25 March 2010

Movie review

Dan Conrad wrote last night after seeing the movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

"Just returned from watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

"Maybe the best way to describe it is that coming out of the theater I had to check my watch three times as I simply could not believe I had been in there for over two and a half hours. All with virtually no chases, no gun battles, no mind boggling special effects, and no English; just a well told story and actors that looked and performed like they had just walked off the pages of the Larsson book.

"Did I mention that I liked it?"

Here's a link to a trailer for the movie (what I always thought was a preview).

17 March 2010

North country murder

The Economist, like many others, took note of the Scandinavian wave of mystery fiction this week (15-21 March). If you're not a subscriber, you might have to visit the library to read the whole thing.

Inspector Norse
THE neat streets of Oslo are not a natural setting for crime fiction. Nor, with its cows and country smells, is the flat farming land of Sweden’s southern tip. And Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, is now associated more with financial misjudgment than gruesome murder. Yet in the past decade Nordic crime writers have unleashed a wave of detective fiction that is right up there with the work of Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard and the other crime greats. Nordic crime today is a publishing phenomenon. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy alone has sold 27m copies, its publishers’ latest figures show, in over 40 countries. The release this month in Britain and America of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film of the first Larsson book, will only boost sales.

The transfer to the screen of his sprawling epic (the author died suddenly in 2004 just as the trilogy was being edited and translated) will cement the Nordics’ renown. The more unruly subplots have been eliminated, leaving the hero, a middle-aged financial journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and an emotionally damaged computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace, pictured above), at the centre of every scene. The small screen too has had a recent visit from the Swedish police. Starting in 2008, British television viewers have been treated to expensive adaptations of the books of Henning Mankell, featuring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander. The BBC series has reawakened interest in Mr Mankell’s nine Wallander books, which make up a large slice of his worldwide sales of 30m in 40 languages.

Larsson and Mr Mankell are the best-known Nordic crime writers outside the region. But several others are also beginning to gain recognition abroad, including K.O. Dahl and Karin Fossum from Norway and Ake Edwardson and Hakan Nesser of Sweden. Iceland, a Nordic country that is not strictly part of Scandinavia, boasts an award winner too. Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave won the British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award in 2005. The Devil’s Star by a Norwegian, Jo Nesbo, is published in America this month at the same time as a more recent novel, The Snowman, is coming out in Britain. A previous work, Nemesis, was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe crime-writing award, a prize generally dominated by American authors.

Three factors underpin the success of Nordic crime fiction: language, heroes and setting. Niclas Salomonsson, a literary agent who represents almost all the up and coming Scandinavian crime writers, reckons it is the style of the books, “realistic, simple and precise…and stripped of unnecessary words”, that has a lot to do with it. The plain, direct writing, devoid of metaphor, suits the genre well...

16 March 2010

Clarification of recommendation

Dan Conrad wrote to clarify his recommendation of Charles Todd's mystery. It helps to make sense of why he had pointed out the similarity to the Maisie Dobbs books.
Sorry about that--but the book I read and enjoyed is called Duty to the Dead and is the first in what is planned to be a series of "Bess Crawford Mysteries."

The novel is set in the period around WWI and the Bess Crawford character is an Army nurse -- and thus the comparison to Maisie Dobbs. I've not read any of their books featuring Ian Rutledge so can't comment on the book you read--but it doesn't sound nearly as engaging as Duty to the Dead. I think I'll just wait for the next Bess Crawford installment.

Guess that will teach me to read recommendations more carefully AND not be quick to read an author's first book.

15 March 2010

Back to post-war Britain

I finished a professional project and gave myself leave to escape with a mystery by Charles Todd (actually a mother-son writing team), an author(s?) recommended by Dan Conrad.

The story is set in post-World War I Britain (like Jacqueline Winspear's "Maisie Dobbs" stories and most of Laurie R. King's "Mary Russell" stories).

A local patrician is killed while out riding one morning. No witnesses. Exact scene unknown. The body was found in a pasture some time after the murder. A local investigation seems to indicate that a famous, well-connected local war hero is the murderer. So, the locals send for help from Scotland Yard. Enter Inspector Ian Rutledge.

In the book, A Test of Wills, Ian Rutledge, like Maisie Dobbs, suffers from shell shock (PTSS). His condition is worse than Maisie Dobbs' but not as bad as Maisie's one-time fiance, who is confined to a hospital and unable to speak or care for himself. (The story is also set about a decade earlier than the Maisie Dobbs stories.) Rutledge is haunted by a soldier who mutineed at the front and whom Rutledge killed for his betrayal. The voice of the dead man is part of Rutledge's everyday life. Dark depression waits on the edges of his consciousness to take over.

The post-war period in Western Europe was traumatic for nearly everyone. For Rutledge it meant trying to return to a career that he was quite good at before 1914. A Test of Wills tells the story of his first investigation after the war and after treatment (therapy?) for his shell shock. The scene is rural Warwickshire (northwest of Buckingham -- Stratford upon Avon is in the south of the county). [Coincidence noted below.]

Rutledge's investigation seems to reach the same conclusions as the local one did, but he can't tie up all the loose ends. The voice in his head taunts him. People tell him only what they think is relevant. He keeps probing to find out what they are keeping from him. Of course, he's relentless. The voice in his head and the dark cloud at the edge of his being won't allow anything less. Eventually, he sorts out the details, finds the murderer, and returns to London with his pre-war reputation intact.

The book suffers a bit by comparison to Laurie R. King and Jacqueline Winspear. The story is not as crisply told as King's stories are. But, A Test of Wills is "Charles Todd's" first book. Dan Conrad read a later one and really liked it. I'll read another, but it's more opaque than King's stories. [Remember that teacher in high school or at the university who made it seem that there were secrets and priorities that he/she knew but that she/he wasn't going to explain? I remember several like that. I never could figure out what was most important and what would be on the exam. So I tried to learn everything. Well, this story is told like that. There are scores of details. And the crucial ones aren't revealed until the very end (the exam?). I was disappointed in the resolution as I often was with my grades on those less-than-transparent exams.]

Also, I got less of that feeling of verisimilitude that pervades the Maisie Dobbs stories. I think it has to do with a level of detail in Winspear's books. Ian Rutledge has a car that he uses to get around Upper Streetham, but unlike Maisie's little red MG, I never found out what kind of car it was, how he started it, or how he called the local blacksmith to tow it into town to fix a slashed tire.

I was disappointed in the resolution, but the story telling was satisfying and involving. It was a good book to read while relaxing after the completion of a big deal project. This is the first of an 11-book series, I learned from Wikipedia. From another source I learned that the authors, named as Caroline and Charles Todd, might be using pseudonyms and do not actually live in Delaware, where the publisher says they come from. Another source suggested that the son in this writing team might hold a sensitive position which would suffer from being identified as a mystery writer. Who knows?

Do you know? Have you read A Test of Wills or another of "Charles Todd's" books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Oh, and coincidence. A couple days before reading this book, I was researching Warwickshire census records. My dad had searched diligently for ancestors named Wedding in England and never found any. There are many circumstantial clues from colonial Maryland, but no evidence of an English origin for the most senior John Wedding we know of, who died in 1772. Many records are now online in the UK, and I found several families named Wedding living in Warwickshire in the mid-19th century. Older records are not online. Maybe it's time for my research trip to England.

14 March 2010

Another voice on Fossum's "Black Seconds"

Dan Conrad wrote:
I roundly "second" this recommendation. Like you, I picked this up forgetting I had not at all liked the last two of hers I had read (Indian Bride and When the Devil Holds the Candle). Inspector Sejer is likable again, the other characters are interesting and real and Fossum's device of sort of letting you in on the solution ahead of time actually moves the story along and increases your interest. This is as good, I think, as He Who Fears the Wolf--if not even better.

13 March 2010

Powerful Norwegian tragedy

It had been a long time since I read one of Karin Fossum's books. She's one of the Norwegian crime writers who has made a name for herself outside of Norway.

[Norwegian Mystery (November 2006), Unexpected Norwegian Treat (December 2006), Who's evil? Who's a victim? (December 2006)]

I might not have pulled this one off the Northfield Public Library shelf if I'd remembered how bleak and dark those books were -- especially the last one. I'm glad I didn't remember.

Black Seconds was a difficult book to read (like a couple of the earlier ones). It revolved around the death of a nine-year-old girl. She disappeared while on a bike trip to a convenience story near home. She'd gone to buy a comic book. She never returned. Her new yellow bike disappeared too. If you have kids, you know why this was difficult to read. If you don't have kids, you can imagine, but you'd have to have a really visceral imagination to really know. Nancy noted, after David's birth, that she'd never felt so vulnerable.

Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are on duty when the call about the missing girl comes in. Thus the story begins.

But this, like Fossum's earlier books, is more than story telling. Along with the events that make up the story, there are the ruminations of many people, and that's the most powerful part of the book. Fossum explores multiple perspectives: Sejer's, the missing girl's mother's, the missing girl's aunt's, the missing girl's cousins', and others. These internal dialogues have to carry the book forward, because there aren't many events.

Fossum tells us about intensive and futile searches. There is questioning by Sejer and Skarre. There is waiting. Sejer and Skarre fill in the waiting time investigating a fender bender involving one of the missing girl's cousins and his sketchy friend. They also try to interview the neighborhood character, a 50-something autistic man who can't speak. When that interview is a bust, they try talking to his widowed mother, who cleans his house, washes his clothers, and does his shopping. They even contact the missing girl's pen pal in Germany.

Practically nothing happens during most of the book. The searches and investigations go nowhere. After reading over half the book, the tension was intense. Fossum does an excellent job of sticking with events and the thoughts of the characters. That straightforward, factual story telling raised my anxiety level.

Sejer and Skarre begin re-interviewing everyone. Cracks begin to appear in people's stories. Somewhere in the second half of the book, I began to suspect what had really happened. But I wasn't sure until the very end.

A little girl died in a small Norwegian village. Some of the fears of everyone involved were borne out. But some of the mystery resulted from people trying to protect themselves and other parts resulted from the recognition of the vulnerabilities of parents.

I'm glad I stuck with this one, in spite of the ineffable sadness of the story.

Have you read Black Seconds? Write and tell us what you thought.

See also:

04 March 2010

Back to old favorites

I was browsing in the Northfield Library for new reading material.

Nancy and I are going to a geology/environmental seminar in the Black Hills and the South Dakota badlands in July and one of the leaders is a writer named O'Brien. I went looking for his books, thinking I knew who he was. So I was looking for his books. Well, it's not Tim O'Brien, whose The Things They Carried was about American soldiers in Vietnam. (I wondered what he was going to be doing at a Black Hills seminar.) The O'Brien I was looking for is Dan O'Brien, "a writer and buffalo rancher" according to his publisher's web site. His main book is Buffalo for the Broken Heart. The Broken Heart is his ranch and buffalo are what he raises there. The book's subtitle is "Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch," and I guess that's why he's one of the seminar leaders. I will read his book before we go, but it's checked out and I found other things to read.

What I found and brought home was Laurie R. King's The Language of Bees. This is the latest in her series of books about the genius ingenue who captured the heart and hand of Sherlock Holmes.

It's set in the early 20th century, just post-World War I and it's the 9th book about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. It's full of period language and technology. Mycroft Holmes is the equivalent of James Bond's Q. Sherlock Holmes and his nearly child-bride discover that Holmes has a son from a turn-of-the-20th-century dalliance in Paris, and that the son has a wife and daughter. This happens about the same time as the young man discovers who his father is.

Holmes' daughter-in-law has some unsavory bits in her past and they catch up with her about the time that the young family moves to London. And who does the young man turn to for help? Why the daddy who abandoned him before he was born, of course.

The plot is full of typical Holmesian deductions, surveillance, and research. Mary Russell hires a plane (in 1924) to fly from London to the Orkney Islands in bad weather. Holmes practically buys a fishing boat to take him to the same place. There is a serial murderer out there threatening Holmes' son and granddaughter. The evil villian always seems a step or two ahead of the pursuers.

Well, it's a lot of the same old, same old well-told story. Can you tell that even though I rather enjoyed reading this book, that I'm tired of the premise? Sara Paretsky and her private investigator V. I. Warshawski was a treat and a wonderful adventure for about six books. Then I tired of them too. I want Laurie R. King to go back and write a couple more books about San Francisco detective Kater Martinelli. I'm not tired of reading about her yet.

The trouble is that King has ended this book with the sort of cliff hanger that Conan Doyle used. She's created her own version of Professor Moriarty. At the end of this book it's clear that there will be a Language of Bees II in the near future. I won't be waiting for it.

And I've yet to figure out any meaning for the title or for the sections of the books about Mary Russell's investigations of the abandonment of one of Holmes' bee hives.

Have you read The Language of Bees? What did you think of it? Write, and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

See also: