Blog Tour- Gunnar Staalesen- Big Sister

Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office. A woman introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a 19-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.
Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers on the hunt for a group of people whose dark deeds are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Just when you thought that wily private investigator Varg Veum’s personal life couldn’t get any more complicated, Staalesen illustrates once again his ability to stretch his character to almost breaking point. Grappling with ghosts of the past, and a particularly emotional and troublesome missing person case, Veum is tested to the limit in the course of this all too personal investigation…

It goes without saying that Staalesen consistently produces crime thrillers to the highest standard, and considering how many books have featured the mercurial Varg Veum it is a remarkable achievement to keep a main protagonist so fresh and interesting after so many encounters. And yet this is what Staalesen does, and Big Sister is no exception. From the nod to Chandler in the title of the book itself, Staalesen once again engages us completely with Veum in his now trademark drily witty and hardboiled style. It’s almost as if Staalesen treats Veum as a metaphorical onion, peeling back layer after layer to reveal other aspects of Veum’s character, and unerringly placing him in difficult physical and emotional situations, which are all the more entertaining for us. I think the thing I enjoy most though is the very palpable sense of Veum getting older, and how he reacts differently to situations he’s placed in, as opposed to his younger self, whilst retaining that slightly gung-ho impetuousness and then realising his physical limitations as an older man. The deadpan humour, and cynical world view are in evidence as normal, but Staalesen tempers this beautifully with Veum’s realisation that his life to this point has not been all that it appears, and weighs him down beautifully as to how far he should pursue the truth of his family history. I loved the unfolding of this particular part of the plot, as Veum tries to reconcile his own character with what he knows of where his true parentage lies, and his sudden inclusion in a family and community as the truth of the past is revealed. Staalesen handles this arc of the story sensitively, and fully conveys the emotional confusion that Veum experiences, whilst tempering it to perfection with Veum’s naturally stoical personality.

In the main plot of the missing person investigation, Staalesen again weaves a complex connectivity between Veum and those he encounters, as they seek to evade and conceal their involvement with the victim. This book again takes us to some very dark places dealing with weighty issues such as sexual abuse, suicide, organised crime and addiction, and as always Veum’s gritty determination to solve the case, leads him and those closest to him into physical danger. I always enjoy Veum’s interactions with those he questions, chipping away at them until they either give up what the know, or punch him on the nose. Staalesen’s fluid dialogue, so resonant of the hardboiled masters, is here in spades, and complimented by a twisting and testing plot,  and with no exceedingly obvious guilty party there was, as always, much to enjoy here. With pithy references to the ills of contemporary society, the habitual strong sense of place, and a beautifully weighted translation again by Don Bartlett,  Big Sister is a brilliant addition to one of the most consistent and enjoyable European crime thriller series. Just what will Staalesen put Veum through next I wonder…. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Blog Tour- Kati Hiekkapelto- The Defenceless

katiWhen an old man is found dead on the road – seemingly run over by a Hungarian au pair – police investigator Anna Fekete is certain that there is more to the incident than meets the eye. As she begins to unravel an increasingly complicated case, she’s led on a deady trail where illegal immigration, drugs and ultimately murder threaten not only her beliefs, but her life. Anna’s partner Esko is entrenched in a similarly dangerous investigation. As the two cases come together, it becomes clear that having the law on their side may not be enough…

The first thing to say is that if The Defenceless is your maiden voyage into the world of detective Anna Fekete, Kati Hiekkapelto references just enough details from the The Hummingbird– the first in the series- to get you up to speed, and not too much that it would deter you from picking it up. Indeed, I was only a few pages into this one when the thought suddenly occurred as to why I had not read Hiekkapelto before- note to self to buy and read The Hummingbird as well. From the outset this book ticks so many of the boxes that Scandinavian crime fiction lovers look for in their favourite crime sub-genre and here’s why…

The real stand-out feature of this book is the strength and balance of Hiekkapelto’s plotting, as the narrative pivots between the seemingly disparate plots of two missing elderly people, a dead drug dealer, the insidious rise of motorcycle gang culture, and the truly heart-rending tale of a young man trying to survive the inhospitable climate, both social and meteorological, as an illegal immigrant in Finland. It is a testament to the assured and wholly convincing writing style of Hiekkapelto that all of these contrasting sub-plots are so beautifully balanced, as in the hands of a lesser writer the links between them may not have been so authentically achieved. Consequently, Hiekkapelto also perfectly times some unexpected reveals, with at least two of these criminal cases being solved very late on in the book, having already put her readers through the emotional ringer of the initial investigations. In true Scandinavian style, and very reminiscent of the brilliant Swedish duo Roslund-Hellstrom, Hiekkapelto also unflinchingly turns her gaze on the socio-economic climate of Finland, particularly in relation to the story of Sammy, the young illegal immigrant, and the traumatic events that have brought him to Europe. This arc of the story powerfully evolves over the course of the book, and as Sammy becomes more deeply mired in the criminal investigation, Hiekkapelto subtly shapes our perception of him, and the uncertain future he faces. Likewise, Hiekkapelto presents for our dubious pleasure a damning indictment on the gang and drug culture that seeks to ensnare and overpower not only impressionable youths, but their insidious effect on respectable members of the community who come into contact with them. It’s a fairly bleak vision of modern society but unerringly truthful.

And so to Hiekkapelto’s central character, Anna Fekete, who combines the elements of silk and steel in equal measure. A focused, highly professional police officer, and meticulous in her approach to the cases she faces, with a sharp and naturally inquisitive mind. Being an outsider herself, due to her Hungarian background, she has a natural affinity to those on the outer reaches of Finnish society, and thus a fairer view of the immigration issues. She’s fairly well-respected, and for the most part enjoys a comfortable relationship with her colleagues, but in true crime fiction style she has two Achilles heels. One is her irresponsible, alcoholic brother Akos, and the other, her exceptionally misguided choices of romantic entanglements, which leads to much self-recrimination and sleepless nights. For the most part, I didn’t particularly feel the need for the latter, as her life experience as a non-native Finn, her relationship with her brother, and the very nature of her profession, provided more than enough points of interest. But I concede it is always nice to poke at useless men with a sharp stick. Talking of useless men, I must mention my favourite character, detective Esko Niemi, who on paper is one of the most objectionable, casually racist and misogynistic characters ever to grace crime fiction- I loved him. With each foolhardy pronouncement, cutting comment or insensitive reaction, he endeared himself to me even more, exposing his charmless self, and blinkered idiocy at every turn. Except, more importantly, when it really matters- when he has to think on his feet to protect himself or his colleagues, or when certain chickens come home to roost and we see the man behind the mask of stupidity. Brilliantly done, and another stand-out feature of this gripping slice of Scandi-noir. Can thoroughly recommend this one.

(With thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Defenceless Blog Tour