Now that he has moved into his first apartment, nineteen year old Lindqvist is sure that success is just around the corner. He will need to at first progress through the usual fog of teenage inertia in order to reach his goals, so a clear path to fame and fortune is not crystal clear just yet.
Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist takes us back, way back, to the teenage years when the world was just an open sky of endless opportunity. In the capable hands of a best-selling horror writer, we know that this particular new world of discovery is shortly about to evolve into something truly frightening. Lindqvist has inserted his aspiring teenage self into a narrative that will be somewhat recognizable to anyone who struck out on their own after school. The poverty, the fickle friends, the grotty apartments, the dodgy jobs. Most of us have been there, making all the usual youthful poor decisions with the self-assurance that we are completely bullet proof, not to mention still being in full possession of a blind faith that the world treats its embryonic adults kindly. Lindqvist takes those hazy years of starting out and tips it well and truly sideways. Turn a different corner, see things from a different perspective.
If we may assign such a test to novels of this kind (and it seems a bit of an insult to try and categorize in any way a left field work such as I ALWAYS FIND YOU), lets see if we find ourselves asking this question by the half way mark. Where in heck is this all meant to be going? Or perhaps there will be your own emphatic belief that yes, you have absolutely NO clue where it will all end up and you simply don’t care. See when that kicks in for you in this uneasy reading of a book that will never let you settle and feel assured of its final destination. There will be no rest for the reader, only a sense of growing despair and concern for its young protagonist, floundering around in the ennui of youth with little to propel him forward other than his poorly imagined destiny of being… a magician. Yes, a card trick, sleight-of-hand magician.
I ALWAYS FIND YOU is the second outing in Lindqvist’s ‘Locations’ trilogy. IAFY skips around the bits of your consciousness that are sometimes occupied with pondering what else might be out there beyond your own awareness of the immediate present. If you’re up for something different and introspective to read, I ALWAYS FIND YOU will soon have you immersed in that curious half life between reality and fantasy, youth and adulthood. The curious thing about this book is that it gives you absolutely no expectations on receiving any firm resolution or explanations. It’s all in the ride, and that ride becomes more bizarre and horrifying as the novel progresses.
An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, Helene Turston
Ever since her darling father's untimely death when she was only eighteen, Maud has lived in the family's spacious apartment in downtown Gothenburg rent-free, thanks to a minor clause in a hastily negotiated contract. That was how Maud learned that good things can come from tragedy. Now in her late eighties, Maud contents herself with traveling the world and surfing the net from the comfort of her father's ancient armchair. It's a solitary existence, but she likes it that way.
“Barely a week later, the doorbell rang, loud and long. In Maud’s world it felt as if her visitor had only just left.”
When Swedish crime writer Helene Turston was asked to write a short story for a Christmas anthology she created the character of Maud, an 88 year lady who has no qualms about committing a murder. Since writing An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace At Christmas Helene Turston has written another four short stories featuring Maud. All five Maud stories, which have been translated by Marlaine Delargy, are now available in a single volume entitled An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, it’s a little gem.
The star of these stories is undoubtedly Maud. She’s fiercely independent, has a strong sense of right and wrong, despite the fact that she’s quite adept at bumping people off, and is extremely resourceful when it comes to said bumping off. The other enjoyable aspect to these stories is the way in which they are told, there’s just the right amount of disarming innocence mixed with cold steel to make them a joy to read and have you wishing that Maud could carry on her murderous ways for many years to come. Fans of Helene Turston’s Inspector Huss and Embla Nyström books will also enjoy their cameo appearances. All said, An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good was a most enjoyable book to finish my 2018 reading.
I am Behind You, John Ajvide Lindqvist
Four caravans, four families inside waking up to a horrifying new reality. They, their cars and caravans, even their pets, are no longer where they were located when everyone went to bed the night before. It seems that their world has somehow moved on, taking them away from their Swedish holiday camping ground to a new place that only superficially resembles where it is that they came from. Acres and acres of grass that is yet not grass. An endless sky, and the frustration of having no landmarks in a sterile and unpopulated landscape. But is it truly empty?
The central premise in I AM BEHIND YOU is simply delicious. The environment is both alien and familiar and so are the reactions of the characters to their new altered reality. It is impossible not to project yourself into this novel and wonder what your own behaviour and thinking would be like – would you accept, would you challenge, would you seek and be capable of escape? Would you throw everybody else under the bus in order to keep yourself alive or would you stoically band together with your new comrades to fight the common evil that threatens you all?
A small or restricted setting will always sharpen the focus on the interactions of the cast (also small here) and this does present its own challenges. There needs to be a good balance of the present day conflict as to what each character will carry as baggage into their shared encounters. Lindqvist’s talent in exposing the truer nature of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is evident once again in I AM BEHIND YOU. The horror lays in how quickly in this apocalyptic situation that people will show their true colours, acting selfishly in order to protect themselves and their own. Societal norms go out the window in a shockingly short period of time. Suppressed thoughts, emotions, traits are all given freedom to rise to the surface and ride over the veneer of civility we all struggle to maintain.
The “woo-woo” inclusion in this novel did tend to be a bit aimless and certainly wasn’t its strength – the work put into character development was. Not knowing what was memory and what the characters were seeing was annoying more than a few times. The ethereal slippage between the worlds was interesting, though more resolution or explanation would have been greatly welcomed.
Dive in and question it yourself!
Review - Quicksand, Malin Persson Giolito
A mass shooting has taken place at a prep school in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb. Maja Norberg is eighteen years old and on trial for her involvement in the massacre where her boyfriend and best friend were killed. When the novel opens, Maja has spent nine excruciating months in jail awaiting trial. Now the time has come for her to enter the courtroom. But how did Maja, the good girl next door who was popular and excelled at school, become the most hated teenager in the country? What did Maja do?
If ever there was a book that shows that the Best Swedish Crime Novel award needs to be closely followed, QUICKSAND is it. Scandinoir remains one of the big things in worldwide crime fiction, but, as you'd expect, there can sometimes be a little sameness to the sub genre. Which is not intended as criticism, there's only so many subject matters, styles and approaches available when you're writing psychological thrillers or crime fiction. QUICKSAND, on the other hand, has taken an unusual and different approach to a very difficult subject, handling that undertaking with considerable aplomb.
The novel is narrated by teenager Maja Norberg, who is standing trial for a high school shooting in which her best friend, several other students, a teacher and her boyfriend and fellow shooter, Sebastian, were killed. She's been in jail for nine months and seems surprisingly calm and sanguine about the possible outcome. Maja is a most unlikely killer, not because she comes from a privileged and wealthy background, but as she seems to be searching for answers herself.
The storyline switches between past and present seamlessly, always within Maja's viewpoint, going back to when she first met Sebastian, their growing romantic and sexual connection, and simultaneous relationships with her family, his father and her friends. Author Malin Persson Giolito hasn't flinched from making this character a difficult girl to connect with. She's a teenager with attitude and adolescent angst aplenty, contemptuous, judgemental, more often than not frustratingly annoying. Which makes this a discomfortingly realistic portrayal. A young girl beset with doubts and complex emotions, looking down on her parents, her teachers, her surroundings and society in general, reserving any real emotion and affection - not for the boyfriend she can't break away from - but for her baby sister and grandparents.
As the story progresses much about Sebastian and his own background becomes clearer, as does Maja's own involvement. Both of these teenagers have had unexpected difficulties to cope with - subtle and perhaps more "first world" than any problems associated normally with poverty and disadvantage, but nonetheless, there's something bubbling away under the surface of these seemingly perfect lives that isn't right and not good. There's much being said here about that idea of wealth and privilege compensating for bad parenting, unreasonable expectation and disaffection. As you'd expect, as more is revealed, the mental state of, and relationship between, Sebastian and Maja becomes more erratic, controlling and toxic.
But was it toxic enough for her to join him in his murderous plan? Did she know what Sebastian did on that final morning, was she an active participant? Did she incite or did she somehow get caught up in the madness herself? There's plenty of proof to say who shot who in that final scene in the classroom, but not necessarily why or even how. Even Maja is struggling for understanding, whilst in solitary confinement, in consultations with her lawyers and in a courtroom.
QUICKSAND is very clever in the way that it pulls readers in and repulses at the same time. It gives you licence to really dislike the central character, and the freedom to empathise, sympathise and change your mind all at the same time. Everyone is incredibly real - from parents right to the teenagers themselves. And because of that everyone is flawed, and the things that people do allowed to stun, confront, bemuse and annoy. It's finally a lesson in what you see is not always what you get, and right up until the judgement is read in court you'll be unsure how the rest of Maja's life is going to pan out.
Review - More Bitter than Death, Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff
Sometimes reliving the past revives old demons . . .
In a Stockholm apartment, five-year-old Tilde watches from under the kitchen table as her mother is brutally kicked to death.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, psychotherapist Siri Bergman and her colleague Aina meet their new patients - a group of women, all of whom are victims of domestic violence.
The second novel in the Siri Bergman series, MORE BITTER THAN DEATH, suffered a little from this reader having missed the first book - SOME KIND OF PEACE. It left such a sense of missing out for this reader, that SOME KIND OF PEACE was slotted into the teetering pile of books to be read.
A big part of the reason for that reaction is that Siri Bergman is a tricky character to come to grips with part-way through her story. Not to say that she's not particularly intriguing, strong and fascinating, there just always felt like something about her was cloudy / didn't quite add up.
Particularly when you combine her with friend, and colleague Aina and classmate Vijay all collaborating on a domestic abuse study, making for a slight disconnection between character connection and plot acceptance. Particularly as this plot scenario allows the authors to discuss a wide range of manifestations of abuse, as well as victim reactions and coping strategies in a very elegant manner.
Once one of the abuse cases turns deadly, there's further opportunity to look closely at the attitudes towards, and roles of victims in these abusive relationships. Never once does any of this tip over into self-righteousness or overtly "positioned". Rather it remains an exploration, a consideration for want of a better term. It's a very successful way of handling particularly challenging subject matter with sensitivity, without shying away from the fundamental questions that need to be answered.
The fact that this subject is handled in this manner, within a plot that's multi-levelled, that involves the members of the self-help trial group, and the facilitators equally is cleverly done, and it's seamlessly delivered. Often when you're reading something that comes from an author collaboration, you can see hints of the stitching, or different hands. There's none of that here - nothing jars in terms of pace, delivery or credibility.
Review - Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend by Christoffer Carlsson
Charles Levin, Detective Leo Junker’s mentor — and the same man who betrayed Leo — is dead.
Now Leo must find out why. He must follow the thread of the dead man’s own tragedies, which will lead inexorably to the betrayal of Charles Levin’s soul — and the soul of his nation.
Inspired by a string of scandals and murders that rocked Sweden in the 1980s, particularly the killing of journalist Cats Falck, Christoffer Carlsson tells his own chilling version of what happened in those dark days.
MASTER, LIAR, TRAITOR, FRIEND is the third in the Swedish Leo Junker series, a set of books which hopefully all fans of Scandinavian crime fiction are aware of.
Up there with the very best of Scandinavian crime fiction, partly it's the interweaving of the past and present into the backgrounds of the crimes and the main characters, partly it's beautifully descriptive writing that never becomes overdone, that help make this series work so well. Ultimately it's the realness of the situations and the characters that take the reader directly into the story, seeing and feeling much of the action, and in particular the reactions, of everyone involved.
MASTER, LIAR, TRAITOR, FRIEND is particularly intriguing because Junker is central to so many threads within this story. The dead man and Junker had a close, and fraught relationship. Charles Levin was a mentor to Junker, and then something happened to fracture their friendship. Levin moved to a small village after retiring from the Police Force and it is there he's found shot dead. Tove Waltersson, the local detective in charge of the preliminary investigation, is a native of this small village. Her older brother had also been in the police force, until he was killed in a shoot-out a year ago. Junker's arrival on the scene to launch his own investigation before the National Bureau of Investigation takes over is difficult for Waltersson - not that he realises why, but she knows that Junker is the one that accidentally shot and killed her brother.
And then there's a small kitten. What on earth does a kitten have to do with the murder of an ex-cop and Junker's problems with his own past, and everybody's reaction to him? Well nothing, and everything. Which is part of the point about Carlsson's storytelling ability. There's plenty of introspective, brooding Scandinavian cop portrayal, and there's tensions between Stockholm and the outlying districts. Then there's characters who are rubbing up against each other, or downright hate, regardless of whether the target of that feeling (or even readers) know why. But there are also touches of lightness and asides - often times funny, frequently touching, along with that constant searching for how the past infects the present and how the present isn't just the job. It all makes this a series that's extremely believable and involving.
It's interesting that this author's background is in criminology, as there's something about these books that speaks to a searching for meaning. For exploring consequences and understanding why things turn out as they do. Even in the character of Junker there's that constant searching within himself - to explain his past, his decisions, his addictions and his methods for handling all of that.
All of which feeds into why this is a series for fans of crime fiction. It's introspective, considered, thoughtful, insightful and brilliant.
Review - The Falling Detective, Christoffer Carlsson
Leo Junker is back in the snake pit — aka the homicide unit — after a murder case where he was the intended victim. Still abusing prescription drugs and battling his inner demons, he’s doing his best to appear fit for duty.
Then a sociologist named Thomas Heber is found murdered. The only clues the police have to work with are Heber’s cryptic research notes, which indicate that someone else’s life is also under threat. But who?
THE FALLING DETECTIVE is the second Leo Junker book written by Swedish author Christoffer Carlsson. Not having read the first was a minor irritation (with myself) in reading this because Junker is complicated, challenging, slightly off-beat and utterly charismatic. In an odd, shadowy, slightly blurry sort of way. Hence the irritation with not having read the first book as there's obviously more to this portrayal than is declared in this outing.
Perhaps because of that slightly off-camera feeling, THE FALLING DETECTIVE was also a book that felt like it took a while to get going. It's easily understood that Junker is back in the homicide unit, or snake pit, after a murder case that went wrong. It's also obvious that he's got a bad prescription drug addiction, and some big personal problems, but the details of why he has, and why he's behaving like he is, take a while to become clear. Whilst all that's going on, there's a confusing and complicated case underway when a sociologist is found murdered, with the only potential lead some decidedly cryptic research findings hinting somebody else is likely to die. Whilst that little snippet might contribute to the confusion, it certainly helped increase the tension.
What starts to play out, and once it hits its straps, quickly becomes very addictive, is the interconnections between politics and crime, complex plot and characters that are often explored in Scandinavian thrillers of this type. Whilst it does feel like there's the potential for a heap of stereotypes here - lone wolf, damaged central detective; baffling motivations for murder; and the requisite external interference THE FALLING DETECTIVE uses those elements well. In Junker Carlsson has created a really good form of the stereotypical lone wolf. Bitter and twisted, often wryly funny about his situation, he's an appealing mixture of unrepentant and disappointed in himself. The external interference makes sense, the confusion over motivation is really the only scenario that works in this instance, and the dogged manner in which the investigation proceeds is exactly what you'd expect with all of the surrounding elements.
Extremely engaging, requiring the reader to really pay attention, one of the best things about THE FALLING DETECTIVE was the way it made this reader really regret missing the first book in the series. Anything that makes you want to catch up with a series this badly is a very good thing.
Review - EUROPA BLUES, Arne Dahl
A Greek gangster arrives in Stockholm, only to be murdered in a macabre fashion at Skansen zoo, his body consumed by animals.
As the Intercrime Unit – a team dedicated to solving international violent crime – investigate what brought him to Sweden, eight Eastern European women vanish from a refugee centre outside of the city while an elderly professor, the tattooed numbers on his arm hinting at his terrible past, is executed at the Jewish cemetery.
EUROPA BLUES is the first of Arne Dahl's books I've been fortunate enough to read and it definitely won't be the last. A combination of a slightly eccentric, dedicated and very determined investigation group full of strong individuals, who work as a team; and a confrontational and some very pointed crimes and their backgrounds, perpetrated for very believable reasons made this novel a stand-out read.
When an unknown Greek gangster is murdered and then disposed of in the wolverine enclosure of a local zoo, the likelihood of even identifying him, let alone resolving the questions of why or who killed him seems pretty remote. As does the likelihood of working out any possible connections between his death and the disappearance of a number of Eastern European women from a refugee centre outside Stockholm. When an elderly science professor is then murdered in extremely bizarre circumstances, in the centre of a Jewish cemetery, this really does seem like a series of disconnected and extremely odd occurrences.
The Intercrime unit (or A-Unit as they are known) is a special unit put together to investigate violent crimes with international aspects. Which is a wonderful creation as whilst the unit might feel feasible, there's much in it's management structures and membership that is most unexpected. And many of the members seem particularly comfortable in that sort of working environment. They are, however, a ruthlessly efficient bunch of cynical, analytical and experienced cops who are not at all afraid to follow a hunch.
Well balanced within the strong characterisation, there's an intricate plot that falls into place seamlessly, incorporating questions and observations about many societal questions along the way. The disappearance of refugee women, the increasing problem of women from struggling economies being lured into sex-trafficking, and the gangsters and organised crime behind it are part of the current day problems explored, as are aspects of more recent European history and connectivity that seem to be an ongoing discussion in many of the Scandinavian Crime Fiction books this reader has been fortunate enough to encounter.
There's a lot to catch up with if you're starting out with this series at EUROPA BLUES as this reader did. It doesn't create a problem in getting into the style and tone of the writing, nor in picking up on the personalities and working relationships of the A-Unit. It may, however, create a stacking problem as there are other books available in this series, with the very distinct possibility that they'll be creeping to the top of the reading pile very soon.
Review - CINDERELLA GIRL, Carin Gerhardsen
When detective Petra Westman finds an unconscious child in an undergrowth, and shortly after stumbles upon the mother's dead body hidden inside a grit bin, the Hammarby Police team is shocked by the gruesomeness of this case. And the strangest thing is that nobody seems to be missing the victims . . .
But just as an investigation is launched, chief investigator Conny Sjøberg is faced with yet another murder. A teenage girl has been killed aboard cruise ship Cinderella and her younger sister will be next if Sjøberg can't uncover the killer.
CINDERELLA GIRL is the second Conny Sjøberg book from Swedish author Carin Gerhardsen, the English title of the first book being THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE. Having missed that one when it came out in the middle of 2013, there's some catching up required.
It did seem to take a very long time for anything much to happen here. A lot of time is spent introducing the reader to two teenage sisters, living with their alcoholic mother, in less than satisfactory circumstances. Borderline neglected, these two girls are very used to looking after themselves, and some of their methods are unpleasant and could be confronting. There's a tendency, in the early part of the book, to feel this almost forensic analysis of their lives is a little too detailed, almost voyeuristic. Especially as it's not until about 20% of the way through the book that their reason for being there is clearly defined.
In the meantime, a mother has been dealing with her ill baby boy. Her struggles to settle him take her out of the apartment, which then quickly morphs into something more sinister as it becomes clear that she's not returned. And there is a very young daughter in that apartment, confused, hungry, dirty and very alone.
Eventually we have two deaths - the mother of little Hannah, although authorities don't know the little girl exists, and one of the teenage sisters. Both of these events are investigated by Conny Sjøberg's team - he concentrates on the teenager's death while Petra Westman leads the team that are trying to identify the mother, and her very ill young son.
Not having had much to do with 3-4 year old kids (and it being way too long ago to remember much of my own childhood), I've no idea if Hannah would be able to survive, albeit a bit battered and bruised, in the way that she does. But for this reader, it felt a little off. Not so the search for Hannah, undertaken by one very determined elderly lady when she receives a worrying random telephone call one night. On the one hand it wasn't at all odd that police would not be convinced by her story of that telephone call - supposedly from such a young child on their own. On the other hand, there's a further twist to that story which certainly ramps up the threat - but smacks a bit of being there just for that purpose.
The other slight disappointment about CINDERELLA GIRL is the lack of focus on Sjøberg. Nothing wrong with the Westman character at all - she was a determined and dedicated investigator, but not quite having the full story of both of them, their history and in particular, who Sjøberg is made his presence unfocused, unsure.
Both killings are eventually resolved obviously, and I suspect a lot of the issues with not quite grabbing hold of the entire story are to do with not having read the first book. CINDERELLA GIRL did leave me with a desire to do exactly that though. There was something about these two investigators that's intriguing.
THE DEVIL'S SANCTUARY - Marie Hermanson
Estranged identical twins Daniel and Max have a complex relationship, so when Daniel goes to visit his bipolar brother in a remote Swiss clinic, he has no idea what really lies in wait for him. Lulled by the peacefulness of the clinic, Daniel finds himself accepting Max's plea for help in taking care of some business, and the brothers swap places for a few days.
But soon Daniel realizes Max isn't coming back, and that the clinic is far from a place of recovery. Struggling to get anyone to believe who he really is, he finds himself trapped in a cruel and secretive prison.
The back of THE DEVIL'S SANCTUARY says that it has the atmosphere of Shutter Island and the intensity of Jussi Adler-Olsen so I was expecting something... well big.
And for quite a while this was a fascinating scenario. Estranged identical twins, Daniel and Max, were parted by their parents separation when they were very young. Daniel had a fairly normal, if not slightly doted on upbringing by his mother and her parents, Max not quite as lucky staying with his distant father and raised mostly by a nanny. Nothing particularly unusual in that, although Max has been diagnosed bipolar and is in an expensive Swiss recovery clinic when Daniel goes to visit him.
There's obviously something "not quite right" about the clinic, although it is, on the face of it, fairly serene, routine and seemingly quite supportive and comfortable. Not so comfortable that when Max proposes a swap of identities so that he can get out to sort out some financial problems, that Daniel is exactly willing. Doesn't matter as Max does an identity swap in the middle of the night anyway and disappears. Because they've been playing with identities and appearances anyway, nobody believes Daniel when he eventually protests the swap. Especially as all the documentation that they have on Max indicates that he doesn't have an identical twin.
For the longest time I was really intrigued about where this whole thing was going. Because there was that nagging feeling of something about the clinic, because it was kind of obvious that Max wasn't coming back there were all sorts of possible scenarios building up in my mind as I read on. When the ultimate truth about the clinic comes out I will admit I wasn't 100% surprised, but from there, the wheels started to wobble, and the wobble got stronger and stronger until an ending where, frankly, the wheels were off the car and a couple of kilometres in front of me, looking to cause some serious damage.
Aside from the fact that the ending was, well frankly just daft, there was an overwhelming sense of opportunity lost. Without giving away too much of the plot there's a reason behind that clinic that opened up a heap of possible avenues to explore. Instead we seemed to end up in a pointless heap of contrived situations designed to put characters at risk, even though the reader is well aware that they probably aren't. So I must admit by the end of it, despite finding the early part of the book really engaging, I was disappointed. And mildly annoyed. Especially as THE DEVIL'S SANCTUARY seemed to be a reasonably well written, pointless plot.