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.