Oliver Bottini- The Dance of Death

One wet and misty weekend in October, the Niemann family find a stranger in their garden. He is armed and tries to force his way into the house, but disappears as soon as the police are alerted. That night he’s back with an impossible ultimatum . . .

Freiburg detective Louise Boni and her colleagues are put under enormous pressure. Traces of evidence lead her to a no-man’s-land, and to a ruthless criminal who brings with him the trauma of conflict in the Balkans…

And so to the third of Oliver Bottini’s Black Forest Investigation series, The Dance of Death, which sees stalwart investigator Louise Boni, drawn into a case of retribution precipitated by the turbulent history of the Balkan states…

Whilst confessing to the fact that I did find the first of the series, Zen and the Art of Murder a tad ponderous for my tastes, and having read and enjoyed the second A Summer of Murder, I have come to appreciate the more meandering and slow moving pace of Bottini’s writing. Veering very much more towards literary fiction than crime thriller per se, I found myself adjusting to the pace and style of it the further into the book I read. This more measured feel to Bottini’s prose does rather dilute the feeling of this being a crime thriller, but  interestingly does give a platform for the author to really get beneath the skin of his characters, and to thoroughly interrogate the actions of the main antagonist, Antun Loncar, threatening retribution on one man’s family for the perceived sins of the past. We become as intimately involved with the motivations and history of this perpetrator as the police investigation team, and as his turbulent, unsettled and ultimately tragic story is slowly revealed, Bottini poses some interesting questions as to the balance between justice, revenge and compassion. As a reader it is good to feel conflicted about a character, where the boundaries of black and white merge into a mysterious grey, and this was an incredibly interesting facet of the book as a whole.

Talking of conflicted, police investigator Louise Boni, is a mass of contradictions, being a quixotic, emotionally challenged and a sometimes  slightly unfathomable protagonist. I still can’t quite decide if I like her or not, as her compassion and clear-sightedness, is so often blurred by her own self absorption, with a messy and unsettled private life, and her recovery as an alcoholic. At times, more often in her professional life, she shows a huge clarity of thought and sense of action, underscored by compassion and determination, but all too often in her private life be it due to drink or relationships there’s an overarching feeling of indecision and naval gazing  that makes you want to grab her by the shoulders, and give her a good shake. She proves to be a consistently complicated character, sometimes overwhelmed by her own feelings of guilt in relation to events of the past, and I still don’t know quite what to make of her.

The Dance of Death is not an easy read as there is a huge weight of historical factual detail, that although entirely necessary to the plot, does slow the pace of the book considerably, but it is difficult to see how this information could be imparted to the reader in any other way, tracing the history of war and resettlement between the Balkan states and Germany post Second World War. Although at times somewhat dense, and a little overwhelming, I did find the historical aspect fascinating, looking at the history of conflict and resettlement in the Balkans, from a new and interesting angle- special mention to translator Jamie Bulloch for the singular challenge this presented. Overall,  I actually enjoyed the final part of the book more, as Boni physically retraces Loncar’s past, and takes her own journey through the Balkans, and although it did feel rather truncated in comparison to what  had proceeded it, this section of the book had a real vividness and verve as Boni encounters the strange environs of Loncar’s home state. This is also quite possibly a journey for Boni that will take her life in an entirely new direction, so will be interested to see where Bottini takes her, and us, as readers…

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(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

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The Finnish Invasion- Kati Hiekkapelto- The Exiled, Antti Tuomainen- The Mine

Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

Having waxed lyrical about the previous book The Defenceless from edgy Finnish writer, Kati Hiekkapelto, it was great to dive into this one, again featuring Hungarian detective Anna Fekete. I am rather partial to books where the main protagonist is removed from their normal stomping ground, and how the vacations they take are never the most relaxing of affairs. The Exiled fits the bill perfectly…

Anna Fekete is a prickly and forthright woman, with a somewhat abrasive manner that exasperates and delights in equal measure. I particularly enjoyed the verbal sparring between herself and her mother, on her trip back to her parental home, and Anna’s general doggedness and interference in the gradually revealed corruption within the local police force. She proves herself a keen and formidable irritant to most people, and Heikkapelto pulls no punches in painting a vivid picture of Anna’s somewhat derisory attitude to both childhood acquaintances and local figures in the community. Finding herself inveigled in the suspicious death of a petty thief soon after her arrival, Anna uses her detective nous, and the resources open to her, calling on assistance back home in Finland, to expose a dark and bleak tale centring on the refugee community.

Through her eyes, the neglect and danger that those traversing Europe in search of a safer home experience is brought to the centre of our attention, and her generally sympathetic view to those she encounters, coloured by her own identity as a migrant, works as a powerful conduit for Hiekkapelto to provide a broad and realistic depiction of the refugee crisis. There are also additional points of interest, as the chequered history of the Balkan region is woven into the plot, and a focus on the issues of identity and belonging that have arisen from the break up of Yugoslavia are explored both through Anna’s familial history, and those she interacts with. It’s always incredibly satisfying to read a book that provides deeper levels of interest alongside the main plot, and gives a richness and texture to the prose to sate the reader. With this added scope to the book, the main plot still stands strongly within it, and the investigation that Anna undertakes to satisfy the numerous questions that arise for her is well-realised and played out, and their is an underlying current of tension throughout. As Anna finds herself increasingly at risk, but being as determined as a dog with a bone, I was totally caught up in this story from the start, and pulled in once again by the magnetism of Anna’s character, and her unerring ability to use the less attractive traits of her personality to get to the root of this mystery. Beautifully translated by David Hackston,  The Exiled is another winner from Kati Hiekkappelto and I, for one, cannot wait to see what Anna gets tangled up in next. Highly recommended.

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In the dead of winter, investigative reporter Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mining company, whose illegal activities have created an environmental disaster in a small town in Northern Finland. When the company’s executives begin to die in a string of mysterious accidents, and Janne’s personal life starts to unravel, past meets present in a catastrophic series of events that could cost him his life…

I’m going to set my stall out here and say that I would probably enjoy anything that Antti Tuomainen writes, having loved both The Healer, and  Dark As My Heart so did The Mine take me down to the depths of despair, or eject me skipping into the sunlight?…

One of the manifold reasons that I love Scandinavian crime thrillers so much is the unerring ability of the authors within this genre to so finely balance the exploration of the human psyche, and important social and political issues, in total harmony with the essential need of bringing to their readers a believable and compelling criminal mystery. The Mine is a perfect example of this, exposing the less than legal activities of a mining company in the snowy wastes of rural Finland, as a jumping off point for a menacing tale of murder and retribution. The author’s research into the history and workings of this particular industry across Finland, is clearly in evidence, and Tuomainen does not hesitate in exposing the particular follies and dangers linked to it. In common with Gunnar Staalesen’s We Shall Inherit The Wind and the Danish drama Follow The Money which also addressed issues in relation to environmental issues this adds a layer of interest to the reader, outside of a linear crime narrative. I thought the plot was excellent, and was genuinely interested and engaged with Janne’s refusal to give up in his mission to expose the truth behind the mining corporation and its dastardly deeds, and delighted by the additional weight that Tuomainen’s exploration of human connection brings to the whole affair.

Dark As My Heart was one of my favourite books of last year, due to the mesmeric, lyrical quality that Tuomainen injects into his prose. Despite the weightier environmental issues of this book, that provide the driving force for the story, there are interludes of writing, that resonate strongly with the author’s gift for the rhythm and cadence of emotional expression. I finished reading the book with at least ten highlighted passages of sublime, naturalistic description whether referring to the physical landscape, or the emotional landscape of the characters. I found Tuomainen’s portrayal of the fragile reconciliation between Janne and his father, Emil,  particularly affecting, and the bridging of the gap between their differing sense of morality powerfully wrought, when the true nature and motivations of Janne’s father come to light. Although not entirely convinced by Emil’s day job, it proved an interesting juxtaposition for us to see how Janne and his mother dealt with his absence, and the tentative steps made by Emil to reconnect. Strongly in evidence in his previous books is Tuomainen’s knack for rootling around in the depths of people’s emotional selves, and depicting them so transparently that you cannot be helped as a reader to being utterly drawn into his characters. I felt like I came to know all these people intimately as the story progressed, with increasing amounts of either complete empathy or moral outrage at the situations they find themselves in. This is fiction writing at its best, highlighting the power to move, unsettle and educate the reader, and hold them completely into its thrall. Highly recommended.

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