Forty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, NellForty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nella and Rose. But appearances can be deceiving. At fifteen, Nella is at a difficult age and Jessica is finding it hard to keep the lines of communication open between them. And she's still trying to recover from learning that Bob had a one-night stand with a much younger woman while on a business trip in Europe a month ago.
On the day Jess's story starts, she meets a potential new client on his first appointment. Gwydion Morgan is a young and extremely handsome local actor, whose best known for his on-going role in a popular Welsh TV soap. His father is the renowned stage director, Evan Morgan, who is equally famous for his numerous affairs and dalliances with other women, while his wife, Arianrhod, once a beautiful actress, wastes away at the family home, a forbidding stone mansion on the rocky Welsh coast. Gwydion has no love for his father but is close to his mother, and no other siblings.
Gwydion comes to Jessica with a fairly typical button phobia, which is a concern now that he's been picked to star in a new costume-drama (the costume he'll have to wear will have numerous buttons). Then he opens up to her about a recurring nightmare he's been having, in which he's a terrified little boy trapped in a dark box. Each time he returns to her office, he recounts the dream as it progresses, and each time, Jessica is sure she thinks she knows where it is going.
As much as she tries, she can't quite keep her own, very human, sense of curiosity out of Gwydion's case. Her friend, an actress called Mari, once had an affair with Evan and imparts some random bits of gossip about the family. And when Jess agrees, against her own rules, to visit the Morgan home in person when Gwydion falls into a deep depression, she is taken on a tour of the cliff-top garden by Arianrhod. At the edge of the cliff, at the top of a steep flight of stairs cut into the rockface, she sees a plaque, written in Swedish, memorialising the death of a young, pretty Swedish backpacker who drowned there.
As the Morgan family's secrets come bubbling to the surface, Jess gets more and more deeply involved in uncovering the truth in the hope of helping Gwydion recover and move on. But all is not as it seems with the Morgans, and Jess is not as in-control of the case as she believes.
I'm a bit torn over this one. While it had many qualities of good writing: swift, smooth, consistent pacing, a well-developed protagonist, some atmosphere and enough details to keep me interested, it was a bit predictable and a bit thin, plot-wise.
The setting - the Welsh coast, in particular - was a good one, and lively for the imagination. There was some atmosphere, but not as much as I would have liked; not as much as would have added tension and real suspense to the story.
Jessica was an interesting character, intelligent and honourable but flawed in the sense that she's a bit over-confident in her own analytical abilities and her own sense of righteousness, and she makes mistakes. She can be a bit unlikeable at times, which actually made me like her more because it made her feel more human. She could be surprisingly slow on the uptake at times, despite being intelligent overall, and she came across as rather cold and unfriendly. The reasons why Bob had a brief affair are hinted at, and as much as it doesn't excuse it, Jess has something to do with it. Her analysis of her own marital difficulties is patchy, and no wonder: it's all very well to look deep into someone else's problems while they sit on your couch, and discreetly guide them to the answers buried in their own minds, but quite another thing to accurately and honestly reflect on yourself. It takes Jess quite a while to realise that, and in the meantime - I can hardly believe it - I actually felt slightly sorry for Bob. Sorry for him in that he's a bit of a pathetic figure (anytime a 50+ year old man shags a 20-something woman, it's a bit sad, really. Mid-life crisis and all that), but also sorry for him because he could use a therapist himself, no doubt.
I am always very fascinated by the descriptions of therapy. Never having attended any kind of therapy session myself, I feel like a real voyeur, peeping in on someone else's. And it speaks to our all-too-human curiosity as to what's going on in other people's lives, partly to see what we can learn about coping techniques for ourselves. I studied some Freud at uni, in a couple of English courses, and was not impressed, but while his ideas were a bit ludicrous at times, I can see the merit in the principals of psychotherapy for some people, at least in the way Jessica works with her clients. As in Liane Moriarty's excellent novel, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I love getting that intimate access to a therapist's room, and hearing about the processes behind it.
But the plot, oh dear the plot. It really was rather predictable, and Jessica's family drama with Nella was more interesting to me than the murder mystery. It just felt a bit too contrived, a bit too convenient, and a bit too flawed. The concept for the set-up - which I don't want to explain as it would spoil the story, and I don't like giving spoilers if I can help it - seemed flimsy to me, and too obvious. After all, Jessica's dealing with a whole family of actors here, which she notes in the beginning and then forgets, so dazzled is she by Gwydion's beautiful face. (Was it just me or was the flirtation between them just plain creepy?)
As far as a quick mystery read goes, this was certainly quick. As far as a satisfying, suspenseful thriller goes, it was decidedly lacking. I didn't wholly dislike it, for the reasons mentioned above, but by the time I got to the ending I had rather lost interest in the whole family-secret-murder-mystery plot, and just wanted to hear more about human nature and Jessica's internal analysis.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. ...more
Detective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and liDetective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and lives alone. He's estranged from his two children - his son is in rehab for drug addiction, and his daughter, Eva Lind, only comes around to ask for more money for her own drugs. At work in Reykjavík, he sees the worst of humanity, but murders are rare, and generally clumsily done. The day he starts investigating a new, puzzling murder case turns out to be the same day Eva Lind decides to move in with him. The dead man, Holberg, was sixty-nine, never married and lived alone in a basement apartment. He was bashed in the head with a glass ashtray. But the perplexing thing is the mysterious note left on the body that says: I Am Him.
As Erlendur starts to dig into Holberg's past he discovers that the dead man was once accused of rape, a crime that the police officer who took the victim's statement completely dismissed and actually made the victim, Kolbrún, feel completely humiliated, so nothing ever came of it. But there is a link somewhere there, because Holberg had, hidden in his desk, a photo of a child's grave: his child, a girl called Audur, by Kolbrún, who died aged four. And Kolbrún killed herself just a few years later. So who killed Holberg, and why?
I really enjoyed this, and I don't say that lightly because I generally don't read crime fiction, murder mysteries, detective fiction, generic thrillers, all those. I don't mind the occasional literary one, though, like Stieg Larsson, and I loved The Boy in the Suitcase that I read a few months ago. I need a lot of character development and a sense of realism, or I get bored very easily. This story seemed deceptively simple, but it played out so well and became really interesting - and it was a very human story, toying with bigger issues much like The Boy in the Suitcase which touched on people trafficking and illegal refugees. I can't tell you what this one delved into without giving it away, but outside of the main mystery the story touches on social issues prevalent in Iceland, on the seedier side of a beautiful-looking place, not in a melodramatic way but a smooth blend of factual "this is how it is" combined with a kind of poignant humanism. The characters all felt very real, no matter how thinly they were described.
Set in 2001, a year in the future (it was first published in 2000), it tackles some key Icelandic issues that became prominent years later - paternity, genetics and the DNA database. I don't know much about it all, but Jar City provides a really good intro and understanding into what it's like in Iceland, where there's such a small population and very little immigration, so the gene pool is fairly small and dates back a long time. As well as that, it opens the secret vault on organ and body acquisition for medical and scientific research purposes - donations the families know nothing about. That's where the title "Jar City" comes from: hundreds and hundreds of organs floating in jars in big rooms. Now, with the genetic database, there is a new kind of Jar City, with just as big ethical problems.
Erlendur himself is the quiet type, a man who takes his time to contemplate things and tries to employ a filter, especially around his daughter, though no matter what he says, she'll react badly. I loved seeing their relationship change and develop, especially after Erlendur blows his top and says what's really on his mind. This particular case really throws into sharp relief his daughter's life and his fears for her.
"...Sorry if I've been nasty to you [Eva Lind]. I didn't intend to, but when I see the way you live, when I see your careless attitude and your lack of self-respect, when I see the destruction, everything you do to yourself and then I watch the little coffin coming up out of the ground, then I can't understand anything any more. I can't understand what's happening and I want to ..." Erlendur fell silent. "Beat the shit out of me," Eva Lind finished the sentence for him. Erlendur shrugged. "I don't know what I want to do. Maybe the best thing is to do nothing. Maybe it's best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business. Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in all this? All this filth. Talking to people like [convicted felon] Ellidi. Doing deals with shits like [drug dealer] Eddi. Seeing how people like Holberg get their kicks. Reading rape reports. Digging up the foundations of a house full of bugs and shit. Digging up little coffins." Erlendur stroked his chest even harder. "You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled." [pp.230-1]
That's the most eloquent he gets, and it's rather amazing to have him come out with all this, for throughout the third-person omniscient narration, you feel both very close to Erlendur and yet completely - not estranged, no, but he's a man who keeps his own counsel. You get to know him through how he interacts with other people, the decisions he makes, things like that. Not for being told anything much by the author, and I liked that. It meant that, this being the first Erlendur book I've read, I had to piece together the detective as much as the crime. Though to be sure, there isn't much more to Erlendur than you see - only these glimpses into a tortured soul, and his impressions of other people, which are very interesting and add that human dimension to the overall story that I appreciated so much.
In fact, this is a very human novel is so many ways. Perhaps that's true of all crime fiction, I couldn't say, but for all the prose was simple and straight-forward, and the story unfolded without pretension or extravagance, it was deeply nuanced, without being over-the-top. Never contrived, but seemingly effortlessly reflecting life in Iceland with stark, brutal honesty. Perhaps it doesn't paint a pretty picture of Iceland, but I suspect it paints an honest one, of a kind.
This is a story that's more sad and tragic than scary or thrilling. It doesn't have any car cashes or shoot-outs or grisly shock tactics. Again, that sense of realism at play, rather than cheap dramatic effects. But it did often give me chills, and effect me emotionally, and Indriđason likes to employ that trick of skipping over the graphic details, showing only people's reactions to hearing them, that make them so much worse - you can't be apathetic or desensitised to something when your imagination is being engaged in filling in the blanks.
There's a great sense of atmosphere here - it's constantly raining, and I pictured it as incredibly grey and overcast (rather like Tasmania in winter, minus all the mud and frost perhaps). Aside from the urban landscape that's given sparse detail yet comes across strongly, there's also the human landscape, the sense of Reykjavĺk and its surroundings (and there are some good maps at the beginning) as being small, confined, isolated, homogeneous and a bit stir-crazy. As Erlendur's colleague, Sigurdur Óli, sums up "your typical Icelandic murder" as "Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence" [p.8], you get a pretty clear idea of what crime is like in Iceland.
This was a fast read that I read in a day over the Christmas holidays, and a great book to snuggle up with, as unlikely as that sounds. I couldn't go to bed until I'd finished it! I don't know if I'll read more of the series - and it wasn't at all a problem, reading the third book as a standalone like this (according to Goodreads, the first two books haven't been translated into English, so for English-language purposes, this is the first book in the series) - but if I ever do feel in the mood for gritty crime fiction, I'll know who to turn to. (As a side note, this book has been made into a film.) ...more
Nina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works at a clinic by day and by night helps hundreds of illegal immigrants hiding across Denmark. With a history ofNina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works at a clinic by day and by night helps hundreds of illegal immigrants hiding across Denmark. With a history of abruptly leaving her husband Morten and their two young kids for stints in refugee camps in Africa, Nina is passionate, caring and driven to help the unfortunate. When her old friend Karin calls her with an urgent request one day, Nina doesn't say no. Karin gives her a key for a locker at the Copenhagen train station which contains a suitcase. And inside the suitcase is an unconscious, naked three year old boy.
Nina's first thought is child trafficking, and she has little faith in the police actually being able to help; still, she goes back to the train station to report it. But while there she witnesses a large man violently attacking the very locker she found the suitcase in - and he notices her, the way she was looking at him, like she knew. But Nina doesn't really believe the man is after her and the boy until she arranges to meet Karin at her family's lake house, and instead finds her brutally murdered.
Now on the run with a boy who doesn't speak her language and with no one to help her, Nina must try to figure out the boy's origins in the hopes of reuniting him with his family, before the man finds them and she ends up like Karin.
Such a summary as that only tells part of the story, and there's so much more to it than that. The cast of characters, aside from Nina, includes her husband Morten; a wealthy businessman called Jan Marquart who lives in a fortress-like house on the coast with his wife Anne and son Aleksander; the man who abducted the boy, Jučas, and his older girlfriend Barbara; and the boy, Mikas, and his single mother, Sigita Ramoškienė, from Lithuania. The story moves between Nina's side of the story and Sigita's on two different planes of time until they meet at the end, with Jan and Jučas appearing when required. There are other, more minor characters, and as the story progresses we learn more about Nina and her personality, and why her husband sometimes talks to her like she's irresponsible and incompetent. It also gives Sigita's backstory, and truly, it's all put together so beautifully, like a very clever jigsaw puzzle - and I love jigsaw puzzles.
I'm not a big crime reader, I only occasionally read novels like this, and I almost never read pop fiction thrillers and murder mysteries - Tess Gerritson, Tana French, Kathy Reichs etc. - I had to read some for a course at uni and I found them very boring and poorly written, so, not for me. But these "literary" crime novels, I often enjoy these. There's so much more emphasis on character development, the plots are more interesting and they often speak to social issues, economics and politics. With all of those ingredients present, they're more likely to engage me and get me emotionally invested. Which is exactly what happened here, and why I loved this so much.
First of all, now that I have a child of my own, I'm even more deeply affected by stories involved bad things happening to children and mothers than I was before, which is saying a lot. Sigita's story almost made me sick with fear and panic, though it's never reduced to corny melodrama. Sigita keeps her head, and while she struggles to be taken seriously by the police and feels the crush of hopelessness, the threat of panic - her boy could be anywhere, anything could have been done to him - she is also possessed of that unique drive that comes over women when their children are threatened, that single-minded determination. Even just recalling it while I type this, makes those emotions zing through me. She was a strong, well-developed character, young and isolated and too aware that, after long enough, her son won't even remember who she is.
In contrast, Nina was a less familiar, more unique character, but one who becomes familiar and understandable. When her first baby, Ida, is only five months old, she suddenly leaves her family for Liberia, only telling Morten when she was already at the airport. To have a woman just abandon her husband and baby like that, it seems so cruel and selfish, but throughout the novel we get the pieces to better understand Nina, who has an almost psychological problem, like a mental illness.
Only much later had she succeeded in explaining herself to [Morten], at least to some extent. He had noticed that she was finding it harder to sleep, that she was constantly watching Ida, day and night, that she seemed to be afraid of disasters, real or imagined. He had tried to calm her fears, but facts and rationality didn't seem to have much effect on her conviction that something horrible could happen to the child.
... She led a remarkably efficient one-woman crusade to save the world. It was only her own family who could reduce her to abject helplessness. [pp.169-170]
Perhaps because Nina was caring for this little abducted boy, but I never saw her as a bad mother. Just different, and struggling to not let the horrible things that happen in the world completely overwhelm her. She helps the illegal refugees in Denmark as a way of actively doing something, lest her sense of disaster destroy her sanity. It made sense.
The interesting thing about Jan Marquart, is that when we first meet him at the very beginning, the hints or clues indicate that maybe his son has been kidnapped, and he's being blackmailed. I'm sure that's deliberate. We only gradually, bit by bit, learn more and rearrange our impression of Jan, until it comes somewhat full circle. I went through several hypotheses and didn't quite hit on the right one, though I was close. Truly, it's very cleverly written, and a remarkable achievement considering this is the first crime novel the duo of Kaaberbøl and Friis have written - one a fantasy author, the other a children's writer. I can never really imagine how it works, writing a book together, and this one is so seamless, you can't tell that there are two authors. And with Kaaberbøl writing the English translations, you know that nothing's really being lost in translation, either. The writing is gripping, quietly suspenseful, emotionally engaging and sometimes violent.
Karin is dead, she thought, gripping the steering wheel still harder. She had tried to wipe her hands on a crumbled, jellybean-sticky tissue she had found in the glove compartment, but the blood had had time to dry and lay like a thin rust-colored film over her palm and fingertips.
Unbidden, the feel of Karin's skull came back to her. Like one of those big, luxurious, foil-wrapped Easter eggs Morten's parents always bought for Ida and Anton, and which always got dropped on the floor somehow. The shell under the foil would feel flattened and frail, just like Karin's head. She had ben able to feel individual fragments of bone moving under the scalp as she probed. [p.125]
The novel presents a very urban, European Denmark, a country hiding its flaws and ineffective police force. Through Nina we get her scepticism, her distrust of the system and the camps provided for orphaned or homeless children. We meet prostitutes and foreign women trapped in abusive relationships. It's nothing unique to Denmark, and a crime novel is never going to paint a pretty picture of a place. It is the individual characters - some of them - who shine through with their own moral integrity and compassion. Same in Lithuania, with Sigita. The ex-Communist bloc country is a mix of modern Europe and bleak poverty; makes you want to learn more.
And overall, as someone from an island country which shares no borders with anyone, the politics and social justice issues associated with all the refugees and people trafficking, is something that feels so foreign to me - not because we don't have illegal refugees or, perhaps, people trafficking in Australia, but because, without borders you can just drive across, they're not issues, people, that are an accepted part of everyday life, the social fabric. They're still Big Topics, things to be debated about publicly, discovered, uncovered, and punished (the traffickers, not the refugees, though the politicians don't agree). It's hard to explain, but there is a different way of thinking about your place, depending on the landscape - the political landscape as much as anything else. It just seems so easy, for someone to be abducted and sold in another country, within Europe. It's scary.
Probably my one disappointment with this book was the ending. After the climax, the real ending. The tidying-up. I really wanted to know what Nina told the police, especially since she hadn't reported Karin's death and they'd been looking for her, too. I wanted to know how Jan was explained. It just felt like there were some loose ends left hanging. The tidying-up wasn't very tidy, really. Emotionally, yes, sort of, but not plot-wise.
I will definitely be reading more Nina Borg stories, but I'm also interested in reading some of Lene Kaaberbøl's fantasy fiction, and Agnete Friis's children's books, if they're available in English. If you want a really solid, original and unpredictable crime novel, I heartily recommend The Boy in the Suitcase....more