Tom Rob Smith- The Farm

Daniel believed that his parents were enjoying a peaceful retirement on a remote farm in Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth. But with a single phone call, everything changes. Your mother… she’s not well, his father tells him. She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things. In fact, she has been committed to a mental hospital. Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother calls: Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad… I need the police… Meet me at Heathrow. Daniel is immediately caught between his parents – whom to believe, whom to trust? He becomes his mother’s unwilling judge and jury. Presented with a horrific crime, a conspiracy that implicates his own father, Daniel must examine the evidence and decide for himself: who is telling the truth? And he has secrets of his own that for too long he has kept hidden…

Inspired by the real life psychotic episode experienced by his own mother, Tom Rob Smith has crafted a powerful and affecting study in the disguise of a crime novel, as to the effect of a similar incident  on the very fabric of a family. Daniel resides happily in London with his partner Mark, and with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and the less frequent communication with family, believes his mother and father to be happy and secure in their retirement to Sweden from the UK. However, following a frantic phone call from his father Chris, and the appearance of his mother, Tilde, in London having seemingly escaped from a secure hospital in Sweden, Daniel’s life is turned upside down by the strange tale of abduction, conspiracy and murder his mother begins to recount…

Aside from the fact that every nuance, character and indeed word of this book is practically perfect, I will divulge nothing more of the plot at this juncture. Suffice to say as Daniel’s mother begins to present evidence in the form of journals and objects of the strange goings-on in her sleepy Swedish rural community, the reader experiences the same level of confusion as to the veracity of her claims. Through these journals and the use of dual narrative, Smith perfectly evokes the atmosphere and setting of rural Sweden so familiar to regular readers of Scandinavian crime fiction. The suffocating atmosphere of this locale that so affects the mind and actions of Daniel’s mother is beautifully wrought, and those who dwell within it are amplified and layered with sinister attributes as Tilde constructs her version of events, that have supposedly led to the disappearance of a local teenage girl. Sensing the threatening behaviour of her former friends and neighbours, and her husband Chris, Tilde sets out to accrue as much physical evidence as possible to prove her claims, and to avoid her incarceration in a hospital as others make claims as to the state of her mental health.

What is most intriguing about the book, and accomplished by the exquisite pace of the narrative, is how a family structure can be so quickly thrown into turmoil. Daniel has withheld his homosexuality from his parents,  his parents have not been entirely truthful about the happiness of their retirement, and Daniel is cast into the unenviable position of questioning which parent to believe in the light of Tilde’s claims. Cleverly, we as readers are able to participate in Daniel’s confusion, bearing witness to the unfolding of Tilde’s claims, as we are hearing the story along with Daniel at the same pace, and constructing our own theories and conclusions on Tilde’s story as the contents and evidence of her journals is divulged. The use of the journal form works extremely effectively for this very reason. Daniel is also guilty, as many are, of having taken the stability of his family relationship some what for granted, so this in turn makes the confusion and divided loyalty he experiences all the more palpable within the novel.

Having read this book some time ago, I believe it to be a testament to the strength of Smith’s writing that I am so easily transported back to the events and characters of the novel, This is a book that has stayed so vividly in my mind, that I can instantly recall the characters and their traits, and have not just pressed the mental delete button that follows the ending of a book- it has stayed with me. Consequently, I cannot recommend this book highly enough as an incredibly rewarding and thought-provoking read, and a book that I will certainly revisit in years to come.

Born in 1979 to a Swedish mother and an English father, Tom Rob Smith’s
bestselling novels in the Child 44 trilogy were international publishing sensations. Among its many honours, Child 44 won the International Thriller Writer Award for Best First Novel, the Galaxy Book Award for Best New Writer, the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the inaugural Desmond Elliot Prize. Child 44 is now a major motion picture starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman. http://tomrobsmith.com/website/ Follow on Twitter @tomrobsmith

(With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC)

Steffen Jacobsen- When The Dead Awaken

Sabrina D’Avalos’s father was murdered by the mafia. Now a district attorney, she wants justice, or revenge. Whichever comes first. The Camorra, one of the oldest criminal organisations in Italy, runs Naples. More powerful, more violent and richer than the Sicilian mafia, its hold is unshakeable. When Sabrina investigates a family found dead in a shipping container, she quickly uncovers links to the Camorra – and her father. The mafia’s most terrifying assassins are on Sabrina’s trail. But Sabrina is desperate to find out the truth about her father, despite the deadly risks she is taking.

An exceptionally good crime read from a new-to-me Danish author appearing for the first time in English, When The Dead Awaken is a thriller not to be missed. Drawing on the influence of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, Jacobsen has fashioned an enthralling thriller set in Naples and focusing primarily on the criminal activities of this feared criminal organisation, but also the frustrations of and danger to those that seek to bring them to justice…

The first thing that strikes me about When The Dead Awaken, is Jacobsen’s fluid and totally engaging writing style. His prose just pulls you in, not only in the sense of location and atmosphere, but also by the little vignettes of the socio-political complexity of Italy that he melds into the central narrative. He makes it abundantly clear that the forces of justice in Italy work so at odds with each other, that the growth of organised crime over many years still remains largely unchecked due to the lack of communication and cooperation between the various factions. This is reflected strongly in his central protagonist, Sabrina D’Avalo, a public prosecutor whose father was murdered by the Mafia, working for the public prosecutor Frederico Renda (himself a victim of the Camorra’s wrath), being set on the trail of the Camorra after the discovery of two bodies identified as having been in a witness protection programme. Sabrina not only has to elude the grasp of the criminals who pursue her, but also navigate her own relationship with the mysterious Nestore Raspallo who has been commissioned by Renda to watch her back. Where this book come into it’s own is not only in the tension we experience through Sabrina’s dangerous investigation, but how Jacobsen also incorporates a view of her investigation through the eyes of the head of this branch of the Camorra, Don Francesco and his right hand man- Urs Savelli- a fixer with a dark past and one of the most compelling characters in the book. Add into the mix the story of Giulio Forlani currently residing under the radar in the rural tranquillity of Castellarano, but with his own reasons for avoiding the attentions of the Camorra, and these different storylines solidify how Jacobsen manipulates and weaves the individual strands into one contiguous whole in such a readable style. Likewise, the characters mentioned are extremely well-drawn, and Sabrina D’Avalo centres the whole book, being clever, intuitive and driven by her own demons. She assumes the same aura of feminine strength as Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth or Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex, holding the reader in her thrall throughout and stoutly supported by an equally strong cast of male characters, be they on the side of justice or crime. Not only is the plot extremely pacey and tense, but there are also rare little injections of humour, and some of Jacobsen’s physical descriptions of characters are a delight. I loved this one of a hotel receptionist, “She smiled. Or her upper lip curled, at any rate. Sabrina was mesmerised by tiny clumps of lipstick stuck to the black strands of hair on her upper lip. Like tiny unripe cherries, they swayed in the stream of air to and from the nostrils.” Marvellous.

This is an easy book to recommend, harnessing as it does the very factors that make both Italian and Scandinavian crime so popular. Sublime plotting, superb characterisation, a nod to the socio-political climate and a real sense of location all knitted together in a truly gripping thriller. Highly recommend this one.

Steffen Jacobsen is an orthopaedic surgeon and consultant. This is his third novel. He was inspired to write When The Dead Awaken by Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book Gomorrah, about the Camorra and by his travels around Italy. When The Dead Awaken is perfect for fans of The Killing, The Wire and The Godfather. Jacobsen’s bestseller Trophy has been number one in the Danish bestseller chart. He lives in Denmark with his wife and children.

(With thanks to Midas PR/Quercus for the arc)

 

 

Arnaldur Indridason- Strange Shores

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A young woman walks into the frozen fjords of Iceland, never to be seen again. But Matthildur leaves in her wake rumours of lies, betrayal and revenge. Decades later, somewhere in the same wilderness, Detective Erlendur is on the hunt. He is looking for Matthildur but also for a long-lost brother, whose disappearance in a snow-storm when they were children has coloured his entire life. He is looking for answers. Slowly, the past begins to surrender its secrets. But as Erlendur uncovers a story about the limits of human endurance, he realises that many people would prefer their crimes to stay buried…

And so the end is near, and Detective Erlendur faces his final curtain.  Billed as the last book of the superlative Murder In Reykavik series to feature Erlendur, I will of course endeavour not to give anything away in terms of how likely he is to return or not, not wishing to mar your own journey across the frozen wastes with our long established Icelandic detective…

From the initial epigraph, taken from a poem by Icelandic poet Snorri Hjartarson, the novel carries a strange ethereal air, compounded by Erlendur’s involvement in two missing person cases, firmly rooted in the distant past. Indridason uses the conceit of Erlendur being on vacation to facilitate this, and crucially camping out in the ruins of his childhood home, neatly casting the pall of past events over the novel. From the haunting echoes of his past life that Erlendur experiences, as he revisits his brother’s disappearance when they were young boys, to the case of a missing woman, Matthildur, from many years previously that piques his interest as a detective, the associated guilt and the sense of unfinished business looms large throughout. Erlendur doggedly tracks the course of events leading to the woman’s disappearance, stirring up some uncomfortable truths and uncovering the wounds of the past in a controlled and slow burning, but eminently satisfactory central plot. Indridason employs his characteristic sublime pacing neatly reflecting the slow march of time, but also how incidental this is for those whose lives are so defined by events of the past.

The more elderly and curmudgeonly characters Indridason employs in this storyline are a joy, providing a wonderful mirror image of Erlendur’s own tendencies towards these darker and introspective moods. His interactions with them,  seeking to tease out the truth of past events is, at times, so filled with such poignancy that as a reader you will be genuinely moved, as the story of Matthildhur’s disappearance and that of Erlendur’s lost brother Bergur, converge and separate throughout the course of the book. The way that Indridason portrayed the older members of his cast was beautifully done, with some neatly fitting the traditional characteristics of a long hard life lived not without its attendant miseries, and others with a veritable twinkle of mischievousness about them. Erlendur himself pitches between his role as a natural investigator, and yet a man seemingly unable to solve the greatest mystery of his life, leading to his own reference back to and meditation on, his familial relationships.  The dark sense of introspection peppered throughout the story makes the tone absolutely fitting to a book billed as a final chapter to the exploits of long standing character. As to the outcome of Erlendur’s personal journey of discovery, I’m giving nothing away…

This was classic Indridason, employing his trademark precision of style and pared down dialogue, all within the arena of a beautifully imagined and flawlessly described Icelandic wilderness. Slow moving, thoughtful and with an almost supernatural feel to the whole book, Indridason continues to adhere to my own belief that he is incapable of letting the reader down, yet again producing a five star read to satisfy any lover of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Arnaldur Indridason, author of the Reykjavík Thrillers, was born in 1961. He worked at an Icelandic newspaper, first as a journalist and then for many years as a film reviewer. He won the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel for both Jar City and Silence of the Grave, and in 2005 Silence of the Grave also won the Crime Writers Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year. The film of Jar City (available on DVD) was Iceland’s entry for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Indridason lives in Reykjavík with his family. Strange Shores published by Harvill Secker 15/8/13.

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

Quentin Bates- Chilled To The Bone (Gunnhildur Mystery 3)

Product DetailsWhen a shipowner is found dead, tied to a bed in one of Reykjavik’s smartest hotels, sergeant Gunnhildur Gisladottir of the city police force sees no evidence of foul play but still suspects things are not as cut and dried as they seem. And as she investigates the shipowner’s untimely – and embarrassing – demise, she stumbles across a discreet bondage society whose members are being systematically exploited and blackmailed. But how does all this connect to a local gangster recently returned to Iceland after many years abroad, and the unfortunate loss of a government laptop containing sensitive data about various members of the ruling party? What begins as a straightforward case for Gunnhildur soon explodes into a dangerous investigation, uncovering secrets that ruthless men are ready to go to violent extremes to keep.

Chilled To The Bone is the third instalment of this gem of a series by Quentin Bates. Although not a native Scandinavian, Bates’ experiences of living in Iceland, and his absorption of the history and culture illuminate his carefully constructed and utterly compelling Icelandic thrillers. As a reader I have thoroughly enjoyed the books to date, and Bates is also something of a godsend for booksellers as an equally comparable recommendation for fans of Yrsa Sigurdardottir or Arnaldur Indridason, so I’m quite the fan!

I was hooked quite early on this series with Frozen Out which introduced us to the marvellous character of Police Sergeant Gunnhildur Gisladottir- a no-nonsense, witty and intelligent woman always juggling the demands of her professional and personal life. I have always been impressed by Bates’ characterisation of her as he seems to have an intrinsic feel for the quirks of the female gender, and find her character consistently convincing.  She is defined by her professionalism and absolute determination to get to the heart of the investigation, but carries an aura of calmness and self-deprecation which instils confidence in her colleagues and victims alike. Throughout this case, Gunnhildur once again draws on her inherent ability to detect a crime below the surface of the ordinary, and to adopt a terrier-like tenacity in the face of some powerful and influential individuals. As for Gunnhildur’s private life, I particularly liked the more personal slant of this book as she is greeted with the prospect of ‘double’ grandmotherhood through the sexual shennanigans of her son, Gisli, who has conveniently buggered off back to sea, leaving his mother to deal with his expectant women! As with Bates’ previous books, there is a wonderful unforced humour throughout, giving the book a lighter feel than some of its Scandinavian counterparts, but achieving an effective balance with the gripping murder investigation.

Opening with a really quite amusing death by bondage and a thieving dominatrix, Bates then allows the story to ripple out to expose some serious weaknesses and ineptitude within government departments as a laptop containing politically sensitive material disappears. Gunnhildur is tasked with the investigation of both, but as the case unfolds some very nasty secrets come to light, and she discovers she is not alone in her quest,  as a shady and threatening individual is equally keen to get his hands on the errant laptop. What unfolds is a well-paced and consistently engaging story that travels nicely along with no irritating inconceivable plot twists or coincidences giving rise to a entirely satisfying police procedural. A good recommendation if you like a slice of Scandi crime with a good plot, a twist of wry humour and an engaging and plausible detective.

Visit the author’s website here: http://graskeggur.com

(With thanks to Constable & Robinson for the advance reading copy)

Hakan Nesser- The Weeping Girl

Winnie Maas died because she changed her mind . . . A community is left reeling after a teacher – Arnold Maager – is convicted of murdering his female pupil Winnie Maas. It seems the girl had been pregnant with Maager’s child. Years later, on her eighteenth birthday, Maager’s daughter Mikaela finally learns the terrible truth about her father. Desperate for answers, Mikaela travels to the institution at Lejnice, where Maager has been held since his trial. But soon afterwards she inexplicably vanishes. Detective Inspector Ewa Moreno from the Maardam Police is on holiday in the area when she finds herself drawn into Mikaela’s disappearance. But before she can make any headway in the case, Maager himself disappears – and then a body is found. It will soon become clear to Ewa that only unravelling the events of the past will unlock this dark mystery . . .

 Another one for you Scandinavian crime fiction fans from the consistently superb Hakan Nesser. The Weeping Girl sees ex-Chief Inspector Van Veeteren’s protege DI Ewa Moreno take the reins in this intriguing investigation, following the time honoured tradition of crime fiction protagonists unable to take a holiday without being immersed in a murder mystery…

It’s always difficult I would think to introduce a convincing new character from the shadows of such a compelling figure as Van Veeteren who has been at the heart of Nesser’s previous books, but he achieves this with aplomb. Using Van Veeteren as her point of reference in her machinations of this perplexing case, his voice can still be heard loud and clear, and Moreno soon proves herself to be an able protege of the now retired detective. Moreno is an assured combination of dedicated and compassionate police officer, cut through with the normal doubts of a woman in the throes of a new relationship with..well…in Moreno’s words ‘bloke/lover/stallion’. This is indicative of the humour that cuts through the plot with Moreno as queen of the apt aside to relieve the tension of this disturbing case, and as in Nesser’s previous books, these forays into the realm of humour are balanced perfectly. The characterisation is excellent throughout, with Moreno clashing horns with the utterly inept, and ‘stiff-collared pain in the neck’  local police chief Vrommel, but finds an ally in the charming and intuitive detective Vegesack, who more than proves his worth in terms of his  dogged determination to get to the bottom of this case taking some degree of delight in ticking off his boss.

The plot mores than support Nesser’s assured characterisation, opening with a young girl’s mission to talk to her father having discovered his true identity on her eighteenth birthday. The only kink in her plan is that he is a murderer, incarcerated in a psychiatric unit, having been accused of killing a teenage girl some years previously. However, after meeting her father she disappears and so the intrigue begins. Moving fluidly between the earlier events leading to her father’s incarceration, and the real-time investigation of her disappearance with the unveiling of dark family secrets, Nesser effortlessly leads us through the case, with his trademark attention to procedural detail. Admittedly stalwart crime readers may cotton on to how the plot will play out but, bolstered by the fine characterisation and a cameo appearance by the great Van Veeteren himself, there is more than enough to satisfy the reader and I have no qualms in recommending this as a good read overall.

Hakan Nesser is one of Sweden’s most popular crime writers, receiving numerous awards for his novels featuring Inspector Van Veeteren, including the European Crime Fiction Star Award (Ripper Award) 2010/11, the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize (three times) and Scandinavia’s Glass Key Award. The Van Veeteren series is published in over 25 countries and has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Hakan Nesser lives in Gotland with his wife and spends part of each year in the UK. The Weeping Girl published in the UK 25/3/13

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(With thanks to Mantle for the ARC)

Alexander Soderberg- The Andalucian Friend

Living a quiet life in the suburbs, Sophie Brinkmann is captivated by the handsome and sophisticated Hector Guzman. She has no idea that beneath Hector’s charm lies something far more dangerous. Hector is the head of an international crime syndicate. He is used to getting what he wants, and what he wants now is the total annihilation of his rivals. Before she can fully grasp the extent of Hector’s world, Sophie is trapped within it. Her house is under surveillance, her family is at risk. Hector is at war – with Russian hit men, South American drug traffickers, German gangsters – and now Sophie is too. But who can she trust when even the people who have sworn to uphold the law are as dangerous as those dedicated to breaking it? If Sophie is to get out alive, and with her integrity intact, she will have to summon everything within her to navigate this intricate web of moral ambiguity, deadly obsession and ruthless killers.

 I usually judge how good a book is by the amount of time it takes to me to read the first 100 pages. Often I become distracted, wander off for coffee or snack raids to the kitchen or decide that yes, my apartment is a tip and needs tidying, leaving my book to one side to be picked up again later. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking, like me, that on initial inspection ‘The Andalucian Friend’ would be a Scandinavian crime novel very much like any other Scandinavian crime novel but you would be wrong…so wrong… So the fact that I read this in pretty much one sitting- all 446 pages- completely immersed in its myriad characters and beautifully interwoven plotting, bears testament to how good this book truly is.

I was instantly drawn into this tale of organised crime- a sordid world of  drug trafficking, gun-running and police corruption where any sense of morality can change in a heartbeat. This is a world dominated by money and power, with opposing criminal gangs jostling for control and the story flows effortlessly back and forth across Europe, as each tries to usurp the other leading to bloodshed and betrayal. The ‘bad guys’ are pitch perfect in their characterisation veering from the ruthlessness and wily intelligence of the really quite charming Hector Guzman, to the scheming and unflinching coldness of the Hankes heading up their German crime syndicate, and in direct competition with Guzman and his cohorts. Throw into the mix some truly psychopathic and coldblooded Russians and  Jens Vall, a Swedish gun-runner who falls foul of the said Russians, which reluctantly leads him into Guzman’s web and let the mayhem commence. There are shoot-outs, dismemberments in restaurant kitchens and double crossings at every turn which would be more than enough for any reader, but Soderberg has more strings to his bow, so read on to discover how he  rises above the bog standard organised crime yarn…

Into this mix comes Sophie Brinkmann and Lars Vinge, two  brilliantly conceived characters who add a depth and richness to the overall plot and whose experience in this sordid world fundamentally change them in ways they could not have imagined. Sophie is a nurse, a widow and a mother, just a normal fundamentally good woman, who becomes more and more tainted by her involvement with Hector Guzman, but who grows exponentially in character and strength as the plot progresses, through her immersion in this dangerous and violent world. Lars Vinge is a Swedish police officer, tasked with surveilling Sophie, whose moral and physical decline becomes such a potent part of the novel, as his obsession with her and his building distrust of his colleagues, draw him down into a world of addiction and bleakness that at times is truly heartwrenching. His suspicions are in no way groundless, thus unveiling the morally bankrupt and corrupt world of those tasked to catch and punish kingpins like Guzman, and whose greed and moral bankruptcy knows no bounds. Sophie and Lars completely held my interest throughout the novel, experiencing the highs, but generally more numerous lows, of their differing involvement in the violent power struggles of the warring criminals at great personal cost to them both.

 As I said in my introduction, this is unlike any other Scandinavian crime novel I’ve read as in all truthfulness this does not read as a Swedish crime novel per se, but more as a strongly all encompassing European style in characterisation, dialogue and atmosphere. Soderberg captures perfectly the subtle nuances in his characterisation of the differing European protagonists, but also writes with a lyrical style more prevalent in French crime fiction and the emotional intensity of an Italian crime novel, whilst interweaving the bleak psychological darkness of his Scandinavian counterparts. Interestingly his depiction of violence feels distinctly American, and there is one altercation that brings to mind a Tarantino-esque movie scene where no one could possible escape unscathed. The translation by Neil Smith, beautifully allows these contrasting styles to be self evident to the reader, and to my mind certainly, supports the effortless flow of the narrative.  Soderberg is supremely confident in linking these different styles together, and with a fairly large cast of dramatis personae to introduce,  ensures from the outset that the reader can easily navigate their relationships to one another as the story unfolds and their connections and conflicts are revealed. I am delighted that this is part one of a projected trilogy of books, because purely on the strength of this one this could be one of the most powerful trilogies ever produced in the crime genre. A remarkable debut novel that only bodes well for further books by this author.

‘The Andalucian Friend’ will be published 14 March 2013 by Harvill Secker

(With thanks to Random House for the ARC)

Introducing The Petrona, A New Annual Award For Scandinavian Crime Fiction

A Crime is Afoot

I just find out today from Karen at Euro Crime that the following press release has been circulated:

The Petrona Award has been established to celebrate the work of Maxine Clarke, one of the first online crime fiction reviewers and bloggers, who died in December 2012. Maxine, whose online persona and blog was called Petrona, was passionate about translated crime fiction but in particular that from the Scandinavian countries. (booktrade.info).

Although I did not had the chance to meet her in person, I will always considered a privilege to have met her, at least, online.

The shortlist for the 2013 award, based on Maxine’s reviews and ratings, is:

Like Norman at Crime Scraps Review, I ,also, think I know which of the four shortlisted books Maxine would have chosen to receive this award. I wonder if the judges will agree with me?

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