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 WATER'S EDGE - Karin Fossum
Walking through the woods one warm September day, Reinhardt and Kristine Ris pass a man who is in a state of agitation. Unusually in a small town, he does not return Kristine's smile and drives off in a hurry. As the couple continue on their walk they make a terrible discovery: lying in a cluster of trees is the lifeless body of a young boy. It is a moment that will change their lives forever.
One of the things that I particularly love about really good crime fiction is the way that it highlights the human condition - warts and all. The thing I particularly love about Karin Fossum's books is the way that she explores the notion of the sad, the stupid, the moments in which things go awry. To my mind, there's something profoundly more sobering about the notion of momentary mistake or misjudgement - rather than the automatic presumption of evil.
THE WATER'S EDGE tackles the difficult subject of the death of a child (and the disappearance of another). When Reinhardt and Kristine Ris briefly pass an agitated man at the start of one of their regular walks, they have no idea that they will need to remember that man, his appearance, his state of mind and his vehicle. They only realise that after they discover the body of a young boy in the woods, and Inspector Sejer starts asking a lot of questions. The circumstances of the boy's death appear to be indicating a dreadful fate for the little boy, although the exact cause of death remains a mystery for quite a while. Sejer's investigation takes on an even more sinister overtone when a second little boy disappears.
Whilst the death of the little boy and the search for his attacker is paramount to Sejer, there's some interesting psychological exploration going on in THE WATER'S EDGE. Reinhardt and Kristine's marriage is a fragile affair to start off with, although Reinhardt's bull-headed stubbornness and self-involvement means he probably had no idea that Kristine has been having second thoughts about the relationship for a long time. As Reinhardt's voyeuristic reaction to the discover of the little boy becomes more and more extreme, it simply confirms for Kristine that her marriage has been a mistake. Add to that Reinhardt's refusal to have children and Kristine's increasing yearning for a child, and this is a relationship which is destined for problems. The portrayal of the affects of the boy's death in such a personal thing as the relationship of the hapless discoverers of the body poignantly draws a picture of how profound and unexpected the affects of murder can be.
The other side of the story - the perpetrator is equally telling. As strange as this may seem, there's some room for compassion for the perpetrator of these acts - these moments of misjudgement. Lifelong damage, instant mistakes, the sad, the pathetic, the inexcusable, the stupid, the unwittingly cruel, shame and personal loathing. It applies equally to the death of a poor little boy, his body laid out with some care and reverence in the woods, as it does to another little boy - overweight, over-indulged, different, ashamed and shamed against, who has gone missing.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN - Fred Vargas
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn't search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted.
When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, the press take up the story with amusement and psychiatrists trot out their theories.
THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is the first book in the Adamsberg series by French writer Fred Vargas. As they have been translated out of series order, fans of this fantastic set of books know Adamsberg well by now, without having had the chance to be in at the beginning so to speak. This release gives the reader a unique opportunity. For existing fans a chance to see where Adamsberg came from, and to consider a first book, in light of knowing how good the series has become. For new readers a chance to start at the beginning if that is your preference.
The strange blue circles that start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, each circle enclosing a seemingly pointless and meaningless little article - cigarette lighters, badges, a hat, a doll's head, seem to most people to be a distraction. The press take up the story with great amusement and psychiatrists and other experts are soon making pronouncements on what the artist is trying to say (or not!). Adamsberg seems to be the only person who feels the stirring of malice and sees cruelty in the circles. He is the only person who doesn't seem all that surprised when the body of a woman is found - her throat savagely cut, placed carefully in the middle of one of the chalk circles.
Adamsberg is not your traditional policeman. He's unorthodox, seemingly permanently distracted, he's a thinker and an acute, but unobtrusive observer. He's profoundly aware of human nature yet he often has flashes of insight which seem to have come from nowhere. He constantly baffles his colleagues but his methods work and he's comfortable with who he is.
The thing a new reader to this series is going to get most clearly from THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN is a sense of the quirkiness of Adamsberg. The other ongoing feature of the books is the wonderful cast of supporting characters - mainly of them as eccentric as Adamsberg. All the characterisations become more assured as the series goes on, and at no stage does anyone become cartoonish or unbelievable. There is something quintessentially French about Adamsberg and the world that he inhabits - to this outsider at least. There's also something delightfully matter of fact about them all, and in particular, the way that Adamsberg works - leaving it totally up to his colleagues to adjust, just as it will undoubtedly require from some readers.
I understand that the translation order of a series is often dictated by the perceived popularity of a particular book. Perhaps it was felt that the character of Adamsberg got stronger, more clearly drawn in later books. Perhaps it was felt that the plot was not quite as unique as some of the later books. Regardless of the reason, it's a good book, it introduces Adamsberg with a very deft touch, and it does hint at where the rest of the series is going.
If you're new to the Adamsberg series, you could start with THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN and get a sense of how the rest of the series is going to progress. You can also read the entire series out of order if needs must and that's how the books become available for you. But if you're a fan of something with a strong sense of a place and the people, with a central character who is not afraid to be a little odd, a little eccentric, a little different; decent, caring and extremely human make sure you read these books.
The books in translated order:
2003 - Have Mercy On Us All (Published in French in 2001)
2004 - Seeking Whom He May Devour (Published in French in 1999)
2007 - Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (Published in French in 2004)
2008 - This Night's Foul Work (Published in French in 2006)
2009 - The Chalk Circle Man (Published in French in 1996)
There is also a standalone novel, released in translation in 2006
The Three Evangelists (Published in French in 1995)
ARCTIC CHILL - Arnaldur Indridason
On an icy January day the Reykjavik police are called to a block of flats where a body has been found in the garden: a young, dark-skinned boy, frozen to the ground in a pool of his own blood. The discovery of a stab wound in his stomach extinguishes any hope that this was a tragic accident.
There are some authors who are on my buy immediately list. Some of these books I can happily hoard - waiting until just the right moment to sit and enjoy them. And there are the ones that are buy and read immediately. ARCTIC CHILL has definitely been one of those books. As soon as it arrived in the house it danced around before my eyes until I could finish what I was reading and start this one.
And you know when you've picked up a fabulous book because you find yourself sitting in the car, reading it - "it's no problem I can wait in the car while you run in and do ......". You don't mind missing meals, you forget your favourite TV shows and you're finding excuses to miss meetings and social events so that you can just finish this book.
ARCTIC CHILL is also one of those unputdownable books because of the stylish way in which it scratches a number of itches - works on those points that I think make good crime fiction stand head and shoulders above many other possible reading options for me.
There's discussion and revelations of the society in which the crime occurs. In this case there is some stark observations of the difficulties of immigration within Icelandic society - from both the immigrants and the native resident viewpoint. The portrayal of both sides of the issue was fair, and deftly done - no preaching / no overt support for one side or the other. Many of these elements have considerable echoes with issues that arise in my own country, and the reminder that intolerance, suspicion as well as acceptance can be anywhere is both timely and pointed.
There's also one of those tremendous senses of place. Not just because Iceland is different climatically from elsewhere, but also in the way that the society itself is portrayed. Obviously it's a much smaller country than so many others, and their societal structures work differently from many that - for example - I'm used to. But the way that the Icelandic sensibility is portrayed in all of the Indridason books is revealing, without being a travelogue, too sentimental or too much of a documentary.
There are also great individual characters. The focus switches a little around a central group of police investigators all of whom take a different prominence throughout the individual stories, and throughout all the books. The central investigator though, the wonderfully rumpled, questioning, almost quixotic Erlendur always remains the central focus of the team though. His own personal background is complicated by the disappearance of his brother as children - an event that he has never fully come to terms with - and his divorce from his wife and separation from his children. All throught their adult years Erlendur and his two children have struggled to form a relationship which works for them all, and that struggle, whilst not taking over from the investigation or the crimes in each book, adds a level of sadness and somewhat unexpectedly hope to Erlendur.
And finally there's a good story about the death of a little boy. A child who it seems nobody could possibly have wanted dead. Unless there is a racial motive. Maybe revenge. The ultimate resolution is stark in what it says about the true nature of so much violent crime.
These books are definitely police procedurals, but they incorporate a lot of social commentary and personal insight. As atmospheric perhaps as Henning Mankell's Wallender series, Erlendur, however, isn't Wallender and there's a very different personality at work here. If you haven't read any of Arnaldur Indridason's fabulous books, then start somewhere with the series. If you can go back to the beginning, then you'll learn about him and his team as the books progress, but each also stands alone if you can't. The books so far have been:
Jar City (also published as Tainted Blood)
Silence of the Grave
The Draining Lake
THE REDBREAST - Jo Nesbo
Okay - a little housekeeping first. I can't get accented characters to work properly here ... yet. I'm working on it because it annoys me as much as it undoubtedly annoys readers of these posts.
Secondly, a little background to the Harry Hole (pronounced - we think - Hurler, but corrections from those who really know would be extremely welcome)! THE DEVIL'S STAR (released in English first) is actually number 5 in the series, THE REDBREAST (released in English second) is number 3 in the series and NEMESIS (to be released about now, so third) is actually number 4 in the series. Confused. So were the rest of us :)
On the upside the first two available books are readable out of order, although THE REDBREAST does explain Harry's situation and demeanor in THE DEVIL'S STAR.
But THE REDBREAST - well it's a wonderful book. As you often find in these wonderful, multi-layered and textural (that's textured as opposed to text) books from fabulous Scandinavian authors, we're treated to some entertainment, with an exploration of a societal problem / an itch that needs to be scratched. THE REDBREAST explores the ongoing fallout from the Second World War. That war has ramifications in the local society right up until the current day, and it's worthwhile reading THE REDBREAST just to see how the war affected other cultures, maybe countries that were much closer to the action than we were - for example - in Australia.
Nesbo is also the sort of author who is not afraid to cause the reader trauma - characters that you get close to can die, their death can involve other characters who continue on. Nothing is straight forward and nothing is constantly easy.
If this makes THE REDBREAST perhaps sound a bit too much, then it shouldn't. It's the sort of book that moves backwards and forwards between the then (1940's at War) and now (1999) as Harry investigates the existence of a very unexpected weapon, without necessarily knowing who has it or why. There are sub-plots built into the narrative as well, neo-Nazi's; drugs; all sorts of underground activities that clearly show that life these days isn't straightforward. All of those threads stack up in comparison against life in the war years - the complications of whose side to fight on, the reaction to collaborators when the war was over, the difficulties of surviving through a war, and in a time when attitudes were considerably different than they are today.
WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND - Fred Vargas
Commissaire Adamsberg is a man with a profound belief in his own hunches. Whilst a lot of his squad are preparing for a DNA technology study trip to Quebec, Adamsberg is really distracted. Firstly, he's distracted because his right hand man, Danglard is quite convinced that they are all going to die in a fiery plane crash and Adamsberg is wearing the brunt of keeping him calm and getting him on the plane. But there's something else that's not right and finally it dawns on Adamsberg that a newspaper report of the murder of a young woman in another district of France has triggered recognition in him. Recognition of nine other murders, all occurring between 1943 and 2003, all in different parts of France. Adamsberg is the only person who is absolutely sure that he knows who is doing these murders, despite the suspect's own funeral, years before.
Leading up to their trip away, Adamsberg runs his theories past a number of colleagues and the police in charge of the latest case and, as he feared, nobody places much credence in the idea that a man, dead for years, could be a prime suspect in the last murder. Adamsberg is obsessed with this case, not the least because he knows the man he suspects, Judge Fulgence, only too well, with a very close family and childhood connection to him.
When he trip to Quebec commences, the plane doesn't crash, and the team arrive and commence their training. Adamsberg returns to his lifelong habit of walking miles in an effort to exercise, think and clear his head, and in the process of which me meets a strange, young French woman with whom, despite his own better judgement, he forms a quick sexual liaison. When she threats to join him on the trip home, he is relieved when she doesn't show up to the plane. When he is lured back to Quebec after a few days, he finds that she has been stabbed to death and he is the prime suspect.
Adamsberg needs to get out of Canada and back to France, where he must conceal himself and solve not only the death of the young woman in Canada, but prove once and for all that a dead Judge is a killer.
There are some really interesting elements to WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND. Guilt - Adamsberg is not sure that he has not killed the young woman - he had blanked out for the period of time and he doesn't know why. Concealment - in order to be safe in France and solve the case of the Judge and the 10 past murders, he must remain free so he goes into a sort of hiding. Betrayal - there is obviously somebody in Adamsberg own team feeding information to the Canadian police about events in France as well. Friendship - Adamsberg takes refuge with an old friend who, along with her resident lodger and 80 year old computer hacker, they provide support and belief in Adamsberg. Loyalty - members of the French Police believe in Adamsberg and go out on a limb to help him. Madness - how could a deadman go on killing, and why would that man have started on a career of murder that has gone on for so long with so much effort to cover his tracks.
And then there is the madness of Adamsberg himself. He's always been a quirky character, prone to hunches, flashes of understanding (or guesswork - depending upon your perspective). He walks miles, he talks to himself, he believes totally in the idea that dead men can walk and he is tortured by events from his childhood. He's tricky, he's not straightforward and Vargas can write a story that weaves a web around the reader and draws you into the joy of the book.
THE DEVIL'S STAR - Jo Nesbo
In the middle of a long hot summer in Oslo, a young woman's body is found murdered in her flat, with one finger cut off and a tiny five pointed star diamond beneath her eyelid.
Detective Harry Hole is a chronic alcoholic, on the verge of being sacked from the police force; but it's summer, everyone's on holidays and his boss has no choice but to assign the case to Harry and his colleague Tom Waaler. Harry doesn't trust Tom and suspects him of, amongst other things, arms smuggling. Harry's drinking problem is greatly exacerbated by his guilt and distress over the death of his work partner, who he suspects was killed by Tom and despite his objections and his chronic drinking, he has to stay on the case.
A woman is then reported missing and the only clue is her severed finger wearing a ring with the same sort of star-shaped red diamond and everyone realises that they have a serial killer in Oslo.
As bodies continue to be discovered it seems that 5 is the common denominator: five points to the star, 5 fingers, and 5 days between each victim. Whilst Harry is determined to find this killer, and to expose Tom he finds himself on the run from the police and forced to act to protect the son of his estranged lover into the bargain.
Reading this synopsis, you can almost feel the reaction. Alcoholic policeman in trouble with his boss. A serial killer. Bizarre "clues" from the killer. Dangerous cliche ridden territory you would think, but from the opening of the book which describes the passage of water through a building from the point of view of the history of the building, through to the struggle that Harry has in handling his alcoholism, relationships, and the personal campaign he carries to expose corruption in the police force the cliches are not evident and this is a very promising debut novel.
Starting out with a disappearance, switching to the investigation of a serial killer, following the exposure of a corrupt policeman and then a final twist that is quite deftly handled taking the book from a crime fiction story to a tense thriller was clever and highly engaging. Oslo was an interesting setting with sufficient of the location provided to give some context to the story, but deftly avoiding becoming a travelogue.
Definitely an entry in the increasing list of Scandinavian crime fiction author must reads.
THE DRAINING LAKE - Arnaldur Indridason
FROM THE BOOK: Following an earthquake, the water level of an Icelandic Lake suddenly falls, revealing a skeleton half-buried in its sandy bed. It has clearly been there many years. There is a large hole in the skull. Yet more mysteriously, it is weighted down by a heavy radio device bearing inscriptions in Russian.
The fourth book translated into English by this Icelandic author takes a wide sweep through Iceland and time in THE DRAINING LAKE. In the Cold War era bright, left-wing Icelandic students were sent to study in Communist East Germany. The only lead and possible connection between the recently discovered skeleton and these student activities is very tenuous in the first place - the Russian equipment the corpse must have been weighted down with is Erlendur's only possible clue to the dead man's identity. That and a series of missing person reports of men from around the same time. In such a small society it seems inconceivable that these men could have just gone missing, but those reports, a possible car and a very weak series of clues are worked long and hard by Erlendur and his team in an attempt to identify this man and find out the truth of his death.
In THE DRAINING LAKE Erlendur is slowly getting his life together, his children are still causing him confusion and pain, but he seems to be more able to understand the impact that his past is having on him - there's also the smallest glimmer of a future with somebody he is very attracted to. The other members of his team are dealing with their own ongoing lives and there's a nice sense of progress and things changing in the team, without it distracting overly from the central story. There's a bit of time-shifting in THE DRAINING LAKE as well as you move back to the students in East Germany and then forward to the current day events in Iceland.
I really love this series - the books have such a great sense of place and personality and THE DRAINING LAKE is holding up the same involving standard of the early books.