#BlogTour- Agnes Ravatn-The Seven Doors “A taut and precise psychological thriller.” @OrendaBooks

University professor Nina is at a turning point. Her work seems increasingly irrelevant, her doctor husband is never home, relations with her difficult daughter are strained, and their beautiful house is scheduled for demolition. When her daughter decides to move into another house they own, things take a very dark turn. The young woman living there disappears, leaving her son behind, the day after Nina and her daughter pay her a visit. With few clues, the police enquiry soon grinds to a halt, but Nina has an inexplicable sense of guilt. Unable to rest, she begins her own investigation, but as she pulls on the threads of the case, it seems her discoveries may have very grave consequences for her and her family…

Having been completely bowled over by Agnes Ravatn’s previous book The Bird Tribunal I was anticipating another story layered with psychological suspense and dramatic tension. The Seven Doors achieves precisely that and Ravatn does not disappoint.

Although the book involves a seemingly simple premise for a plot,  what Ravatn layers into it, makes this a far from linear tale. Just as The Bird Tribunal encapsulated the psychological suspense of Patricia Highsmith and was powered by a literary allusion throughout, so the author draws on a similar idea here. Consequently, aside from her main character Nina finding herself embroiled and unduly fascinated by the disappearance of her and her husband’s tenant Mari, herself a mysterious and mercurial figure, Ravatn threads into this mystery a number of themes and digressions drawing on psychological schools of thought, folklore, literature and music. I do concede that I was much more drawn to this side of the book, as I unfortunately guessed the perpetrator of Mari’s disappearance from quite early on, but was completely fascinated by the the references to the legend of Bluebeard (which spawns the title of the book) of which I knew nothing, and the other facets of the book mentioned previously with a focus on humanities and the psychological. There is nothing better than finishing a book having discovered something new, particularly when it is so skilfully woven into the plot without feeling forced or contrived.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was Ravatn’s characterisation, particularly of the women, as the male characters, aside from Mari’s estranged husband seemed a little more functional rather than rounded. Nina is a fascinating character, being older, and perhaps with a more heightened awareness of time passing by, with her home on the point of demolition, and the machinations of moving on, and moving out. It seems that in this period of change and uncertainty, her transformation into an aged Nancy Drew could not have come at a better time for her, and perhaps, on a more human level, proves to her that she still has some worth outside of being a lecturer, a wife and a mother. Speaking of which, I loved Ingeborg her daughter whose lack of  tact and diplomacy is an absolute joy to behold. She is resolute, and like a dog with a bone, will pester, cajole and annoy to get what she wants, with little thought for others, leading to some of the lighter moments within the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the linear quality of the main storyline of The Seven Doors, which gave the plot the opportunity to go off on other tangents linked to Nina’s particular field of academic expertise, with music, folklore and literature also being used as tropes within the book. Fluidly translated by Rosie Hedger once again, this is a taut and precise psychological thriller, deceptive in its simplicity but with some interesting diversions, that leads to a satisfying read overall. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Mikael Niemi- To Cook A Bear-(tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner) “An utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel @maclehosepress

It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol. Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them…

Delighted to be joining the blog blast to celebrate the release of To Cook A Bear by Mikael Niemi, an utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel. Using the real life figure, the Revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Læstadius as the central character, adds an authenticity and deeper level of interest to the book, and being unfamiliar with this highly intelligent, progressive and insightful man, there is a real frisson of Niemi linking the past with the present here. To try and encapsulate in a review the many themes of the philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and the razor sharp historical detail that Niemi so confidently and brilliantly entwines in this book won’t be easy, as this is a novel quite unlike any other that I have encountered of late.

On a very basic level, this book is a murder mystery with a small community filled with fear and suspicion as a murderer walks amongst them, preying on defenceless young women in a series of attacks driven by violent rage.  As such, even with such a seemingly simple premise, Niemi constructs a chilling and compelling mystery, as the suspicion amongst the local people is attributed by turn to a possible bear attack, to a wandering miscreant, and then far more dangerously into the perpetrator being from the community itself. Reading this from a contemporary viewpoint, I was struck by how little the human race has moved on in terms of accepting peoples’ differences, as the community quickly turns on Jussi, the young Sami boy that Læstadius has taken into his tutelage. This fear of the unknown and the different runs like a vein throughout the book, as even Læstadius himself, with his Revivalist preaching and fervent followers puts him at odds with the men of influence in the town, who value wealth and gaiety over religion and abstinence. Consequently, there are many trials and pitfalls for Læstadius and Jussi, who intent on identifying the perpetrator find themselves in an increasingly perilous position.

What I was increasingly struck by was the progressiveness and intuitive thinking of Læstadius, harnessing clues and applying practical chains of thought to the residual evidence of each crime. Obviously, forensic science was very much in its infancy in this period, but Læstadius neatly assesses and applies increasingly modern methods to his dissemination of the physical evidence he uncovers, based on common sense and lateral thinking. Hence, we see the rudimentary application of the crime scene analysis, we as modern readers are familiar with in its purest form, as Læstadius inches forward with his knowledge and supposition on how to gather clues, analyse them, and catch a killer. From fingerprints to daguerreotypes, from simple pencil shavings to indentations in the landscape, Læstadius draws on his knowledge of psychology, botany, literature and branches of science and pseudo science to close in on the perpetrator.

I think it serves as a testament to the quality of Niemi’s writing and his erudite turn of phrase, and by turn the sublime translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner, that I revisited several passages throughout my reading of the book. His rendering of this harsh, but beautiful landscape, the sheer drudgery and hardship of these people’s lives, the physicality of his characters, and the more metaphysical musings of Læstadius himself on art, literature and education, held me in their thrall. On the subject of the community he is a part of, I was struck by their deep connection to the land and the way that their lives have this naturalistic interconnectedness, perhaps stronger than faith and education itself. “ You might easily form the impression that the farm-maid or the reindeer herder lacked the disposition for academic study. But even though they didn’t read books, they knew the changes in the movement of the animals at every moment in the year. They knew hundreds of reindeer marks by heart, and manged to find old pasture grounds, berry patches and fishing lakes from the high mountains to the coastline…In many matters, local people had a deeper understanding than all of Uppsala’s professors.” As much as Læstadius recognises that these people and particularly their children have the potential for a profession, education and improvement, he never loses sight of this more basic characteristic of his flock that connects them to the soil. Likewise, with his apprentice Jussi, he recognises and respects Jussi’s physical need to wander and be amongst nature, but aims to educate him as fully as possible, and their relationship seems to transcend a simple one of teacher and pupil or even adoptive father and son.

To Cook A Bear proved to be an incredibly enjoyable reading experience for me, and as someone who has an innate curiosity of the world and our place within it, I found it tremendously satisfying. Not only did it read as a compelling tale of jealousy and murder, with its nods to early forensic techniques, but it expanded out to envelop a host of larger themes based on religion, morality, art and at its heart an enduring interconnectedness with the landscape and the changing of the seasons. Mikael Niemi has produced a completely fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully written book. Highly recommended.

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Lars Levi Laestadius was born in 1800 in the municipality of Jäkkvik in Swedish Lapland and died in 1861 in Pajala on the Swedish side of the border with Finland, which was a Russian Grand Duchy during the nineteenth century. Laestadius was educated as a theologian and worked as a vicar in different municipalities in Swedish Lapland. He also contributed to scientific fields such as botany and ethnography, as well as linguistics and philosophy, and participated in the French La Recherche scientific expedition to Finnmark and Spitsbergen in 1838. He is best remembered as a revival preacher and the revival movement “Laestadianism” has become a central influence in the cultural heritage of Northern Norway, as well as Northern Sweden and Finland.

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

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#BlogTour Quentin Bates- Cold Malice “Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books.” @graskeggur

Reykjavík detective Gunnhildur Gísladóttir tries not to believe in ghosts. But when Helgi, one of her team is certain he’s seen a man who had been declared dead more than fifteen years ago, she reluctantly gives him some unofficial leeway to look into it. Has the not-so-dead man returned from the grave to settle old scores, or has he just decided to take a last look around his old haunts? Either way, there are people who have nursed grudges for years, hoping for a reckoning one day. Even the rumour of his being alive and kicking is enough to spark a storm of fury and revenge, with Gunnhildur and Helgi caught up in the middle of it…

I am already a confirmed fan of this series, having previously reviewed Thin Ice and Cold Breath and it is a still a source of much puzzlement to me that Quentin Bates still remains relatively little known. Aside from his accomplished translations of Icelandic fiction, I generally find that when I recommend his books in my day job as a bookseller, he becomes a firm favourite, so hopefully I can continue the trend here!

Detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir is, without a doubt, the lynchpin to this series, where she carefully balances her traits of fairness and determinedness, with a sharp wit and her reluctance to suffer fools gladly. There’s a great observation by one of her police colleagues, “Gunna had no problem in being downright offensive if she felt it was called for, and it was a brave man who picked an argument with her,” which on the surface shows the more antagonistic aspect of her character, but is roundly applauded and respected for her instincts and intuition too. When I read these books, I always picture Marge Gunderson from Fargo, as Gunna shares many a trait with her, and I also like the fact that her family life, at times complicated, is always incorporated into the books, giving us an even more rounded sense of her balancing the roles of detective of some repute and as a mother, with the challenges that this brings. You always feel that she clasps a bit between her teeth, and one of the cases is no exception with a suspicious suicide and a tangled web of past secrets, but also a case that leads her to navigate the unfamiliar and unscrupulous art world.  I also enjoyed the way that a closer focus was put on Helgi, one of Gunna’s police colleagues, as he is on the trail of a face from a past presumed dead, whilst coming to terms with another surprise addition to his brood, and trying to control his wandering eye…

What I love about this series, apart from Gunnhildur and her colleagues , is how Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books. Within this story, the author has ample opportunity to draw us into the workaday world of men at sea, and the dangerous and stressful conditions that this work involves. His descriptions of the stormy seas, the sheer hard physical toil of life, and the stress that life away from home wreaks on family are all beautifully described. You get a real sense of the waves crashing around your ears, and the biting cold permeating you to the core. Aside from this, Bates also casts a perceptive eye on the changes that Iceland has experienced, both politically and socially, in terms of the increase in tourism, the development of the capital city, and the fractures that are appearing more on a social level. Again, this serves to draw the reader in closer to the actual landscape and feel of Iceland, as closely as possible, adding another layer of interest to this police procedural.

There is a real comfort to be had in reading a series where the characters and terrain have become increasingly familiar to you, giving you a feeling very much akin to pulling on a comfy jumper, and being instantly enveloped back into this world and with these people. This series does that perfectly, and as I said in the intro, this is probably one that you might like to discover for yourselves, whether you start with Cold Malice or start from the very beginning. Which as we know, is a very good place to start. Recommended.

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)

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#Blog Tour- Eva Björg Ægisdóttir- The Creak On The Stairs @OrendaBooks

When a body of a woman is discovered at a lighthouse in the Icelandic town of Akranes, it soon becomes clear that she’s no stranger to the area. Chief Investigating Officer Elma, who has returned to Akranes following a failed relationship, and her colleagues Sævar and Hörður, commence an uneasy investigation, which uncovers a shocking secret in the dead woman’s past that continues to reverberate in the present day. But as Elma and her team make a series of discoveries, they bring to light a host of long-hidden crimes that shake the entire community. Sifting through the rubble of the townspeople’s shattered memories, they have to dodge increasingly serious threats, and find justice, before it’s too late…

It’s always good to discover another member of the Icelandic crime writing stable, and if you have previously enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson or Yrsa Siggurdottir, there is much to enthral you here. The Creak On The Stairs from Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is the first of a series introducing a new female detective, and displays all of the recognisable hallmarks of Icelandic crime fiction…

Usually when I review I tend to focus on one aspect of the book which totally hooked me, and in this case the overriding impression I was left with was that of location and atmosphere. After a short sojourn in Rekjavik, Elma returns to her hometown of Akranes, and we are instantly immersed in this dark, elemental setting, separated by a stretch of water from the capital city, and Ægisdóttir builds the character of the town and its surrounds with as much care and precision as the plot and characterisation too. The whole book is enveloped by an intense feeling of claustrophobia and foreboding, which is mirrored by the wild and tempestuous weather, and the changing moods of the sea. The descriptive elements of the book are extremely powerful, and really allow the reader to picture each individual setting, and to feel the mercurial changes wrought upon it. From the sinister old lighthouse to the roiling shoreline it rests upon, our feeling of darkness and foreboding is constantly manipulated and shaped by this aspect of the book.

Chief Investigating Officer Elma is at the heart of the book, and the gradual reveal of her reasons for returning to Akranes, reconnecting with her family and her developing relationship with her police colleagues are perhaps the most interesting aspects of her character. As the investigation she is bound up with is fairly linear, Ægisdóttir has more opportunity to establish this character, and her cohorts as a base to build further investigations on. Although I question the speedy intensity of one of her new relationships, which was a little cliched, there was a solid building of camaraderie and cooperation established with the team Elma is now part of. Aside from Elma, I felt that the author used her female characters effectively to address some powerful themes of control, subjugation and abuse, and one older character in particular seemed to embody the meek acceptance that builds into a simmering and then violent resentment was very well realised indeed.

Using a split timeline to recall the experiences of a young abused child Elisabet, with her experiences as an adult is an effective trope of the book. As we see how her character develops, and her increasingly physical outbursts, little wonder that these events as a child so fully shape her as a woman. The passages that recount her childhood are an emotive mix of malevolence and pathos, and in the closing chapters as the murderer is eventually unmasked, it becomes increasingly clear that a whole web of lies and deceit have also blighted her entire life. Although the plot had a sedate pace, Ægisdóttir does strive to hold the reader’s interest, and there were a couple of satisfying plot twists to change our perspective on some of the characters we encounter.

With its claustrophobic intensity and a measured but powerful depiction of female oppression, I think The Creak On The Stairs was a solid start to a series, with plenty of opportunity to grow and develop the central female police character. Another assured translation by Victoria Cribb, and a real sense of affiliation with, and appreciation of the location used, by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir herself, there is much to enjoy here. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Kjell Ola Dahl- Sister #BlogTour

Suspended from duty, Detective Frølich is working as a private investigator, when his girlfriend’s colleague asks for his help with a female asylum seeker, who the authorities are about to deport. She claims to have a sister in Norway, and fears that returning to her home country will mean instant death. Frølich quickly discovers the whereabouts of the young woman’s sister, but things become increasingly complex when she denies having a sibling, and Frølich is threatened off the case by the police. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that the answers lie in an old investigation, and the mysterious sister, who is now on the run…

After a diversion into the historical based thriller The Courier (which I would highly recommend) Kjell Ola Dahl has reverted back to his Oslo Detective series with Sister being the eighth outing. As usual Frank Frølich is in the midst of a couple of tricky cases, and as he discovers connections between the two, his innate powers of detection are put under pressure…

By isolating Frølich from his previous role as police detective, Dahl has opened up a world of possibilities for this character as a private investigator, whilst retaining his connections to his former career. Hence, regular readers of the series will see Frølich retain a relationship with a familiar character from the previous books, yet have the scope to embark on his own probing investigation unfettered by his former restraints as a police officer. As I was reading, I felt that we could be looking at a younger Varg Veum, the central character of Gunnar Staalessen’s excellent series, and a private investigator of some repute. Although Frølich does not have exactly the same characteristics or highly developed cynicism of Veum, the indications are good that this new career will be a good fit for him as the series progresses, and it will be interesting to see into which direction Dahl will lead him. He is a persistent and determined investigator, and as his two initially unconnected investigations begin to meld together, he has numerous red herrings and blind alleys to navigate. One of these cases in particular, highlights Frølich‘s tenacity as an investigator, and also his own personal moral code to challenge authority, and to achieve some kind of justice for the victim, despite, at times, intense personal danger to himself.

As Frølich gradually unpicks the underlying strands of each case, what Dahl constructs is a story that balances equally a cold case of some years previously, a maritime accident and a very pertinent and contemporary case centred on immigration. Dahl is very adroit at taking the reader into the finer detail of a case, in particular the historical case of a devastating fire on board a ship, and he also constructs the narrative so there is a salient repetition of certain information, to keep us in the loop with Frølich‘s discoveries, and to map out the conspiracy theory in a clear and relevant manner. Although I was less engaged with this strand of the story, there were certain elements of it that piqued my interest as the scope of the conspiracy was gradually revealed. I did, however, enjoy the more contemporary element of the book, focussing on the murder of a immigration worker, and how this impacts on her associates, on Frølich and also on a new personal relationship he has embarked on. By its very nature this was going to be a more emotive case for Frølich, and Dahl neatly arouses the readers’ sympathies for both the victim and others, as elements of the past give rise to retribution and revenge.

Once again, translated beautifully by Don Bartlett, Dahl has constructed a multi-layered and thoroughly researched crime thriller where the impact of past and present interweave and impact on each other. The book is peppered with some nice little elements of humour, and I am always impressed by Dahl’s aptitude for constructing such a visual depiction of his characters from relatively few details of their physical features, like mini caricatures. As I said previously, in the long term, it will be interesting how Frølich overcomes the personal disappointments that this case brings to him, and how his career as a private investigator will play out after his ignominious fall from grace as a police officer. It all bodes well for a good solid change of direction in the Oslo Detective series. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Jorn Lier Horst/ Thomas Enger- Death Deserved #BlogTour

Oslo, 2018. Former long-distance runner Sonja Nordstrøm never shows at the launch of her controversial autobiography, Always Number One. When celebrity blogger Emma Ramm visits Nordstrøm’s home later that day, she finds the door unlocked and signs of a struggle inside. A bib with the number ‘one’ has been pinned to the TV. Police officer Alexander Blix is appointed to head up the missing-persons investigation, but he still bears the emotional scars of a hostage situation nineteen years earlier, when he killed the father of a five-year-old girl. Traces of Nordstrøm soon show up at different locations, but the appearance of the clues appear to be carefully calculated evidence of a bigger picture that he’s just not seeing. Blix and Ramm soon join forces, determined to find and stop a merciless killer with a flare for the dramatic, and thirst for attention. Trouble is, he’s just got his first taste of it…

In a stroke of genius, two of the most recognisable and talented Norwegian crime writers, Thomas Enger and Jorn Lier Horst have joined forces to produce Death Deserved, and what a collaboration it is.  Centring on a series of murders targeting well known personalities, the story ( the first of a series) sees a mirroring of the writer’s own specialities in their crime fiction. Jorn Lier Horst is an ex-policeman, author of the hugely successful William Wisting series so naturally the joint main protagonist is a detective, Alexander Blix. Equally, Thomas Enger known for the compelling series featuring a journalist, Henning Juul, brings his knowledge and familiarity with the world of media to Blix’s co-protagonist journalist Emma Ramm. With both writers having such an accomplished pedigree in crime fiction writing, the joining up of their individual talents is exceedingly effective, and consequently what they have produced is an extremely compelling, clever and fascinating thriller. Having recently read both Enger’s Inborn and Horst’s The Cabin, I was interested to see how each writer’s individual style was so evident in this collaboration, being highly reflective of both their talents in creating credible and engaging characters, setting themselves apart from the normally slightly meandering tendency of Scandinavian crime fiction, and injecting a real sense of pace and excitement into the narrative and development of the plot.

Haunted by a shooting incident in the line of duty, and having a somewhat rootless and static career, Blix exhibits traits that we love in our police protagonists. He seems to exist under somewhat of a black cloud, with an estranged wife and a daughter he is currently viewing through the media as she takes part in the popular Worthy Winner show, the Norwegian equivalent of Big Brother. Slightly morose, but intuitive and imbued with a sense of morality and determinedness, Blix is an instantly empathetic and likeable character. As the investigation continues and time becomes of the essence for some kind of breakthrough, his path crosses once again with journalist Emma Ramm with whom, unbeknownst to her, he shares a personal history. As he begins to feed her information pertinent to the investigation, thus begins a flowering of an effective and, at times, perilous professional connection, which becomes absolutely crucial in the pursuit of a seemingly untraceable and ruthless killer.

I particularly like the character of Emma Ramm who possesses a confidence and doggedness as a journalist that puts some of her male peers to shame. Her quick intelligence and intuition are stretched to the max in this troubling case, but is exactly these qualities that Blix comes to rely on strongly as their interactions lead to significant turning points tracking the perpetrator and even more so as certain things develop in their hunt. No spoilers here. What I also like is the way that her natural confidence is underscored by a certain vulnerability below the surface, due to a condition which any young woman would find difficulty in coming to terms with. This adds a real emotional depth to her, and compounded by her growing realisation of the important part that Blix had played in her life, leaves great possibilities in developing her, and by extension his, characters even further.

Having referenced earlier the tendency for rather drawn out plotlines in some Scandinavian crime fiction, I very much felt the pace and energy of this one as being more similar to some of the best of the American crime writers. With a perfectly weighted balance of hide and reveal, I found the plot development and truncated chapters made this a book which was difficult to put aside, as everything tempted you to keep on reading. With the increasing body count, some withering observations on the cult of celebrity, some devilish twists, and a couple of satisfyingly surprising red herrings along the way, I was caught on the back foot more than once. What a great ending too. As a crime reader I could ask for nothing more…

Definitely one to add to your wish-lists and guaranteed to keep you reading long after the big light needs to be turned off! Highly recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Jesper Stein- Die For Me

A depraved stalker. An unsolved murder. A cop who will stop at nothing to catch the killer. A brutal stalker is preying on women in Copenhagen. DI Axel Steen begins an obsessive manhunt that sends him spiralling out of control.  The investigation is fraught with heart-stopping near misses, dark mysteries, and a final revelation with devastating consequences. 

I was fortunate enough to take part in the blog tour marking the release of the first Axel Steen thriller Unrest which proved an exhilarating and thought provoking series opener. In common with the first book, Jesper Stein has no reticence into plunging his reader into a nightmarish scenario, with a particularly vicious and sadistic individual stalking the streets of Copenhagen…

On the basis of the first two books, it comes as no surprise that they have been optioned for television by the producers of The Bridge, and if they find the right actor to bring the right level of tortured maverick detective, well, it will be an absolute must see! What Stein achieves so beautifully is manipulating the old cliché of crime fiction, that of the maverick cop with mental and physical weaknesses, estranged from personal relationships, lives for the job and so on, by making his protagonist Axel Steen utterly mesmerising. He’s strong-willed and tenacious, somewhat foolhardy at times with his physical wellbeing, both by his own actions and by putting himself in the path of danger without a moment’s hesitation, but what I really like about his character is the absolute certainty and steadfastness he brings to every action he takes in his professional life.  His doggedness of purpose and the absolute empathy he has with both the murder victim, and the women who have been subjected to the most violent and degrading attacks, sets him apart admirably from his colleagues, and more importantly instils a faith in the women that their attacker will be caught and punished. To balance it out nicely, his personal life is not so clear-cut and leads to times of procrastination, doubt, and complete tactlessness but hey, he’s only human, but there is also an insidious presence in his day job who would probably tick off even the most mild mannered individual, to add to his troubles. Steen carries within him a mercurial mix of hot-headedness, empathy, compulsiveness, and sheer bloody-mindedness that makes him unpredictable, but also fascinating. A complicated man to be sure, but a great character…

Dealing with such an emotive and troubling subject as violence against women and rape, I think there is a danger of readers becoming desensitised slightly to the effect of these crimes, and the fear, shame and anger that women live with afterwards. I found this central theme in the book was handled in a particularly sensitive and balanced way, that whilst not shying away from the more visceral physical details of what these women have been subjected to, there is a real sense of understanding throughout of how this impacts on both their lives, and physical and mental wellbeing post-trauma. It felt to me that Stein had either researched this extremely thoroughly, but more evidently had spoken to women who had experienced this extreme violence, and what it had meant to live with the memory and affect of this crime. I may be wrong, but the book felt that it had a deeper connection to, and empathy with, victims of violence, rather than some of the more lazy depictions I have read. Equally, Stein succeeds admirably in steering clear of the mawkish, having a cool and clearheaded approach to the specifics of the crimes, a sense of sympathy to the victims, but wholly adhering to the natural aspect of the Scandinavian crime fiction tradition, where character and plot are so completely bound up with one another.

As well as focussing on the emotional and physical effects of the crimes perpetrated, there was also a dizzying amount of detail regarding the forensic investigation, written in a very natural and engaging way, and not just clumsily shoehorned into the narrative. Admittedly, those of us who practically inhale crime fiction would be aware of some aspects of forensic detection, but I learnt some really interesting stuff along the way, in terms of forensic investigation, reading a crime scene, and the intrinsic correlation of science with intuitive investigation in approaching cold cases. In conjunction with the extremely unpredictable Axel Steen and  the slow burning tension of a complex and twisting investigation, I thought this was a great follow-up in the series. With the usual precision and sheer readability of a translation by Charlotte Barslund, Die For Me is to be recommended. Excellent.

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(With thanks to Mirror Books for the ARC)

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Derek B. Miller- American By Day

She knew it was a weird place. She’d heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there; to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. America. And not someplace interesting, either: upstate New York.
It is election season, 2008, and Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life.
To find her older brother, she needs the help of the local police who appear to have already made up their minds about the case. Working with – or, if necessary, against ― someone actually named Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the back woods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further…

Following the absolutely stunning Norwegian By Night which has been a stalwart recommend of mine as a bookseller, it was with some degree of excitement that I greeted the arrival of American By Day. Instead of keeping you in suspense as to my reaction to this book, I will quickly say that it has already claimed a position in my top reads of the year so far, and here’s why…

This book reunites us with Norwegian police chief inspector Sigrid Odegard, who finds herself on a journey, both professional and personal, to track down her missing brother in upstate New York. By marrying the disparate methods of beliefs and practice of law enforcement between Odegard and her American counterpart Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, Miller weaves his dialogue between them with emotional punch, feisty exchanges and differences of opinion, but never losing sight of the fact that they are both are fundamentally on the same side, albeit moulded and shaped by differing social influences. The verbal sparring, but growing mutual respect, is beautifully depicted, and the frisson of tension between them never feels contrived or clichéd as is all too common in crime fiction.

Odegard’s character in particular carries with it a weight of self doubt, constant self appraisal and moments of vulnerability that really resonate with the reader, and she is without doubt one of the most roundly drawn, authentic, and empathetic female characters that I have encountered of late. As she grapples with the gaps in language, cultural differences, and her growing fearfulness as to her brother’s fate, Miller effortlessly carries the reader on her journey of discovery and epiphany, engaging us completely as the story progresses. The dialogue throughout the book is beautifully controlled, infused with wit, gaps in understanding, and envelops the reader in the definition of the characters, their relationships, their emotions and how they perceive and seek to make sense of the world around them.

By aligning these protagonists from two entirely different cultures, Miller has afforded himself the opportunity to provide a mirror to the social and racial issues that plague American society both in the timeline of 2008, with the election looming, and perhaps more pertinently how these conflicts plague American life still. One review I read of this book made a sniffy comment about Miller’s didacticism, and yes, there is a strong sense of authorial comment pervading the book, which is inevitable in the time period, and with the social, racial and political issues the narrative gives rise to. However, I think any reader with a modicum of intelligence will have the gumption to embrace the author’s more cerebral observations, be they objective or subjective, and process this information for themselves. Personally, I had no problem with Miller’s exploration of the American psyche, the ever present issues of racial division, police brutality and so on, as I don’t believe that anyone can claim ignorance as to the existence of these divisive issues. Harking back to the quote from Karin Slaughter that crime fiction is the best medium to reflect the true ills and division of society, this is the lasting impression of this book for me. I found Miller’s juxtaposition of a compelling and emotive plot, with the exploration of race, violence, mental illness and social conflict a perfect blend, and his balance between the two streams of narrative are never less that completely absorbing.

I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Doubleday for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Thomas Enger- Killed

Determined to find his son’s killer, Henning doggedly follows an increasingly dangerous trail, where dark hands from the past emerge to threaten everything. His ex-wife Nora is pregnant with another man’s child, his sister Trine is implicated in the fire that killed his son and, with everyone he thought he could trust seemingly hiding something, Henning has nothing to lose … except his own life…

So we’ve been  Burned, Pierced Scarred and Cursed so now prepare to be Killed by the last instalment in Thomas Enger’s superlative Henning Juul series. A reading experience of mixed pleasures it has to be said, with the excitement of a new book by Enger, but equally a tinge of sadness that this appears to be where we and Henning Juul go our separate ways…

Not afraid to repeat myself, as I have reviewed every book to date, I would once again draw your attention to Enger’s consistently polished storytelling, and ability to really bring his character’s traits- both weak and strong, good or bad- straight into the reader’s consciousness. Having concealed and revealed various people’s involvement in the tragic fire that resulted in the death of Juul’s son, this book again throws some curveballs Juul’s way, and Enger seems to delight in raising our suspicions, and then deflating our theories as Juul doggedly continues to pursue the truth. I think this book also fulfils a fair quota of the Tertullian seven deadly sins, as there is more than enough greed, murder, fraud and false witness to go round. Balanced with this, there is also a subtly nuanced depiction of the softer and vulnerable side of some of the characters, that toys with our perception of them, and at times invokes in us an equally subtle shift in our sympathy for them. I think this is why I have enjoyed Enger’s series so much, as in far as it is steeped in the recognisable tropes of much Scandinavian crime fiction, there is another arc to his writing that is sensitive and emotive, and really allows the reader to connect beyond the superficial narrative of an ordinary thriller. I also enjoyed the switching between two locations, the contrasts that Enger draws between the European and South American temperaments, and their differing attitudes to life, wealth, and justice.

This is one of the few series that I think works better by starting from the first and reading sequentially. As much as you can join in with the trials and travails of Juul in Killed , there is a gripping and layered back story waiting to be discovered, and with the accrued knowledge of events from the previous instalments, it definitely heightens the enjoyment of this final book. Having followed Juul’s story for some time, I felt it was time that this poor man achieved some sense of closure, and it has to be said that this book brings many chickens home to roost, with the obligatory dishing out of physical violence that Juul seems to attract. In the light of what I have just said about reading the series in its entirety, I have rather boxed myself into a corner, as to how much more I can tell you, and my lips are firmly sealed. Just keep that chilling prologue in the back of your mind as the story weaves to its conclusion…

As the curtain is drawn down on the ballad of Henning Juul, I am curious to see what Enger will produce next, and what the liberty of finishing this series will spark in his imagination. This has been an exemplary series, and well worth reading all five books. So after being Burned, Pierced Scarred  Cursed and Killed, I am now sated too.

Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

Getting That Blogging Groove Back (2)…Myers, Hirvonen, Tuomainen, Jonasson, and Sigurdardottir.

Right, eyes down and here we go again with the next instalment of my sorely neglected reviews. These are short, sweet, and to the point, as my propensity for rambling will return in the fullness of time, I’m sure…

 

First up one of my favourite deliciously dark authors, Benjamin Myers with These Darkening Days. Taking as his inspiration a real life crime case from the north of England, Myers once again lures us into the deepest disturbing psychological realms of his characters, delivering more than a few grim sucker punches along the way. A series of women become victims of a vicious assailant, plunging this close knit community into a miasma of suspicion and accusation.

I absolutely loved it. 

From the cynical world weariness of embittered reporter Roddy Mace, fighting off the temptation of the demon drink, to the reappearance of fastidious, OCD suffering detective James Brindle, and a cornucopia of dislikeable victims and suspects along the way, Myers (as in previous books) draws us in, shakes us up, and then spits us out the other end slightly soiled by our reading experience, but guiltily satisfied by it too. As always the book is suffused by Myers strange mix of sometimes lyrical, oftentimes unerringly brutal imagery of the natural environment against which his characters roil, fight, and will to survive.

Perfection. 

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Next we go the quirky, dry-humoured latest offering from Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen in the shape of The Man Who Died, a marked diversion in style from the intensely emotive, and lyrically profound psychological novels that we normally associate him with. Other reviewers have drawn comparison with Fargo, but I was strongly propelled back in time to the devilish Tales of The Unexpected by Roald Dahl, coupled with the brilliantly black humour of one of my favourite books ever, ever, Beyond The Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Tuomainen’s unlikely protagonist, Jaako Kaunismaa takes us on a surreal journey in rural Finland of tracking down his murderer whilst fighting the clutches of death by poisoning, to the sheer cutthroat mentality of competing mushroom harvesting businesses, instances of potential death by samurai sword, and exceptionally scheming women.

It’s all a bit mad, but in a good way, and with Tuomainen’s natural propensity to draw his reader into his exploration of the essence of humanity, just from a slightly different angle, his lightness of touch, and manipulation of absurdity work a treat. Who could possibly know that the world of mushroom growing was such a hotbed of evil intentions? Highly recommended. 

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Staying with Finland, I can confidently say that When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen is champing for a place in my top five of the year. I was absolutely mesmerised by the pure intensity and sensitivity of one family’s turmoil in the wake of a mass shooting. With shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Hirvonen meticulously and stealthily portrays the increasing emotional dislocation of a family, over a period of time, to the devastating effects of this inability for them to communicate and connect on an emotional level.

Hirvonen broadens the sweep of the book even further with incisive comment on global human crises, and the ravaging of the environment which really engaged me and enraged me, but was wonderfully unflinching and truthful in its depiction. I am already recommending this left, right and centre, thrilled by its power as both a clear sighted narrative of familial breakdown, but also of the larger issues it encompasses in a comparatively condensed read.

Superb.   

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We’ll go for an Icelandic head-to-head now with Ragnar Jonasson- Whiteout and Lilja Sigurdardottir- Snare, the former being a continuation of the very successful series featuring policeman Ari Thor, and the latter the starting point of the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy.

Ragnar Jonasson’s quality as a crime writer need no further commendation from me, but truthfully, I would say that this has been my favourite of the series to date. I found the writing wonderfully understated, and the whole book exuded an air of English Gothic fiction, with women hurling themselves from cliffs, and the sinister backdrop of the all-seeing lighthouse, compounded by the revelations of very dark pernicious behaviour indeed. I found it tense, involving, and as usual there was a great harmony between the intensity of the criminal investigation itself, and the playing out of Ari’s domestic situation, and his eagerness to progress in his police career.   

Snare proved a curious mix for me, as my overriding feeling that this was almost two books running parallel to each other, with a gripping story of drug running, running alongside a slower Borgen-esque feeling of financial impropriety, and double dealing. I’ll be honest, and say that I didn’t take to the latter thread as much as the former, finding it a little turgid against the relative excitement of the drug smuggling narrative, and although I was slightly questioning of the veracity of single parent Sonja’s involvement in drug running, this was certainly the more compelling of the two storylines, and led to some real heart in the mouth moments. I also enjoyed playing witness to the touchingly sentimental ‘other’ life of customs officer Bragi, whose game of cat and mouse with Sonja was another enjoyable strand of the book. However, the emotional handwringing of Sonja’s romantic involvement with Agla, the bank executive under investigation, became increasingly tiresome, but cleverly the seemingly anodyne ending of the book must signpost further developments for the second part of the trilogy. A little unsure, but curious, and intrigued to see how the story progresses in the next instalment.  

 

(With thanks to Moth Publishing for These Darkening Days, Bonnier Zaffre for When Time Runs Out, and Orenda Books for The Man Who Died, Whiteout and Snare