�Although Edwardson has been on my list of Scandinavian crime authors to read for some time, I had previously put off reading any of his novels becaus...more�Although Edwardson has been on my list of Scandinavian crime authors to read for some time, I had previously put off reading any of his novels because they had been described as rather stringent procedurals, and as a rule, I am not a huge fan of this genre. I understand that meticulous investigations--with their red herrings and dead-end leads and countless interviews with doddering old women who may have seen something relevant to a crime but really just want to serve the dashing inspector biscuits and coffee and have some company for a short time--are some readers’ cups of tea. For myself, however, I’m not really invested in the process so much. I generally like the varied dynamics of a police force that you get in a procedural, but that enjoyment doesn’t really outweigh the sense of stagnation that sometimes comes over me in the midst of one of these novels.
I’ll admit: I like plot. And while this is a literary element that may be somewhat out of vogue in contemporary ‘literary’ fiction, it is (generally) still highly valued in crime novels. So while I appreciate the pleasure that one might take out of reading the intricate, but often dull or frustrating quotidian burdens of a police investigation, I usually prefer that the crime novels I ready eschew that sort of realism in favor of some broader character development, more back story, and/or steadily escalating tension.
All this preamble is to say that I have just finished, and very much enjoyed, Sun and Shadow, the first of Edwardson’s Erik Winter novels to be translated into English (although it wasn’t the first in the series). What is somewhat perplexing to me--and apologies, because this probably won’t end up being the best of sells for this book--is that Edwardson utilizes a number of tricks which I would normally really dislike in a novel. But somehow, even when all of these strategies--and dare I say, cheats--are combined (and I’ll get to this more momentarily), the end product is still a really enjoyable, well-paced, strongly characterized novel which I pretty much gobbled up in a few short days.
To start with the good:
Winter is a great character. He’s reasonably quirky--loves jazz and gourmet cooking (there’s several whole pages where he describes, in recipe-level detail, the meal he makes on New Year’s) --and we’re told early on that he’s Sweden’s youngest chief detective inspector. As the book opens (days before the new millennium), however, he is about to turn 40 and is starting to feel a bit introspective about his life. This is emphasized by the ample family subplot that Edwardson builds around Winter: when the book opens, his father is dying and his longtime girlfriend--who is six months pregnant with his first child--is moving in with him.
Edwardson really takes his time with this domestic development. In fact, although the reader knows right from the start of the book that there has been a double murder, the police don’t discover it until just over 100 pages into the book. The fact that such an elongated reveal works in a crime novel really speaks to how engaging Winter and the other detectives and characters are. You want to spend time with them and become immersed in their lives, rather than just jumping into the investigation.
Anther especially good element is the pacing. I’ve rarely gotten to the very end of a procedural and actually felt a great deal of anticipation to see the case resolved. That feeling that the police are so close! to cracking the case doesn’t usually catch with me. But here, Edwardson manages to develop suspense and build tension because the reader has spent 200 pages or so suspecting that they know who the murderer is. (I didn’t guess the right person, but I was pretty close...) So while the police investigation continues to narrow its suspects and get closer and closer to determining who the killer is, their tangential investigations and incorrect suppositions are all the more nail-biting for the reader.
Now for the elements that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow, really did.
1. Edwardson has a tendency to avoid grim/disturbing/or otherwise particularly visual detail. In some cases, this is almost Hitchcockian--we’re chilled by what we can’t see, what we don’t really know. In others, it’s a little disorienting and maybe suggests a tad bit of squeamishness/avoidance on Edwardson’s part. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say this: the police discover the first murders around page 100. We know something terrible happened to the victims, and they (the corpses) are described a little. But Edwardson holds the real punch--the actual ‘what’ of the murders--for about 60 more pages. And when you find out what was done, it is an unexpected jolt. But given the circumstances, I was glad to not have had the scene f the crime described in all of its sordid detail--that would have been a little much.
This withholding of details and descriptions happens in a few other notable instances, some to lesser effect. The least successful example happens at the end of the book. A major character is kidnapped--for days. The whole time chronology suddenly compresses, Winter figures out where she is, and the whole book is wrapped up neat ‘n tidy within about five pages. We’re told that the woman “wasn’t hurt physically,” which, great, but because the book ends so quickly, Edwardson also dodges the difficulty of writing the psychological fall out that the kidnapping victim would most definitely have after such an abduction. We’re simply told that “...one of these days it would all come back to her, but not now...Perhaps never.” Which just seems way too easy. It’s possible--given that the Winter series seems to carry over plot lines and character history from book to book--that this character’s recovery will be dealt with in a later novel. But that doesn’t mean that you can just nip the entire experience in this installment.
2. The novel really depends on a bit of a red herring/ bait-and-switch. About a quarter of the way into the book, I had made a guess of who the murderer was. About half way through the book, Edwardson begins really telegraphing this character as the killer. A few other characters also seem like they might have some potential as the killer, but there’s really one who Edwardson focuses on. And while this may seem too obvious, it also plays into the general sense of tension. You start to think that you’re supposed to have guessed who the killer is, and stop minding that it seems obvious.
The problem is that when the character you suspect turns out to be innocent, there’s not a whole lot done to explain the actual killer’s motivations or background or particular psychosis. There’s a lot of groundwork done early on to explain the killer’s possible frame of mind and why he might choose to commit the murders in the way that he does. This makes sense when you think it’s character A who is the killer, but when character B is revealed, it really doesn’t. Neither does the manner in which he selected his victims, or the messages that he left the cops at the crime scene, or the supposed clues that were to be found in the music that was playing at the scene of the first crime.
3. All too convenient endangerment of major character and collision of plot and subplot. The character who is the almost-last victim is far too obvious, far too relevant to Winter’s life. It’s too convenient, really. However, Edwardson even makes this work. He develops the character as a possible person of interest to the murderer and does offer something of an explanation of why she was targeted. Now, she has nothing in common with the other victims and her kidnapping really just serves to ramp the novel’s climax up to a more dramatic level, but I pretty much bought into it at the end. Because again, I was really invested in seeing this case resolved.
In closing, I suppose I would say that Edwardson’s ample gifts of characterization, steady pacing, and satisfyingly determined plot are what make Sun and Shadow a satisfying read. I suppose it’s something like reading an Agatha Christie novel. You know that she’s not playing by the ‘rules’--you know you don’t have all the clues that the detective does, and you know that things are going to resolve themselves rather easily, and you know that all of the clues and plot points might not add up. But the execution (no pun intended) is so fluid and meticulous that you don’t really mind so much in the end.
After years of anticipation (on my part, at least) Camilla Lackberg's first novel, The Ice Princess was finally published in the U.S. a month ago. (It...moreAfter years of anticipation (on my part, at least) Camilla Lackberg's first novel, The Ice Princess was finally published in the U.S. a month ago. (It's been in English translation in the UK and Canada since 2008.) I'm happy to say that the book really delivers--it reminded me a lot of Karin Fossum's Don't Look Back with its portrayal of a claustrophobic small town rife with secret scandals and tensions. In The Ice Princess, Lackberg did a great job of imbuing each character--even minor ones--with an interesting back story and relevance in the story's greater context. And she also set up an enjoyable relationship between main character Erica Falck and her new lover, Detective Patrik Hedstrom.
Given all of this, I was eager to get my hands on the second installment in this series, The Preacher. This novel is also forthcoming in the US, but I figured it would be awhile and so bit the bullet and ordered a copy from the UK. Unfortunately, I have to admit, that I was more than a little disappointed by this novel. Not really in terms of Lackberg's writing--she's still very good at balancing a murder investigation with a domestic subplot (here, Erica's pregnant with Patrik's baby, she's still having trouble with her sister, etc.) However, this doesn't pay off as much because of some rather notable shortcomings, which are as follows:
1. The murder plot here is much, much more grim. Now don't get me wrong--a faked suicide in the previous book is pretty grim (as were the background scenarios that lead to said murder), but this book takes it to another level. Several murders, preceded by bone breaking and other forms of slow-death torture, enacted on teenagers, over many years. Not nice stuff. It's a lot to take honestly, and if I'm going to read about those sorts of acts, they better be in the service of a pretty well developed, large-scale plot. And, also, you better have a pretty credible uber-sadist in the story, because well, there's got to be a pretty good explanation for why you decided that kind of pain needed to be inflicted on your characters.
2. This brings me to problem 2. The rationale for these murders--if not the exact murderer himself--is obvious within the first 100 pages. I'm not exaggerating. It became so overwhelmingly apparent how Lackberg was going to explain the "reason" for the above-mentioned violence/torture that I actually skipped ahead in the book to confirm that I was right. And I was. This is horribly disappointing for reasons I'm sure I don't have to explain.
3. The murderer is--and don't worry, I'm not spoiling here--presented as part of a large feuding family almost immediately. So the possibilities of who the actual killer are extremely limited from the get go. This makes the whole investigation, which is actually, admirably complicated, rather anticlimactic. Not that into this family's backstory, either.
4. Erica is actually not very present in this story at all. Which is a shame because she's likable and interesting and, because she's not on the police force, gives a murder plot a less procedural point of view. Patrik is definitely front and center here. And I like his character, too, but really--not as much. Given the fact that Erica has started writing True Crime novels, it seems to me that she could have been more involved here. And Lackberg even draws attention to the fact that she's twiddling her thumbs while she waits to have her baby. It's like she knows that there's not enough Erica in the story, but started writing it that way and can't go back. Instead, she uses the scenes with Erica to provide the comic relief--lots of horrible house guests descend on she and Patrik because it's summer and everyone loves coming to their small town over the summer. But those scenes aren't--with one macaroni-suffused exception--really all that good. So sad.
5. The novel's format is a little too reminiscent of The Ice Princess, which makes Lackberg's approach to plot development/reveal seem a little too mechanical. The investigation scenes are intercut with italicized passages in the voice of one of the victims, which is exactly what she did in her first book. In The Ice Princess this worked out rather cleverly--you actually thought the italicized passages might be narrated by the killer, until it becomes obvious that the speaker is dead as well. In The Preacher adding these passages is probably supposed to make the reader sympathize more with the victims, which is totally unnecessary, given what we're told they had to go through before they died. Of course we empathize with them. Now you're just rubbing our faces in the tragedy of it all, which we don't really need. It's overbearing.
That about does it for the major problems. I like Lackberg's characters, though, and I honestly like the way she handles their development, back story, etc. quite a lot. And I definitely would read another of her novels (there's one more in English translation, and she's gotten a big book deal to release all her books in the US)--but I might not be in such a rush to order the next installment this time. (less)
Left my university job and had to return all my library books (of which this was one) before I finished, so I never actually got to Bondeson's theory...moreLeft my university job and had to return all my library books (of which this was one) before I finished, so I never actually got to Bondeson's theory of who shot Olaf Palme. Certainly a subject I'd be interested in returning to one day. (less)
I kept thinking I would come back and put together some well-reasoned thoughts on this book, while waiting for the last installment to be released in...moreI kept thinking I would come back and put together some well-reasoned thoughts on this book, while waiting for the last installment to be released in the US. But honestly, I'm not sure it's worth it. While it's great that we get such a detailed backstory on Lisbeth, this book is full of more frustrating (and pointless) red herrings than I would have imagined possible, the connection between her and Blomkvist seriously contrived, and the eventual resolution of the murders that Lisbeth has been charged with is almost completely beside-the-point and entirely tacked on.
I had some issues with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it was still an entertainingly written novel that represented a coherent worldview. In this one, Larsson just goes out of his way to show us that this one woman has been specifically victimized and targeted for persecution by all men people for her entire life. He creates a martyr out of Lisbeth, which frankly, is not terribly nuanced and is a little boring.
Oh, and surprise! Lisbeth is literally invincible. Blah.(less)
Åsa Larsson's debut novel, Sun Storm won Sweden's prize for best first crime novel--quite a distinction, if you consider how many excellent specimens...moreÅsa Larsson's debut novel, Sun Storm won Sweden's prize for best first crime novel--quite a distinction, if you consider how many excellent specimens come out of that country every year. It was perhaps this fact, and not the macabre plot description (or the fact that the heroine is a tax lawyer) that initially interested me in the novel. And I'm happy to say that all hyperbolic, hysteric plot devolutions aside (we'll get to these), this was a very enjoyable read.
Sun Storm has a lot going for it: an austere, formidable wilderness setting, an elusive cast of characters, able prose, and a really well-wrought sense of interiority in many of the characters--not just in the protagonist, Rebeka Martinsson. At first, Larsson introduces each character in close 3rd, allowing the reader to get to know the person from their own thoughts. It's a compelling strategy not used often enough, in my humble view, and one particularly suited to crime fiction--think Blackwater. Unfortunately, Larsson appears to get bored jumping between characters, and about 1/3 of the way through decides to dispense with the regular perspective shifts all together. Occasionally, we're treated to the thoughts of someone other than Rebeka, but I found these moments--sitting in on the thoughts of a religious nut/homicidal maniac or listening to an unlikely love interest reveal his true feelings--a little empty and gratuitous. Larsson could have revealed these details in a more fluid fashion (or could have stuck with her multi-perspective narration more consistently) and the result would have been far more elegant.
Given its subject matter--a member of a religious community-cum-money-making-cult is ritualistically murdered--Sun Storm does a fairly admirable job of respecting its own circumstances, rather than taking a wholly condemning line against the book's 'believers.' Granted, Rebeka is an outcast of the church, and almost all of the religious leaders are involved in some sort of corrupt behavior, but the novel at least introduces the world of this church with a certain amount of understanding in its mechanics, in the way in which a community of its kind can come into being, and what kind of purpose that community may give many of its members.
Things start go astray at payoff time, however. One can almost envision Larsson writing a rough-draft of her climactic moment--piling on as much blood, guts, emotional baggage (abused children! the spiritual dilemma of the atheist! sexual betrayal!), and shoot-em-up fun as she could possibly imagine, and then not bothering to go back and edit anything out. And while the urge to be epic is certainly one I understand (sometimes enjoy quite a lot), it doesn't fit here at all. Firstly, what motives and circumstances are revealed in the 'Bad-Guy-Tells-All' scene (and not all of them are), don't quite jibe with what we know up to that point. Secondly, there's a little too much mayhem going on due to tax evasion. And thirdly, no one (view spoiler)[, no matter how badass, can crawl around and kill three people after being stabbed in the stomach. It's physically impossible in a world bound by physical rules. Maybe this type of Surprising Super Strength in a Tax Lawyer would be acceptable in a Sci Fi novel, but one needs to respect the laws of the world one has created and really, it just gets silly.
For a fun, wintery read whilst soaking up some sun on a beach or a deck or a biergarten, however, Sun Storm delivers admirably. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
First, a note to people reading the American edition:
Initially, you might think that The Princess of Burundi is a Fargoesque tale about a violent murd...moreFirst, a note to people reading the American edition:
Initially, you might think that The Princess of Burundi is a Fargoesque tale about a violent murder and a plucky, preggers female detective. You might think that because that's what the description says. Apparently, someone pissed off their editorial intern, though, because very little in the description is factually accurate.
So, just to be clear:
No, the dead man's troubled past doesn't really "catch up with him." It's sort of the point, but not really.
No, Ann Lindell (the aforementioned plucky detective) isn't really the main protagonist--she's actually one of many police officers who is investigating the murder and although she has a good deal of secondary-plot action, is not real a key player in the investigation.
Yes, Ann Lindell is on maternity leave, but no, she does not "take a huge risk that could result in many more dead bodies in the snow, including hers and that of her unborn child." Because she's not pregnant--she's already had the baby.
Oh, and while we're at it--the title is misleading. Though explaining why would require that I ruin some of the plot points. So I won't--just trust me.
Perhaps this all seems a little semantic, but I submit that misrepresenting a novel's basic plot is a disservice to the author and the reader, not to mention extremely lazy.
The Princess of Burundi is Eriksson's debut novel, and is a serviceable police procedural which does keep the plot moving and introduce some compelling characters--police officers and townspeople alike--that would be worth reading more about. Eriksson is fond of back story (which I really appreciate) and takes the time to provide contextual details about characters which might explain their motivations with a fair amount of nuance.
However, I have to admit, I had more qualms with this one than not. So, since I'm in a listing mood, here we go:
-Characters narrate their inner thoughts. Out loud. A lot. Now, I certainly talk to myself a bit, but I don't narrate my inner existential crises while standing on sidewalks. That's what the narrative voice-over is for, buddy. Use it--your detectives sound deranged.
-The kooky cast of detectives is not all that differentiated. Also, there are many instances when character A cuts off character B by verbalizing something that B was just thinking...Such psychic efficiency ceases to be efficient if you're just repeating the same thought twice, over and over, throughout the book.
-Ann Lindell has a very detailed back story but very little of it has any bearing on the actual story.
-This actually happens with several characters, come to think of it.
-Oh, and Princess falls back on my number one mystery novel pet peeve: the crime is resolved suddenly, without precedent, when an entirely new character is introduced. Don't, don't, please don't ever sew up your hermetic, small town murder by introducing a new character less than 75 pages away from the ending. It's about as tepid as the "And then I woke up!" plot completion strategy.