Aleksi lost his mother on a rainy October day when he was thirteen years old. Twenty years later, he is certain that he knows who's responsible. Everything points to millionaire Henrik Saarinen. The police don't agree. Aleksi has only one option: to get close to Henrik Saarinen and find out the truth about his mother's fate on his own. But as Aleksi soon discovers, delving into Saarinen and his beautiful daughter’s family secrets is a confusing and dangerous enterprise.
The exploration of consequences is beautifully executed in Antti Tuomainen’s mesmerising DARK AS MY HEART. That he is an award winning author comes as no surprise, but of the five novels to his name in his native Finland, the third “The Healer” and this, his fourth novel, are so far the only ones translated into English. Needless to say THE HEALER is now on the TBR pile.
Aleksi Kivi was thirteen years old when his mother vanished. Now, twenty years on, he’s still haunted by her murder, and his feelings of recognition and utter belief that the millionaire owner of the company his mother worked for is responsible for that death could seem like obsession. That possibility is tempered elegantly by his quiet determination, and his willingness to observe, check and insinuate himself into Saarinen’s life in order to discover the truth.
Working as a live-in caretaker on a remote seaside property belonging to Saarinen that insinuation is planned and precisely executed, getting to know members of Saarinen’s family and staff, in particular, dangerously close to his erratic and disturbed daughter Amanda.
Told in a deceptively simple, understated manner which matches the personality and determination of the central character perfectly, there’s a clarity to the storytelling here that truly is mesmerising. The dialogue is sparse and pitched perfectly, establishing emotion, intent, feelings and motivation without having to resort to long, overblown exposition. That perfect touch is applied to the sense of place as well, creating a remote yet luxurious, underpopulated, beautiful yet sinister environment in which Kivi must try to find the truth, and hence allow himself to move on, and to live.
As close to a single sitting read as can be achieved around here, it’s not until after finishing that I realised that what we have in DARK AS MY HEART is about as perfect a combination of character, place and plot as I’ve read in a long time. Classically understated, in that particularly Scandinavian manner that many readers have come to love, the exploration of the why, and the impact of the act are as important to the author as the identification of who.
SILENCE - Jan Costin Wagner
A young girl disappears while cycling to volleyball practice. Her bike is found in exactly the same place that another girl was murdered, thirty-three years before. The original perpetrator was never brought to justice -- could they have struck again? The eeriness of the crime unsettles not only the police and public, but also someone who has been carrying a burden of guilt for many years...
Because SILENCE is the third of the Detective Kimmo Joentaa series, I read it third. (Rebellious you may well think, not paying attention is a much better explanation).
One of the things that I most love about these three books - ICE MOON, SILENCE and THE WINTER OF THE LIONS is the sheer beauty of everything. The place, the culture and the emotion. Sure Joentaa is in deep mourning for his wife who died too young, but there's no sense of self-pity, this is simply a beautiful example of a man struggling quietly, emotionally, but with enormous dignity to find his path, to resurrect his life.
Whilst he's doing that, aspects of real life must go on - in SILENCE it's about the past and the present - the long unsolved abduction, rape and murder of a young girl, and a copycat crime - the same spot, same method, same outcome. None of which seems to make sense given the great time gap between the two awful crimes.
One of the things that stays with you from all of these books is the gentleness, almost delicacy with which Wagner handles his characters, their places and the events that affect them. Everyone - parents, past and present police officers, even the killer are compassionately drawn. SILENCE is again a book more about why than how, and definitely about the after affects on so many participants - be they unwitting or complicit. It's a book about choices, it's a book about grief, and most of all it's a book about life. Needless to say, you've probably worked out, I loved this series - although I think, unlike me, you'd be best to read them in order to really get a feeling for Joentaa's journey in particular. These are books for those who are less interested in vengeance and action, and looking for something contemplative, compassionate and incredibly moving.
THE MAN FROM BEIJING - Henning Mankell
Revenge can take more than a lifetime...
One cold January day the police are called to a sleepy little hamlet in the north of Sweden where they find the victim of a savage murder lying in the snow. As they begin their investigation they notice that the village seems eerily quiet and deserted. Going from house to house, looking for witnesses, they uncover a crime unprecedented in Swedish history.
THE MAN FROM BEIJING is a standalone book from the author of the popular Kurt Wallender series, and if the discussions I've seen about it are any indication, it's guaranteed to polarise opinion.
Set in Hesjövallen, where something very very bad has happened, police are called to the village by researcher, Karsten Höglin, who arrived in the town to find that this quiet, mostly deserted little village in Sweden is the scene of a massacre.
Judge Brigitta Roslin has an unexpected connection to this place, when she discovers that two of the victims are her mother's adopted parents, but it is enough of a connection to give her an investigation to fill the emptiness she feels in her own life. Following the trail to China, in the face of police disinterest and her own families objections, she soons discovers an international connection and a nightmarish situation.
Possibly part of the reason for some readers dissatisfaction with this book could be the rather tentative connection that Brigitta has to the crime, and her motivation for suddenly dropping everything and heading off in pursuit of a solution. The other objection could very well be the politics that are built into the story. Neither of these aspects presented much of an issue for me, and as a reader, I found Brigitta's actions and reactions were something I was happy to accept. The political viewpoint that Mankell presents was also not unexpected, and I felt not heavy-handed.
I've got a number of standalone novels by Mankell salted away in MtTBR (aka the retirement fund), and if THE MAN FROM BEIJING is any hint, then I've got lots of books to look forward to.
OUTRAGE - Arnaldur Indridason
In a flat near Reykjavik city centre, a young man lies dead in a pool of blood. There is no sign of a break-in: the only clues are a woman's purple shawl, found under the bed in the next room, and a vial of prescription drugs in the victim's pocket.
When an author switches viewpoint in a long-running, popular series there's always a risk that some readers will be disappointed. Personally I find it can be one of the more satisfying uses of an ensemble cast, as was the case in OUTRAGE. Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason has switched the viewpoint away from his normal main character Erlendur, to one of the lesser characters in the earlier books - Detective Elinborg.
Erlendur is around, more by way of reference than physically, as he appears to have headed off to the East Fjords, where he lived as a young boy. Given his fractured family it's possibly not surprising that he's dropped off the radar, although there is something at the end of the book that may intrigue some readers. Sigurdur Oli is present in this book, but in a low-key way.
Elinborg is investigating the discovery of the body of a young man, throat slashed, lying on the floor of his own home. Whilst the woman's shawl found in the apartment makes sense as a possible clue, it's a lingering smell that tweaks Elinborg's interest. Readers of earlier books will know that Elinborg is particularly known for her cooking, and it's that private passion that makes that smell something that she can work with.
This book is really doing what often happens in a debut, introducing and expanding on a central protagonist. In earlier books Elinborg has been very much a bit player, so OUTRAGE really gives readers a chance to get to know more about another member of Erlunder's team. The downside of that is that the plot of the book does take a while to get going, although once underway, it's actually quite clever. And uses some interesting cultural perspectives along the way.
There's an ongoing thread in all of Indridason's books about the nature of family, parental guilt and the difficulties with balancing personal lives and work commitments. Earlier books have taken readers into the relationship that Erlendur struggles to maintain with his own children, and the death of his brother when they were both children and the impact that has on his every day life. This book looks at Elinborg's own difficulties balancing the roles of wife, mother and police detective. The case revolves around family as well - the family of the victim, as well as the family of the perpetrator all play a part. Particularly interesting for this reader was the subtle comparison between the young teenage son of Elinborg and his relationship with his mother, and the very different teenage boy and his different relationship with his own mother in the earlier life of the murder victim. As always this mix of the personal and the professional creates the opportunity for readers to find some way of connecting with these characters, and, as with the early Erlendur books there's a great feeling of place, and culture built into OUTRAGE.
Despite the different viewpoint, and despite the plot of the book taking a while to move into focus, OUTRAGE really is another excellent, atmospheric, intricate and fascinating book.
THE WINTER OF THE LIONS - Jan Costin Wagner
Every year since the tragic death of his wife Detective Kimmo Joentaa has prepared for the isolation of Christmas with a glass of milk and a bottle of vodka to arm him against the harsh Finnish winter. However, this year events take an unexpected turn when a young prostitute turns up on his doorstep.
I cannot believe, firstly that I've left the last two books in this series unread for so long, and secondly I'd be daft enough to read the third, THE WINTER OF THE LIONS out of order. Not that it made a lot of difference to the experience. It's hard to use the word enjoyable when you're referring to any of the books by Jan Costin Wagner as they are so steeped in grief and brooding, although, there was just a glimmer that Kimmo Joentaa might be ready to move on a little. Even though the death of his wife is still the defining thing in his life, he is forced to look outside himself, despite it being Christmas, the time of year he most dreads.
Set in Finland, Wagner is a German writer with a unique sense of the culture and the country. His writing is pared down, emotional and dark. The plotting of the book is slow, often impenetrable, yet for this reader, it simply didn't matter. The storytelling really is astoundingly affecting and involving. Joentaa is magnificently morose, but without a feeling of overwhelming self-pity.
The first book in the series, ICE MOON, was a revelation when I first read it and I waited impatiently for the next to be translated. Then for reasons best known to my idiot self, I bought and then never picked up the next book in the series SILENCE. There really are times when I could kick myself, or at least put the book immediately on the bedside table.
THE CALLER - Karin Fossum
One mild summer evening Lily and her husband are enjoying a meal while their baby daughter sleeps peacefully in her pram beneath a maple tree. But when Lily steps outside she is paralysed with terror. The child is bathed in blood.
Inspector Sejer is called to the hospital to meet the family. Mercifully the baby is unharmed, but her parents are deeply shaken. Sejer spends the evening trying to comprehend why anyone would carry out such a sinister prank.
One of the most exciting things about a new book from Karin Fossum is exactly where she's going to take the reader this time. The scenarios, the crimes, the individuals that Fossum incorporates in her books are always very thought provoking, and THE CALLER was certainly no different.
From the moment that a young child is found in her pram, in the backyard of her parent's home, bathed in blood; through the mysterious delivery of a message to Inspector Sejer's door; into the story of Johnny and his drunken, irresponsible mother and the touching relationship he has with his grandfather; there's something very very different going on in this book. THE CALLER is very much about consequences. The acts of one irresponsible, foolish prankster who continues to cause havoc with practical jokes that annoy, frighten and discomfort. Even though the nature of the crime being committed as part of these jokes is sometimes obvious, sometimes a little obscure, Inspector Sejer does his best to find the perpetrator as the level of concern grows. The problem is that the perpetrator is clever, and very cool and collected, and you just know the outcomes are going to get worse.
THE CALLER takes the reader into the world of both victims and perpetrators - an unusual position in crime fiction where the victim is frequently necessarily silent. Whilst this provides a different perspective it is, as usual, Fossum's way of lighting the dark recesses of human behaviour that stand out in this book. Although there's nothing judgemental about the way that she does this - as in other books, it's a matter of the author drawing the picture, explaining the acts and describing the consequences, leaving the question of guilt or innocence, inexcusable acts and mitigating circumstances open to the reader to consider.
All of this is delivered in a simple, lyrical, extremely readable manner. THE CALLER is really another excellent entry in the ongoing series based around Inspector Sejer. The books, however, could easily be read as standalones or out of series order if needs must. But reading them all is no trial whatsoever.
VILLAIN - Shuichi Yoshida
It's January 6, 2002. The body of Yoshino, a female insurance saleswoman, is found at Mitsue Pass, an eery inland spot in the southernmost region of Japan, rumoured to be home to ghosts. A young construction worker, Yuichi, is soon arrested by the Nagasaki police on suspicion of strangling the victim.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to read VILLAIN, although the Japan Book News quote on the back of the book "... lays out a panorama of modern Japanese society, a patchwork composed of people of various classes and occupations..." really appealed. And the book most definitely did not disappoint.
Intricate, telling, tightly woven, tense and yet somehow languid and flowing, VILLAIN was an outstanding read. Not just because of the way that the identity of the murderer slowly creeps up on you, but also because of the way the various voices of the characters grab the reader and hold your attention. I understand from a chat with a friend of mine that the original Japanese version may have used particular dialects or very individual voices for each of the characters that clearly transmits their origins / position in society. That aspect isn't as obvious in the English version, but there are still enough elements in the style to make you realise there are differences.
VILLAIN is not a whodunnit nor is it a book about justice, revenge or resolution. It's more about the life choices that can quickly turn one person into a victim and another into a murderer. It's also a rather telling look at a lot of aspects of Japanese society - pressure on the young to conform, and how so many of those societal "norms" result in a quiet sort of despair - a longing for connection. It also shows how the stratas of society impact that. There are aspects of the life of the elderly which are held up to scrutiny as well - ultimately this is not a book which pulls much in the way of punches as it looks at the lives of most of the characters.
Whilst this book is definitely a thriller, it's a slow burning, dark and quite moving. The action is pushed along in a series of chapters told in the different voices of the characters, frequently in differing timeframes as the reader is taken backwards and forwards before the death of Yoshino and after. Yoshino, a young woman strangely lost somewhere between her daytime job as an insurance saleswoman and her night-time activities which veer closely towards a sort of casual prostitution, but always with this clanging sense of a search for love, acceptance, connection. Her background of loving, albeit marginalised parents, is contrasted strongly by that of the man she meets via an on-line dating service. Yuichi is a young man with much to resent in his life. Dumped by his mother into the care of his grandparents as a very young child, he now works in construction and struggles with the role of support to those now ailing grandparents. Yuichi's expression of individuality is all in his car, his love life as bleak and opportunistic as Yoshino. These two somehow seem to be destined, in other ways you can feel the tension as both of them struggle against the reality of their likely fates versus their ultimate desires.
An overwhelming reading experience that is really going to appeal to readers who like thoughtful, discomforting and quite confrontational reading, VILLAIN is one of those books that will stay with me.
OPERATION NAPOLEON - Arnaldur Indridason
1945: A German bomber flies over Iceland in a blizzard; the crew have lost their way and eventually crash on the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe. Puzzlingly, there are both German and American officers on board. One of the senior German officers claims that their best chance of survival is to try to walk to the nearest farm and sets off, a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. He soon disappears into the white vastness. 1999, mid-winter, and the US Army is secretively trying to remove an aeroplane from the Vatnajökull glacier.
Reactions to an author taking a detour away from a much loved series, or style (or both for that matter) can vary. Some readers love the chance to head into new territory, others find that departure too much of a step, and long to return to the familiarity of the series, the known characters or the styling. And as with everything, for this reader, it all depends.
OPERATION NAPOLEON is a thriller, set in Iceland, but based around the mystery of a plane that went down at the very end of World War II. To take this that little bit further again from the Erlendur Sveinsson Crime Fiction series, this book also has a central female character. Kristin is pulled into a dangerous world of secrecy and power games when all she is trying to do is discover the truth behind her brother's fate - there on that remote glacier.
I suspect that whether or not a departure from the known works is often to do with the quality of the storytelling. OPERATION NAPOLEON is, undoubtedly, a thriller. There are lots of nefarious goings on, there's danger and conflict, there's the unknown of what was in that plane, why there is so much desire to find it, and claim what it is carrying. So whilst there are many of the elements that a thriller requires, and the pace and plot that supports the discovery of those elements, there are some quintessentially "Indridason" elements to the story. There are some wonderful characters that the reader can identify and sympathise with - it always helps to have somebody to be "barracking for".
There is also the way that this author always manages to weave the landscape and the culture of Iceland into his books, and the way that he uses family relationships as a basis for characterisation and exploration. In this case we have Kirstin and her brother, and the two brothers whose farm sits at the base of the glacier. The relationship between both sets of siblings is interesting - perhaps more tantalising in the case of the farmers, but undoubtedly the motivation for Kirstin's involvement.
There is a bit of a twist in the tail of this story though, and fans of alternative history may find the final proposition a little difficult to swallow or even maybe a little confronting. Given that the book declares itself pretty well as a thriller, this reader found OPERATION NAPOLEON less problematic than other stories of the same nature, having said that, alternative histories do make me twitch.
The good thing about OPERATION NAPOLEON is that it has the basic structure, and many of the required elements of a thriller, but with sufficient characterisation, and a great sense of place and culture that would make the book appeal to readers less fond of the pure thriller format, provided that aspect of rewriting history isn't too firmly in your pet hates listing.
HYPOTHERMIA - Arnauldur Indridason
One cold autumn night, a woman is found hanging from a beam in her summer cottage by Lake Thingvellir. At first sight, it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide; the woman, Maria, has never recovered from the loss of her mother two years earlier and had a history of depression. But when Karen, the friend who found her body, approaches Erlendur and gives him the tape of a séance that Maria had attended, his curiosity is aroused.
Less of a review - closer to a drool, HYPOTHERMIA is the latest in one of my all time favourite series of books from Icelandic author Arnauldur Indridason. If you've not read any of the earlier books, coming to HYPOTHERMIA from the start could still work, but part of what is really wonderful about this series is the slow unfolding of the backstory of the central detective Erlendur.
Erlendur is very much of the "rumpled / crumpled" detective genre - somebody who life has dealt some complicated hands to. Whilst he shuffles those cards, the reader is taken through his current life, his relationships with his estranged children, his childhood and his family tragedy. Still with that Nordic sense of constraint, thoughtfulness and introspection, there's also something lighter and hopeful in the sub-themes of HYPOTHERMIA, despite the puzzling suicide of a woman in a beautiful lakeside location. Her obsession with the loss of her mother, and the drowning of her father when she was a child takes Erlendur back to what happened to events from her childhood, somehow giving him permission (or the will) to explore his own history, and the death of his young brother in a blizzard many years before.
Within this series there has always been a strong sense of Icelandic culture and beliefs, from their particular personal name conventions in earlier books, to a real sense of the relationship between the present and the supernatural in this book in particular. And it's not just Erlendur's personal circumstances that leads to an exploration of the past and the present - there is often a theme within the books that pursues exactly the effect that past events (sometimes hidden, sometimes not) have on the current lives of many of the characters.
Along with the rumpled / crumpled detective styling, Erlendur has an admirable sense of justice and duty. He doesn't give up, he doesn't accept the obvious (in this case the rapid verdict of suicide) and he is prepared to stick to the task until the truth is revealed - no matter what the consequences. Having said that he, and this author, are not unaware of the effect of this sort of persistence. Grief, loss, guilt and confusion are beautifully illustrated, as is there often a cheeky sense of humour.
HYPOTHERMIA is an outstanding example of everything that is wonderful about crime. The book transports the reader to the place and the culture in which it is set, the landscape, the people, their particular way of looking at the world are woven into the threads of grief, loss, cause and effect seamlessly. There is pace to the story, alongside lyrical, beautiful storytelling and there are wonderful, believable, flawed characters to follow. Hopefully for lots of books to come.
BAD INTENTIONS - Karin Fossum
Early one September three friends spend the weekend at a remote cabin by Dead Water Lake. With only a pale moon to light their way, they row across the water in the middle of the night. But only two of them return, and they make a pact not to call for help until the following morning.
Karin Fossum is an author who uses observation acutely, whilst being more than willing to play with both expectations and the outer reaches of readers' comfort zones. Each of her books uses a different type of scenario to explore human behaviour and quirks. In BAD INTENTIONS she is looking at the nature of manipulation, conscience, and absolute and total egocentricity. She's also very very good at creepy - be it the characters or the setting, and in BAD INTENTIONS there's some of each.
BAD INTENTIONS is the ninth novel overall, seventh available in English, from Norwegian writer Fossum's series based around Inspector Konrad Sejer. These books are all psychological thrillers, within a police procedural setting. But really, the point of all of all of them is to look into a variety of different mindsets - that of the person committing the crime, and often also those observing or affected.
BAD INTENTIONS is about three men - Alex, Reilly and Jon. Friends from childhood, Jon suffers from anxiety attacks and has such severe psychological problems that he's been hospitalised. Alex and Reilly have taken him to their favourite place, a remote cabin in the forest beside a lake, as a treat - to try to cheer him up. Restless the 3 friends row out onto Dead Water Lake, where Jon panics and jumps into the water. One friend wants to save him, the other stops him. A shared story is concocted, suicide is blamed, and they wait until the following morning before calling the police. Konrad Sejer is assigned the case and he and his team quickly start to see inconsistencies, not only in the stories that the boys are telling, but also in Jon himself. Suicide seems so unlikely for someone improving, developing relationships, sorting his life out.
This is a very clever plot that effortlessly demonstrates the snowballing affect of attempted cover ups. In this case, the cover-up of Jon's death is just yet another link in a chain of lies and bad choices (intentions if you like) that goes way back. But as with any of Fossum's books - it's not just about the cover-up, BAD INTENTIONS is also about friendship, damaged people and breathtaking ruthlessness.
Best of all, BAD INTENTIONS is extremely believable. Okay so that's probably not a "best" thing, but this book describes events that are totally feasible - there isn't a single moment's reading where you are left thinking "no, surely not". Cleverly written, insightful and informative, this is a book that is suspenseful and entertaining whilst also being extremely thought-provoking. Exactly what you'd expect from this fantastic series.