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.