What better way to celebrate today’s publication of The Burning Question, the latest novel by LindaRegan, than a giveaway!
Let me do some introductions first.
DCI Paul Banham and DI Alison Grainger are back, and this time they are investigating the tragic death of a young woman who was burnt in her own home. When another identical arson attack is soon reported, Grainger and Banham are on the hunt for a link between murders, unaware that the new trainee Detective Constable, Hannah Kemp, already knows the connection. Hannah was on duty in the riots ten months earlier which led to her being kidnapped and then time off work and she is very keen to prove herself again. She also knows that if she comes forward with the information, her own past will come to light, and she will potentially lose her job. However, if she doesn’t speak to her superiors, more women will lose their lives. Hannah realises that she knows who they are, and she thinks the arsonist – their attacker will stop at nothing to keep his ring of illegal prostitutes earning. Once he realises Hannah is now a police detective, she might also find herself in mortal danger. As the clock ticks against her own life, she must decide whether to stay quiet for the sake of her career, or risk everything she has worked for to stop a ruthless killer once and for all.
With masterful suspense, Regan reunites readers with her well-liked protagonist DCI Banham and DI Grainger who are partners in crime, so to speak, and in life, and delivers one of her most chilling cases yet… The novel is set in the gritty backstreets of London and packed with the descriptions that add authenticity and fast-paced dialogue, some risky banter and unforgettable characters. We can remember them for their morally-questionable behaviour and motives, and the lively mixture of lowlifes and big money.
Linda Regan is a prolific writer of crime fiction books, and I had a pleasure to hear her speak at Deal Noir festival in 2016, at the panel with fellow authors Guy Fraser-Sampson, Daniel Pembrey and William Shaw, focusing on the setting and location in crime fiction novels. After winning a worldwide writing competition with her novel Behind You! (2006), she published seven more novels, including Passion Killers (2007) which was selected as a Sunday Observer pick of the year. Since then, she has written the immensely popular DI Johnson series (2015) and the DCI Banham series (2019).
In addition to her writing, Linda is also a much-loved actress of stage and screen, known for her recurring role in the hit BBC sitcom Hi-De-Hi, and guest appearances in popular shows The Bill, Birds of a Feather, Doctors, and Holby City. Before joining the cast of Hi-De-Hi, Linda started out in a comedy dance troupe in her youth before going on to a lead role in the West End production of Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen. Playing such vivid and iconic characters throughout her career, has helped Linda to develop character-focused stories that bring a uniquely immersive filmic quality to the page. Linda uses her personal experiences to write her signature brand of ‘strong crime’. All of her novels are set in South London, where Linda writes with meticulous knowledge of the landscape where she grew up and currently lives with her husband, actor Brian Murphy.
All you need to win a copy of The Burning Question is to head over to my account @sh_ewa on Twitter, and like and share this pinned tweet. You might comment if you wish… The competition is open to UK only, and closes at 13:00 on 13th May.
As I began to become familiar with the story, I had a sense that the strong social context would be a separate character in a way it is, as so much of the protagonists’ personalities is shaped by their upbringing and the current situation. The introduction to Everything Is Mine brought Anne Holt to my mind, a formidable writer whose outlook is similar, and about whom Val McDermid once said that she ‘isthe latest crime writer to reveal how truly dark it gets in Scandinavia.’ Indeed, several chapters later Holt is mentioned as an example of what unpredictable fate can bring for a minister: ‘Minister of Justice Anne Holt got sick and retired to write crime novels.’ Although Ruth Lillegraven’s focus is also on the social injustice, her individual writing style is in a league of its own, and adds new voice to the NN genre, driven by strong narration and detailed observations that creates both drama and authenticity in the lives unravelling before our eyes. Clara and Henrik lead busy professional lives, committed to their causes and believing in their work. They are dedicated caring parents to their twin boys, and good members of the community. That’s what obvious to everyone. However, behind the successful façade of a well-off family settled in an affluent part of Oslo, many issues remain unsaid, hidden, secret and on the verge of exploding. That emotional eruption will happen and both feel that it’s unavoidable at some point in the future. It is triggered by simultaneous events. Clara is a single-mindedly ambitious child rights activist at the Ministry of Justice. Her work on the new bill, huge amount of effort, research and lobbying comes to a halt when the proposal is shelved. The bill’s aim was ‘to ensure that all employees of all public institutions feel a stringer sense of responsibility for sounding the alarm in the event of any suspicion of violence or abuse.’ Henrik’s world gets shaken when a small Pakistani Norwegian boy is admitted to Ullevål Hospital (where he works as a paediatrician), dies in his care, and clearly is a victim of abuse. The boy’s father behaved in a threatening manner, and enough signs show that violence was dominating element of the family’s existence. Soon a body of a man was discovered on the grounds of the hospital, connecting this crime to the boy’s death, and more killings are happening in the city. As the couple deals with the upheaval, we learn more about things they had wanted to keep buried for a variety of reasons. Clara has always felt like an outsider in the capital, having grown up on a farm in western Norway and knowing everything about nature, fjords, animals, and hard physical work. She never mentions her mother, still mourns her little brother, and always relies on her father. She is an unshakeable tower of strength. On the other hand, Henrik has lived a relatively easy urban sophisticated life and inherited a beautiful villa which is their home now, and was the first person in the family of lawyers that went into medicine. They are not the same : ‘Henrik likes to call me the ice queen. He cries at the drop of a hat. I haven’t cried since that day thirty ears ago.’
Everything is Mine ( Bookshop.orgAmazon), translated by Diane Oatley, brings together important issues and thrilling action, and very smart complex plot. This thoroughly gripping intelligent thriller made a huge impression on me as Lillegraven effortlessly takes the readers through unexpected twists and surprises, and asks questions about the motives of every character. And those are varied and plentiful. I especially enjoyed the contrast between what we think we know about the modern Scandinavian society and values, and what might be concealed underneath choices that are made when facing very difficult situations. Clara, Henrik and their colleagues feel a sense of responsibility and sense of injustice at various degrees. They want to make a difference or they just want to survive. In the aftermath of crimes of neglect, and following the police investigation into related murders, suspecting Henrik and unsettling Clara, Lillegraven makes a strong point of how and if people can deal with injustice. Backdrop of stunning nature and the welfare state are not always what it seems…
Easter is in the air and if you follow any book-related Scandinavian traditions, then crime at Easter or påskekrim, the one firmly established in Norway, is definitely for you. Påskekrim is the time to enjoy all types of crime fiction, both on screens and on pages of very popular novels. Last year I recommended Smoke Screen by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger. Now I will share my reading plans though I doubt I will mange to complete my current TBR list within the next days.
Let me take you to Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland and England.
Håkan Nesser’s The Lonely Ones, translated by Sarah Death, is the fourth novel of the quintet featuring Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti (Pan Macmillan, Mantle, October 2021). In 1969 six young people arrive in Uppsala, Sweden. Different circumstances push the three young couples together and, over the course of a few years, they become friends. But a summer trip through Eastern Europe changes everything forever, and when their time at Uppsala University is over it also signals the end of something else. Years later, a lecturer at Lund University is found dead at the bottom of a cliff in the woods close to Kymlinge. And chillingly, it is the very same spot where one of the Uppsala students died thirty-five years before. Detective Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti takes on this ominous case of history repeating itself, and is forced to confront an increasingly grave reality. I love Nesser’s calm methodical style, and my review of The Root of Evil, second novel of the series, was published on Crime Review pages.
Max Seeck’s TheIce Coven in Kristian London‘s translation (Welbeck, September 2021) follows The Witch Hunter and is the second instalment in the Detective Jessica Niemi series. In this thriller Jessica faces the darkest case of her career. A young woman’s corpse washes up on a near-frozen beach, and then, two famous Instagram influencers go missing. All three have ties to a cult, famous for their cruel and violent worship. But before Jessica can save the girls, an old enemy emerges and threatens to destroy her. Soon, she is hunting for much more than just the truth.
Viveca Sten’s In Bad Company, translated by Marlaine Delargy (Amazon Crossing, January 2021) is the ninth novel of escalating suspense of the Sandhamn Murders series. Building a case against Andreis Kovač is a risky strategy for prosecutor Nora Linde. A violent key player in Stockholm’s drug trade and untouchable when it comes to financial crimes, he has the best defense money can buy. To topple Andreis’s empire, Nora’s working a different angle as her critical witness is Andreis’s wife Mina who has suffered her husband’s rage too long. Still carrying the traumas of the Bosnian War, Andreis can be triggered like an explosive, and must be taken down. And as the trial looms, Mina and her infant son must disappear. The police have found her a safe place to hide on Runmarö Island in beautiful Sandhamn’s archipelago. But there’s no shelter from a man as powerful and merciless as Andreis, especially when he’s being crossed.
Anna Enquist’s The Homecoming, translated by Eileen J Stevens (Amazon Crossing, April 2022) peers deep into the passions, losses, and reveries of the wife of eighteenth-century explorer Captain James Cook. After twelve years of marriage to English explorer, Elizabeth has yet to spend an entire year with her husband. In their house by the Thames, she moves to the rhythms of her life as a society wife, but there is so much more to her than meets the eye. She has the fortitude to manage the house and garden, raise their children, and face unbearable sorrow by herself. As she prepares for another homecoming, Elizabeth looks forward to James’s triumphant return and the work she will undertake reading and editing his voluminous journals. But the question is if the private life she’s been leading in his absence will distract her from her role in aid of her husband’s grand ambitions. Also, she’s not sure if James can find the compassion to support her as their family faces unimaginable loss, or whether she will have to endure life alone as he sails off toward another adventure.
Ruth Lillegraven’s Everything Is Mine translated by Diane Oatley (Amazon Crossing, March 2021) focuses on family secrets, revenge, and righteous fury which collide in this bestselling novel of psychological suspense and intrigue. The married couple Clara and Henrik live in a beautiful inherited villa in Oslo. She is a single-mindedly ambitious child-rights activist at the Ministry of Justice. Having grown up in rural Western Norway, she is also an Oslo outsider. Henrik is a doctor from a well-to-do Oslo family. Though their marriage is under serious strain, they share a devotion to their twin sons and their work. Outwardly, they’re a successful couple both dedicated to saving lives. But when a Pakistani Norwegian boy, a victim of child abuse, admitted to Henrik’s hospital dies in his care, and a related murder rocks the city, a chain of events unearths years of trauma, secrets, and buried resentments at the heart of the couple’s relationship. Then the veneer of normalcy begins to fall away.
Hansjoerg Schneider’s Silver Pebbles, translated by Mike Mitchell (Bitter Lemon Press, January 2022). ALebanese man carrying diamonds in his bag is on the train from Frankfurt to Basel, a drug mule on the return journey. At the Basel train station Inspector Hunkeler is waiting for him after a tipoff from the German police. The courier manages to flush the stones away in the station WC. Erdogan, a young Turkish sewage worker, finds the diamonds in the pipes under the station. To him they mean wealth and the small hotel he always wanted to buy near his hometown. To his older Swiss girl-friend Erika, the stones signify the end of their life together. She knows that Erdogan has a wife and children in Turkey. For the courier, finding the stones is a matter of life and death. His employers are on their way to ‘tidy things up’. For Hunkeler the stones are the only way to get to the people behind the drug trade. They turn out to include not only the bottom feeding drug gangs, but bankers and politicians very high up the Basel food chain.
And another Swiss author: Joachim B Schmidt and Kalman, translated by Jamie Lee Searle (Bitter Lemon Press, May 2022). Kalmann is the self-appointed Sheriff of Raufarhöfn. Day by day, he treks the wide plains which surround the almost deserted village, hunts Arctic foxes and lays bait in the sea – to catch the gigantic Greenland sharks he turns into the Icelandic fermented delicacy, hákarl. There is nothing anyone need worry about. Kalmann has everything under control. Inside his head, however, the wheels sometimes spin backwards. One winter, after he discovers a pool of blood in the snow, the swiftly unfolding events threaten to overwhelm him. But he knows that his native wisdom and pure-hearted courage will see him through. There really is no need to worry. How can anything go wrong with Kalmann in charge? He knows everything a man needs to know about life – well almost.
The story of a woman trapped in a predestined life of conventions and societal expectations is as old as the world itself. And so is a woman artist who has to forge her right to express herself artistically which in turn would allow her to live her life fully. Does it get better these days? There are more opportunities but can the society let go of what women are supposed to contribute, to be free and creative? Karitas Jónsdóttir is on the difficult path surrounded by the harsh reality of existence in the brutal Nordic climate and the constant fight to find money and food, in the first half of 20th century in a country where art was appreciated yet not easy to reach for all, when the backbreaking physical labour was essentially the only way to stay alive. Karitas lived in a fishing village and in the capital of Denmark, got used to the modern technology and went back to a turf hut. So much of the ancient and the new mixed together!
In one of her interviews Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir said that equal rights were at the top of her mind when she began writing novels. That theme forms basis of her rich and complex novel Karitas Untiled / Karitas án titils (first published in 2004) and makes a portrait of a young untraditional artist all the more powerful and poignant. However, Iceland is a character in its own right, with the emotionally sensitive portrayal of the nature, landscape, seasons, and fauna and flora. And people. These elements influence Karitas’ first shy encounters with painting, trying to catch shapes and contrasts, experimenting with light and shade. They are the very first step in the process of learning which was noticed by a rich lady who decided to give some drawing lessons to Karitas and then send her to Copenhagen to study for five years. The classic photographic reflection of the world on paper and canvas was the way to catch attention of some of the art connoisseurs yet Karitas longed for the more modern abstract ways to create, to capture emotions, to thrive. But being an artist had to wait as Karitas’ responsibilities took over. Marriage, children, many years without her husband.
‘To be able to think clearly, you need a lot of light’. Baldursdóttir weaves the threads of various experiences to understand the yearning of an artist and to respect women who had lived through the hardship: ‘What an extraordinary woman your mother is. He loses her husband at sea and picks up and leaves with her six children in order to provide them with an education. Circumnavigates the country with them in the dark hold of ship but makes it to her destination, washes fish, knits woolen clothing, and manages to get all of her children into school. She never lost sight of her goal, that woman. They have always been known for their toughness, those people in the Westfjords. Though they’ve always dabbed in black magic, of course.’ Men feature in the book; the fisherman and the sailors, the farm workers and the pillars of society that still has a long way to go in terms of emancipation, introduction of modern technology and personal freedom. But the motion of strong-willed women is what pushes some of the progress and development, which includes personal growth and personal motivation to decide. ‘Black magic’ might be a loose term but nevertheless it encompasses ancient Icelandic traditions and beliefs. Hidden people or elves appear to guide and protect. A ghost helps to deal with trauma. The nature is full of hidden secrets.
The solemn majestic beauty of the Icelandic landscape adds to the literary magnificence of the novel, and often stops you in tracks when reading. The same happened to Karitas who had to endure death and loss, the unknown and the uncertainty. She longed for internal chaos to be a better painter, hoping for understanding and recognition. Yet this has been a long painful process which involved her personal turmoil.
I feel that the novel’s apparent abrupt and unexpected ending makes perfect sense in the context of global historical events. It encompasses wealth of emotions and some conflicting decisions. Karitas’ life on the book pages starts in 1915 with WWI’s distant echoes in Iceland, and concludes just after Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning in of WWII. We know that in the 1940’s war came much closer to this small nation. We are not privy to Karitas considering her future, yet I think it might be fair to say that she would focus on truly expressing herself as a painter. And I wish her all the luck.
Growing up on a farm in early twentieth-century rural Iceland, Karitas Jónsdóttir, one of six siblings, yearns for a new life. An artist, Karitas has a powerful calling and is determined to never let go of her true being, one unsuited for the conventional. But she is powerless against the fateful turns of real life and all its expectations of women. Pulled back time and again by design and by chance to the Icelandic countryside – as dutiful daughter, loving mother, and fisherman’s wife – she struggles to thrive, to be what she was meant to be.
The author Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir might not be so well known in the UK but is one of Iceland’s most acclaimed writers and the internationally bestselling author of numerous novels, including Karitas Untitled, nominated for a Nordic Council Literature Prize; Street of the Mothers; Chaos on Canvas; and Seagull’s Laughter, which was adapted for the stage and also into an critically acclaimed film. She received her degree in 1991 from the University of Iceland, studied in Germany and Denmark, and has also worked as a teacher and a journalist. Among Kristín Marja’s many honours are the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon for her achievements in writing and her contributions to Icelandic literature, the Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize, and the Fjöruverðlaun Women’s Literature Prize. She lives in Reykjavík.
The award-winning translator Philip Roughton worked on many of Iceland’s best-known authors, including Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Þórarinn Eldjárn, Bergsveinn Birgisson, and Steinunn Sigurðardóttir.
Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide was originally published in 2005 but the first introduction of the author and his writing into the English-speaking world came in 2016 thanks to the translator John Keithsson and Norvik Press. I always read forewords and translators’ notes if there are included in any book. They often provide insight into the background of the main story and also into the nature of the language which in turn make it more intriguing for me. Though the thriller Walpurgis Tide is gripping from the very suspenseful first pages and would not require any further encouragement. A couple of young British environmental activists are found dead, with their throats cut, among the massive carcasses of slaughtered whales. This has happened during the controversial grindadráp, an annual whale hunt, a bloody and terrifying event. The hunt is a centuries-old Faroese tradition, part of the national identity for people who have lived on these remote wild islands in the North Atlantic. The hunts are also notorious for stoking the fire of the international disputes, with violent and brutal aftermath.
The Faroese journalist Hannis Martinsson believes that hunting for these huge mammals in such a way will have to end soon, especially as the whales themselves are so polluted with heavy metals that their meat and blubber are toxic. The traditional food is becoming poisonous. Yet as a Faeroese he cannot ignore the fact that fishing industry makes a lot of money that could be lost if boycotted by other countries.
Hannis has just returned to his country after years of living abroad, mostly in Denmark, and isn’t quite sure what to do with his life and how to earn a living. He rents a small office in a building that has seen better days but has an advantage of being in a very central location in the capital city of Tórshavn. While Hannis repaints his office and considers a vague career as a consultant, writing for the foreign magazines and newspapers, he also decides to keep away from the international storms which always follow news of grindadráp. Alas, that’s not on the cards. A strange overconfident British man Mark Robbins asks him to investigate a double murder of two victims, Jenny McEwan and Stewart Peters who were sent on behalf of his organisation, the Guardians of the Sea to observe the hunt and gather information with an aim to get it banned. Extremely reluctantly Hannis takes on the assignment and as well as the money, as Robbins presents him with a threat to destroy the country if the murderer is not found, with the repercussions that would also reach Denmark. He begins the undercover investigation; however, within hours his new employer is dead. Hannis works both methodically and chaotically, chasing names and connections, and trying not to get killed in the process. The mystery leads him to discovery of more bodies, and foreigners involved in the fishing industry, and a very personal revelation.
Faroe Islands are mysterious and romantic, stunningly raw and beautiful and deadly dangerous, traditional and modern. An uncharted territory and a dream destination for the modern travellers. As a self-governing autonomous Danish territory (I hope I got it right) their citizens veer between firmly sticking to the ancient Norse customs and rules, and looking into the European future, while gambling with some potential oil-riches. They have a complicated relationship with Denmark so there’s no surprise that Hannis is often on the receiving end of the animosity felt by those who never venture from the islands, and insulted as a Dane-lover. Isaksen creates an authentic relatable portrait of a man who sees his home country from the outside perspective, and thanks to his experiences abroad, this view if full of sharp ironic observations, as well as timid love. Hannis appears to be an old cynic, world-weary and disillusioned when it comes to his career and personal relationships yet full of dark sarcastic humour and brilliant insights into the tight-knight society: ‘Choir singing is like one of the plagues of Egypt. You can’t take a step without hearing choir singing […] Have the nerve to turn a radio on, and you’ll have four-part harmony thrown in your face.’ He even feels ‘the primal instincts of a hunter; an intoxicating feeling of the joy of life amid the slaughter’ when at sea. He regrets never getting married, smokes indoors, drinks too much, appreciates younger women but keeps a distance – and finally does return to his ex-girlfriend.
‘Yes, I was at church this morning. That’s why I’m in my confirmation suit. I don’t wear this every Sunday. But when a female priest comes to preach, and a good-looking one at that, you have to go to church. Also just to annoy those people who are against women priests […] Those bloody Danish priests that rush up here trying to ban women from preaching in God’s house. What on earth are they doing? Do they want us to become independent just to be free from them?’
I enjoyed Walpurgis Tide, its pace, engrossing style and richness of observations that make this thriller feel authentic and original. Having read Chris Ould’s Faroese trilogy set in Faroe Islands featuring an outsider with Faroese roots, and also David Hewson’s Devil’s Fjord where the hunt becomes a central event, akin to a predestined saga, I appreciate and am familiar with the tradition of the whale hunt, mood and atmosphere of the islands. Both authors’ evident fascination with the location inviting the stories to be told are hugely enjoyable, as well as tense and captivating. I read a comment saying that Ould’s books are better than Isaksen’s; however, I believe they are equally gripping; just told at different times and from different angles, and focusing on slightly different elements of the history and culture of this geographically distant nation.
I also feel that Hannis Martinsson could become one of my favourite reluctant heroes; similar to the Norwegian PI Varg Veum in his lone-wolf approach to dig deep into the hidden layers of truth, disturbing the superficial peace. Hannis is being shot, threatened and pursued by a mysterious sniper, and treated like a very annoying fly in the ointment by the local police. I am also very curious about Trom, based on four of Jógvan Isaksen’s novels which has just premiered on Nordic streamer Viaplay. Trom is the first ever TV series filmed in the Faroes, and created by screenwriter Torfinnur Jákupsson who has finally fulfilled his long term ambition. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen takes the centre stage.
Translator John Keithsson worked from the original Faroese text and the Danish translation by the author. This method allowed him to fully bring both the story and social context into English, and to ensure that this unforgettable book was comprehensible for the readers outside the Nordic universe. He did a magnificent job.
Anne Holt is a force to be reckoned with. Her professional career as a writer, lawyer and a former Minister of Justice provided her with a rich experience she draws upon. Holt’s perception of the current affairs gives her the best perspective of the world she creates for her characters. Combined with understated yet commanding writing method, precise narration and detailed observations, her style is unique and formidable, and also reflective. She creates tough female protagonists; independent women that know their own strong points and equally realise what their weaknesses are. This awareness does not always appeal to others, and that includes the readers. However, they do not need to be liked or admired. Some understanding of their motives, or the situations they find themselves in, helps to relate to them but I would say that the complexity of personalities, and some traits considered unattractive in the society add tension and drama to the stories that Holt tells so well.
A Memory For Murder is a remarkable slow burner of a thriller taking in complex social and political issues, and questioning the nature of Norwegian welfare state in the context of the European Court of Human Rights. Of course these themes are the basis for equally complex portrayal of the main and secondary characters, and all and any possible links or connections between them. As in the previous novels in the series, A Grave for Two, and A Necessary Death, which was shortlisted for the Petrona Award 2021, Selma Falck is the centre of the investigations. Former athlete, high-flying lawyer and celebrity, she now makes a living as a private investigator. She lives independent solitary life and chooses to answer to no one. With her fragile family ties Selma’s focus/obsession is only on one small human being, her grandson Skjalg. The current book offers enough background to explain why her own daughter Anine is so reluctant to keep in touch; earlier books expand on this theme. Hence thinking of Skjalg becomes the main reason for her to investigate a case that otherwise she would have left to the police. It also keeps her gambling addiction at bay and gives her hope to see the little boy.
It all started with a late lunch with two friends at the outside restaurant in Oslo’s district of Grünerløkka. A sniper shot and killed her oldest friend, unremarkable junior MP Linda Bruseth while the stray bullet travelled through the victim and hit Selma’s shoulder. Everyone, including the police and more importantly, Anine, assume that Selma was the main target. Initially she thinks that as well but soon realises the impossibility of this, even though a stalker seems to plague her life on top of this. But the invisible intruder who enters her flat or leaves objects that have not been seen for years does not present fear of such violence, although unsettles Selma. Maybe she was the collateral damage…
Soon after the shooting a Supreme Court Judge Kajsa Breien is found hanged from a tree branch. A woman diminutive in posture but gigantic in spirit, could not have committed suicide though. Selma knew her, too, and finds a link between two victims as they both have been involved in challenging child welfare cases. She doesn’t discover the connection on her own though; however, she is much quicker to see beyond the obvious aspects of both deaths and to form a plausible theory.
Although Selma’s brain and emotions are on fire and she thinks with a lightening speed, she does not work in a vacuum. Three men assist her in the sphere of inquiries, and like everything in her professional and personal life, the working relationships with them are complicated. A journalist Lars Winther, summoned by his boss, reluctantly takes on an investigative work left by his recently deceased colleague. Jonathan died in a cycling accident and had access to articles and encrypted files that clearly pointed at some scandal within the child services. Second man central to the search for clues and motives is the police superintendent Fredrik Smedstuen, not a maverick nor a brilliant lone wolf, but ‘a policeman of thegrey type’, a disillusioned divorced hardworking man who decides to trust Selma’s thinking. ‘He did what he had to do, no more nor less, and followed the rules to the letter’ and finally found himself in the middle of explosive controversy.
And there is Einar Falsen, traumatised ex-policeman, a man totally shattered by the system and his mental breakdown, who, however, remains Selma’s closest friend and confidante, and when feeling safe and healthy, he offers the most insightful advice. Over the course of three novels Einar became a rock in Selma’s existence, even if he still suffers from serious delusions. Looking back at his life this is totally understandable, and I admire Holt for creating such a poignant human being.
‘Pussycat had once been called Darius after a fabled king of Persia. His territory at that time had been vast and even though he was an expensive pedigree cat, he enjoyed most of all roaming through the gardens around the villas on Ormøya island, hunting for mice and small birds. Despite his noble antecedents in the Middle East, he had never stayed indoors for more than a few hours at a time. Whenever a collar had been put on him, he had come home without it. No one had ever discovered how he managed to get rid of them. Darius was a free spirit.Now he was called Pussycat and lived in an area of fifty square metres with a man who took him out for fresh air, on a leash, in a park, a couple of nights a week.Pussycat had never been happier.He was living with a true cat lover.’
The novel’s original title is significant. Mandela-effekten or ‘Mandela effect’ refers to the false memories and misremembering, a phenomenon of a situation in which a huge number of people believes that an event occurred although it did not happen at all. Holt’s methodical analysis and deep reflections present a version of a society based on trust in the authorities and the scenarios where this trust is broken. This relates to personal experiences impacted by the decisisons taken by various government branches. As it happened Holt started writing A Memory For Murder just before the pandemic engulfed us, so confidence and faith in the governments are particularly critical and relevant, also for a character responsible for ensuring safety of the society in case of any possible disaster.
‘A slightly crazy lady, I’ve forgotten her name, was sure she remembered Mandela dying while he was in prison. She could describe his funeral down to the last details. Which in that case must have happened while he was still a prisoner on Robben Island. Before 1990, that is, not in 2013.’
Anne Bruce’s translation is superb as always, bringing Anne Holt’s impressive style and nuances of the Norwegian language to the fore in this crisp sharp look at the society, a book that is also engaging, riveting and full of red herrings.
It is January. Still winter. In some places the never-ending snow firmly keeps hold of nature and people but the days are getting longer. The nights are slowly losing their power and more light be will appearing soon. It is also January in Caroline Mitchell’s latest book, the chilling psychological thriller The Village where the main protagonist Naomi Ward hopes to discover the truth behind strange events which had happened a decade ago. It is actually much more than ‘hopes’. She has been obsessed by the case for years, especially in her professional role as a crime journalist, and feels compelled to solve it. She is prepared to leave her metropolitan London life and move to a small quiet village of Nighbrook in the New Forest. Why exactly there? Ten years ago Martin and Susan Harper, and their daughter Grace, disappeared without the trace. Their deserted cottage was left with the water running, lights on, Disney cartoons on the TV, the oven prepared for baking some special cookies. They could have gone out to check on their dog, or maybe to make a quick visit to the neighbours… but the doors to the property were locked from the inside. Overnight, the sleepy Nighbrook community became notorious as the scene of the unsolved mystery of the last decade, an epicentre for macabre media speculations. Yet nothing explained the events. Police found no bodies and no evidence of any deaths. Local people were and continue to be reluctant to even mention the past. Weil of silence covers everything and if a visitor or a newcomer dares to breach the subject, the welcoming chat immediately turns into distrust.
Ivy Cottage is no longer a crime scene. Instead, it lost its dramatic magic and difficult love, as we find out later, and was sometimes rented and eventually put on the market by Susan’s sister, also desperate to find the truth, and rejected by the locals. Naomi could not resist putting in an offer. And that’s where she’s headed now with her own family. Her husband Ed has no idea about the house’s mysterious history. Her teenage stepdaughter Morgan does and in fact decides to add this information to her own repertoire of methods to taunt and torment her stepmother. Because Naomi has only fairly recently married Ed which left Morgan resentful, reeling from anger and wanting to return to Scotland where her mother Harmony lives. Harmony, however, is far from being a harmonious balanced parent. Does it feel complicated? Yes, of course it does. Hence the mechanics of the Wards moving into the house from where the other family had vanished add a layer of ambiguity and tension to the narrative.
Settling down does not seems easy at all, and Naomi soon realises that they are not wanted there. When Ed heads north to Scotland to help with search for his unstable ex-wife who yet again got lost somewhere, Naomi and Morgan are left together alone in the Ivy Cottage. In their own ways they both try to deal with the hostile environment and understand that the location and the history of their new home might not bring calm and balance to their lives. Naomi is shocked by the unfriendly treatment she receives from Joanne who runs a coffee shop and initially wanted to help Naomi to set up her cake-baking business. Morgan starts a delicate friendship with Dawn, another restless teenager eager to escape the village’s protective claws. Unpleasant little things happen and eventually the current reality becomes too dangerous for the main players in this story. Told from different perspectives and interspersing thoughts and flashbacks to the past, the fate of Harpers, and especially the young disabled Grace, became painfully clear and poignantly sad.
The Village’s atmosphere reminded me so much of the dark Scandinavian settings. Weather and mood complement each other in the suffocating place. Short tense days, long unsettling nights. The location of the cottage in the dark, apparently impenetrable forest which of course was relatively easy to navigate for all those who knew it or were allowed to move freely. Policeman Lloyd Thomas, vicar Father Humphries, and other pillars of the community keeping control of the village. And in that centre of darkness lives were difficult, shaped by decisions that cannot be rationally justified, and by demons of addiction, shame, regret and disappointment. As the novel was coming to its shocking conclusion, I felt the story was taking me to the fictional Scandinavian heroine Saga Norén, the main protagonist of the Danish / Swedish TV series The Bridge (Bron/ Broen). That realisation made perfect sense in terms of skewed morality and sense of being a victim, and yet it fitted perfectly in the villagers’ mentality. The physical map of Nighbrook might appear simple, pointing to the main places such as church, police station, coffee shop, main street. However, the emotional web of connections and secrets would look just as twisted as those famous incident boards seen at the police stations where the red strings connect everyone in the unbreakable net of secrets.
‘In the forest, everybody owned a gun. It was a way of keeping the vermin at bay.’
Caroline Mitchell took the locked room concept into another level: the fragile and devastated locked village, with its conflicted characters and engaging studies of relationships within the community tied together by a tragedy of lies, love and deceit.
The Village, published by Thomas & Mercer, is out this January 2022. Thank you FMcM Associates for the copy of the book and the invitation to join the blog tour.
Mexico City in 1970s is a melting pot of different realities. Political unrest, protesting students, criminals of various sizes and street credibility. And ordinary citizens who just to want to get on with their lives which often are just so mundane and unexciting. Thirty-year-old Maite works as a secretary in a law firm but is bored to death, metaphorically speaking, with her dull existence which she tries to escape via pages of Secret Romance, publishing stories of passion and danger, and through listening to music. She also enjoys stealing little objects from homes she visits. When her neighbour, a jealousy-inducing beautiful art student Leonora, asks her to feed a cat during her absence, Maite grudgingly agrees. She hates cats but likes extra income. However, when Leonora doesn’t return on time and instead a handsome photographer comes to retrieve an important camera film, she begins a search for the missing woman. Reluctantly. This might bring intrigue and excitement, and maybe even a sexual encounter so badly lacking from her life. What she doesn’t realise that she will soon enter the world of political rebels, radicals and dissidents; be followed by a secret agent and become embroiled in a very complicated case.
El Elvis (not his real name) really doesn’t like beating people. As a member of an unofficial Hawk group, working for the government and set up to inform on student activities to weed out all those politically inconvenient, and to seriously disrupt any demonstrations, he has to be brutal. But he still prefers to carry a screwdriver rather than a knife with him, learns one difficult word a day and listens to rock’n’roll. After a serious fiasco and a death at one of the protests he needs to find his way back into his boss’ good books and with some hesitation he takes responsibility for a small team of basically violent idiots, begins to watch Maite and also looks for Leonora. He has no idea about the reasons; yet, this kind of job is better than landing again on the streets, with no protection and no sense of belonging.
Maite and Elvis don’t work together but within days come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, and learn more about their country and how it’s run. They don’t comprehend everything, and become aware that dangers are lurking everywhere, in the form of hitmen, government agents and Russian spies aiming to find or protect Leonora’s secrets.
Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia effortlessly blends real historical events with the fictional characters wonderfully suited to this eccentric noir tale, with pacy narration and many interesting details from the era. The parallel lives of Elvis and Maite bring tension and drama, as well as a huge dose of dark observations and even some lyricism. The reluctant criminal and the sad secretary won’t admit that they are lonely; and this hidden emotion seems to be the engine that drives their actions. The author also throws some brilliant humorous observations that confirm how well she creates the authentic setting in the novel, the setting so slightly absurd yet inspired by relatively recent history. Let me leave you with this quote: ‘Hippies were all a bunch of losers and marijuanos who gave women venereal diseases and organised orgies; that’s what people at her office said.’ Do you recall any fictional Nordic character saying something like that?
Norwegians have a special word for these special days between Christmas and New Year. Romjul. If you are lucky, you can spend nearly a week with your family or friends, or on your own if that’s what you want, resting and relaxing, reading books, watching films, eating delicious leftover food. Or you can be active: walks, visits to museums and galleries. Or you can go skiing if you are in the right place at the right time and the snow, oh, the snow is just perfect! The idea of romjul is to be lazy, to recharge, to enjoy slow pace of short days. Hence in the spirit of languid romjul, I would like to suggest some novels which were not published recently but are definitely worth revisiting. I have already done the ‘hard’ work; read and reviewed them for Crime Review. These crime fiction books have certain themes in common. Winter months and winter weather, cold and snow. Dark nights. Scandinavian locations. Chilling, unsettling and unforgettable stories. Memorable characters and interesting plots.
Here they are, ten choices from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden:
Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, tr David Hackston. A young Pakistani Christian, who fled to Finland to escape persecution, is denied asylum and gets caught in drugs and gangs warfare. An old man in pyjamas is found dead in the road. Detective Anna Fekete investigates whether there could be a connection between the two.
Kristina Ohlsson’s The Chosen, tr Marlaine Delargy. Stockholm. The terrifying Paper Boy arrives at night, carefully chooses his victims, mostly children, and disappears. Later the mutilated bodies are found with paper bags on their heads. Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht have to stop him from claiming more lives.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie?, tr Victoria Cribb. Four people are stranded in a small lighthouse on a rock surrounded by raging sea. An ordinary couple return from home-swap in America to find their guests apparently missing. A journalist on the track of an old case hangs himself in his own garage. Someone is determined to punish them.
Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine, tr David Hackston. Investigative reporter Janne Vuori travels to the north of Finland to uncover the truth about an industrial corruption threatening lives and environment in the area by a nickel mine.
Håkan Nesser’s The Darkest Day, tr Sarah Death. The Hermansson family are gathering to celebrate father Karl-Erik and eldest daughter Ebba’s joint landmark birthdays. But underneath the smiles, tensions are running high. Before the festivities are over two members of the family are missing. Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti must find out what has happened.
Kjell Ola Dahl’s The Ice Swimmer, tr Don Bartlett. When a man’s body is discovered in the freeing waters of Oslo harbour, city detectives Gunnarstanda and Stigersand face a very complicated case, leading them into the murky world of political secrets.
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg, tr Tony Bainton. The artist Ellen Keldberg has been found frozen on a street bench in Skagen. Soon two visitors arrive in town: her nephew Mikkel who has to organise a funeral, and Anne Sofie, a young reckless photographer obsessed with death. As their paths cross a history of old and new secrets come to the surface.
Arne Dahl’s Hunted, tr Neil Smith. Private investigators Sam Berger and Molly Bloom are on the run from the authorities, burned from previous investigation, and hiding in the depths of snowy north Sweden. But soon they are asked to follow up on the letter from a distressed and seemingly paranoid woman who knows secret details of a murder case from long ago.
Katja Ivar’s Deep As Death February 1953, Helsinki. Detective Hella Mauzer, fired from the police and trying to survive as a private investigator, searches for a serial killer who might have been responsible for several deaths, including those of local prostitutes.
Anne Holt’s A Grave for Two, tr Anne Bruce. High-flying lawyer Selma Falck has lost everything because of her former client Jan Morell, and her own recklessness. Now Morell wants her to clear the name of his daughter Hege, an elite cross-country skier accused of doping. Selma has no choice but to search for the truth.
Deeply rooted in Iceland, the writer, journalist and translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates keeps looking for the odd names
‘When you scan the bookshop or library shelves, what do you look for? Do the familiar names jump out, or the unfamiliar ones? I’d hazard a guess that for most of us the eye is caught by the ones we already know, the old friends, the one we can rely on to deliver the goods, the familiar surroundings.
So maybe I’m the weirdo? There’s a list of familiar names I am happy to return to – but given the choice of a safe (and possibly predictable) pair of hands, and something that’s going to provide a jolt of strangeness, I know which way I’ll go.
It goes back to when this inquisitive and probably irritatingly obsessive teenager first began exploring the grown-up shelves. First it was Georges Simenon, then the intriguing Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and where in the world did they come from? From then on it became a habit to skim the names on the library and bookshop shelves, looking out for the strange names. Anything looking vaguely Mediterranean, mittel-European or Nordic ticked the right boxes, leading to Jaroslav Hašek and The Good Soldier Švejk, Josef Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka, Isaac Bashevis Singer and any number of others with tales to tell of the world beyond the horizon.
You get the picture, checking out the names that weren’t obviously Anglo, which could lead off on all kinds of interesting tangents and down bookish dead ends.
There was Jerome Weidman and his tales of New York and its immigrants, and Hans Helmut Kirst’s insider stories of the Third Reich and later his detective novels. Does anyone read either of these any more? Back then I remember devouring everything of theirs in the local library, which was also back when the library seemed to still keep books for more than five minutes.
The frustrating thing was that although Maigret, Martin Beck and others became favourites, that’s all there was in those pre-internet days when it wasn’t exactly easy to look beyond the local bookshop and library – and it seemed it was years before there was anything more in the same vein.
Looking for the odd names remains a habit, the eye stopping at the ones that could hail from Latin America, the Middle East, somewhere around the Baltic or the Siberian tundra – and skating straight past the shelf of Mr Rex West’s latest spinetinglers. It goes without saying that this means taking a chance on unknown quantities, and ending up now and again with something that doesn’t hit the spot. But how else would I have stumbled across the work of Pascal Garnier, Andrei Kurkov, Bogdan Hrib, Jean-Claude Izzo, and the mighty DominiqueManotti? It’s absolutely worth a few duds to have made their acquaintance.
So do yourself a favour… Next time you scan the shelves, try filtering out the familiar, look out for the odd names and take a punt on something from beyond the comfort zone. You might not like it – or you could strike a rich trove of something new. But you won’t know until you’ve given it a try.’