12 December 2009

Character driven story

While I was reading the McNeill's father-son world history book (see below), the Carleton College book store had its annual sale day: 20% discount on everything. Students were on break; the campus is pretty deserted. The discounts are advertised in Northfield as a sale for the community. Gee, 20% off -- that's almost as good as the discounts at Barnes and Noble. Of course I went.

Outside the bookstore were half a dozen tables of remainders. How could I resist looking? One short stack on a table contained The Cruel Stars of the Night by Kjell Eriksson [right]. Yes, another Swedish murder mystery.

This novel stands out from other Swedish mysteries and most non-Swedish mysteries. I'm not sure I liked the way it stands out. It's a story told through character development rather than through actions. Even the firemen who show up at one point to put out a house fire get names and hints at the relationships among them.

There are many inner monologues -- many more than the number of dialogues or conversations. And, until the last 30 pages, there are more dialogues than events.

The primary characters have flashbacks, meditations, and day dreams. It's through these mental rummagings that I learned about the characters and the events that constituted the plot. (A plot, by the way, that involves a serial killer.) It's like everything is in past tense.

It's a laborious way to tell a story. This was especially true for me because I never got attached to any of the characters (except for one of the murder victims and a hapless crime lab tech who wasn't even a big player in the book).

And then there was the patchy nature of the characters that were developed in depth. The thoughts of a few characters were exposed in great detail. In spite of that, I was startled several times by actions that were not hinted at in a character's thoughts.

The main investigator, a single mother, professes great love for her toddler son, but there are no actions that express that love. Only words. Okay, it's a murder mystery, not a domestic tale, but a mother-son relationship asserted by the mother to be central to her existence ought to be reflected in more than her words. Well, Mr. Eriksson?

And how is it that a repressed, middle-aged recluse of a woman suddenly becomes an aggressive seductress, Mr. Eriksson?

It seemed that Eriksson painted detailed pictures of large parts of characters, but left other parts completely blank. Even at the end of the book, the main investigator is hauled off in an ambulance, not reunited with her son. The primary villain -- okay a pretty insane villain, an urbanite who even dislikes gardens -- wanders off into the Swedish wilderness.

Some of this book was interesting and some of it was a pleasure to read. Much of it was tedious. I kept waiting for something to happen. When big things finally did happen (in the last 30 pages), they had less impact than if they'd been more carefully described.

Have you read The Cruel Stars of the Night or another of Eriksson's other mysteries? What did you think? Write, and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I agree. I read Cruel Stars of Night a couple years ago and quit about 1/3 of the way through (which I almost never do) as by that time I didn't care one iota what happened to any of the characters. It was so bad I have sworn off Swedish mysteries since--except for Stieg Larsson. I see I was wise not to finish it.