28 September 2009

BWCA adventure

While at Garrison Keillor's bookstore in St. Paul, I picked up what I thought was William Kent Krueger's first mystery novel, Boundary Waters. It turns out this book was his second. Not that it really matters.

This murderous mystery was much like the one I read earlier. That one may have been written later, but the similarities are great. I kept wondering if I read Boundary Waters before.

This was one of those books that kept me reading. I read most of it during one lazy Saturday at Sidetrack. Krueger tells adventure stories very well. In this book, I think there are five of them, one right after another. Just about the time I was thinking, "This is nearly the end of the story, what's going to happen in the last half of the book?" Krueger pulled an unexpected out of his hat and another dangerous adventure began. And most of them are not implausible.

(There are several implausible story elements in this book. They'd power the Infinite Improbability drive on the Heart of Gold quite a way toward the restaurant at the end of the universe. But the action was compelling enough to keep me reading right through the improbables.)

Imperfect hero Cork O'Connor, former sheriff and hamburger stand operator, is once again at the center of the stories. And he is the action hero who saves the day a couple times and almost saves the day at the very end. (The saving of the day at the end is one of those improbables that could send the Golden Spaceship to the restaurant at the end of the universe.)

The action was so continuous and the suspense so well maintained, that I read right through things like that. It was only on some reflection that I thought, "Huh?"

Native Americans, wolves, bears, really evil people, greed, political ambition, double crosses, and an organized crime boss are parts of the book. So are nearly a dozen murders (nearly all of which are committed in a small, far-northern Minnesota county seat). That's part of the trouble with Krueger's books: How do you get your small town "restauranteur" hero invloved in a series of once-in-a-century crimes? (Even in New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas, the events in this book would be less than once a decade situations.) It's like some small town mayor from Alaska got elected governor and then was chosen to be a vice presidential candidate. Like that could ever happen. Suspend belief a lot!

I had a good time reading this book. Thankfully, I don't live in a community where such inhumanity is commonplace. But, I'm not sure I really liked the book. Does that make sense?

If you read Boundary Waters or another of Krueger's books, write and let this little bit of the world know what you think.

See also:

25 September 2009

History lessons

A couple weeks ago, Dan Conrad and I had lunch at the Swede Hollow Cafe in St. Paul. Swede Hollow was a shanty town/slum/dump/open sewer just east of downtown St. Paul. Beginning around 1850, Swedish immigrants scavanged building materials and built places to live in the hollow. They were followed by successive waves of Polish, Italian, and Mexican immigrants. Neither electricity, city water, or sewer service followed any of them. The place was condemned, the last 11 residents evicted, and everything burned down in 1956. After that it became an informal land fill and a hobo jungle until the 1970s, when Swede Hollow was cleaned up and declared a nature center.

That's a history lesson to go along with the book I just read.

After lunch, Dan and I visited Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books in St. Paul. So, what kind of bookstore does the old Scout run? It's an old fashioned place, crammed with books and little advertising and a few section lables on the walls. Oh, and it has a very knowledgeable staff. That's probably more history.

While there, Dan pointed out The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason. On Carol Stoops' recommendation, I had read Jar City and sort of liked it. Dan thought The Draining Lake was very good. [The actual draining Lake Kleifarvatn, right]

I agree.

First of all, there are at least two stories told in this book. There are probably others, but I'm not enough of an English major to recognize them. I've even given some thought to the lake of the title that loses all its water because of some geologic phenomenon at the beginning of the book and then begins refilling at the end.

I can think of some symbolic meanings, but they seem pretty lame. Then again, there are those moments that bring the past to our attention for a short time. For Americans there are anniversaries like July 4 and September 11 and October 28 and December 7. However, not long after the anniversary (especially the older ones) we shelve the memories and get back to paying attention to what's going on in the present.

That's sort of like a lake draining, revealing a bit of the past, and then refilling to hide things beneath the surface again.

In Indriðason's novel, what is revealed is a human skeleton tied to heavy piece of Soviet spy equipment. Spy equipment in Iceland? The skeleton had been at the bottom of the lake for 30 years or more? An Icelander a spy?

Detective Erlendur and his colleagues draw the low priority assignment of identifying the dead person and finding out what happened.

The back story involves Icelandic students, idealistic young socialists all, who got grants to attend university in Leipzig, East Germany in the 1950s. The police state they found there was not the socialist utopia they expected.

The contemporary stories are told in the conversations and interviews between Erlendur, the other detectives, their families, and people who might know something about a dead person thrown in a lake, weighted down with Soviet spy machinery.

The back story is told in an account of coming of age, disillusionment, love, and loss by an old man recalling part of his youth in East Germany. The themes of the back story are reflected in the themes of the contemporary one.

The stories come closer and closer together as the detectives fit together bits and pieces of information over a summer and fall of on and off investigation and as the hand-written journal of a man haunted by his past is completed.

The writing, the characters, and the structure of the stories are well done. I liked The Draining Lake very much. I will go looking for other books by Indriðason. (His main character, Erlendur, is almost as depressing as Mankell's Swedish detective, but not quite so hopeless.)

And, it's obvious why this is not a story about Americans. Idealistic socialists are only slightly more welcome and believable in the USA than athiests. All of the disillusioned Icelanders returned from East Germany with their socialism intact. What they gave up was their willingness to tolerate the authoritarianism of the Soviet system. They became democratic socialists. To most Americans, that's an oxymoron.

Anyone else have thoughts about Indriðason's book? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

BTW, the strange (to me) letter in the middle of Indriðason's name (that I missed when writing about his previous book) is "Eth, a letter used in Old English, Icelandic, Faroese... and Elfdalian," according to Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to say that "In Icelandic, ð represents a voiced dental fricative like th in English "them", but it never appears as the first letter of a word. The... letter is... voiceless, unless followed by a vowel."

Thus, the authors name is pronounced in-dri-tha-son, not in-dri-da-son.

My, the things one learns.

See also:

21 September 2009

Chicago mystery

In my effort to find new escapist reading, I not only picked up a book by an Austalian author (see The Broken Shore), but I picked up one by a Chicago author. In fact, I wasn't attracted by the "Edgar Award-Winning" notice on the cover, nor the Publisher Weekly "Best Book of the Year" note on the back. What I noticed about Theresa Schwegel's Last Known Address was that much of was set in the neighborhood where our book pusher, Mary, lives. In fact, a brownstone on the street where Mary lives [below] is mentioned in the book.

Mary might enjoy reading the book because of the setting. I didn't.

Schwegel [above] uses a first person narrative in some of the chapters, and I didn't figure out why until I was nearly finished. Before that it was just distracting.

The main character, a woman detective in the Chicago Police Department, who is fighting the good fight in an intimidating and sexist workplace, never really earned my sympathy, and I never really cared about her. The chapters that she appeared in were written in a third person narrative style, even though there was some dialogue. Perhaps those ought to have been first person narratives.

It was difficult to keep track of all the characters because so many of them came and went quickly. And because I was lazy and never cared enough to do the work necessary to keep track of them.

Her previous books probably deserved the awards they received, but this one gets none from me.

If you read it, let this little bit of the world know what you think.

14 September 2009

Southern (hemisphere) fiction

Okay, I swore off Swedish mysteries for the winter. Next June, when there's more sunlight, will be soon enough to try another one.

I was scanning the stacks at the Northfield Library and came across an Australian mystery that looked promising. I do mean "looked promising." The cover of The Broken Shore features a dramatic Regis Martin photo of some limestone seaside cliffs. They might closely resemble the broken shore referenced by Peter Temple [left] in this mystery.

This was a book I wanted to finish once I started. It wasn't quite one I didn't want to put down, but the story was compelling. Once I finished, on a very quiet Saturday morning at Sidetrack, I thought, "But... but... but..." There were things unfinished. Is that an invitation to the next book or what?

That invitation fits well with the frequent references to at least one earlier story. Those references to detective Joe Cashin's past, did make things confusing early on, but there was a bit of explanation (insufficient, as far as I was concerned) in the middle of the book. Is that an invitation to the previous book or what?

As the plot progressed, the main character's past became less important, while other characters' pasts became more important.

I had to adjust my reading style early on in this book. Temple has a way of dropping significant plot bits into throw away descriptive sentences. Normally, I skim over those sentences and look conversations and actions. So, I had to re-read some things and then pay attention to every sentence in the final half of the book.

There were also a few more characters than I could keep track of in the first two-thirds of the book. There's a glossary of Australian terms at the end of the book, but it could have used a list of characters in the beginning (like those old Russian novels). However, as I think about that, I suspect that such a cast list would have made the plot too transparent. Temple was right not to add it. I should have paid more attention in the beginning. Just like I should have noticed the details he stuck into seemingly trivial sentences.

In the first part of the book, I felt like I was reading about the visiting detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. The racism, the redneck cops, and the Aborigine detective brought in to "help investigate" a murder that might involve some native kids. The story got more complex later in the book, but those cultural dynamics played a part in the plot. The complexity means that Temple was writing about more than simplistic stereotypes — mostly.

I will return to the library and look for another Peter Temple mystery — probably an earlier one that will explain Joe Cashin's mental and physical scars that Temple refers to often in The Broken Shore.

Have your read anything by Peter Temple? Did you like it?

Write and tell a little bit of the world what you think.

06 September 2009

Almost Top Ten

Mari Jungstedt's [right] Unseen was number 6 on Camilla Läckberg's Top 10 Swedish Crime Novels. I couldn't find Unseen at the Amery Library, but I did find Unspoken.

Unspoken is Jungstedt's second crime novel. (I suppose Unheard is next.) Okay, I said to myself, let's check this one out. And I did.

I took it up to Sidetrack and read it in an evening, a morning, and an afternoon. This was another book that was hard to put down. I did set it aside for coffee and conversation with a neighbor this morning, but I even read during the boat "parade" at noon (there were only three boats in the parade this year).

Jungstedt creates some interesting characters. And she describes more than their professional lives for most of them. And she tells a good story. I should say she tells good stories.

One of the stories involve the murder of a seemingly harmless old drunk. But there's something about the murder that suggests that he wasn't so harmless – at least to someone. Another centers on the search for the killer of a 14-year-old girl, a murder victim whose body is found in an out-of-the-way rural area. Another of the stories Jungstedt tells seems quite peripheral to the main plot. It's peripheral enough to make me wonder about whether it is actually important to the other stories (Unheard?).

This one was good and I will actually read Unseen if I find it before winter.

It's only September, but I've read enough about the short daylight of Sweden in November and December that I'm ready to head south for the winter. I've already noticed that when I get up at 6:00am, the sun isn't up yet and that the sun is going down around 7:15pm. Anybody know somewhere in New Zealand I can go for November through February?

Has anyone else read one of Jungstedt's books? How did you like it? Write and tell a little bit of the world what you think.

Reread and finally write

At the Amery library, I checked out two books. One of them was another Henning Mankell novel, Befor the Frost, a Linda Wallander Mystery.

I read this one awhile ago. It must have been between the time I stopped publishing an actual newsletter and when I started this blog.

I didn't remember the title, but I did find things in the first 30 pages familiar. I read random chapters through the rest of the book to remind me of the plot and the characters.

Linda Wallander is the daughter of Kurt Wallander, the chief character of most of Mankell's Swedish mysteries. This book begins as the young Wallander is about to join the police force in Ystad, where the elder Wallander is a chief inspector.

[at left: Johanna Sällström who played Linda Wallander on Swedish TV]

There are a number of mysteries that the two of them get involved in. One involves one of Linda's friends. Another begins with the suicides and murders in Jonestown. The mysteries all merge by the end in a plot to blow up cathedrals all over Sandinavia on September 10, 2001. Mankell seems to be reminding us that fanatic suicides are not restricted to Muslim cultures.

In spite of the themes in the stories, there is a lot less of Mankell's pessimism and unhappiness in this story than in many of his books. Maybe because Linda Wallander is young and still hopeful. The stories are intricate and detailed. It's a long book and probably good for a winter read.

Any other responses?

03 September 2009

Swedish Zen

I was at the Amery library on Thursday last week trying to get some writing done. I learned the hard way that Thursday is the day the library closes at 2:00pm. Well, I did get all but one of my online tasks done before closing. (I felt like I was in British pub. "We're closing in 15 minutes" It reminded me of a line from a T. S. Eliot poem, The Wasteland, "Hurry up please. It's time.")

On my way out, I pulled out my list of best Swedish mysteries and headed for the shelves. Håkan Nesser's [right] book, The Mind's Eye, was number one on the list. I didn't find that one, but I found Nesser's Borkmann's Point. I figured it was worth a try, so I checked it out as I left.

Nesser's featured character is Inspector Van Veeteren. Swedish, eh? I'd say Van Veerteren is a zen detective. He asks a few questions, listens to what others find out, reads a few reports, and waits for enlightenment. Strangely, his reputation is such that the people he works with accept his meditative investigation style and are willing to wait for the guru to speak.

There's some police procedural stuff in this book, but there's almost as much chess. Nesser is quite good at creating and describing characters, but there's virtually no action -- outside of his descriptions of very brief violence.

It was as exciting as a Swedish hot sauce. I finished the book because I was curious about the plot and about whether the story telling was every going to get off the ground.

I wonder if The Mind's Eye is different. I think I'll look up a review before I try reading it. I did find out that in Nesser's The Return, Van Veeteren solves the mystery while in a hospital bed. How much action can there be in that?

The Van Veerteren stories have been made into Swedish television programs. I guess the winters are long in Scandinavia.

Any of you out there read The Mind's Eye or Borkmann's Point? What did you think?