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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Scandinavian

NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson

NightBlind-BF-AW-2-275x423 NIGHTBLIND

Ragnar Jónasson (ragnar-jonasson.squarespace.com)

Translated by Quentin Bates (graskeggur.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

The violent death of Siglufjördur’s police inspector heralds a new age for the small northern Icelandic town. There are rumours of drug deals gone bad, police corruption and the involvement of the town’s mayor and deputy mayor. Ari Thór Arason, Siglufjördur’s remaining policeman, recovering from illness and dealing with the stresses in his relationship with the mother of his son, requests the help of his old boss, and together they investigate, leaving no stone unturned, no skeletons in any of the town’s closets, unravelling, as they go, a fifty-year-old mystery surrounding the house where the police inspector was murdered.

Nightblind is the second of Ragnar Jónasson’s novels to be published in English, even though it is the last of a five-book series published in the author’s native Iceland. Readers of Snowblind expecting to pick up where the first book left off may be disappointed, but if, like me, you missed that first book, it makes Nightblind a good jumping-on point, safe in the knowledge that it’s a reasonably stand-alone piece of fiction.

The book opens with the death of Herjólfur, the new police inspector of the small town of Siglufjördur, a remote town in the far north of Iceland with few links to the rest of the country due to the mountains and sea that surround and isolate it. Ari Thór Arason, the town’s remaining policeman, is finally starting to feel welcome as a local after five years serving the town and is unsure how best to look at Herjólfur’s tragic demise: as the tragedy it is; as a near miss, since it should have been him on duty when the murder took place; or as the long-awaited opportunity for Ari Thór himself to step up into the role of police inspector. As he and Tómas, Herjólfur’s predecessor who has since moved to Reykjavik, investigate, it becomes clear that Herjólfur may have been involved in shady deals, and all clues seem to point to the man who has recently become the town’s mayor, and the mysterious young woman whom he has chosen as his deputy and who is on the run from her own tortured and dangerous past.

With the exception of Tómas, who we really only see through the eyes of others, Jónasson gives us in-depth access to the minds of the central characters. What becomes immediately obvious is how unlikeable each and every one of them is: from Ari Thór whose self-interest and self-pity quickly wear thin, to Mayor Gunnar Gunnarsson whose private life is in danger of encroaching on his public life, to Siglufjördur’s resident criminal whose seemingly innocent mention of Ari Thór’s family hides a world of dangerous intent. In many ways Tómas is the only character with an ounce of humanity, an illusion perhaps created by the distance Jónasson maintains between him and the reader.

The town of Siglufjördur is an integral part of the story, and becomes a character in its own right. With a similar feel to the eponymous location of British television’s Fortitude, this small town likes to keep itself very much to itself, despite recent developments that allow more traffic to flow through the small town centre. Set at the onset of winter, Jónasson gives us some idea of the harsh conditions that have created this small, tight-knit community who spend three months of every year in almost complete darkness due to the mountains that surround them. There are a number of key themes that run through the book, giving the story an added depth that can sometimes be lacking from straight crime fiction, especially crime fiction of this length (Nightblind comes in at barely 200 pages). The most obvious of these is the sense of belonging or, more correctly, the feeling of not belonging; none of the key characters – Ari Thór, Herjólfur, Gunnar, Elín – are Siglufjördur natives, and it shows, despite their public roles within the community. There is a sense that the town is keeping something to itself, and one wonders what the locals know that we – and the story’s central characters – do not.

Other themes feel very closely linked together: no less than three of the characters are currently, or were at some point in the past, being unfaithful to their wives, husbands or partners. Without introducing spoilers, it’s sufficient to say that these traits don’t help in endearing the characters to the readers. Tied closely with this is the misogyny and violence against women – again, in more than one unrelated instance – that, in some ways, forms the very foundation of the story. Despite the small-town setting and the sometimes-laid-back nature of the people who live there, Nightbllind has a dark heart that turns this slim volume into something special.

Tensely plotted and perfectly paced, Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is something of a revelation. There is no need to understand the backstory of these characters (thankfully, since three of the earlier books aren’t yet available in English!) in order to fully appreciate the events of the story. It’s a clever whodunit with a cast of memorable – though, to varying degrees, unpalatable – characters in whose stories, beyond all reasonable expectations, we find ourselves totally invested and a beautiful desolate setting that is as cold as it is exotic. I, for one, will be adding Snowblind to my reading list, and will be looking forward to the further adventures of the townspeople of Siglufjördur. In the meantime, I can’t help but recommend Nightblind to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction on the darker side.

STALLO by Stefan Spjut

Stallo STALLO

Stefan Spjut

Translated by Susan Beard

Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)

£14.99

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.

John_Bauer_1915Trolls 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.

THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma

THE EXPEDITION - Bea Uusma THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY

Bea Uusma

Translated by Agnes Broomé

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£16.99

On 11th July 1897, three men – Salomon August Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel – set off from the northernmost point of civilisation in a hot air balloon. Their destination: the North Pole. Three days later they are forced to make an emergency landing. Then nothing for 33 years, until their bodies are found on the southernmost tip of White Island. For over 80 years, there has been plenty of speculation, but no-one has ever been able to explain how these three intrepid adventurers came to their end. Bea Uusma, while browsing a book at a boring party in the early nineties, became obsessed with the expedition and dedicated almost fifteen years to trying to piece together the final days of the Andrée Expedition.

Uusma’s short history of the Andrée Expedition, and her subsequent obsession with the reasons behind these men’s deaths, hooks the reader from the very first page. It’s an odd little book – odd in the sense of being extremely quirky – from the unexpected subtitle (“A Love Story”) to the engaging and conversational tone that the author uses throughout the book as she unfolds first the events of those few months in late 1897, and then the details of her own investigation into the unexplained deaths of these three men shortly after they arrived at a supposedly safe camping site. Along the way we gain some insight into who these three men were, through the remains of their journals, found along with their bodies, and contemporary accounts.

Uusma’s key point is that none of these three men were suited to the harsh conditions that they encountered when their balloon crashed. Unsurprising, considering the plan was to fly over the North Pole, drop a buoy to mark their achievement, and land within a couple of weeks in Russia or North America, depending on the vagaries of the wind. There is a comical element to the account of their short-lived flight, and three-month-long trek across frozen wastes, an examination of how different society was over one hundred years ago, how ill-equipped these men – and others who sought similar goals – were for what they were attempting; like the fact that their stores included formal wear for the three men so that they could attend dinner wherever they might land, or that, despite the weight of the sledges they dragged across the snow and ice, they managed to hold on to bottles of port and wine for over three months of their journey.

The Expedition: A Love Story is only partly about the disastrous journey of Andrée and his companions. The historical reportage is interspersed with a more personal narrative, as we follow Uusma’s own expedition: her examination and re-examination of everything she could get her hands on; her own attempt to follow in Andrée’s footsteps, and visit the remains of his camp on the southern tip of White Island. During the fifteen years, it became an obsession for Uusma (“Sometimes I think I became a doctor just to be able to find out what happened.”) and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, so that the book is impossible to put down once you’ve started reading. Besides these two parallel narratives, the book is filled with lists (“The Nature of the Mystery”, the various hypotheses over the years as to how these three men died), photographs, maps, tables, autopsy reports and journal entries, all used as evidence to support the theory that Uusma has developed during her research.

It is through the journal entries that we get some insight into the book’s second love story, as we read Nils Strindberg’s thoughts about the woman to whom he is engaged, Anna Charlier. It is, as you might expect, a heart-breaking story and the author manages to provide evidence from both sides.

As the reader might expect from a book of this type, Bea Uusma has produced her own theory as to what happened to these men. In a brief lapse into fiction, she shows us how they might have met their end, and why their diaries provide no clues. It’s a plausible theory, and one that the reader is likely to arrive at long before Uusma produces it, but as the author herself says:

There will never be an answer. The more I learn about the Andrée expedition, the more unsure I feel about what really happened. Can we really be sure they actually died? Were the bodies discovered on White Island really theirs?

Sure, the theory is supported by the evidence as presented within the pages of the book, but that’s not to say Uusma’s presentation of the evidence isn’t biased towards her theory. (For the record, I like it; it’s a sound theory and ties in with what Uusma discovered in the men’s journals, as laid out in detailed tables in the middle of the book.)

Bringing together the best elements of, say, Dan Simmons’ The Terror (the description of the environment, the sense of cold) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH (the personal nature of the historical narrative and the starring role that the author plays in it), The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that is very easy to overlook. Uusma’s writing style is beautifully developed with a unique and engaging tone that will captivate the reader from the outset, and Agnes Broomé’s translation manages to keep the subtleties of the author’s voice and personality, despite the often technical or unstructured nature of the text.

There are moments of sheer beauty in The Expedition: A Love Story, the type of things that one doesn’t expect to find in non-fiction of this type, observations that make the reader stop and think about what they’re reading. For me, there is a third love story here: there is a point, around page 34, where I fell in love with Uusma’s ability to tell a story.

As soon as I step ashore I get the feeling something’s wrong. Something’s off. Then I realise: everything’s in colour. I’ve stared at the black and white photos from the take-off so many times. Now I’m actually here, in the picture. And suddenly everything’s in colour.

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

GAME by Anders de la Motte

GAME - Anders de la Motte GAME

Anders de la Motte

Translated by Neil Smith

Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)

£7.99

Released 5th December 2013

When Henrik “HP” Pettersson finds a mobile phone on the train his first thought is how much it might fetch if he tried to sell it. The phone receives a message, addressing HP by name, and he starts to look around for the hidden cameras. He has been invited to play a “Game” – he will be assigned tasks, and receive point and cash prizes for each task he completes. The tasks seem easy – steal the umbrella from a fellow train passenger, spray graffiti on an apartment door – and the pay-out out of proportion with effort he’s expending. But when one of his tasks draws his sister – a police protection officer – into the Game, HP soon discovers that the stakes are a lot higher than he first thought, and quitting isn’t as easy as he imagined.

Anders de la Motte’s debut novel, the first in a trilogy, takes no time at all in getting to the heart of the story. By the end of chapter one, HP has found the state-of-the-art phone – the number 128 on the back the only marking – and been invited to take part in the Game. Within this short period of time we learn a lot about HP – he’s a dropout, a petty hoodlum, a man in his thirties who goes through life with the attitude of a teenager who believes the world owes him a living – and we discover the Game, and the few rules that govern it, along with the novice player. In parallel, we meet Rebecca Normén, a police protection officer – a bodyguard to Stockholm’s political elite – a young woman struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated profession. Her job, and the vagaries of the Game, put her on a direct collision course with HP, a man with whom she is already intimately acquainted.

Game is fast-paced and action-packed, rarely taking time to pause, or allow the reader time to breathe. In HP, de la Motte presents a thorough unlikeable protagonist, but one who the reader is willing to follow through the course of the book, because his fate is always so uncertain, and the Game itself is so intriguing. The concept of the leader board – allegedly created specifically for HP – and the online videos appeal to the reader as much as to the player, making the whole scenario entirely plausible. Based purely on technology that is available now, and concepts with which we’re all familiar – that sense that Big Brother is always watching, or if not Big Brother then somebody with a video-capable mobile phone – we’re plunged into a realistic and dangerous situation along with HP.

There are tips of the hat here to a number of Hollywood greats – tips that stem from HP’s love of films and video games – most obviously Fight Club

Rule 1: Never talk to anyone outside the Game Community about the Game.

and, in one breath-taking set-piece, a thrilling homage to one of Hitchcock’s finest moments: the crop-duster scene from North-By-Northwest.

De la Motte shows promise for a first-time novelist. Throughout Game, we see an author in complete control of his work; in a number of well-written and perfectly-timed sequences, he manages to pull the wool over our eyes so that, despite the omniscient narrator, we’re on equal footing with HP and Normén: we never know more than they do, never more than we need to and, in some cases, we’ll finish a chapter only to discover that they know more than we do, due to some sleight of hand on the part of the author that leads us, momentarily, down the wrong path and shatters any illusions we might have that we can think this one through to the end.

The beautiful city of Stockholm plays a key role in the story, its island-based geography and many interlinking bridges providing HP the means he needs to escape from the scenes of his crimes, while not requiring much from the reader in the way of suspension of disbelief. Like Jens Lapidus’ Easy Money before it, Game shows a side of the city rarely seen from the outside.

Razor-sharp characterisation and non-stop action combine to make Game stand out from the glut of Scandi-crime novels currently on shelves. Anders de la Motte is a writer of no little skill, and his perfect pacing and careful rationing of the facts ensure that not only the ending, but the very next scene, will come as a complete surprise – if not outright shock – to the reader. It’s been some time since I was this impressed by the construction of a crime novel and, on the strength of this first offering, I’ll be diving into Buzz and Bubble (the second and third parts of the trilogy) as soon as they’re available. Not to be missed.

Check out the video below for a taster of what to expect.

THE BLACK PATH by Åsa Larsson

untitled THE BLACK PATH

Åsa Larsson

Translated by Marlaine Delargy

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

Late last summer, MacLehose Press published Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Despite multiple attempts in my review to convince people that it was the third book in the series, it turns out that it was, actually, the fourth. MacLehose’s latest Larsson release, bearing the much less unwieldy title of The Black Path, is the missing third book:

Do you remember what happened?

Rebecka Martinsson saw her dead friend lying there on the gravel in Poikkijärvi. And the world shattered. And they had to hold onto her to stop her walking into the river.

This is the third book.

Once again we find ourselves in the cold and snowy wastes of Sweden’s little section of the Arctic Circle. When a woman is found, frozen solid, in an unoccupied fishing hut, Kiruna detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke are called in to investigate. When she thaws out, she is quickly identified – she has recently been in the news, after all – as part of the Kallis Mining management team. She appears to have been tortured before her death and, as the detectives investigate they discover that she is something of an enigma, even to those closest to her. Assisted by Rebecka Martinsson – freshly released from a psychiatric hospital and now working in the much less stressful environment of the Kiruna public prosecutor’s office – a second death is soon uncovered, shedding a whole new light on the investigation and the seemingly untouchable people involved.

Many of the elements that made Until Thy Wrath Be Past a winner for me are present once again here: the distinctly Swedish feel; the supernatural elements (much more subtle than previously, but definitely present); the wonderful characters and pitch-perfect story-telling. The Black Path is told in good part in the form of flashbacks, from various different points of view (Mella’s is, perhaps, conspicuous by its absence, although she remains central to the plot). Through this manner we get to watch the central characters develop, not only Martinsson, but also the dead woman, her brother, her friend, and various other characters that will have important roles as the plot plays out. This is a book defined by its characters and their relationships with each other; there is undoubtedly a mystery to be solved, but it is much less important than the interpersonal dynamics (if I can be allowed that small digression into management-speak) that led to the murder, Larsson once more focussing on the why rather than the who or the how.

The two main characters (I’m still slightly baffled by the fact that these books are all identified as “A Rebecka Martinsson Investigation”), while only appearing for around half of the book between them, are still the most powerful driving force behind this story. Here we have two very different women – the fragile and insecure Martinsson, and the brash, no-nonsense Mella – who somehow grow as friends as the story progresses and seem to fit comfortably together, despite their differences. There is a description early on that, for me, summed up the differences perfectly:

Martinsson watched them and thought there was a faint, but clearly perceptible sensual signal in that way of pushing aside the hair, the fingers following the strand of hair to the very end. On their way back to the knee or the arm of the chair, the tips of the fingers fleetingly brushed the chin or the mouth.

Mella watched the same movements and thought they were always bloody fiddling with their faces, like junkies.

These are quirky, loveable characters that, for some reason, remind me of the characters from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. It’s a difficult balance to strike: the dark business of murder and corruption coupled with characters whose sanity depends on their sense of humour, and the banality of their everyday lives, without ever reaching the level of satire or outright comedy. Larsson achieves it, seemingly effortlessly, producing a story that moves from horror to laughs and back again in the blink of an eye.

The Black Path is, ultimately, a collection of character studies disguised as a piece of cleverly-plotted crime fiction. Three-dimensional characters, beautiful, freezing locations and a puzzle that will keep you guessing to the end combine to make this a compelling and hugely entertaining read. Åsa Larsson proves, once again, that when it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, she is the one to beat, and cements her place on my own personal “must read” list.

EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus

EASY MONEY - Jens Lapidus EASY MONEY

Jens Lapidus

Translated by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

Released: 2nd February 2012

When Jens Lapidus’ debut novel, Easy Money, landed on my desk, it came bearing a quote that is almost inevitable these days on the English translations of Swedish novels – the quote that compares this writer to Stieg Larsson. What caught my eye about this quote, though, is the fact that it came from none other than the Demon dog of American crime fiction, and one of my personal favourites, James Ellroy.

Easy Money – originally published in Sweden in 2006 – takes an in-depth look at Stockholm’s underworld through the eyes of three men for whom that shady empire is home. Jorge is Chilean, and is doing time for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. When Jorge pulls off the impossible – hops over the twenty-three-foot wall that surrounds Österåker prison – he disappears into a world where his knowledge of the cocaine business can make him king. He just has to stay free, and stay alive, for long enough to put that knowledge to good use.

JW is a wannabe – a country boy living it large in the big city, hiding his background in order to fit in with the rich set who sleep all day and party all night in Stockholm’s most fashionable area. He drives a gypsy cab on the nights he isnt partying to afford the parties and soon graduates to dealing cocaine when his boss sees potential in him. JW has ulterior motives for being in the city – several years earlier, his older sister followed the same course and disappeared without a trace. JW hopes to achieve what the police could not, and find what happened to her.

Mrado is a member of the Yugo Mafia. He’s a big man who lives on a diet of protein bars and steroids. He’s a racketeer, running a large chunk of the city’s coat-check business. Mrado, a Serbian who fought at Srebrenica, fears no man, but he has a weak spot – a daughter that he sees one day every other week, and even that under protest by his ex-wife. As the lives of these three men converge, moving towards the largest cocaine shipment Stockholm has ever seen, violence erupts, and they find that they may have more in common with each other than it would seem at first glance.

Lapidus presents us with a realistic vision of what Stockholm’s underworld might look like – the various factions battling for a piece of this or that business in a city barely big enough to hold them all. He does this through alternating chapters told from the point of view of each of the three protagonists. It’s a complex world, and the interrelationships between these men – never fully revealed to them, but revealed piecemeal to the reader – is equally complex, and Lapidus uses small, exciting chunks to build a story that is, for the reader at least, much more than the sum of its parts. The comparisons with Larsson are undeniable and, in my opinion, well-founded: this is a side of Sweden that most Swedes probably don’t know exists, a side that the Swedish tourist authorities would much rather wasn’t advertised; it portrays Stockholm as a dark and violent city peopled by rich brats, and gangsters and wannabes. Like the journalist Larsson, Lapidus is well-placed to provide a realistic look at this world– he’s a criminal defence lawyer who, according to his bio, represents some of the most notorious criminals in Sweden.

The novel reads like a tribute to Ellroy. The subject bears a close resemblance to some of the myriad plots that drive his Underworld USA trilogy, but most striking is Lapidus’ telegraphic, rhythmic writing style. The short, sharp prose that defines most of Ellroy’s work is beautifully reproduced here, despite the translation from Swedish to English.

Jorge knew how it was: Friends on the inside are not like friends on the outside. Other rules apply. Power hierarchies are clearer. Time inside counts. Number of times inside counts. Smokes count; roaches count more. Favors grant relationships. Your crime counts: rapists and pedophiles worth zero. Junkies and alkies way down. Assault and theft higher. Armed robbery and drug kingpins on top. Most of all: Your membership counts. Rolando, a friend according to the rules on the outside. According to the principles of the slammer: Playa batted in the major leagues, Jorge in the minor.

It’s impressive to read, and respect to both author and translator for pulling it off. The fashion-obsessed JW, his chapters littered with brand names, and club names, comes across as a cut-price Patrick Bateman: all of the ego, and none of the psychopathic tendencies. It’s difficult to know, though, if this mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis’ most enduring creation is deliberate or not.

Lapidus infuses the novel with a deep sense of place, and the story is littered with street names and place names. There’s an implicit trust that the author won’t mess around too much with the city’s geography, but it serves to ground the action in real places that can be found on a map, and to make the reader feel like they know at least a small part of the city. If you’re like me, it also serves as a tourist guide and makes the reader long to (re)visit.

Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.

UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST by Åsa Larsson

UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST

Åsa Larsson

Translated by Laurie Thompson

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£12.99

Released: 4th August 2011

 

In the early spring thaw, the body of a young woman is discovered floating in the river Torne, in the northern extremes of Sweden. It doesn’t take long for police to discover that it’s the body of Wilma Persson, who went missing along with her boyfriend during the depths of winter late the previous year. Unable to accept the obvious explanation – that the couple died accidentally while diving – District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella ruffle feathers in an attempt to get to the truth and bring the couple’s murderer to justice.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past – the title comes from a quotation from the Book of Job – is Larsson’s third novel featuring the troubled Prosecutor who is adjusting to life above the Arctic Circle in the Swedish city of Kiruna. It’s a straightforward police procedural where the identity of Wilma Persson’s murderer is never in question, not least to the investigators at the centre of the novel. Even so, it is oddly gripping, driven to a large extent by the why rather than the who or the how of many traditional crime novels.

Martinsson and Mella – presumably there is a reason the latter is not included in the series title – are a pair of down-to-earth women. Martinsson is readjusting to life in the quiet city of Kiruna after time spent living and working in Stockholm. She’s recently been released from a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown brought on by one of her previous cases and trying – with varying degrees of success – to get back to a normal way of life. Mella is the tough-as-nails, break-all-the-rules detective with a stable family life – a loving husband and four children keep her busy out of hours. The biggest problem with taking Wrath as your starting point for this series – as I have done – is that you miss a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. This is a standalone case which is completely self-contained within the covers of the book, at least in terms of the main plot. But there is two books’ worth of history here that define these people and how they interact with one another. It would be impossible to write the novel without some reference to what has gone before, but it can be frustrating for the first-time visitor to this part of the world. I’d recommend considering The Savage Altar as a starting point and working your way forward.

Around half of the novel is told from the point of view of the victim. The opening chapter describes the dive and the drowning and is expertly written: told in the first person, it will leave you short of breath and eager for more. Wilma appears to Martinsson early in the novel to provide assistance – an act which Martinsson remembers as a dream. There is a touch of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones in the handling of Wilma’s story and a kinship with John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels – this is a human drama that straddles the line between crime and supernatural “horror”.

There is something distinctly Swedish – unpronounceable names, of which there are many, aside – about how Larsson tells her story, something laid-back about her prose that reminds me of the first time I read Henning Mankell, which would be the best comparison I could come up with should someone ask the question “who is she like?” While Larsson’s Kiruna and Mankell’s Ystad could not be farther apart and still be in the same country – Ystad sits serenely on the south coast while Kiruna rests in the triangle where the borders of Sweden, Finland and Norway meet – they could not be more similar: there’s something positively rural about both places, and much of the police work seems to take place outside of the city proper while still falling under the purview of the city’s police force. Larsson’s sense of place is well-defined, and Kiruna and its surroundings come alive within the pages of the book.

In the ever-growing pantheon of Scandinavian crime fiction, it is sometimes difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Based on Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Åsa Larsson is definitely worth your time and attention. I suspect that as the series grows, so will this writer’s reputation until it’s Åsa that people think about when they hear the name Larsson. This is an absolute must-read for fans of the Wallander novels in particular and anyone who enjoys Scandi-crime in general.

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