28 October 2012

Back to the Swedish zen detective

Donna Leon's story about a Venetian detective was told at a ponderous pace. Håkan Nesser's story about a grumpy, northern-European detective moved at about the same pace, but seemed more lively. Nesser is a successful and popular Swedish writer, but only 5 of his books have appeared in English. All five feature Inspector Van Veeteren, who seems not to have a first name.

The last time I read about the investigative work of Inspector Van Veeteren, I called him a zen detective, because he seemed to spend nearly all his time contemplating the crime he was investigating. Very little actual investigating went on. In fact, little action of any kind took place. The book was long on characterization and scenery and very short on events.

It's been three years. I saw Nesser's name on the Northfield library bookshelf, and picked up The Inspector and Silence. I'd forgotten my impressions of Borksmann's Point.

Inspector Van Veeteren is more active in this investigation of the murders of two young girls from a summer camp in isolated woods near a lake. He's called away from his home "precinct" to help a rookie rural police chief with a case far outside his basic training. Van Veeteren actually goes to the crime scenes. He actually interviews people trying to piece together what has happened and how and why. He pursues leads and travels more to interview more people.

Meanwhile, there's a rag tag assemblage of forensic experts, detectives, and investigators called in from around the country to help the tiny local cop shop deal with tragic and dramatic crimes and an influx of reporters. One reason the murders were the focus of so much press attention was that the victims were attending a "summer camp" run by a messianic leader of a secretive religious cult. The suspicious leader disappears and the three women who were helping run the camp and the "confirmation" program for the near-adolescent girls refuse to talk to the police.

It's lucky so many helpers were called in to carry on the investigation (and carry the story forward). Because, Inspector Van Veeteren spends lots of time contemplating. At one point he rents a boat and some cushions, takes a couple bottles of mineral water, and rows up the local river. At some point, he ties the boat up the river bank and spends most of a day contemplating. Other times he walks in the woods or takes long drives. That might not be bad for the story telling, but Nesser offers no real hints about Inspector Van Veeteren's thoughts during these zen retreats from reality.

No wonder the ending was such a surprise to me. Somewhere in his meditations, Inspector Van Veeteren gets a clue that sends him (and some associates) running after a suspect, who had hardly been mentioned in the book. They catch him on the verge of another murder.

Okay, I'll stop complaining. This time Nesser included enough story telling to keep me more interested than the last time I read one of his mysteries. And at the end of this one, Inspector Van Veeteren, who has been contemplating retirement throughout the book, walks into an antiquarian book store that is for sale. According to the Nesser fan site, listed below, the inspector does retire to the bookstore, even though he keeps getting involved with old colleagues in more investigations. Nesser also began writing mysteries about another Swedish detective. Swedish television produced a series of Inspector Van Veeteren programs set in the years after his retirement.

Have you read The Inspector and Silence? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

A four-minute interview with Håkan Nesser (in English)

21 October 2012

Big Venetian Flood

If it really mattered, I suppose, I'd keep track of how book titles and authors' names got on to my reading list. But it's just a "to read" list.

Donna Leon
So the name Donna Leon is on my list. I don't know how it got there. Perhaps Dale mentioned one of her books. Perhaps I read a review somewhere. Maybe Dan or Bird mentioned her. It really doesn't matter unless I owe someone a thank you. And I do owe someone a thank you for this recommendation.

When I was last at the Northfield Library, I found Leon's book, Acqua Alta. It was one of several of her books on the shelf and it was the oldest one. I thought I'd begin with an early book, so I could continue with her oeuvre if I liked this one.

Well, I liked this one a bit. I liked it enough that I'll go back and read another of Leon's mysteries. It's a story about an investigation by Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti. I liked the inspector, in part because he went home for lunch with his family and he was actually at home with them in the evenings. This guy was not a workaholic like so many investigators.

When an American archaeologist, away from her research in China, is attacked by two thugs from the south of Italy (i.e. mafia guys), the inspector who had met the victim a couple years earlier at an exhibit of Chinese artifacts in Venice, is drawn into the case. Just as his boss is warning him not to get involved, the mayor calls and asks that the police assign one of their very best to the investigation.

It seems that the American's lover, a famous diva in European opera, is a friend of the mayor. So, Brunetti is assigned to the case.

As he investigates, there is another murder and the suspicious death of an archaeologist in China that seems related. There are stolen antiquities and cleverly made fakes. And there's a rich guy without a job from the south of the country who has just restored a big old fancy palace in Venice.

Lots of elements and clever links between them. Believable work and discoveries by Brunetti and his colleagues.

Flooded Piazza San Marco
But, the story telling plods along like someone trying to wade across a flooded piazza. (Catch the title? Acqua Alta. It's Italian for high waters.) Whenever there is heavy rain or exceptionally high tides, Venice is filled with sirens warning about acqua alta. City workers quickly go out and set up raised boardwalks so people can walk around the city without wading in knee-deep water. The high water keeps people from moving around quickly and somehow it keeps this story stuck in first gear most of the time.

The second thing that gave me pause was Venice and its floods. The city's reputation is of a beautiful and civilized city. But, with regular floods of its piazzas and the "ground" floors of buildings? I can't imagine living in a house where I had to wade in the front door and go up a flight of stairs before I could remove my knee-high boots. (Of course, I can't imagine living in a flood plain either, but many people do. Meanwhile I live in a place where snow and cold dominate the weather for 5 months of the year.)

Maybe the next Donna Leon book I read will be told with better meter and in a different season.

Have you read Acqua Alta or another of Donna Leon's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your experience.

Donna Leon interviewed at the Toronto Library

07 October 2012

Good story telling in the Peak District

I've been recovering, just not very quickly. I keep feeling guilty because I haven't excelled at recovering. (Will the docs give me bad grades?) Now that I'm not sleepy all the time, I do have energy to read.

From the Northfield library I picked books by two authors who have entertained me before: Thomas Perry and Stephen Booth.

I started the Perry book, Silence, first, but I didn't finish it. It reminded me of his Jane Whitefield books that I have read. The good guys are practically super heroes. The bad guys are practically super villains. Silence is a chase story, like the Jane Whitefield stories. About half way through the book I got bored with the cat and mouse chasing.

Then I picked up Stephen Booth's Scared to Live. I read all of it and enjoyed just about every minute I spent following the stories and "listening" to the characters. Like his other books, this one is set in the UK's Peak District. It's an area of hills, lakes, mountains, and abandoned farms which is dominated by the UK's first national park. It's a park that has 4 to 5 times as many visitors per year as the USA's Yellowstone. (It's near metropolitan Manchester.)

But there are villages and towns, private dwellings, and private farms within the park. So there are also British police. Booth's stories revolve around the crime fighting of Derbyshire force. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are the main cops on the job, but there are others on the force. And, whenever things get busy, people are called in from other places. In this story a cop from Bulgaria even joins the hunt for bad guys.

A reclusive woman is murdered. A mother and her two children die in an arson fire. Two people are killled by hitmen in Bulgaria. A Bulgarian immigrant dies in his isolated caravan on a farm where he had been working. A baby disappears, her nervous father is attacked, and her uncle jumps off a tower meant for sight seeing.

Once again, Booth tells several stories, some seemingly related and others not. However, before everything comes to a conclusion, some of the stories that seemed related turn out not to be and others turn out to be connnected. Booth does this well.

None of the stories get neglected or falter. The connections that appear and disappear seem unforced. The ending, when everything has to be explained seems a little contrived (as with the other Booth novels I've read), but I can live with that since the rest is so well done.

Did I say I really like reading Scared to Live? Well, I did.

Have you read Scared to Live? How did you react to it? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.