I haven’t read Malla Nunn since her first book, A Beautiful Place to Die, a beautifully written novel. In that book she establishes her three central characters: Emmanuel Cooper, a white policeman; Shabalala, a Zulu policeman; and a Jewish doctor, Zweigman. The books are set in 1950’s South Africa, which makes all of these relationships loaded. In the first book the heaviness of the connections almost overwhelm the story. In this novel, Nunn’s fourth, the characters are established and comfortable and the story being told can run on its own steam.
This is an original and captivating novel. Set in Copenhagen on the campus of the University of Copenhagen, the politics swirling through academe are apparently brutal to the point of fatality. The central character, Anna Bella Nor, would probably get along well with Lisbeth Salander in terms of both brains and anger. Unlike Lisbeth, she’s more anchored to the world – she has parents, a toddler, an ex, friends, and she’s juggling the planned defense of her PhD thesis in biology while taking care of her daughter and, it turns out, helping to solve the murders of some colleagues.
The return of Ghanaian detective Darko Dawson is a very welcome one. I enjoyed Quartey’s first two novels in the series very much and I’m grateful to Soho Press for giving him a new home. Quartey, born in Ghana to an American and a Ghanian, has ended up in L.A. but his heart remains in Ghana and it’s on his sleeve as he relates the adventures of Detective Darko.
Darko is happily married and has a son with a heart condition – in the first two books his condition was worsening, and the Dawsons had no way to pay for surgery. That problem has been overcome as the book opens with little Hosiah recovering well with his anxious parents looking on. That’s a relief for all (including this reader) but Darko is called away from his son’s bedside before his leave is up to attend to a case in another city.
I had a bad reaction to the first Jo Nesbo title I tried, The Redbreast, and set him aside as unreadable, despite many enthusiastic customers’ responses to the contrary. Finally a few women in my book club recommended that I give The Snowman a try. I’m glad I did.
It’s hard to mess up a serial killer book, which this one is, but there are so many variations, that it’s also hard to be original in the particular sub-genre. Nesbo more than pulls it off, writing a complex, intelligent, twisty and emotionally penetrating thriller that’s very difficult to put down. This is the seventh book in Nesbo’s Harry Hole series. Harry is a Swedish police detective whose spiritual twins might be Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. He’s a tad cranky, he used to drink, his relationships are problematic, and he’s obsessed with the job, as well as being a very good detective. He needs all his smarts to catch the serial killer dubbed “The Snowman.”
Michael Gruber is one of the more original of all mystery writers, His wonderful brain takes the reader to all kinds of places, almost always an unexpected one. The Return is no different, following book editor Marder after a diagnosis of fatal cancer. Marder decides to spend his last days in Mexico, returning to the tiny birthplace of his beloved and now dead wife.
He doesn’t want to burden anyone with his illness, so he cashes out (he has a large stash, despite his profession as an editor), buys a house in Playa Diamente, Mexico, severs ties and heads out in a camper. Unbidden, a (scary) old buddy of his, Paul Skelly, turns up and refuses to be shaken no matter what.
The Absent One, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s second novel in his gripping Department Q series, creates one of the more interesting female characters in recent fiction. While Kimmie, the “absent one” of the title, is certainly not entirely sympathetic, as Adler-Olsen draws the reader deeper into her world there are sympathetic glimmers. Explanations of her behavior. And a portrayal of an exceptionally strong woman who ultimately chooses to do the right thing.
While that is part of this novel, this is also, like the first novel, a terrific thriller that will keep any reader glued to the page. Adler-Olsen has set up his two main characters, Carl and Assad, as a perfect yin and yang. They are the reliable and comfortable center of the novels, and in this one he’s added a third party, Rose, greeted by Carl as grumpily as he initially greeted Assad. Despite Rose’s alleged assignment of assembling new desks for their workspace, she manages to prove to Carl that she has plenty to offer.
“The story had something at once horrifying and sweet about it, something he had difficulty understanding.” – from Death and the Olive Grove
There are a few poets who are also mystery writers – Georges Simenon, Andrea Camilleri, Colin Cotterill, Matt Beynon Rees, Louise Penny, Karin Fossom – add to that short list Marco Vichi. I mean poets in a spiritual sense (though Fossom is actually one). Vichi’s blend of an almost delicate prose style with a gripping story, as well as a wider look at life, places him in that rarified company. What makes this book special is that it’s thought provoking as well as hard to put down.
This novel has garnered lots of praise and attention, as well as winning the Edgar for Best First Novel. I can say it was a well-deserved award – this is a very original and quirky novel that is more than worthy of all the attention. It’s not much like any other novel I’ve ever read – it has spy elements, international elements, and a strong domestic element that brings what is primarily a spy thriller into the more human realm. It made me like it much more.
I’m not big on spy thrillers and they haven’t been a big part of the genre for awhile – though it’s making a comeback, certainly, with the success of authors like Vince Flynn or the slyly imaginative Mike Lawson. Pavone brings yet another take.
Adler-Olsen joins a long line of wildly popular (and actually wildly different from each other) Scandanavian crime writers who started with Henning Mankell and were really ramped up by the popularity of Steig Larssen. I haven’t been a huge fan of some of the other Scandinavians (including Jo Nesbo), but I love Karin Fossum’s lovely prose and her Ruth Rendell-ish manner of telling a searing and concise story. Adler-Olsen may prove to be a favorite for me – I couldn’t put this book down.
Mysteries set in the world of music are few and far between, but those that are musically inclined tend to be excellent. Perhaps it’s because a gifted musician also has some of the skills of a mathematician and so is skilled at assembling a good puzzle, but whatever the reason, the addition of music as a “setting” always adds quite a bit to a good read.
My favorites are Cynthia Harrod-Eagles series where the main character’s partner/wife plays for an orchestra, and Gerald Elias’ wonderful series that reflect his own skills as a classical violinist. Rick Blechta’s novel, The Fallen One, features a female opera singer. This was new territory for me, as I’ve seen an opera once or twice – but decades ago – so my knowledge of opera (other than knowing titles of famous operas) is limited. I enjoyed what Blechta had to share about this art form.