when I try to steer. I struggle with the reins until I realise I am hurting the animal, and relax my grip.
The horse calms, snorts and stamps the mud. I am turning it towards the fence when I hear the whining noise. The unmistakable rasp of drone engines, overhead. I glance up at the storm clouds, pick out grey T-shapes, flocking.
Wait, I think.
The ground shakes. A flash and deafening crack, and suddenly I am slapped to the earth and pinned under the horse. I claw at the mud, drag free of the burning animal, into a cloud of black, sulphurous smoke. I trip up the side of the bomb crater, over body parts and wreckage, breathing poison air.
My avenue is packed with wailing people. They back away from me, frightened by my burning skin. Adede emerges from the pack, her clothes stained with blood. Her eyes are cloudy and unfocused, until she notices me. She bares her teeth and screams.
‘You brought them here! Truth League hates Ficials. They wouldn’t have come here if not for you! They wouldn’t have bombed us if not for you!’
That is untrue.
‘William is DEAD! Their bomb killed my boy!’
She drops to her knees, wailing, clutching her chest.
What does she expect me to do?
She said herself: she would lose at least one child.
Extract 3: p89-90 and p97-98
From author Jon Wallace:
Reason: This extract is a good window into the world that created Kenstibec – a future Britain explored through a flashback story that runs throughout Steeple, showing the invulnerable, calculating Kenstibec as he was when still ‘factory fresh’. These two flashbacks show his first halting interactions with people (refugees) and his first encounters with the pre-war world of chaos and mindless violence that is hurtling towards destruction. It’s a different kind of writing to the main story but essential to both Barricade and Steeple.
To celebrate the publication of Steeple the fine folks at Gollancz have given us a couple of copies of Jon’s first book, Barricade, to give away. To enter, post a comment below proving that you’re human, before midnight next Thursday 25th June. Winners will be announced next Friday. Unfortunately, this competition is only open to UK residents.
Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)
The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.
An unknown Agent has split the moon into seven pieces, which remain in the moon’s original orbit around the Earth. When two of the pieces collide, causing fragmentation, Dr Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris – Doob – discovers that in two years the fragmentation will reach a saturation point and will submit the planet below to a five-thousand-year bombardment during which all life will be destroyed. Using the technology available to them, the world’s foremost scientists and space agencies design a Cloud Ark centred around the existing International Space Station, a structure that will save several thousand people and, theoretically at least, allow them to become self-sufficient in space until the Earth is once again habitable. Five thousand years later, the human race is now seven distinct races, descended from seven Eves who survived the early years of the Cloud Ark’s existence, and the terraforming of New Earth is almost complete: Kath Amalthova Two, along with one representative from each of the other six races, is chosen for a secret mission to the planet’s surface where an incredible discovery has been made.
There is a sense of great anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a new, weighty Neal Stephenson tome. Mainly because the reader has no idea what to expect until they start reading (previous books range from Seventeenth Century adventures to cryptography, from eco-thriller to cyberpunk classic), except that there is a good chance that they will be entertained and enlightened in equal measure. Seveneves is no exception, and sees Stephenson enter the realms of hard science fiction, which he touched upon briefly in 2008’s excellent Anathem.
Seveneves takes no time in catching the reader’s attention (“The moon blew up…”) before spending some time introducing the core characters and concepts of the novel. Taking an interesting approach to the apocalyptic trope, Stephenson presents an escape route for humanity based solely on the technology that is available now. So don’t expect starships with hyperdrives or warp engines, but rather a loosely-couple collection of “arklets” that are centred around the existing International Space Station, or Izzy. As always, Stephenson has a keen insight into how technology actually works versus how it’s supposed to work. Using the concept of cloud-based computing technology as a basis for the Cloud Ark, he presents a picture of autonomous craft across which the human race – as well as the data and genetic materials required to rebuild the planet – is spread, so that if one craft is destroyed, very little is lost in the grand scheme of things. In the true spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, there is a more practical reason for this approach, which is to be able to avoid the bolides that will eventually be thrown their way from the moon’s remains. But of course, things don’t end up working as they were originally designed, so much of what the Cloud Ark should have been is effectively “de-scoped” in order to have a workable plan within the two-year timescales imposed by Doob’s calculations. “Done is better than perfect,” as any software engineer will tell you.
The Cloud Ark wouldn’t be anything if it didn’t have a human population on-board. As the book’s title suggests, this is very much a female-driven narrative with many of the central roles both “today” and “five thousand years later” filled by strong female role models: Dinah, the miner’s daughter who has been stationed on Izzy for a year before the moon blows up, using her robots to mine the huge chunk of rock and iron – once an asteroid – that has been attached to the space station’s forward end; Ivy, Izzy’s commander and a skilled pilot who will ultimately bring the remains of the human race to safety; Julia Bliss Flaherty, the US President who will become a thorn in the side of humanity’s remains in the years following the moon’s disintegration; Kath Two, through whose eyes we witness the birth of New Earth five thousand years after the destruction of Old Earth. There are, of course, strong male counterparts – Doob; Sean Probst, the owner of the mining company for which Dinah works, who goes on a mission of his own to find water for the Ark – but they tend to take a back seat to the novel’s women.
The first two-thirds of the book concern themselves with the three or four years immediately following Zero, and allows us to see the creation of the Cloud Ark through to the Hard Rain that wipes the face of the planet clean, and the desperate run to the Ark’s – and humanity’s – final resting place. The characters here are people we know, people with whom we can identify, people who we feel – for the most part – will make good ambassadors for the human race. And in the best tradition of Stephenson fiction, the narrative is liberally scattered with technical discussions and all the information we need in order to understand the situation on the Ark: how nuclear reactors work; what delta vee is, and how it is used to move between different orbits; a very brief introduction to orbital mechanics and Lagrangian points. It’s vital to understanding the story, and Stephenson presents the facts in a way that are easy to absorb and leaves us with the satisfied feeling that we have learned something new, and have enjoyed ourselves in the process. The story is infused with plenty of tension and until the two-thirds mark there is no guarantee as to the outcome or survival rate of the people who were lucky enough to make it off the doomed planet and onto the Ark.
The book’s final third is set five thousand years later, and the human race has re-established itself in a habitat ring that completely encircles Earth. Down on the surface TerReform are working to re-create the flora and fauna that once populated Old Earth from the surviving genetic samples. Stephenson takes time introducing us to the habitat ring, and to Cradle, the city at the end of a massive tether that has the ability to touch down on the planet’s surface. We also get a flavour of the political situation and it’s easy to see that little has changed on this front in the intervening period. Here the characters are less familiar, the descendants of genetically-modified children bred to have certain qualities depending on the wishes of each of the seven women – the Seven Eves of the novel’s title – on whom it falls to re-create the human race. But we still have plenty of time to get to know them (one third of this novel is almost three-hundred pages, which is a decent-sized novel in itself), and their peculiarities, as their mission to the planet’s surface progresses. Here we find the resolutions to a number of loose ends that Stephenson seemingly leaves dangling at the end of the book’s first section, and the results are as surprising as they are satisfying to the reader’s curiosity.
Throughout, Stephenson attempts to maintain some grounding in fact, ensuring that the science behind his inventions is as sound as possible, while still allowing him to manipulate the characters and their environments to suit the direction of the story. Seveneves presents us with a view of the apocalypse from the outside; these are people who have survived through escape, rather than through some freak immunity or well-constructed bunker system. His approach makes the travails of Ivy, Dinah, Doob et al thoroughly believable, and his characterisations ensure that these are people we care about, people we want to succeed not just because of the consequences, but because they are people we care about, people that we feel deserve some kind of break after what the author puts them through.
A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.
|Follow the conversation|
On 14th July, Penguin Random House will publish Go Set a Watchman, the recently discovered novel by Harper Lee. Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.
With this in mind, PRH are encouraging as many book-lovers as possible to re-visit and read the all-time classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, in the run up to publication of Go Set a Watchman. Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 40 languages. UK librarians have ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one ‘every adult should read before they die’ (Guardian). Studied in schools across the world and an enduring favourite of millions of readers, its cultural significance remains unparalleled.
Like many in the UK, my own first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird came during GCSE English Literature, and it’s a book that has remained with me ever since.
From 21st-31st May, I will be taking part in the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)read’ campaign. A read-along for readers old and new, (re)discovering and discussing the book together to a loose ten day plan.
I would love to see as many people as possible join in, whether it’s the first time you’ve read this classic novel, or, like me, you have fond memories of reading the book at school. Or even if you’re a regular visitor to Maycomb, Alabama.
|FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW
David Lagercrantz (www.davidlagercrantz.se)
Translated by George Goulding
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
On a wet morning in early June 1954, Detective Constable Leonard Corell finds himself investigating the death of a mathematician in the sleepy Cheshire town of Wilmslow. Preliminary investigation points towards suicide, the man having died after eating a poisoned apple in a gruesome parody of Disney’s Snow White. His name is Alan Turing, which rings bells with Corell. It doesn’t take long to work out why: Turing was recently convicted of homosexuality. But there is more to this death than appears on the surface: Turing was followed for several weeks prior to his death and seems to have played a mysterious – and very secret – role during the Second World War. Going off-piste, Corell digs into the mathematician’s past, discovering the breadth of his genius as he attempts to find a reason behind his sudden suicide. But his digging alerts the British secret services and, as the Cold War rages, Leonard Corell is about to discover what happens to people who ask too many questions about the wrong subjects.
Alan Turing is a man who has seen something of a resurgence of popularity in recent years, what with the fiftieth anniversary of his death spawning a number of events last year, Benedict Cumberbatch immortalising him on the big screen in Oscar-bait The Imitation Game and his long-overdue Royal pardon at the end of 2013. David Lagercrantz’s novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, takes a look at the man’s life through the lens of 1950s England and shows just how surprising his current status as the man who broke Germany’s Enigma ciphers actually is.
The novel opens with Turing’s death, and follows Leonard Corell’s investigation as he first attempts to prove that it was suicide, and then tries to dig deeper into the man’s short and seemingly unhappy life. It quickly becomes obvious that the reader is at an advantage over Corell since we know who this dead man is, and the services he has rendered in the name of patriotism, whereas Corell is encountering him at a time when his war efforts were still a closely-guarded secret and the most anyone knows of him is that he was a mathematician who was recently convicted of homosexuality. Despite his feelings on the subject, Corell finds himself intrigued by this man of many secrets, and begins to dig into his past, formulating theories that come a little too close to the truth for the people for whom Turing worked until so recently.
Corell, through whose eyes we watch the aftermath of Turing’s death, comes across as an unsympathetic character early in the book. Born into a wealthy family which soon after lost both money and status, Corell is a bitter young man who dislikes his job, and the small Cheshire town in which he works. Many of the people he encounters during his investigation have lived the life he feels he should have lived: good school, Oxbridge education, high-paid job. When he encounters Turing, something long-dormant is awakened within him, and he finds himself yearning for that parallel existence, where mathematics and science are his central focus, rather than petty crime and small-town politics. By the book’s end, we find ourselves identifying more firmly with this young man who has proven to be more tenacious and more open-minded than we might have initially given him credit for.
Lagercrantz’s portrayal of Alan Turing is remarkably on-target. Seen through the eyes of Corell, and of the people with whom Turing lived, worked and, in some cases, the people he loved, we get a remarkably intimate picture of what his life was like in the years before he ended it. While he never preaches, Lagercrantz leaves us with a sense of horror and despair that a man who gave so much to his country could have been treated in such an inhumane manner because of his sexual preferences. It shines a light on the injustices Turing faced and that most likely drove him to take his own life while reminding us of just how much he achieved during his brief stint at Bletchley Park, and of the legacy he left a world that nowadays relies very heavily on his “universal machines”.
Lagercrantz touches on the Cold War mentality that suffused England – and most of the western hemisphere – during the early 1950s and introduces Corell to Britain’s fledgling secret services, for whom Turing worked before his sexual preferences became widely acknowledged. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is an excellent companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also features Turing in a prominent role: like Stephenson’s weighty tome, Lagercrantz’s novel is keen to expand the reader’s horizons, to open their minds to new ideas and new philosophies and is not afraid to shy away from long discussions of mathematical problems – most specifically the liar’s paradox, which formed the basis of Turing’s work on a universal digital machine – in order to allow us to completely understand not only Turing, but also the policeman who has become consumed by a desire to know who the mathematician was. Some readers may find this heavy going at times, but it forms an integral part of the story.
David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.
Ryan Gattis (ryangattis.com)
At the end of April 1992 Los Angeles burned for six days as large sections of the population rioted, following the acquittal of LAPD officers who were on trial for the brutal beating of a black man named Rodney King. As law enforcement and other emergency services concentrated their efforts on attending to the riots, the Chicano gangs of Lynwood take advantage of the chaos to settle some old scores. The death of Ernesto Vera – a young man with no connection to the gangs except that his younger brother and sister are members of one of the largest – sparks off an intense period of fighting that goes largely unnoticed by the outside world, and is recounted from the point of view of seventeen of the people – gang members, drug dealers, graffiti artists, nurses, firemen and members of the US Armed Forces – caught up in the events.
60 deaths were attributed to rioting…It is possible, and even likely, that a number of victims not designated as riot related were actually the targets of a sinister combination of opportunity and circumstance. As it happened, 144 hours of lawlessness in a city of nearly 3.6 million people contained within a county of 9.15 million was a long time for scores to be settled.
From this seed, the possibility of gangland warfare carried out under cover of much wider disorder and disruption, comes the central premise of Ryan Gattis’ ambitious new novel. Set against the background of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Gattis tells of the horrific death of Ernesto Vera as he walks home from work on the first evening of the riots, and of the quickly-escalating war that ensues between the gang of which his brother and sister are a member, and their biggest rivals.
Gattis pulls no punches as he relates his story and this, coupled with the first-person narratives that he uses, serve to plunge the reader into the midst of the action. All Involved is structured in chronological order, one section of the book for each of the six days of rioting, and is related from seventeen first-person, present tense points of view, beginning with Ernesto Vera himself, who opens proceedings by describing the events leading to his own death. What makes All Involved unique is the fact that each character gets only one chance to speak before the next picks up and continues the story, allowing the reader access to a broad range of narrators. This brings with it a better understanding of the personalities in play, the relationships between the individuals and the gangs, how different people perceive what’s going on, and how they live with what they are doing. While it necessarily leaves some dangling threads, it is impressive how Gattis manages to tell a complete and coherent story without a single re-visit to any of the characters.
From the outset, Gattis gets deep into the minds of each of his narrators, and gives each a unique voice, and a unique outlook on life. This feels like a collection of individual testimonies, intersecting stories told in the participants’ own words, with no filter, and no omniscient narrator attempting to plug the gaps or soften the sometimes jarring transition from one voice to the next. These are people who live their lives on either side of the fine line between law and outlaw, and Gattis captures them perfectly, recording the nuances of their speech, the slang and the accents in a way that makes these characters come alive for the reader.
The riots themselves remain firmly in the novel’s background, the catalyst for this series of events, but by no means an important part of them. All Involved contains a timely reminder, though, that recent trouble in the likes of Ferguson and Baltimore are not new phenomena, nor is the spark that often ignites the flame – as one character tells us, in Los Angeles alone, there seems to be a thirty-year cycle of racially-motivated rioting. Interestingly, despite who the central characters of this extraordinary novel are, the authorities come off in the worst light, be it the seemingly corrupt policeman, or the Sheriff’s Department’s Vikings, who seem to dole out beatings with impunity, or the cold, callous and anonymous Special Forces soldiers who take their own advantage of the lawlessness to hand out brutal justice of their own. The gang members – or at least the core crew that form around Ernesto Vera’s little sister – come off in the best light, and it is these characters for whom we feel the most sympathy and for whom we find ourselves rooting the most fervently.
All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.
I don’t remember exactly what it was about the cover of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that stopped me in my tracks, but I remember the first time I saw it, face-out in the New Titles section of my local Waterstones (or Waterstone’s, as it was back in 2008). It’s a striking cover, and the faux-newspaper style blurb on the back cover sucked me in immediately. It’s one of the rare books that I bought and started to read almost immediately, despite the fact that, until the moment I saw the book, I had never heard of it.
Anyone who has ever spoken to me about Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will be aware of my feelings on the subject: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of crime fiction ever produced in any language, helped along by the strong protagonists at the story’s centre, Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fail to live up to the promise of the first book and are, in my opinion, much too long to hold the reader’s attention. There is a lot of background information that could have been cut without sacrificing the story, and the Millennium Trilogy – which, in the end, is only average – could very well have been the incomparably brilliant Millennium Duology. But that’s beside the point.
Lisbeth Salander is not your average heroine. It’s probably more accurate to say that Larsson’s creation redefined the whole concept and created one of the most recognisable and enduring female characters in the history of crime fiction. Larsson has been branded as a misogynist by people who seem to have missed the central point of the Millennium books: yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book about the mistreatment of women at the hands of men (let’s not forget, the original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women), but for me, Salander’s very existence is all you need to see where Larsson’s sympathies lie.
Lisbeth is a character with a dark and, for the most part, mysterious past. We meet her mother briefly, and learn of the existence of a twin sister, with whom Lisbeth has little to no contact. It isn’t until later in the series that we learn the full story, and the role that her father – a Soviet thug – played in her upbringing. Now in her early twenties, she is seen by the state as mentally challenged, and placed in the care of a solicitor who has control of her entire life, a man in whose downfall the reader can take great delight, as it gives us the first real glimpse of who Lisbeth Salander really is.
With her tattoos and piercings, Lisbeth is as unconventional in her looks as she is in her personality. Fundamentally broken by the abuses in her past, she has found a way out of pain and misery to become a self-reliant adult who proves time and again that she is more than capable of looking after herself. A technical genius who can make computers acquiesce to her every wish, a skilled fighter and – strangely – a master of disguise, the socially-awkward Lisbeth is driven by a solid moral code that is often at odds with how people perceive her to be. The epitome of the modern day feminist, Lisbeth is a force to be reckoned with, and a character who endures beyond the confines of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, and the numerous films it has spawned, a fictional role model to which many – both men and women – aspire.
On a personal level, thinking back to when I first met Lisbeth brings me back to the period that introduced the “Dad” in my blog title to the “Reader”. I was halfway through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest when my son was born at the end of summer 2009, and I ended up having to finish the book by listening to the audio version – I have memories of trying to balance a week-old child in one arm and a huge hardback in the other, and failing miserably.
On 27th August this year (3 days before my son’s sixth birthday), Lisbeth Salander is set to return to our lives in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Swedish writer David Lagercrantz has taken on the unenviable task of bringing one of crime fiction’s most iconic characters back to life. If his novel Fall of Man in Wilmslow, which I will be reviewing here in the near future, is anything to go by, we seem to be in good hands. I’m looking forward to spending time with someone who feels like an old friend, a feminist icon who could just as easily be described as a nerd icon (as if we need any more!), and seeing where her next adventure takes her.
For now, though: Happy Birthday, Lisbeth Salander! May there be many more.
|DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY
Tom Bouman (www.drybonesinthevalley.com)
Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)
Henry Farrell is the law in the small northern Pennsylvania rural township of Wild Thyme. On a routine visit to Aub Dunigan, Henry finds a partially dismembered body on a remote part of the old man’s land. When the township’s bad boy, Danny Stiobhard (“Steward”), leads Henry to a second body, he becomes the prime suspect in both murders. But there is more going on here than meets the eye, and the residents of Wild Thyme seem to be shutting Henry out, keeping secrets to which outsiders should not be privy and, while Henry is the law, he is still very much an outsider.
The strength of Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the story’s central character and narrator, Henry Farrell. Henry is a veteran of the war in Somalia – having seen action in Mogadishu, or “the Mog”, as he refers to it – who has now settled in the small northern Pennsylvania township of Wild Thyme, as the township’s policeman. By his own admission a glorified patrolman, Henry is not equipped to deal with dead bodies or suspected murderers, so Bouman’s decision to place him in the novel’s central role is an interesting one. From the outset, he is a thoroughly down-to-earth narrator, a likeable guy to whom it is very easy to listen. What drives the story is Henry’s tenacity, his need to find out who this dead man is and how he died, as a way of bringing sanity and order back to his town.
The setting – a small township near the northern Pennsylvania border – is not your average small-town American setting. There’s something of a frontier feel to the place: these are people who want to be left to their own devices; they have no need of a police force, have no desire to pay taxes or accept the amenities that those taxes often pay for. They’re a half-step down from Survivalists, who maintain a healthy suspicion of the law, outsiders, and anyone else who isn’t part of the their small, closed community. This is offset somewhat by the dual encroachment of drug dealers in the nearby towns, and of fracking companies, who are buying leases across the township and beyond.
As Henry’s investigation progresses – a slow and difficult process, given how difficult it is to find people and get them to answer questions – he begins to see the town and its residents in a new light. He is also convinced that both suspects – Dunigan and Stiobhard – are innocent of the crimes, which is in direct conflict with the thoughts of the county sheriff, who is running the investigation. Henry’s history – his tour in Mogadishu, and a more recent run-in with a fracking company in the Midwest – play a major part in who he is, and how he conducts his investigation, and the unconventional manner in which he proceeds – often at odds with the sheriff or the state police – is what sets his story apart from the average small-town American crime novel.
It is difficult not to like Henry from the outset, and even more difficult to find someone else with whom to compare him. Despite the troubles of his past, he is a personable, friendly, chatty companion for the reader, often digressing or going off on tangents as the narrative progresses, talking about everything from how to hunt deer, to the best way to behead chickens, the subject sparked by something he has found while searching a house, or talking to a witness. He drinks a bit (though on both occasions where he pours himself a scotch, it gets poured back into the bottle almost untouched), hunts deer and plays the fiddle, a man who seems, at first glance, unusual police officer material, but whose sharp mind and ability to talk make him the ideal candidate for the job.
There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Graeme Cameron (www.graeme-cameron.com)
Harlequin Mira (www.mirabooks.co.uk)
Erica has been abducted by the man who killed and dismembered her best friend, and is now living in a cage in his basement. Her abductor is a seemingly ordinary man with a penchant for murdering pretty young women. But things aren’t going as planned: at the local supermarket, a pair of blue eyes are his downfall, and he finds himself falling in love with Rachel; his relationship with Annie, who he had planned on murdering, but who he ended up saving from potential rape, is complicated to say the least; and neither he nor Erica is sure who has the upper hand in their relationship, or why exactly Erica is still living in the cage in his basement weeks after her abduction.
For his debut novel, Graeme Cameron puts the reader inside the head of a nameless serial killer at the point where his life takes a very strange turn. The narrator is an interesting character – friendly and personable, a man who might live next door, and who you might stop to have a conversation with on your way past his house. Like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, there’s more than a hint of black humour here, but Normal presents us with something altogether darker and more sinister: this man targets young women, and seems unable to control himself when in their presence. There is no moral code here, nothing to redeem him in our eyes. And, yet, it’s impossible to dislike him, and when things start to go pear-shaped as the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he might find a way out, despite the horrible things we have watched him doing.
A number of factors conspire to make the narrator of Normal question his career choices: his meeting with Rachel, and the rapport that quickly develops between them; the arrival on his doorstep of the police, who have linked him – however circumstantially – to the disappearance of a prostitute. But there seems to be a foreshadowing of this in his treatment of Erica: he gives her a microwave oven so she can cook her own food because she says she won’t eat anything that he has prepared; he spends hundreds of pounds on clothes for her, and takes her from her cage into his home where he allows her to bathe, and eat, and watch television. And even he is unable to explain why he has spared her for so long, or why he is now treating her like a houseguest rather than a prisoner held against her own will. It is a decision that will haunt him, given the new direction his life seems to be taking.
Cameron focuses on the relationship between abductor and abductee, and paints it in a completely unexpected light for the reader. These two people feel like a married couple at the end of their tether with each other. Erica becomes suspicious of her abductor’s motives, and gives him hell when he disappears for extended periods of time. When his kindness towards her inadvertently places her face-to-face with a CID officer, her reaction is completely unexpected. Interestingly, on his dates with Rachel, our hero feels some guilt about Erica, as if he is cheating on her. It’s an interesting dynamic, and Cameron uses it to great effect to drive the story in the direction he wants it to go. This is Stockholm Syndrome taken to the extreme, with a reciprocal feeling from the man who, for all intents and purposes, should be calling the shots, but who isn’t.
Normal is wonderfully written, and blackly funny throughout. The comparisons with Dexter will be obvious for the humour alone, but Cameron draws on – and extends – a much broader-ranging sub-genre. The first person narrative puts us in the head of this psychopath, with access to his thought processes and justifications for what he does. Not since Lou Ford, the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s seminal The Killer Inside Me, have we been so closely involved with the workings of the sociopathic mind. Despite the humour, Normal is a chilling and gripping read, made all the more so by the seeming outward normality of the man at its centre (and the sometimes questionable motives of those he encounters). There is a mastery of the language here that allows us to laugh out loud while we’re trying to think through the consequences of the narrator’s every action, and to wonder at just how plausible a plot-line it is.
If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s Cameron’s repeated use of “innuendoes” to insinuate murders that the narrator hasn’t committed. Throw-away lines like “[She] made a hell of a mess” play on the reader’s expectations, only to pull the rug out from under us several paragraphs or pages later. While it’s an interesting trick, and fits nicely with the overall light-hearted tone of the novel, I feel it was overused: once is clever; twice, slightly funny; beyond that it just gets predictable and irritating. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a reasonably minor quibble.
Graeme Cameron has done a phenomenal job with Normal. Taking the serial killer formula and playing with it to see what new and interesting shapes he can make has resulted in a dark and hilarious examination of the psychopath next door, and how quickly our carefully constructed world can start to crumble around us. It is a brilliant first novel, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Cameron in the near future.