Women in Translation Month: Crime Fiction

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few. Today I am heading to northern climes, where the nights are long and the mood is often dark (at least in crime fiction).

 

DrownedBoyKarin Fossum: The Drowned Boy (transl. Kari Dickson)

With Karin Fossum you know that it’s never just about the crime and its detection/solution, it’s always about the people, the motives and the consequences. This book addresses a difficult subject: a toddler drowning and parents being suspected of having harmed their child, with the added complication that this is a child with Down’s Syndrome.¬†

As always, the author makes us question our own assumptions. The father and mother have very different styles of grieving, but no one is unmarked by the little boy’s death. Inspector Sejer is, as always, melancholy, measured and trying hard to fight his prejudices (while also relying on gut instinct). The ending does feel a little contrived, although it will probably feel satisfying for most readers, but the journey there is what Fossum is really interested in. And what a thoughtful and unsettling journey it is.

For a guide to the previous Inspector Sejer novels, have a look at this great article on Crime Fiction Lover.

DefencelessKati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (transl. David Hackston)

For my full review of this book, see Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in the series featuring rookie detective Anna Fekete, a Croat of Hungarian origin who came to Finland as a child to escape the war in Yugoslavia. I am pleased to say that this second novel lives up to the promise of the first one and indeed surpasses it. The action takes place in a town in Northern Finland and, as in the previous book, we get a real feel for the place and the changing of the seasons.

The characters of the two main investigators, Anna and her ‚Äėold dinosaur‚Äô of a colleague Esko, are given more definition and depth. We see them both as more vulnerable and lonelier than in the first book. Although they may be said to represent the sad, loner cop clich√©, they come with some added extras. Anna is unsure of where she belongs, torn between cultures, lonely but professing to like the non-interfering and aloof nature of the Finns. Like them, she doesn‚Äôt know any of her neighbours. Esko meanwhile tries to forget about his ex-wife and the pains in his chest, and dreams of escaping to a quiet, self-contained lifestyle in the woods. But, of course, they have a case to work on: in fact, several cases – drugs, gangs, murder and a hit-and-run, all ultimately linked.

The most moving part of the novel is the story of Sammy, a refugee from the persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan, who has followed the same route into Europe as the heroin that’s smuggled in (and which is no stranger to him either). When his asylum application is unsuccessful, he goes underground and starts playing with fire, Subutex and unsavoury characters.

I love the ‘social critique’ style of crime fiction which seems to be on the rise now, and this is a great addition to that school of writing.

 

 

Strange Narrators, Unusual Minds

This May is my month of eccentric and genre-bending reading. After three mammoth books, I’ve now had the opportunity to read three very unusual ones, in which we are taken into the mind of the narrator so completely, that we are nearly in danger of suffocation. All three books were interesting, although not outstanding, and certainly not the kind I would want to reread.

HarrietKrohnKarin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

Karin Fossum and her Inspector Sejer have always been more on the introspective and melancholy side of the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon. Her pace is leisurely, she recounts detail after detail, and she always focuses on the psychological drama rather than action scenes. This one is even more extreme than others I’ve read in the series, certainly not¬†your standard crime novel. Sejer barely makes an appearance in the proceedings. It is much more in the vein of ‘Crime and Punishment’, as we see the reasons behind a rather terrible and sad crime, and its consequences on the criminal and his family. Charlo Torp is an average man, flawed, weak, trying to do his best but never quite succeeding. Despite being a loving husband and doting father, he nevertheless gave in to his gambling addiction and now has to resort to a desperate act to pay off his debts and try to regain the affection and respect of his daughter.


Told entirely from Charlo’s point of view, we become privy to all his insecurities, doubts, anxieties, hopes and wishes. We are made to feel sorry for him, but the author never whitewashes his crime, never makes us doubt the criminal justice system. She just shows us that things are never quite black and white, that any one of us can resort to extreme solutions if we are desperate enough.

And who is Harriet Krohn? An inoffensive elderly woman, a victim, a nobody. Fossum is very subtle at showing that victims deserve names and dignity.

FlyTrapFredrik Sjöberg: The Fly Trap

I was sure this one was a novel and kept waiting for something to happen, for a change to occur and the narrator to learn something. But I later found out that it is in fact non-fiction, which would explain why it feels more like a loose collection of thoughts and essays, rather than a coherent whole. It is a meditation on the nature of obsession, on collectors, on explorers, on classification. And just when you think it is all about entomology it suddenly ends with a discussion about art and forgeries. There are some witty and profound observations about life and human nature, and the writing has an almost hypnotic, very restful quality to it. Perhaps a book to dip into while on holiday on an island, whether Scandinavian or not.

affaireEliette Abécassis: Une affaire conjugale 

Hard-hitting story of a divorce, showing just how nasty people can get in the process. Told entirely from the viewpoint of the wronged, downtrodden yet ultimately vengeful wife, you begin to wonder just how reliable a narrator she really is. Depressing but very readable, it does feel at times a bit like a soap opera, and there is an awful lot of Googling and Facebook chat going on, as if to make this timeless tale feel more modern. The main protagonist is a songwriter (lyrics), and she refers to several French chansons to express her pain and anxieties, perhaps to create a little distance. There are also some quite sharp observations about the ‘industry’ of lawyers, helpers, counsellors, financial advisers etc. that has sprung up to fleece people at their most vulnerable moment, i.e. when going through a divorce. ¬†However, there is also genuine poignancy, especially when describing the fears of the negative effects on the children.

Have you come across books recently which were well-written, solid, yet which failed somehow to captivate you entirely? Books which you feel you ought to have liked more, but just didn’t?

What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else.¬†

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not. ¬†And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille
The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness Рa symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary
English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill ¬† ¬† ¬† Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok
Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love¬† ¬† ¬† Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...
English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.

Crime Fiction Pick of July

Come and join me over at Mysteries in Paradise, led by the very able and well-read Kerrie, to see what everyone has been reading this month.  In my case, fewer books got read this month, for a very simple reason called school holidays!

Even fewer got reviewed, so let me just add a sentence or two about my thoughts for each one:

1) Bernard Minier: The Frozen Dead

A strange tale involving a decapitated  horse, a serial killer and a mental asylum in the Pyrenees. Exciting read to cool off during the hot summer months (it takes place in winter, as you might have guessed from the title).  Full review will be shortly available on Crime Fiction Lover.

2) Frédérique Molay: The 7th Woman

Gokan3) Diniz Galhos:¬†GŇćkan ¬†(in French, no English translation available yet)

Tarantino-like crime caper set in Japan, involving an American assassin, a French professor from the Sorbonne, grumpy yakuza chasing each other and a bottle of saké belonging to (you guessed it!) Quentin Tarantino.  Dynamic, explosive and just a shade incomprehensible.

4) Denise Mina: Garnethill

How did I ever miss this series?  A fantastic narrative voice, plunging you into the gritty world of low-paid jobs, drugs and Glasgow squalour. Not as grim as it sounds: ultimately hopeful and uplifting.

5) Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You (a.k.a. The Indian Bride)

Almost unbearably sad story about settled, peaceful middle-aged Norwegian man Gunder Jomann and his Indian bride, who gets murdered as soon as she arrives in the country.  It was disturbing to see how evil deeds can arise out of nowhere, in the apparently most peaceful little town in one of the safest countries in the world.  Not your average police procedural, and one that will haunt me for weeks to come.

6) Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence – will get a review of its own for my Works in Translation Challenge.

midas7) Anne Zouroudi: The Taint of Midas

Not as cosy as you might think at first sight, given the idyllic location of the Greek islands, the authoritative presence of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros and the overall charm of the author’s writing style. ¬†The ‘whodunit’ component was not quite compelling enough, but this is a book to savour for its characters, descriptions and telling details. ¬†Perfect holiday read, in the best sense of the word.

8) M.C. Grant: Devil with a Gun

Another great holiday read, this time a would-be noir set in San Francisco, featuring the Russian mafia and starring Dixie Flynn, the most feisty, witty, don’t care-ish female detective (actually, a journalist) since V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. ¬†Review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover.

9) The PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories 2012

The quality of the stories is not in doubt, but I was somewhat disappointed by the uniformity of the selection. ¬†All the stories were rather wistful and nostalgic, all a bit oblique – sometimes too much so, to the point where I felt like saying ‘So what?’. ¬†But perhaps that’s just me being obtuse.

FossumHappy to say that half of my reads were by women authors this month, and four of them were originally written in another language. ¬†And my Crime Pick of the Month? ¬†It’s a tie between Denise Mina and Karin Fossum, very hard to choose, ¬†but perhaps the Fossum book will linger in my memory longest.