Once a successful surgeon, Frederick Welin now lives in self-imposed exile on an island in the Swedish archipelago. Nearly twelve years have passed since he was disgraced for attempting to cover up a tragic mishap on the operating table. One morning in the depths of winter, he sees a hunched figure struggling towards him across the ice. His past is about to catch up with him.
ITALIAN SHOES by Henning Mankell goes to prove, once again, that a really good writer is a really good writer, regardless of the genre, styling, or setting of the book. Exploring the themes of estrangement, loss, fear and isolation ITALIAN SHOES isn't a crime fiction novel, it's a poignant, beautiful, sad, uplifting and evocative look at a man, his life, his mistakes and his redemption.
Frederick Welin is sixty-six years old, a former surgeon who has spent the last 12 years of his life, purposely exiled to the island home that his grandparents left him. He has carved out a life with his dog, his cat, and occasional visits from Jansson the postman. Woken just before dawn on a dark December morning, the sound of the "ice singing" evokes memories of his past - his father, his grandparents, his island, his professional and personal mistakes.
In a strange way he's not surprised then, when early in the New Year his past comes back to him in the form of a little old lady on a walker, making painful slow progress across the ice towards him. He had loved Harriet Hörnfeldt intensely, and he'd abandoned her abruptly in 1966. Dying of cancer, she has come looking for him. She wants answers, she wants Frederick to finally make good on a promise he made all those years ago. She wants to see the pool in the middle of the northern forest, where he talked of one joyous day with his father.
A road journey, in a beat up old car, in the harshest weather in decades, follows. Unsure if he can even find the pond, the two embark not just on a quest for the place, but also, in a touchingly clumsy manner, some understanding of how they both got to where they are now jointly and separately in their lives. They argue and bicker, rescue abandoned dogs, leave behind Frederick's own pets in a mildly distracting way, but find the pool. Frederick nearly loses his own life on the ice in the pond, Harriet saves him, they move on in the journey, to somebody, somewhere... but more would be telling too much.
ITALIAN SHOES is a moving, tightly drawn portrait of a couple of people who could seem, on the face of it, emotionally shut down and withdrawn. What Mankell does is draw you into the lives and thoughts of Frederick mostly, and Harriet to a slightly lesser degree as Frederick is forced to consider his past and how he wants his future to be. What Mankell has done is written a central character who it is really easy to dislike, and yet... A profoundly self-centred man, Frederick's life has been an odd combination of bravado and running away. He's a faithless lover, a haphazard animal owner, a brilliant surgeon whose arrogance led him to make a profound mistake - which he ran away from. A snoop, a bad-tempered man, a loner who regards the world with suspicion there's an awful lot to dislike about Frederick, and yet, Frederick is very human and his slow, hesitant steps to redemption, recompense, are profoundly touching in the main because of their simple humanity.
Quiet, intense, low key almost ITALIAN SHOES is a beautiful, glorious tale of confrontation, human frailty and redemption.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE - Stieg Larsson
Lisbeth’s friend, Blomqvist is working on a major story for his magazine Millennium. They are about to blow wide open the details of human trafficking for prostitution in Sweden. They are going to name names. The couple working on to story are gunned down in their apartment and Salander’s prints are on the gun left behind. A country-wide hunt for the girl with the violent past ensues; most think she’s guilty but when the investigating officer begins to question the people in Salander’s life, he gets a very different picture of the woman described in official records.
I’ve heard the expression “curates egg” and know what it means but I’ve often wondered where that expression came from. I found a nice explanation of its origin on the Phrase Finder website.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE fits that definition exactly. Good in parts but annoying and exasperating in others. The book begins with a recap of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and a very detailed account on the minutiae of the life of Lisbeth Salander. In fact these elements are so detailed that its past page 150 before the meat of the story even begins. I nearly gave up on the book, but a number of people urged me to keep going because it was worth it. I did persevere and I’m glad I did. But there were other things in the book that I struggled with: overlong-fight scenes with a minor character that was almost invincible which might have worked in an action movie but seemed silly and out of place in the book and a scene with Salander in danger towards the end that had me rolling my eyes.
My reaction to the book had me asking questions about the accolades the book has received. Does it truly merit this or is there the “Marilyn Monroe” effect happening? Would the books have been as universally acclaimed if the author hadn’t died tragically young before the books were published? How much editing was done on THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE? Was there a sense of “we mustn’t’ touch this work”? Would the publishers have allowed nearly 150 pages of back story and Salander’s daily life to stand as it does if Larsson had lived?
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, but I enjoyed it with reservations which not many seem to have expressed. Am I alone? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
ECHOES FROM THE DEAD - Johan Theorin
Can you ever come to terms with a missing child?
Julia Davidsson has not. Her five-year-old son disappeared twenty years previously on the Swedish Island of Öland. No trace of him has ever been found.
Until his shoe arrives in the post. It has been sent to Julia's father, a retired sea-captain still living on the island.
Soon he and Julia are piecing together fragments of the past: fragments that point inexorably to a local man called Nils Kant, known to delight in the pain of others.
This book is just classic Swedish / Scandinavian crime fiction. Slow, involved, intricate, revealing and complex, ECHOES FROM THE DEAD concentrates very much on Julia, and her father, and their slow and careful repairing of a relationship which was torn apart at the time that Julia's son disappeared.
Julia hasn't coped at all since her son's disappearance and she's at a particularly low ebb in life when her father calls her back to the small, closed in island on which the boy disappeared. Julia's father, Gerlof, lives in a home now, but he's still connected with the island and the people. And that's the other thing that this book draws out beautifully - connections. Much of the solution to the disappearance of the little boy relies on the connection that only time can bring. Gerlof and his cronies are islanders from way back, and the little tweaks of memory, knowing who to ask about what, and where to look for information is part of the reason that Gerlof and Julia are finally able to get to the bottom of the boy's loss. Guilt and revenge also play their own part, as does stupidity and a momentary loss of control which leads to an even greater loss in years to come. As does suspicion. The character of Nils is particularly poignant - guilty perhaps, but not of everything, it's easy to make an outsider / somebody who is perhaps not quite "all there" responsible for everything. It's really really easy to jump to conclusions and get things wrapped up all neat and tidy.
It's undoubtedly a slow book, but slow is exactly what you want in this instance. You're pulled into this tiny little community. You're pulled into the profound grief and total loss of Julia, you're pulled into the way that Gerlof tries to put things right with his own daughter. But none of these things - after all those years - can be resolved quickly, and the book doesn't push you through, but quietly, understatedly allows the events to pull you to them. It's a character study at the same time as it's an investigation. The resolution is complicated and messy and untidy and maybe a bit unsatisfactory if you're into things nicely all tied up and done and dusted - but that's exactly as it so often is.
And that's what makes it classic Scandinavian crime fiction for this reader, nothing is easy, often things can't be wrapped up and ticked off, people make decisions that have profound long-term effects and violence is never going to be the solution.
THE BLACK PATH - Asa Larsson
The dead woman was found on a frozen lake, her body riddled with evidence of torture. Instantly, Inspector Anna-Maria Mella knows she needs help. Because the dead woman - found in workout clothes with lacy underwear beneath them - was a key player in a mining company whose tentacles reach across the globe. Anna-Maria needs a lawyer to help explain some things - and she knows one of the best.
THE BLACK PATH is the sort of book that you need to read with your preconceptions and expectations firmly locked in a drawer. Having not read the second book in the series yet, I know something happened to Rebecka in that book, but the details aren't important to understanding, from the start of THE BLACK PATH, that she has been through a traumatic experience and she's struggling back into normal life.
But one thing you will find with THE BLACK PATH is that Rebecka, or Anna-Maria or any of the other characters that either reoccur from earlier books, or step forward into the limelight in this book, won't necessarily remain as the focus of the book. This isn't a book that's specifically about a single person's journey through the events that lead up to a crime (perhaps with the exception of the victim herself), but a story about the swirling circumstances of lives lived. That's not to say that the book has an unfocused or messy feel to it, rather the opposite. But it does give the way the story unfolds a fascinating, sort of ephermeral feel to it, as the focus moves around, and the events that somebody - but not everybody - are involved in, all lead to a resolution.
I have to say, that for me, there was a strong sense of Swedish about this book. But this was a combination of things. The weather, the environment, the sensibility of the people, the way that the supernatural interwove with the mundane facts of life. The book also incorporates some glimpses into Sami culture which were absolutely fascinating.
As with the first of this series that I read, I still find Rebecka and Anna-Maria slightly offputting as characters. Don't know why, but they just are. Having said that, they are fascinating, and people I'm interested in and care about slightly from afar. There's some real skill in writing a story with characters like these that keeps you so involved. But I was also very taken with the lack of predictable styling of the book - I liked the way that the story evolved without the need to ensure series characters got their alloted page space.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE - Stieg Larsson
Famous journalist sentenced to prison. Mikael Blomkvist, editor of Millennium magazine, is found guilty of slandering billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Henrik Vanger, C.E.O. of the powerful Vanger Corporation, revives hunt for solution to niece's disappearance Harriet Vanger vanished 40 years ago from secluded Hedeby Island. Lisbeth Salander declared legally incompetent Computer hacker Lisbeth (code-named "wasp") loses control of her own affairs.
Crime fiction fans are frequently a talkative lot, and news of a phenomenally good book spreads very very quickly. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has been "the" book on quite a lot of people's lips for what is actually a startlingly short time since it was released - particularly released in English. Needless to say, the publicity has been pretty well universally positive. So reading the much vaunted book was an interesting experience. Often when a book is talked about so much, you can subconsciously approach it with just a little reservation - could it possibly live up to the hype?
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO undoubtedly lived up to the hype. But why? On the face of it, it's an interesting idea for a mystery. A 16 year old girl disappears - completely - from a "locked island". No trace of her is ever found - no body / no sign. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, 40 years later, is haunted by her disappearance. He believes she was murdered but how, by who, and where she ended up - he can't explain.
Mikael Blomkvist is an unlikely murder investigator. A financial journalist, he has his own problems with a massive fine and a jail sentence for the libel of Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. It's a guilty verdict that he believes is wrong, but he can't prove his side of the case. It doesn't hurt that Vanger is a life-long enemy of Wennerstrom and he may hold a key to proving Wennerstrom is corrupt. But before he will hand over that key, Blomkvist is contracted to seemingly write the story of the Vanger family. He moves to the same closed little island that is the family's base and whilst investigating the family story, he is really trying to work out what happened to Harriet.
Add to that the enigmatic and, well, flat out a bit weird character of Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker, declared mental incompetent, genius investigator, who is originally contracted to investigate Blomkvist's background for Vanger, she has issues of her own that she has to deal with. Her guardianship situation is complicated when her mentor falls ill, her physical and mental wellbeing is abused and threatened by the new guardian. But anybody who thinks that Salander really is mentally incompetent hasn't bothered to look long and hard at her. When Blomkvist and Salander team up, the truth, hidden by a few for a long number of years, is finally revealed.
On the face of it, the plot alone is enough to make THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO interesting, but there's a lot more to the book than just a well executed and nicely complicated plot (as well as some seriously clever ways of getting to the bottom of the story). The book also builds a set of characters - both the main characters and the bit-part players - and the details about their lives that encourages the reader to be involved with them. You care about them. You have a glimpse into their lives that engages you totally. Interestingly enough, they are all well-drawn. Even bit players aren't easily forgotten, even in the complication of the plot - they stand out. There are some elements to those lives that seem quintessentially "Scandinavian" - a rather laid back approach to sex and marriage being the most obvious of those, but there is also a vulnerability to those characters that really makes you care about them. And all the way through the book, you worry, just ever so slightly - or at least this reader did - worried almost constantly about Salander. Would you / could she survive and thrive? As the end of the book draws closer and all of the threads conclude, there is frequently a feeling that somebody - one of them - a character that you've grown to like - may not make it. And at the very end of the book, when you know everything, you're left waiting impatiently for the next book in the series (due in 2009) because you still just have this sneaking feeling.....
It's undoubtedly an amazing book. How lucky we are that there are 3 of these books. How sad that there will be no more than 3.
Stieg Larsson died suddenly after delivering them to his publisher - he did not know about the phenomena he created.