Books of the month: April 2015

Pick of the month

TheHuntingDogsHorstThe good thing about having completed only a paltry 4 books for the month is that it made picking a favourite pretty easy, though I think Jørn Lier Horst’s THE HUNTING DOGS would have made the grade even if it encountered more competition. The Norwegian police procedural offers the twist of putting an ethical policeman on the suspect’s side of the ledger for much of the novel and Horst uses this angle to explore the nature of policing in a thoughtful and intelligent way.

The full list (titles preceded by the ++ symbol are all recommended)

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 10/25
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US 1/6
Personal – Outside my comfort zone Read at least 6 books that aren’t crime/mystery/thriller novels 2/6
Personal – Read Globally Read at least 10 books set in countries that aren’t Australia, America or England 16/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 10/20
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 0/0
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly ‘pick a year’ reading challenges hosted at Past Offences 4/6

I didn’t really make a lot of progress during April. Aside from participating in the Past Offences reading challenge and not buying any books from overseas it was more of a status quo kind of month. I blame a visit by overseas relatives, binge-watching season three of House of Cards and general busy-ness for attending so poorly to my reading in general and my goals in particular. My May mantra will be “must try harder”.

 Looking ahead

A final reason for April’s scant list of books completed was that I spent the last half of the month on one book which I still haven’t finished. I’m about three quarters of the way through Leif G. W. Persson’s FREE FALLING, AS IF IN A DREAM – all 600 pages of it. But I am determined to finish it and the remaining shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award before the winner is announced mid-month. Even if it kills me (seriously, that’s a possibility…the Persson book in the hardback my library loaned me is heavy enough to be a dangerous bloody weapon and I’ve twice fallen asleep and bashed myself in the head with it).

I’m planning to participate in the Past Offences classics challenge to read a 1949 book with Dame Agatha Christie’s CROOKED HOUSE. I don’t recall ever reading it and as lots of people count it among her best I’m looking forward to it.

What about you? Had any particularly good reads during April? How are your reading goals progressing? Got something good lined up for May?

Review: THE HUNTING DOGS by Jorn Lier Horst

TheHuntingDogsHorstThe third novel (which has been translated into English) to feature senior Norwegian policeman William Wisting is, at least on one level, a standard procedural novel with two murder investigations playing out. The first of these is a high-profile murder case Wisting thought he solved 17 years earlier. But a lawyer acting for the man convicted of the crime is able to demonstrate that evidence against his client was fabricated. Wisting is castigated in the national media and immediately suspended from duty, though not before he manages to ‘borrow’ the archived case notes so that he can review the investigation himself. The second investigation is the present-day murder of a middle-aged man that Wisting’s daughter Line, a journalist, becomes involved with.

The idea of the police getting it wrong – either through incompetence or deliberate malice – is pretty bloody terrifying so stories in which such scenarios play out are always compelling. What makes THE HUNTING DOGS stand out is the way the book shows us how such things might happen even when the person leading the investigative team is an ethical man. Horst really does a great job teasing out this theme across the whole novel in which mounting pressure from all sides as well as their own personal demons force investigators to behave like the hunting dogs of the novel’s title. At one point he allows Wisting, now experiencing what it feels like to be interrogated rather than to be the one asking the questions, to observe

Before the law [people] were innocent until the opposite had been proven. As far as investigators were concerned though, it was the opposite. The starting point for them was that the person in the chair was guilty. To solve a case, it was crucial to believe that, to have a firm belief that the person facing you had done what he was charged with…It was like a sports contest. If you did not believe, and believe that the game was worth winning, you lost.

Perhaps this concept should be obvious to someone who has read as much crime fiction as I have but I don’t think I’ve ever really encountered it as thoughtfully depicted as it is in this novel. I especially admire the even-handed way Horst has explored the theme: not giving the police a pass (surely a temptation for a retired policeman) but also not heaping irrational criticism upon them.

The stories themselves are complicated but I found both threads easy enough to follow and enjoyed seeing the similarities and differences in approach taken by the journalist and the policeman. Though I couldn’t help wondering how much artistic license was taken when depicting the surveillance operation towards the end of the novel. I think with the media landscape being what it is these days most of our newspapers would struggle to come up with one chap on a moped for such an exercise, so to read of Line’s paper having 4 or 5 manned vehicles and other people on foot all able to give up many hours to follow one man did stretch the bounds of my credulity.

THE HUNTING DOGS is definitively in the investigator’s camp as far as perspectives are concerned. This is not one of those crime novels that offers a sense of things from the victim’s perspective or the culprit’s so there’s not a huge amount of character development. But Wisting is depicted quite thoughtfully. In addition to the soul searching he does professionally his personal life undergoes a metamorphosis when the issue of living with someone so consumed by their job comes under scrutiny.

My favourite kind of crime novels are the ones that explore interesting political or social themes in a way that makes me think and THE HUNTING DOGS is a winner on that front. Without once giving in to the temptation to lecture or be didactic Horst offers a thoughtful examination of policing and the plausibility of the right thing happening for the wrong reasons. These complex issues – where no person or group is all right or all wrong – are the shades of grey I like to read about and I’ll be eagerly awaiting more translations of this author’s work.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’ve reviewed this novel’s predecessors, DREGS  and CLOSED FOR WINTER

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Anne Bruce
Publisher Sandstone Press [this translation 2014, original edition 2012]
ISBN 9781908737632
Length 323 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #8 in the William Wisting series (the third translated to English)

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Musings on the 2014 Petrona Award

In a few hours the winner of the 2014 Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel translated into English will be announced as part of CrimeFest festivities and, like last year, I’m quite glad not to be the one deciding. But having finally managed to squeeze all the shortlisted novels into my crowded reading schedule I feel the honourable thing to do is express my opinion before the winner is announced rather than waiting until I have the benefit of hindsight so I can sound knowledgeable.

First, the shortlist:

Next, some random observations:

  • It’s geographic spread is pretty good including one book set in each of Finland, Norway and Sweden, two set in Iceland and one (the Nesser) set in generic “Scandinavia”. Denmark is the only country to miss out on representation this year. It’s nice to see that Sweden doesn’t always have to dominate.
  • Two of the authors were represented last year (on the shortlist for the inaugural award which was won by Liza Marklund’s LAST WILL)
  • The gender mix is less diverse with only one female writer being included (though three of the six translators are women)
  • Perhaps the least diversity though is demonstrated by the types of crime novels represented. On this list there are no crime capers, no domestic suspense novels, no historical crime (though the Indriðason does contain a historical thread it’s not really what I’m thinking of), no spy-laden thrillers or hardboiled novels and nothing that comes close to what I think of as noir (despite the phrase Nordic Noir being bandied about with abandon on the blurbs).  In case there is doubt I do not mean this point as a criticism of the judges – they can only select from the eligible publications and, as pointed out by Irish crime novelist Declan Burke a couple of years ago, the Scandinavian stuff does tend towards the procedural novel in which some kind of official or quasi-official investigator tackles at least one case that is, at least broadly, a whodunit. Or at least that’s what gets translated for us English-readers.

And finally, my personal choice (though with my track record an unlikely winner)

  • For me CLOSED FOR WINTER and STRANGE SHORES aren’t really in the hunting. They’re both good but not great books
  • I can see why LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER might be the choice for some – parts of it are brilliant – but ultimately I thought the book could have done with a darned good edit to make it really shine
  • Any of the remaining three novels could easily walk away with the honours in my opinion. THE WEEPING GIRL has a fantastic plot that kept me guessing all the way and its morally ambiguous ending appeals to me. SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME surprised me by being better than I’ve come to expect from this author and it tackled a difficult subject (disability) very well. LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE is almost not a crime novel at all, it’s at least equally a love story, and is the one least likely to appeal to die-hard traditionalists but I loved its moodiness and the way its protagonist turned to something other than alcohol when depression threatened to overwhelm him.

By the width of a bee’s whisker I think I’d give the nod the Håkan Nesser’s THE WEEPING GIRL but it’s a close run thing.

I wonder what the judges will go for?

Petrona 2014

Review: CLOSED FOR WINTER by Jorn Lier Horst

ClosedForWinterHorstJr21310_fCLOSED FOR WINTER opens with a dead body being discovered in the summer cottage of a famous TV presenter. When Police Inspector William Wisting attends the site he is attached and his car stolen. With the corpse being…lost…before an identification can be made and one of their inspectors caught up in the night’s events, police are behind the eightball when beginning their investigation. Is it a case of robbery gone wrong or is the apparent drug connection something they should be tracking down?

I was rather enchanted with the only other book of Jorn Lier Horst’s to have been translated into English so far (DREGS) but am afraid CLOSED FOR WINTER didn’t win me over in quite the same way. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, merely that it doesn’t have that elusive ‘something extra’ that elevates a book from the crowded middle of the pack. I suspect this is partly due to a personal prejudice of mine: I am bored by stories which deal with drugs, drug running, drug criminals and so on. But I also feel like this book had a lot more exposition than it needed, to the point that some of read as if it belonged more to the official reports and press releases I’m sure Horst has produced by the truckload in his capacity as a real-life police investigator than to a work of fiction. It’s not a particularly long book by today’s standards but even so it dragged a bit for me as it got bogged down in a lot of unnecessary, awkward details.

There are things to like about the book though, including the way it explores the nature or motivation for criminality. During the last third of the story it becomes clear there are strong connections between the case and organised gangs working out of Lithuania so Wisting and one of his colleagues travel there to conduct interviews. Though they do indeed discover evidence of the kind of gangs they’ve been looking for they also see – or at least Wisting does – that the criminals are subject to a kind of poverty that simply doesn’t exist in Norway and he is noticeably affected by this. It did my jaded heart good to imagine there are high-ranking police who can still be touched in this way.

CLOSED FOR WINTER is a fairly standard procedural that was entertaining enough to keep reading but something I feel like I’ll forget the details of fairly shortly. The writing is a little too stilted and the aspects that are meant to give the novel interest, such as the dramatic number of dead birds falling from the sky, were too easy to guess at for me to rate this in the top echelon of traditional crime novels.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I reviewed this novel’s predecessor, DREGS, in 2011

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Anne Bruce
Publisher Sandstone Press [this translation 2013, original edition 2011]
ISBN 9781908737496
Length 321 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #7 in the William Wisting series (the second translated to English)

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Review: Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst

Dregs is the sixth novel in Jørn Lier Horst’s series featuring Chief Inspector William Wisting who lives and works in Stavern south of Oslo, though annoyingly (for the linguistically challenged like myself) it’s the first to be translated to English. It is a classic police procedural that sees Wisting and his team investigating the appearance of two severed left feet clad in running shoes which wash ashore in separate incidents. The area is not exactly rife with crime so the Police have a reasonably good idea that the feet are probably related to four outstanding missing persons cases on their books. However, they still have a lot of work to do to piece together the case and the feet on their own do not provide much help and the coppers have to rely on good, old-fashioned legwork to get to the bottom of things.

I enjoyed this book very much not least because it often went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I love that in a plot. Without car chases, gruesomely described violence (I know severed feet sounds bad but it is handled well) or any of the other hallmarks of a certain kind of crime fiction Horst has produced a very clever and readable story that has a number of surprises. Although sometimes hindered by their boss who is a little too keen to discuss cases with the media Wisting and the team do manage make some sense out of the bizarre case by linking it to events from the area’s past history and I enjoyed seeing the police work depicted so credibly. The fact there is a good team and a subtle sense of humour on display added to my enjoyment.

Wisting is a great character and though I would like to read about his earlier exploits (hint hint publishers) I thought the book did a good job of presenting him.There’s enough of his background so that new readers are not left floundering but not so much that those familiar with the series would be bored. What I liked about Wisting is that although he has had some tragedy in his life (he is a widower for example) it has not left him the dysfunctional wreck common to crime fiction. He’s in a new relationship with a woman in the town and he manages to maintain a good relationship with his daughter. He doesn’t think much of her current job interviewing convicted murderers or her boyfriend (who has been in prison twice) but he refrains from getting on her case about these things which is undoubtedly the hardest but most sensible thing to do in the situation. On the other hand Wisting has his head in the sand a bit about his own health but this is such a realistic trait that I thought it added very well to his overall character.

I also liked the way the author gently but intelligently explored social themes. Probably the most interesting of these for me was the notion of imprisonment as punishment being an ineffective method for dealing with murderers. Horst uses the character of Line, Wisting’s daughter who is a journalist, to tease this issue out in a series of interviews with convicted murderers who have been released from prison. It was a somewhat surprisingly thoughtful and balanced look at the issue, especially considering Horst was a policeman himself and could be expected to perhaps take a harder line on such an issue.

Dregs was very readable to me which I always attribute to excellent translation, in this case by Anne Bruce, as well as good original writing. I will look forward to reading more of this series though whether that proves to me earlier books or later ones remains to be seen.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Based on the fact there are at least two other recent crime novels featuring severed feet I’m clearly not the only person who has been following the bizarre news stories from Canada (and more recently the US) about unattached feet washing up on various shores. Sometimes it’s easy to see where novelists get their inspiration :)

Dregs has been reviewed (to pretty universal acclaim) at Crime Fiction Lover, Crime Segments, Crimepieces,  International Noir Fiction, Nordic Bookblog (I am so jealous that Peter has read the earlier books in their native language) and Petrona

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4.5/5
Translator Anne Bruce
Publisher Sandstone Press [2011]
ISBN 9781905207671
Length 310 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #6 in the William Wisting series (but the first available in English)
Source A gift from my fairy godmother
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.