They were near the edge of the glacier. The sea beneath the helicopter was dense with pack ice. In front of them, the endless whiteness stretched as far as the light could reach. It hurt his eyes. Millions of white crystals. Except in one place. One spot. Right where the mummified Norseman had been found and Aqqalu had kept watch. There, the ice was glossy red.
Opening with a breathtaking first-person account of the car accident that killed Matthew Cave's wife and unborn daughter, THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN isn't as straight-forward an undertaking for fans of Nordic Noir as it might seem.
Early on in the novel you're going to find yourself ticking off the required elements list. Awful personal tragedy; man lost in grief and lacking direction; isolation in a cold and inhospitable location; tension between different groups of people; local indigenous stories and customs; bone-chilling cold and weather creating a closed room setting; an outsider finding his way in a strange location; and since the advent of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, a loner, slightly weird, off-sider who is more of an outsider than the outsider who is the central cornerstone of this story.
In this case - Matthew Cave serves as the sufferer of the personal tragedy; the grief-stricken outsider in a strange place - a journalist from Denmark who finds himself in Greenland initially writing a story about the discovery of a mummified Norseman pushed up from a glacier, which rapidly turns into a current day murder. Which then reaches back into recent history and a series of cold-case murders that were never solved. The role of loner has been allocated to Greenlandic woman Tupaarnaq, recently released from jail for the murder of her entire family (except her brother), she's tough, stand-offish, less of an off-sider and more of the central protagonist at points through the story. She's the source of the title of the novel as well - covered in tattoos, she's seemingly without skin. Add to that a town that's isolated, a current day murder that's occurred on the ice shelf outside town, cold, snowy, inclement weather, the implications of the manner in which the killings happened, and the tension between the local Greenlandic people and the Danes and you have your list of required elements. Add to that the enigma of the character of Tupaarnaq, the complications of Cave's own father, and there is potential for some readers to get the distinct feeling we've been here before.
In many ways, dedicated readers of Nordic (Scandi) noir have been here before. There are many elements that seem to echo The Dragon Tattoo series in particular closely, and this novel is digging its way into societal problems, and the sorts of dark, deep secrets within families that make your stomach churn and your teeth grind. Although THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN is less of the why than we've come to expect from many of the analytical psychological thriller versions around.
Which is making it sound like THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN is a bit of the same-old-same-old. Which for the first third of the novel it was starting to feel like the case, until at some point it became hard to step away from. There was much to learn here about the cultural tensions and differences between Danes and the local Greenlanders. There is much intrigue about where Tupaarnaq and Cave are heading, and how they will both adjust to lives that have dished up a lot of hard blows. It was interesting to see that the domestic and authority blindness that lead to abuse of children and violence within families happens in all sorts of places and cultures, and it was good to know that there are some good people in all dark places.
Ultimately what THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN did deliver was potential for what's likely to happen next. Just because it's got a list of required elements doesn't mean they weren't delivered well, making this an extremely readable and intriguing book.
Review - DISGRACE, Jussi Adler-Olsen
Kimmie's home is on the streets of Copenhagen. To live she must steal. She has learned to avoid the police and never to stay in one place for long. But now others are trying to find her. And they won't rest until she has stopped moving - for good. Detective Carl Mørck of Department Q, the cold cases division, has received a file concerning the brutal murder of a brother and sister twenty years earlier. A group of boarding school students were the suspects at the time - until one of their number confessed and was convicted.
DISGRACE is the second book in the Danish series featuring Carl Mørck, who heads Copenhagen's cold case squad. A department made up of one very grumpy, sidelined cop; one civilian assistant who used to be the cleaner, and as of DISGRACE, one secretary who seems to have been shunted down to the basement with the other two because she's caused havoc everywhere else.
If you've not read the earlier book - THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES - a little background of the characters. Mørck is wonderfully cynical, grumpy and tricky to get on with. Which doesn't seem to worry his Syrian assistant Assad at all. The patient Assad is the perfect counterpoint for Mørck. Actually he's probably one of the very few people in the world who can work with him, that list now including Rose - a secretarial come research assistant with an attitude not afraid to be just as grumpy and cantankerous as her boss.
The cases investigated by Department Q seem to depend a lot on which files Assad pre-reads and considers worthy of Mørck's attention, although in this case, a file anonymously arrives on Mørck's desk on the brutal bashing murder of a teenage brother and sister twenty years ago. What makes it an unlikely candidate for Department Q is that there is somebody in jail already, having confessed to the killings. But the method of arrival of the file raises lots of questions in the team's mind, and as soon as they start to scratch the surface, there's a lot more to this and connected cases than anybody originally bothered to look at. Although almost immediate pressure from above probably gives a hint about why the case seemed to be filed away so quickly, it's partly that pressure that makes Mørck even more determined to get to the bottom of it.
This series is a strong combination of character and plot, although in this outing the gang of villains and their activities are about as stomach churning as you'd want to deal with as up close as DISGRACE makes you do. As Mørck gradually connects the killings with a range of other assaults and murders, it quickly becomes apparent that there is one woman that can shed some light on all these cases. Kimmie's damaged by her involvement with the gang of old schoolfriends who now are pursuing her. She's been living on the streets for many years now, despite being a relatively wealthy young woman. And she's got some very big secrets and some scores to settle of her own.
The plot revolves around who finds Kimmie first, as well as working out the connections between the gang and the various cases and it works really well, despite sometimes being a little too bogged down in side issues. There is enough suspense to keep the reader motivated to continue through those slight lags, although there is also a lot of violent and horrible imagery which is frequently offset by the humour - particularly Mørck's dry and self-deprecating style. For those for whom it's a serious problem - there are depictions of animal cruelty which are like to upset.
What makes this series one that's particularly appealing are the characters. Their development into a team from the first book, through to this one makes them really engaging and very real. Their dynamic makes dealing with the nasty privileged monsters that are the perpetrator's palatable if not comfortable. It's a series that I'm, yet again, way too far behind on and champing at the bit to continue with.
THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES also published as MERCY DISGRACE also published as THE ABSENT ONE
Review - MERCY, Jussi Adler-Olsen
At first the prisoner scratches at the walls until her fingers bleed. But there is no escaping the room. With no way of measuring time, her days, weeks, months go unrecorded. She vows not go mad. She will not give her captors the satisfaction. She will die first.
Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck’s been taken off homicide to run a newly created department for unsolved crimes. His first case concerns Merete Lynggaard, who vanished five years ago. Everyone says she’s dead. Everyone says it’s a waste of time. He thinks they’re right.
I've read MERCY (aka THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES) by Jussi Adler-Olsen twice now and finally I think I've got it the review straight in my head.
Why twice? The first time I read this book was right in the middle of a series of releases based around the woman locked in the basement scenario, and frankly, I was pissed off. Even though I really felt that this gross generalisation wasn't fair in the case of MERCY, this scenario had annoyed me so badly, objectiveness had become a real problem. So why reread and why now? Well a movie came out, and there were a lot more books in the Department Q series that I've been keen to try so a little reconsideration was required.
Based around the concept of cold cases, Carl Mørck is back with the Copenhagen Police Department, after six months sick leave recovering from being shot on duty. His colleague wasn't so lucky, still in hospital, paralysed and suffering.
Mørck has always been a difficult person to get on with and because of that the opportunity is taken to sideline him into “Department Q” the cold case unit. In the basement, where hopefully the lack of resources, and one suspects a general lack of oxygen / visibility get through to Mørck that he's not the most popular person. Which seems to be working on one level as he grudgingly shows up and spends most of his time solving Sudoko puzzles and playing games with the powers that be. Unfortunately one game – his demand for an assistant means he's lumbered with Hafez el-Assad, man who very much wants to be an investigator and doesn't agree that Department Q is the pits. When he finds something in the file on the disappearance of politician Merete Lynggaard, Mørck finds himself actually investigating something.
Alternating the viewpoints between the investigation and Lynnggaard in captivity brings an immediacy to the search. Whilst investigators have no idea if she is alive or dead, the reader knows she is, knows her state of mind, and knows her abductors are nearby.
With a clearer viewpoint of this concept there are obvious differences here – Lynggaard isn't being held as a sex slave or as a plaything of a nutter, but the reason she is being held isn't clear. And the cruelty and dispassionate behaviour of her abductors is staggering, uncomfortably so. As is the distress and the worry that everyone has for the brother she's left out in the real world. Badly equipped to handle it, he has an acquired brain injury as a result of the car accident that killed their parents when they were children. His suffering is as palpable as hers.
Aside from the difference that's now obvious – that this isn't an opportunistic tale of a woman in a basement after all, and add in the great characters of the investigators and this is really a strong opening book. The grumpiness of Mørck and the intelligence and compassion of Assad make them a great team. Having said that, grumpiness isn't the defining quality of Mørck when you're paying attention – there's a lot more to this story than greets the initial eye.
I have no explanation at all as to why I didn't see that the first time around, but I'm profoundly relieved that I had the sense to leave MERCY in the pile – knowing there was something wrong with my initial reaction but not able to articulate it.
THE HANGING - Lotte and Soren Hammer
One morning before school, two children find the naked bodies of five men hanging from the gym ceiling. The case leads detective Konrad Simonsen and his murder squad to the school janitor, who may know more about the killings than he is telling. Soon, Simonsen realizes that each of the five murdered men had a dark and terrible secret in common. And when Simonsen’s own daughter is targeted, he must race to find the culprit before his whole world is destroyed.
Normally when I get to the stage of actually finishing up a review and publishing it, I've had a good long think, a work through the notes I take as I read, and have formed an opinion that I'm confident I can support. I therefore cannot, for the life of me work out, why THE HANGING still has me unsure.
A confrontational plot, THE HANGING starts out with a death scene that's particularly uncomfortable. The possible reason for the death of five men, left hanging in a school gym, comes much later, with the likely motive a long time before a possible perpetrator. Of course, identifying the victims was obviously going to be a problem as there is a level of disfiguring of the bodies which clearly flags the initial problems the investigation will have. The second major problem, the reaction to the deaths of the public, and even some sectors of the authorities, takes a while longer to reveal itself, but it definitely creates issues for the investigation team.
The team itself, headed by Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen develops as an unusual combination of colleague, competitor, boss, subordinate, friends, lovers, possible lovers, enemies and all levels in between. This is a very difficult group to get a handle on, not just because Simonsen is taciturn, flat, dark and quite distant for a fair part of the novel. Even allowing for a mid novel decision that perhaps there's a dry, desiccated sense of humour going on here, this is still a difficult bunch to get to know. Which doesn't help with connection with the storyline.
Because of the motive behind the murders, the terrible and dark secret that the victims have in common, there's a lot about the plot that not serviced well by a narrative that plods and moves forwards in erratic leaps and bounds. Whilst there are stages when things teeter close to a direction, it always seemed to end up meandering. I'm still not 100% sure if that was actually because of the plotting or simply reader disconnection.
Not being the sort of reader that automatically wants to like or sympathise with a novel's protagonist, understanding is more than enough. Achieving that was a struggle no matter how much slack I sought to give this lot. Perhaps Simonsen's loner pretensions, his illness, his taciturn nature was a little too derivative. We all know that in Scandinavian crime fiction it's been done before with considerable panache and in those days originality. Perhaps it's also because the public reaction to these murders, so easily stirred and built by the perpetrator was somehow a little preachy or manipulative of the reader at the same time.
But strangely, and for reasons that I still can't quite put my finger on, finishing the book wasn't a total chore. There is something there, somewhere that's sort of promising, despite THE HANGING not playing out as well as you'd think it should have from the blurb and the hype. Maybe it is a sense of humour that hasn't translated well. Maybe it was that slight feeling of having been there before. Either way, if the series continues, then I'd like to try another book. After the heavy lifting of the team introductions are out of the way, there might be room for a bit more character development and maybe a plot point or two that stay on message.
BLUE BLOOD - Sara Blaedel
In an idyllic neighbourhood of Copenhagen, a young woman, Susanne Hansson, is discovered in her apartment bound and gagged, the victim of an extraordinarily brutal rape attack. Detective Inspector Louise Rick soon learns that Susanne met the rapist on a popular online dating site, something Susanne shamefully tries to hide.
Events quickly spiral out of control as a horrified Louise realises that the rapist is using the website to target specific women for future attacks. But as she soon finds out, he has no intention of leaving these other victims alive. . .
BLUE BLOOD (aka CALL ME PRINCESS) is the debut novel in the Detective Louise Rick series from Danish writer Sara Blaedel. Blaedel is a million copy best-selling author, voted Denmark's most popular novelist three times since 2007, and an international success story.
BLUE BLOOD reads like a traditional police procedural, focused on who perpetrated the crime, and not a lot on why. The initial crime, the vicious beating and rape of a young woman, quickly becomes even more worrying with the sadly preventable death of a second victim, but it does provide the focus - an increasing number of cases that revolve around the internet dating world.
Given the police procedural styling, I was looking at three specific elements - plot / investigation and then characterisations. BLUE BLOOD takes the reader into the world of internet dating and the possible perils, and it uses many of those aspects to have a red hot go at raising some tension. Although, to be honest, the none too subtle way in which potential dangers are raised for Rick, as well as best friend, journalist Camilla did make this reader dubious. Whilst there is a team, and a hierarchy, and a bit of tension between teams chucked into the mix for reasons that I couldn't quite fathom, the main core of the investigation becomes a solo hand pretty quickly. Which didn't actually work that well, as it created a problem with interactions between Rick and the rest of the team that was never really resolved. In fact, most of the other police characters remained very much bit-parts, and somehow floated off to the side. Which leads therefore to characterisation. The focus is very much on the Rick, who is the sort of lead character that is either going to annoy or fascinate. She's an odd combination of intensity and vagueness. Her attempts at victim consolation weren't particularly convincing, and whilst she's obviously driven to resolve the case, there are some things that she seems almost criminally dumb about. Not the least of which is the rapid, and obvious collapse of her personal life, that on one hand she seems quite matter-of-fact about and on another devastated.
All of which makes it sound like I didn't really like the book. Which isn't exactly true. Cutting the requisite slack for a debut book in a series, and some heavy lifting in the character establishment phase as a result of that, there's more than enough in BLUE BLOOD that makes me want to get the next book in the series. The series doesn't feel like it's going to shape shift into the darker, more psychological stylings of my preferred Scandinavian material, but as a general, police procedural styled novel, I don't mind the occasional prickly, difficult, unpredictable female central protagonist at all. Especially as it would appear that the next book, FAREWELL TO FREEDOM is tackling human trafficking, a topic which is increasingly being explored in crime fiction worldwide.
THE DINOSAUR FEATHER - Sissel-Jo Gazan
Biology graduate Anna Bella Nor is just two weeks away from defending her thesis on the origin of birds when her supervisor Lars Helland is found dead in his office, his severed tongue lying on his bloodied shirtfront, a copy of her thesis lying in his lap.
January is often a very good reading month for some reason. That alone doesn't make a lot of sense - it's normally hot enough to melt the tin on the roof, which isn't conducive to concentration. Making THE DINOSAUR FEATHER look like a rather risky choice. At 535 pages it was way too big for any struggle with concentration, and after starting the book and finding myself deep in discussions on paleo-ornithology and not a lot of "crime action", I was feeling somewhat sceptical to say the least. Add to that a central character who is just a little inclined to be whingy, very prickly, with more than a hefty dose of self-entitlement and I really did question my sanity for starting this book off at this time of the year.
But there can be something appealing about the idea of a character being somewhat unpleasant, as long as there is a very realistic feel to the portrayal. Leaving aside a slight personal tendency to sympathise with prickly, Anna Bella Nor is extremely realistic. Complicated, with a messy personal life, she's completely focused on the completion of her degree to the detriment of many of her personal relationships. Not that her relationship with her divorced parents ever seems to have been plain sailing. Her dislike and antagonism for her supervisor - Professor Lars Helland - isn't hidden, even when his sudden and very odd death becomes the subject of a police investigation. In contrast to Anna, her colleague Johannes is considerably more placid, accepting and caring. He's got a lot more reasons for life to disappoint than Anna, yet he's always able to see the good side in the people around them. Superintendent Søren Marhauge is also a man with a complicated personal life, full of regret and loss, yet he is also more like Johannes in outlook, if not lifestyle - he also finds himself dangerously fascinated by Anna Bella.
Looking at that summary it would be very easy to assume that this is yet another book in which the women are volatile and complicated and the men all tolerant and straightforward. Goodness knows I've been dragged down that path a bit recently. Whilst there is a lot of that classification going on, this author has managed to create a level of reality to these people that doesn't exaggerate the roles or overplay that comparison. Anna Bella is a tricky woman to deal with (as is her mother), but there are also kind, controlled women around them, and not everything in Anna Bella is bad, or wrong, or off kilter. The men may seem controlled, kind and wise, but they are all hiding secrets and behaviour which is less than perfect. It's those aspects of the characters that keeps them from feeling like roles have been assigned for the purposes of creating a reaction, and more like people who could very well be the reader, or people the reader knows.
Be warned though, it takes quite a while for the "crime" to happen in this book, possibly because there are all these complicated and rather fraught personal backgrounds and relationships. There's a lot of stuff that's not directly related to the crime itself going on, and whilst some of that did get a little repetitive at points, and there was just a slight inclination to tell, rather than show; mostly the plot, the story and all it's elements filled the 535 pages pretty successfully. Having said that, you're going to have to find the world of the evolution of birds and their relationship to dinosaurs interesting because at some points in the book you'll be pulled well into the discussion. Not, I'd hasten to say, in an overly scientific or learned manner, all of the information was quite readable, and personally I found it quite fascinating. Perhaps because it was compelling it didn't always feel like too much of a distraction or deviation from the crime itself.
The cause and resolution of the crime, getting back to the point of crime fiction after all, was nicely constructed, and despite one of the most bizarre methods of killing I've come across in a long while, perfectly feasible in the world in which it was placed. As a pure puzzle solver there were clues along the way for the reader to work with, and whilst it does take a while to get to the point where the resolution of the crime starts to be drawn out, I doubt it will come as a massive surprise to most. What probably appealed to this reader most of all about THE DINOSAUR FEATHER was the journey, and the unusual setting and environment in which the story is conducted. Regardless of what made the book work, it was a real surprise to find that this book was the one that's kept my perfect strike rate of at least one favourite book of the year coming in the first month of the year.
THE SERBIAN DANE - Leif Davidsen
LISE CARLSEN: A successful journalist trying to smooth over the cracks in a failed marriage.
PER TOFTLUND: A crack member of Denmark's secret service, a lone wolf: unattached, without family and fanatically committed to his work.
VUK: a highly skilled political assassin who has lost everything in the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Raised in Denmark of Serbian descent.
I can't remember the last thriller styled book from a Scandinavian author that I've read - but I certainly hope I'll find another one soon. THE SERBIAN DANE lingered too long on the unread piles around here - but once started it was fascinating. A Serbian hitman, Vuk, born in Denmark but very much formed by the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, is hired to kill an Iranian author. Sara Santanda has decided to come out of hiding, and her first appearance is scheduled for Copenhagen.
Santanda's contact in Denmark, Lise Carlesen works for the newspaper Politiken. Despite the Danish government's reservations about their relationship with Iran, they agree to provide security protection, and the man in charge is Per Toftlund. Lise's marriage is already on the skids, and Per is a very attractive man. In an interesting twist her increasing absence allows a mysterious stranger to befriend her husband, a combination of all the relationships and events combining to form the catalyst for a quite dramatic conclusion.
Given that this book is a thriller in style, there is quite a lot of action. Alongside that though there are some great character explorations - particularly that of Vuk, the hitman with so many identities that he seems to have lost who he really is. It's strange, but there's something quite vulnerable and complicated about Vuk - as cold-blooded and as ruthless a killer as he is. It seems that you get a real glimpse into the damage that war can do. At the same time Per and Lise's relationship is an interesting development. What is most interesting, however, is that this is a book that was originally published in 1996, yet the issues discussed, the action portrayed and the tension engendered really felt quite contemporary and believable.
This is a really good thriller with a full range of the required elements (tension / pace / threat and a sense of menace), alongside some suprisingly good characterisations and just a touch of human insight.