30 November 2006

Norwegian mystery

Dan Conrad asked, since he knows I read mystery novels, if I'd read anything by Karin Fossum. No, I hadn't. As a matter of fact, I'd never heard of her.

Fossum is a Norwegian author whose first mystery, Se Deg ikke Tilbake!, was translated into English as Don't Look Back in 2002. According to an article at Wikipedia, she's known in Norway as the "Norwegian queen of crime."

Well, Northfield is one of the centers of Norwegian-American culture in the U.S. A student can earn an undergraduate degree in Norwegian, at St. Olaf College right here in Northfield. So, when I checked the Northfield Library, I almost expected to find copies of Fossum's books in Norwegian and English. Not so.

Neither the public library, the St. Olaf library, nor Carleton College's library had a copy of any of her books! The Southeastern Libraries Cooperating (SELCO) Interlibrary Loan Service found a copy for me in The Blooming Prairie, Minnesota library. I'm glad they did.

Fossum creates a good plot and tells a good story in Don't Look Back. The story centers on Inspector Konrad Sejer and his young assistant. Just don't expect much action. Most of the book is told from Sejer's point of view as he asks questions and puzzles over the answers he collects. The story and the way it played out reminded me very much of the British mysteries on Masterpiece Theater's Mystery or of the unfolding stories on one of the CSI programs. (It was made into a mini-series for Nowegian television in 1999.) What Sejer learns helps him discard misleading ideas and directs him to the bad guy. Along the way there are glimpses of the investigating characters and village life in Norway. (I could have done with more of both.)

I liked this one. I'll go asking for others (there are two other Fossum mysteries in the SELCO system) when I return Don't Look Back.

27 November 2006

More mystery from northern Wyoming

Margaret Coel has written several entertaining mysteries set in northern Wyoming, not far from Saddlestring in Twelve Sleep County" that C. J. Box writes about. The proximity of the two settings makes me wonder whether the University of Wyoming sponsored a very successful writing school in that northern part of the state.

I've often felt that Coel had to resort to credibility-stretching plot devices to get her main character, Father John O'Malley, involved in resolving murder investigations that the state, local, and reservation police were conducting. A recovering alcoholic Jesuit from Boston who is serving a poor missionary parish on a poor Wyoming reservation is not in the middle of many crime waves. And most murders are crimes of passion committed by among friends or within families. Since there aren't that many murders in the sparsely populated counties of northern Wyoming, some manipulations are necessary to create murders that involve a mission priest.

I haven't read one of Coel's books for a couple of years, but my impression is that Father O'Malley and the people around him did things that were a bit unbelievable. But, it's fiction, not reality, I keep reminding myself. These stories can be thought of as puzzles to be figured out before the end of the book.

All of this is introduction to The Eye of the Wolf, a Margaret Coel book I read over Thanksgiving weekend. There were fewer unbelievable plot twists in this one than I expected, and there were more reasonable "hooks" to draw Father O'Malley into contact with the people involved in the events "retold" here. I didn't shudder and say to myself, "Oh, no, that would never happen!"

The story is well-told. I didn't get bored waiting for events to unfold and I didn't get lost because Coel skipped essential details. The book was great entertainment for those quiet times in a weekend of overeating and family togetherness.

For some reason, I kept imagining that most of the story was set at night, when in fact, most of it occurred in daylight. That could have been because of my lack of imagination. The other thing that slapped me in the face about Coel's writing was that she rammed forceful verbs into sentences. Many times, the action-packed verbs were marvelously inappropriate (I write with intended irony). I don't slam my car door every time I close it. I don't thrust my hands in my pockets every time I search for my keys. The characters in The Eye of the Wolf seem to (although they may just have done it more often than I would have).

I was really disappointed with the resolution. After offering a couple obvious explanations and many "clues" for four murders and an attempt of the life of Father O'Malley, Coel explains the events with the equivalent of a curve ball that seemed to come out of left field. Oh, well, the story was entertaining and it helped me enjoy a fine 5-day weekend that involved over 1,100 miles of driving.

13 November 2006

Once again with the mind candy

I just read another of C. J. Box's novels. Nancy found these books in one of our favorite West Yellowstone bookstores and brought 5 of them home last summer. I've been reading them in chronological order.

This was his fourth, the 2004 Trophy Hunt.

To me this was the best of his novels to date. Box wrote on his web site that he wanted this book to be a "real mystery." I think he succeeded. There was much less of the brooding foreshadowing that dominated his first three books, and there was much more complexity to the plot. And there were hints and red herrings about what was really going on.

The main character is Joe Pickett, an ambitious game warden, and the story unfolds from his perspective. As a reader, you'll know little that Joe doesn't know before he knows it. But, if you're like me, you'll think you've figured out the meaning of all those clues sooner than Joe does. If you're better at that game than I am, maybe you will figure it out. The plot's complexity will probably keep you from figuring it all out.

That leads to my one reservation about the book. The complexity seems to keep author Box from figuring it all out too. His character Pickett bemoans the "woo-woo" part of his friend Nate's take on the world. Picket is an empiricist, plain and simple. He has no time for spiritual or supernatural explanations. But Box relies on some that "woo-woo" to tie up his story. Box needs coincidence and the retribution of nature to end his story. Ah, said Pickett on the last page of the book, "I hate that woo-woo crap." His friend Nate replied, "I know you do," and smiled.

I dislike that "woo-woo crap" too. I also smiled, when I finished the book. There's something to be said for just retribution. Now, I'm ready to go on to the fifth novel.

See C. J. Box's web site on Trophy Hunt