Over the past few months I’ve read five books by two authors, neither of whom I’d read before. Jo Nesbo is the better known, with his series of Norwegian novels (deftly translated) about detective Harry Hole. The other is Rebecca Pawel, a native New Yorker, who writes a fascinating series of mysteries about a Guardia lieutenant in Franco-era Spain of the 1940s.
I’ve come to enjoy both authors immensely, but my approach to the books has been quite different. Nesbo writes long, fast-paced, intricately plotted mysteries. I thought that I’d just about had it with alcoholic detectives, but Harry H. has won me over, in part because his drinking is not a constant, and it’s integral to his character and his up-and-down personal life. I haven’t read his work in any particular order, which is a little, but not too, problematic. I find that I read the long Nesbo books at a whirlwind pace. I start, and even if I’m not on vacation I find it hard to put the book down. (Not quite the 6-day Girl with the Dragon Tattoo marathon for all three books, but close.)
Pawel, on the other hand, is a “few pages a night before nodding off” kind of author for me. Like KC Constantine’s Western Pennsylvania novels about Rocksburg and its fictional police chief, Mario Balzic, Pawel’s books are less mysteries and more character studies. And what a set of characters – most notably Lieutenant Tejada, from an aristocratic, Fascist family, and his wife, who comes from a communist background and constantly makes life challenging for the family (as does Tejada). Still, they love each other and their son, and the series develops these relationships slowly and unpredictably. They genius of Pawel’s work is to make a sympathetic character (Tejada) out of someone whom most readers would ordinarily detest. But like Harry Hole, Wallander, John Rebus, and others, he is a good cop and, ultimately, a fair-minded individual.
I think I read the Pawel books slowly because I need time to keep following the various characters, placed back in history, but mostly because I want to ponder the relationships of Tejada with his wife, child, family, and social class. To be sure, there is a mystery to be solved, but the books’ resolutions are more about how personal ties evolve than the solving of a crime. In many ways, there is more to savor here than in the latest Connelly or Child or Nesbo.
In the end, I have no desire to read just “fast” books or only “slow” ones – but good ones. Nesbo hooked me almost immediately; Pawel took more time, but ultimately both made me go looking for more volumes, ever eager to read more.
- Jo Nesbo's web site
- My thoughts about The Snowman
- Monica Hesse's profile of Jo Nesbo in the Washington Post
- Kjetil Stensvik Østil's interview with Jo Nesbo in The Browser
- Ilya Marritz' profile of Rebecca Pawel in The Sun (New York)
- Steven Torres' interview with Rebecca Pawel on the blog named after him