26 December 2006

Who's evil? Who's a victim?

The third of Karin Fossum's books to be translated into English is When the Devil Holds the Candle. In my mind it's the best of the three.

I expect people who write successful series of mysteries to establish a pattern and pretty much stick with it. Fossum does some of that. All three of these books are set in or near a small city outside of Oslo. Most of her books are written from a first person person perspective. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his young assistant Jacob Skarre are characters.

But, Sejer and Skarre have grown and changed over the course of the three books I've read. Sejer has changed enough that I wonder if there was a book between this one and the previous one that wasn't translated or perhaps wasn't written.

What sets When the Devil Holds the Candle apart from the earlier books (and from most mysteries) is an almost philosophical consideration of evil, wrongdoing, wrongdoers, and victims that goes beyond anything of Fossum's I've read before.

I say almost philosophical because it's really more of a description of how thin the lines between victimizer and victim are sometimes. And there's a big question raised about the difference between being responsible and being a witness. The stories in the book also ask questions about trust, about betrayal, and about social norms. But the book doesn't offer answers. Not even the characters in the story offer answers. Any answers have to come from readers.

Most of the book is told by a very disturbed woman, who it seems, has good reasons to be unhinged. Once again, Fossum presents mental illness through the words of the sick person. Once again, it's frightening. The illness in this book is more understandable than the schizophrenia she presented in He Who Fears the Wolf, but it's still powerful. There are other stories, told by other people that support the central one. Most of them raise subsidiary questions.

All the stories are well-told. I read this over Christmas weekend in fits and starts, but every time I had to put the book down, I was unhappy with the interruption, even when it meant being part of the family observances and meals. There was enough foreboding to make me believe that the next bit of the story was likely to be dark, but I wanted to know what was going to happen.

When I finished reading it late on Christmas day, I let out a big sigh. The dark story was over. I was glad it was only a story in a book. I'm less scared of the nasty imaginary demons of frightful books and movies than 60-year-old Irma Funder of Prins Oscars Gate 17 in Karin Fossum's Norway. Or perhaps Irma's son.

16 December 2006

Unexpected Rookie Treat

When someone recommends books that I enjoy, I pay particular attention. So it is with Dan Conrad's recommendations. (See my reactions to Karin Fossum's books below.)

Dan mentioned he'd just read Special Topics in Calamity Physics. My response was, "That's a pretty off-putting title for a novel." He wrote back with some details about Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

"One further word on what I wholly agree is an off-putting title of Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

"The whole book SHOULD be off-putting. I mean who needs to read a long book by (judging from her picture) a pretty (in a snobby Bryn Mawr sort of way) young woman who looks like a young (and smart and smart-ass) Jackie Collins and who writes a novel that, for about 1/2 of it, reads like intellectually show-offy adolescent chick-lit about overprivileged preppies. Ugh.

"So, you can imagine my surprise that I became captivated by it, hated to have it end, began to see what that early stuff was actually about, and have thought about it for days afterward. Go figure.

"I believe it's the most engaging book I read this year AND YET I am not at all sure if, and to whom, I would recommend it. I can easily imagine someone just hating the thing. If it intrigues you, I have attached the NYT Janet Maslin review that got me to buy the book in the first place."

Janet Maslin, the New York Times reviewer said this book is a "most flashily erudite first novel" full of "pirouettes and cartwheels... tireless annotations and digressions..." Maslin added, "A fledgling author who invokes Shakespeare, Flaubert and Allen Ginsberg for a tale of boarding-school intrigue had better live up to her grandiose aspirations. Otherwise she risks sounding pitiably overeager to impress."

Like, Dan, Ms Maslin warned readers that "Ms. Pessl shoehorns so many... asides into Special Topics in Calamity Physics that her narrative unfolds in a state of perpetual interruption... A 500-page headache is as possible as a bracing joyride." She also reassures us that "Special Topics in Calamity Physics soon jettisons its booster rockets and begins to soar... This book's gradual upward trajectory leads it toward mounting suspense, a hall-of-mirrors finale and a coda that is supremely inspired."

I'm cautiously curious about the book. I may go looking for it after the holidays. But, I don't know. The company the book keeps makes me deeply suspicious.

15 December 2006

Unexpected Norwegian treat

After taking Dan Conrad's advice and reading Don't Look Back, I went searching for the second of Karin Fossum's mysteries that has been translated into English, He Who Fears the Wolf. Well, I should say that I asked the Northfield library to go searching for it. This copy came from the library in Grand Meadow, Minnesota. I had to look up Grand Meadow to find out where it is. (It's a lake Wobegon-sized town about half way between Rochester and Austin in the southeastern part of the state.) Thank you, good people and librarian of Grand Meadow.

The book was an unexpected treat. I expected Fossum to follow up Don't Look Back with another "Inspector Sejer Mystery" (as the cover advertises). I enjoyed that one.

That's part of what is in this book. Inspector Sejer and his young assistant are once again investigating a murder in rural Norway. Once again the Fossum has a good story to tell and does it well. It's not quite as clinical as the earlier book, but that only makes it better. Widower Sejer is attracted to a woman for the first time since his wife died. That's all that's in this book: he's attracted and troubled and confused.

The unexpected treats are the wonderfully evocative descriptions Fossum writes of the people in the stories that make up this book. Even minor characters were described in ways that let me create very clear images of them. Maybe she did that in the earlier book and I wasn't noticing. This time I noticed. Each time a character was introduced I quickly had a mental picture in my mind of a realistic person. Fossum has a great skill for noticing and describing characteristics. I really enjoyed this book for that treat.

I also enjoyed the characters and a second complicated story within this book. There's a murder, an escaped mental patient, a run away boy, a bank robbery, and a getaway with a hostage. Not only are these characters vividly described, their stories are dramatically told.

Fossum's first person account of schizophrenia is frightening. I have no way of knowing how realistic it is, but it's dreadful. The bank robber and the runaway have their own problems, and they get presented in first person accounts as well. The bank robber is not as dramatically presented, and he's the least believable of the characters. But Fossum presents seven major characters in this book and gives unexpected depth to five of them. Given the cardboard prop characters that show up in many mysteries, that's quite an accomplishment.

So, this book was an unexpected treat. I highly recommend it.

Next, I'll have to ask the Northfield library to go searching for another Karin Fossum book.

03 December 2006

Out of Range

The title of C. J. Box's fourth mystery is Out of Range. Like the first three, the action centers around Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.

The story is well told and the plot is interestingly convoluted. In the course of four books, Pickett has gone from being a marginally naive good guy to being a marginally naive man of action. He accumulates enemies that foreshadow coming books. I know from looking at a copy at Barnes and Noble that the menace in the most recently-published book originates in the first "Joe Pickett novel." And Joe's "allies" are more tenuous than his enemies. In this book, even his wife is questionably reliable (for good reasons).

The publisher likes to quote comments comparing Box's books to Tony Hillerman's because of the spirit of place that pervades the stories. However, Tony Hillerman's deserts are lyrically and beautifully drawn into his books in ways that Box might someday come close to when describing the high plains and mountains of northern Wyoming. And I like Hillerman's characters more than I like Joe Pickett, his family, and friends -- except for Pickett's oldest daughter Sheridan. She's 12 and headed for a rocky adolescence. Hey, C. J., write a story about Sheridan.

These books are good reading for traveling. I read most of this during our 1,100-mile sojourn at Thanksgiving. It would be a good book for a plane trip -- the first half on the outbound flight; the second half on the return. If you like mysteries, they're worth checking out. However, a surer thing would be Tony Hillerman's latest, The Shape Shifter, which I hope to read early in the new year.