Tag Archives for " suspense "

A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

future Earth - After Atlas by Emma NewmanAfter Atlas (Planetfall, A), a police procedural by Emma Newman set on a future Earth

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In Planetfall, published in 2015, British science fiction author Emma Newman introduced us to the Earth-like planet where a massive starship had delivered 1,000 people many years earlier. The ship was called Atlas. The following year, Newman brought out a sequel, After Atlas, which portrayed life on Earth for the billions who remained behind. It’s a grim picture of society in what appears to be sometime in the 22nd century.

This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers (successors to our contemporary 3-D printers). Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude. One of those people is Carlos Moreno.

Carlos Moreno is a brilliant, top-level homicide investigator contracted to the Ministry of Justice of Norope (northern Europe) for fifty years; he has thirty years to go. But the contract is extended every time he overspends his allowance, because Carlos has a powerful hankering for real food. And every time he does something to displease his boss. As he reflects, “A black mark puts another year on my contract. Three black marks and they’ll send me in for ‘calibration.’ I shudder at the thought of it. Like all expensive property, I’m kept in good working order.”

Carlos, known as Carl to friends, is assigned by the ministry to investigate the death of one of the world’s most famous people, a man named Alejandro Casales, who heads a large and wealthy religious cult based in Texas. Alejandro has died in a hotel room in England, an apparent suicide. But the case is complicated by more than Alejandro’s celebrity status: his body was hacked to pieces with an axe following his death by hanging.

Further complicating the case is Carlos’ history with The Circle, the cult Alejandro led. Abandoned by his mother as a baby and neglected by his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his wife deserted the family to leave Earth on Atlas, Carlos spent eight years with the cult in Texas. He grew to hate Alejandro and his father as well.

Using the massive information resources available to him through his Artificial Personal Assistant, the avatar who personifies his chip, Carlos doggedly pursues his investigation at a pace that would astonish any 21st-century cop. Newman tells the tale with a wealth of intriguing detail—and she creates suspense like the best of them. The book also works well as a police procedural. After Atlas is an excellent piece of work.

I felt differently about Newman’s previous novel, Planetfall, which I reviewed at A promising but disappointing new science fiction novel. For links to my reviews of other books in this genre that I’ve loved, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

 

Karin Slaughter’s engrossing new thriller, “The Good Daughter”

new thrillerThe Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The Good DaughterKarin Slaughter‘s new thriller, her nineteenth novel, is set in rural Georgia, like most of the Grant County and Will Trent novels which established her reputation. She was born there and now lives in Atlanta—and it shows. Slaughter’s characters are clearly native to the area. They might live in one or another neighboring state, but nowhere else.

Samantha and Charlotte Quinn are now in their early forties. Known as Sam and Charlie to family and friends, they’re the daughters of Russell (Rusty) Quinn, a criminal defense lawyer who has gained the enmity of nearly everyone who lives in the region. He has defended murderers and rapists, often successfully, and frequently receives death threats as a consequence. (“There was not one low-life alleged criminal in Pikeville, Georgia, that Rusty Quinn would not represent.”) Both Sam and Charlie are also lawyers. Sam is a hugely successful patent attorney in New York; Charlie defends children.

Twenty-eight years ago, their mother, Harriet (“Gamma”) Quinn, was murdered in the kitchen of their home by two young local men as her daughters looked on. Fifteen-year-old Sam was shot in the head and buried alive. Twelve-year-old Charlie escaped by running through the woods adjoining their farm. The action in The Good Daughter alternates between the murder scene and the present day and shifts perspective from one daughter to the other as well as other characters. Their somewhat different recollections dramatically illustrate the unreliability of memory.

The story is anchored in the present because Charlie accidentally witnessed a school shooting. A teenage woman shot the principal of the middle school she’d attended and a little girl who was visiting her mother, one of the teachers. Separated from her husband, she had visited one of the other teachers to swap cellphones which had gotten exchanged when they spent the night together. As the story unfolds, the repercussions of the school shooting gradually coincide with the events on the day of Gamma Quinn’s murder. Slaughter masterfully weaves the two plots together, building suspense to a crescendo in the closing pages of the novel. Her novels have sold thirty-five million copies and have been international bestsellers—and it’s no wonder. Karin Slaughter is without doubt one of today’s most talented and accomplished thriller authors. I rush to buy every new thriller she writes.

The three women characters central to the plot in this new thriller are all brilliant. The mother, “Harriet Quinn wasn’t called Gamma out of a precocious child’s inability to pronounce the word ‘Mama,’ but because she held two doctorates, one in physics and one in something equally brainy that Samantha could never remember but, if she had to guess, had something to do with gamma rays.” Sam has inherited her mother’s smarts: at forty-four, she’s about to become a named partner at one of the world’s leading firms of patent attorneys. Charlie, who is much closer to her father, is only a little less intelligent.

For reviews of other books in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. For a reviews of two of the author’s earlier novels, see Karin Slaughter’s tale of neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia and Violence abounds in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series.

 

In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

sci-fi technothrillerAbsence of Mind, by H.C.H. Ritz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s the near future. Phoebe Bernhart is a psychiatric nurse at Atlanta’s largest hospital, struggling to keep her job. Plagued by headaches and a quick temper, she is prone to mouthing off to doctors and is one report away from being fired. One evening she meets Mila Bremer when their two cars collide and Mila gives her a ride to the hospital while her car is towed to the shop. Mila is a beautiful young woman who manifests the signs of the Asperger’s spectrum, and Phoebe is alternately intrigued and insulted by her lack of affect.

“Just because she doesn’t have her smartphone implanted in her head,” Phoebe thinks, “doesn’t mean she lives on a different planet.” (What this means will become clear.) Their chance meeting soon proves consequential—to Phoebe and to the world—when she encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” Together, Phoebe and Mila have a rare opportunity to investigate the source of the mysterious epidemic.

Phoebe and the younger brother she adores have left behind their parents in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Ohio. Like nearly everyone else in this future society, both of them have had Navis installed in their brains to access instant messaging and news non-stop, hold subvocalized conversations, and command smartcars and smart appliances with their thoughts. “Normally, conversations are private, because they’re Navi-to-Navi,” but Phoebe is forced to speak out loud to communicate with Mila.

This is the set-up in the outstanding sci-fi technothriller Absence of Mind by H.C.H. (Hilary) Ritz, published in 2015. The Houston-based author has written two other novels, The Lightbringers (2012) and The Robin Hood Thief (2016). Ritz demonstrates great skill and originality in plotting, she builds suspense like the best of them, and her characters are fascinating. It seems likely that she will one day gain wide recognition in the science fiction field.

For other sci-fi novels I’ve loved, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

Michael Connelly introduces a tough new lead character in “The Late Show”

Late ShowThe Late Show, by Michael Connelly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

After writing 29 other thrillers, including 20 in the venerable Harry Bosch series and five of the Lincoln Lawyer novels, Michael Connelly has introduced a new lead character. Is this the beginning of a new series? We’ll have to see. But Renee Ballard is certainly interesting enough.

Detective Renee Ballard is a fourteen-year veteran of the LAPD, ten of them as a detective. She works “the late show,” the midnight shift in Hollywood. Two years earlier, she had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against her boss, Lieutenant Robert Olivas. She’d lost the case when her ambitious partner, Ken Chastain, refused to back up her claim by testifying to what he’d seen with his own eyes. Olivas had then had Ballard assigned to the late show, which is regarded as punishment.

Ballard is a hothead, quick to anger and slow to forgive a slight. Ignored by her mother, she had grown up sleeping on beaches with her father as she followed him around the world to surfing competitions. As a child, she saw him disappear under a wave, never to resurface. When Ballard was a teenager, her grandmother rescued her from the rough life in Hawaii and brought her to live with her in Ventura, California. She acquired a degree in journalism and worked for a time as a reporter. As her dark skin and distinctive features show, Ballard is at least partially Hawaiian or Polynesian. To this day, she makes a practice of heading out to Venice Beach with her dog Lola for an hour of paddleboarding after her shift. Her only permanent address is her grandmother’s home in Ventura.

Ballard’s partner, Detective John Jenkins, is marking time until retirement. But he’s protective of her. When he sees her working a case she’s been repeatedly warned to avoid, he tells her, “There’s this saying they have about conformist society: The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”

“Okay, so what are you saying?” Ballard asks.

“I’m saying there’s a lot of guys in this department with hammers. Watch yourself.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“I don’t know—sometimes I think I do.”

Though Ballard’s ornery flouting of authority seems to be a prerequisite for a lead character in a detective novel—Connelly’s Harry Bosch is an obvious example—the formula works well here. Ballard is a complex and interesting person.

In The Late Show, Ballard takes on three separate cases simultaneously, demonstrating her shrewdness as an investigator and her refusal to give up even when ordered to do so by her superiors. First is a case of credit card fraud. Though the effort was unsuccessful, Ballard insists on tracking down the perpetrator by working the phone. In the second, far more serious case, a cross-dressing male prostitute is found brutally beaten with brass knuckles and left for dead. Ballard sets out to find the man responsible. But the biggest case is the third. Five people have been shot and killed at close range in a Hollywood nightclub. Three of the victims were anything but innocent: all were career criminals. Ballard seizes an opportunity to look for the killer of a young waitress who was one of the other victims.

Every one of these three cases is fascinating in its own right. In Michael Connelly’s hands, the three are seamlessly woven together in an increasingly tense and suspenseful story that is likely to satisfy any fan of police procedurals. Having written for decades about crime in Los Angeles, Connelly is intimately familiar with the ways of the LAPD. The result is a thoroughly engrossing and convincing tale of crime and punishment through the eyes of an intelligent and caring police officer.

For my review of one of the Harry Bosch novels, go to Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel? For another prominent writer’s perspective on policing in Los Angeles, see Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Police Saga. For reviews of dozens of other excellent novels in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

 

 

Harry Hole investigates a two-decade-long string of serial murders

serial murdersThe Snowman (Harry Hole #7), by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s difficult to surpass the fiendishly complex plotting on offer in every one of the Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbo. Other thriller writers may equal Nesbo’s skill in one or even several books, but few (if any) are better. In The Snowman, the seventh entry in the Harry Hole series, the surprises keep coming, one atop another, as the suspense builds steadily as Harry approaches the resolution to another case of serial murders. If you can unravel the mystery early in this book, your deductive powers are greater than mine. As a long-time reader of mysteries and thrillers, did I anticipate a couple of the revelations? Yes. But the adroitness with which Nesbo weaves the elements of his story together still kept me guessing until the end.

As The Snowman opens, Inspector Hole has just turned 40. He is unaccountably sober, for a change, and he’s exercising regularly. His long-time lover, Rakel Fauke, has kicked him out of her house because she forever finds herself in second place after his job. Now Rakel is on the verge of marrying a jovial, even-tempered physician who is Harry’s opposite in so many ways. For Rakel’s eleven-year-old son Oleg, however, the separation is a tragedy. He dislikes the doctor and thinks of Harry as “Dad.”

At the Crime Squad, Harry is now working with a sharp new detective recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police. Katrine Bratt may even be Harry’s equal as an investigator—and as a workaholic. Together they set out to explore a missing-persons case that is, in fact, probably a murder. A young woman has mysterious disappeared from her home, leaving behind a distraught husband and five-year-old son. Then a second woman disappears. Her decapitated head is found atop a snowman in the woods near her farm. Now Harry and Katrine are convinced they have a serial killer on their hands—and Harry is the only Norwegian police officer ever to have captured a serial killer or to have studied serial murders with the FBI. He quickly becomes convinced that the murders taking place in 2004 are somehow linked to a notorious murder in 1980 that was followed by the disappearance of the homicide detective who was investigating the case.

In recent years, I’ve read and reviewed most of the other Harry Hole novels. One of my reviews can be found at Harry Hole, the Salvation Army, and a gay Croatian hitman. Another is at Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police.

If series like the Harry Hole novels interest you, take a look at a recent post of mine: 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

 

Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr

philip kerr

A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther #3), by Philip Kerr

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s 1947. Berlin is a shambles. The meager amount of food available is rationed, leaving the surviving German population on the verge of starvation while the occupying forces eat their fill. The city is sharply divided between the eastern, Soviet-occupied zone and the rest governed by the three Western Allies. In the western zone, German women known as “chocoladies” sell sex for food, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the east, rape by Russian soldiers is nearly inescapable. As Bernie Gunther reflects, “These days, if you are a German you spend your time in Purgatory before you die, in earthly suffering for all your country’s unpunished and unrepented sins, until the day when, with the aid of the prayers of the Powers—or three of them, anyway—Germany is finally purified. For now we live in fear. Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease, which has become something of an epidemic, although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.”

Berlin in the wake of World War II

These are the conditions under which former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther and his wife Kirsten stagger from day to day. Though she was a schoolteacher in the past, she now works as a waitress in an American bar open only to servicemen. Because she frequently arrives home late he suspects she is sleeping with an American officer to obtain the coffee, butter, and chocolate that’s obviously from the American PX. To flee the unpleasantness, Bernie accepts a strange and lucrative job offered by a colonel in the Soviet MVD (precursor to the KGB), he agrees to accept it even though it will require him to travel to far-off Vienna and probably spend a long time there.

A treacherous assignment in post-War Vienna

On the surface, the job appears straightforward. A German black marketer, one of Bernie’s colleagues years earlier on the murder squad, has been imprisoned by the Americans on a charge of murdering one of their officers. But quickly the assignment proves to be anything but simple. As Bernie digs into the details of the case, he becomes convinced that the man is innocent of the crime he’s charged with, even though he has done a great many terrible things in his life. However, attempting to prove that leads Bernie into a tangled affair involving American counter-intelligence, the MVD, the recruitment of German intelligence officers by the USA, and an organized campaign to protect former SS war criminals from exposure. Two high-ranking, real-world Nazi war criminals— Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller and Arthur Nebe—play crucial roles in the tale. Like other novels in the Bernie Gunther series, Kerr skillfully builds suspense while digging deeply into Bernie’s complex personality.

Philip Kerr on “collective guilt”

Bernie has a great deal to answer for, having been dragooned from the Berlin homicide squad into the service of Josef Goebbels and later Heinrich Himmler and commissioned as an SS officer. He had refused to participate in the mass killing of Jews in Latvia, been reassigned to the Eastern Front, and was later imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp, never having stooped to the arrogance and cruelty of those he served with. But Bernie feels distinctly uneasy whenever he encounters cold, disdainful treatment at the hands of the Americans he encounters. Although “it is certain that a nation cannot feel collective guilt,” Bernie notes, “that each man must encounter it personally. Only now did I realize the nature of my own guilt—and perhaps it was really not much different from that of many others: it was that I had not said anything, that I had not lifted my hand against the Nazis.”

About Philip Kerr

In 1989-91, Philip Kerr wrote the first three novels in the Bernie Gunther series. A German Requiem concluded the trilogy. Fifteen years later he resumed the series, adding an additional ten novels to date (the last of which, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is scheduled for publication in 2018).

Previously I’ve reviewed most of the other novels in the Bernie Gunther series. One review is at A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany. Another is here: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga.

 

A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

soviet spyA Single Spy, by William Christie

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

1936. Soviet Azerbaijan. Alexsi, in flight from the violence of an orphanage since the age of thirteen, is living on the streets of Baku when he falls in with a gang of tribesmen who live by smuggling goods over the border between the Soviet Union and Iran. “After a few trips he had more rubles hidden away than most party bosses in the Soviet Union, let along sixteen-year-olds.” Thus opens William Christie‘s gripping espionage novel, A Single Spy, his eighth book.

Alexsi is no ordinary Azeri teenager: he is educating himself by reading books in libraries; he speaks Russian, Persian, German, and some English; and he is a resourceful and ruthless fighter who carries a knife hidden away in his clothing. Then, while reading at the Baku General Library he is seized by Soviet secret police (NKVD), tossed into a crowded railcar, and shipped off to Moscow. There, after days of deprivation in the depths of the Lubyanka, he is taken to be interrogated by a humorless older man with an air of authority. The man’s name is Lukashev, and he is senior NKVD officer.

Lukashev poses a choice to Alexsi: either enter training as a Soviet spy or face execution for his crimes—which, of course, is no choice at all. Thus the young man enters adulthood through a grueling, months-long education in spycraft and survival skills. Following a real-world test in Moscow infiltrating a group of dissident students, Alexsi learns about the assignment for which he has been so carefully selected: he is to go undercover in Germany, impersonating a childhood friend with an uncle in Munich who is a high-ranking Nazi diplomat. As the Nazi’s long-lost nephew, whom he’d last seen as an infant, Alexsi is to worm his way into the Nazi world and seek out ways to gain access to valuable secrets. Lukashev, counting on Alexsi’s resourcefulness, tells him, “We gather information by many means, but a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

In A Single Spy, we follow Alexsi’s life from 1932, when he was an abused child in an Azeri village, to 1943, as a double agent working for the Soviets within the Abwehr. The action rockets from Azerbaijan to the Iran to the USSR to Germany, then to Switzerland and Turkey en route back to Iran. Christie paints a convincing picture of every location where he sets his story, and he steadily builds suspense toward a climax full of surprises. His command of details about the German military in World War II is impressive. The book contains information I’ve read nowhere else about German weaponry and the organization of the German general staff. It’s an impressive performance. Christie’s tale is grounded in history, hinging on two well-established facts. First, though Soviet spies and Winston Churchill himself informed Stalin well in advance of the German invasion, the Soviet leader refused to believe them—with millions of Russians dying as a result. And the Nazis did mount an elaborate (and of course unsuccessful) plot to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin when they met at the Tehran Conference late in 1943. Christie seems to get it all right.

Recently, I posted an article entitled “My 10 favorite espionage novels.” You can find it here.

A stirring tale of spies in wartime Vienna

wartime ViennaVienna Spies, by Alex Gerlis

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In The Secret War, his illuminating revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, the British journalist Max Hastings questions the value of what has come to be called “humint,” the product of spies working undercover. In Hastings’ view, spies had little effect on the outcome of the war. “Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful,” Hastings writes. “Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes.” Even code-breaking, including the deciphering of high-level Nazi and Japanese codes, played a relatively small role in the Allies’ victory, though one that was much greater than that of undercover operatives.

Even if Hastings doesn’t overstate his case—some argue he does—the romance of espionage has captured the public imagination. The exploits of spies have encouraged the growth of a veritable cottage industry in espionage fiction ever since the end of the Second World War. Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alan Furst, Eric Ambler, and scores of others have generated thousands of stories about spies. Some, like most of Fleming’s, are fanciful and often laughable, pitting a superhero against supervillains, none of them bearing the slightest resemblance to real people. Others convey an impression of the true experience of undercover work, as many former intelligence agents have attested.

Alex Gerlis, a BBC researcher, has written three spy novels in recent years: The Best of Our Spies (2012), The Swiss Spy (2015), and Vienna Spies (2017). In his most recent book, Gerlis explores the contending forces of British intelligence, the NKVD, and the Gestapo in the closing years of World War II in Vienna.

Gerlis’ tale revolves six principal characters. Rolf Eder, who is Viennese, and Katharina Hoch, a German, are matched by British intelligence for a sensitive mission in Vienna, masquerading as a married couple. To assist them, they are to locate and meet with Sister Ursula, an Austrian nun who has been helping the British since the war started. Viktor Krasotkin, one of Moscow’s top spies, is dispatched to Vienna, in part to undermine their mission. His handler is Ilia Brodsky, a senior Soviet official who has “the ear of Stalin.” Above all, the spies from both nations must elude capture by the sadistic Kriminaldirektor Karl Strobel, the Gestapo’s top investigator of Communists and resistance fighters.

The British spies’ mission is two-fold: to find and eliminate Viktor and to rescue Austria’s most prominent anti-Nazi politician, Hubert Leitner, who has been hiding in the city for seven years. Meanwhile, Rolf has a private mission of his own: to learn the fate of the fiancee he left behind in Vienna when forced to flee to Switzerland several years earlier. And Viktor hopes to reunite with his lover, who is now married to a Nazi army officer. All these conflicting aims play out over the course of two years in Vienna, “a city that rivaled and possibly outdid Munich in its enthusiasm for the Nazis.”

Gerlis successfully captures the mood of wartime Vienna, with his detailed descriptions of life on the streets and the ever-present pall cast over the city by the Nazi occupation. On the surface, the leading characters might appear to be cartoonish. But Gerlis succeeds admirably in making them believable, with the possible exception of Karl Strobel (although other Gestapo officers appear more lifelike). In action that shifts rapidly from London to Zurich to Vienna to Moscow and back, the plot moves forward at a rapid clip. Vienna Spies is a satisfying read. My only complaint is that no one seems to have proofread the book. It’s full of missing prepositions, transposed words, and other glaringly obvious errors.

The “best Norwegian crime novel” is set in Minnesota

Norwegian crime novelThe Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1), by Vidar Sundstøl

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some 4.6 million Norwegian-Americans live in the United States, about half of them in the Upper Midwest. Nearly 900,000 can be found in Minnesota alone. These numbers compare with the total of 5.3 million people who live in Norway proper. Oslo, the capital, is home to only some 650,000 people—far fewer than the number of Norwegian-Americans who live in Minnesota. So, maybe it’s understandable that a novel awarded the title “best Norwegian crime novel” should be set in Minnesota. In fact, the state is the setting for three novels, the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl. The Land of Dreams, the first, was described by Dagbladet, the country’s second largest tabloid newspaper, as one of the top twenty-five Norwegian crime novels of all time. Imagine that!

The Land of Dreams introduces us to Lance Hansen, his family, coworkers, and neighbors in a small town on the shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. Hansen thinks of himself as a “forest cop.” He’s a 46-year-old police officer whose beat is the sprawling Superior National Forest near which he lives. Hansen lives in the town of Tofte, which was “one of those places where people called to tell you to get better before you even knew you were under the weather.” Though he’s divorced from an Ojibwe woman who now lives on a nearby Indian reservation and is the father of their active seven-year-old son, his life is generally uneventful.

Then Hansen stumbles across the badly beaten body of a young Norwegian man in the forest. The FBI has jurisdiction, assisted by a Norwegian homicide detective flown in to assist them. Hansen himself is not officially involved in the investigation, but his curiosity moves him to press his friends in law enforcement for details and to look into the circumstances of the murder himself. To his horror, he discovers that his younger brother, Andy, must be considered a suspect. Out of love for his brother and fear that he might actually be guilty, Hansen conceals from the FBI the evidence of Andy’s possible guilt that only he knows about. Meanwhile, to discover whether the young man’s murder was the first ever to take place in the region, he digs deeply into the historical archives he maintains—and discovers that a distant relative may have been murdered locally more than a century earlier. Hansen suspects a connection of some sort between the two killings.

The action in The Land of Dreams advances at a slow pace. There is suspense, but it’s muted. The book is a murder mystery, but it’s better thought of as literature. Sundstøl dwells at length on the history of Norwegian immigration to the area and on his protagonist’s troubled inner dialogue. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is artful, easing the reader’s path along the way despite the slowly unfolding action.

About the author

Vidar Sundstøl wrote the Minnesota Trilogy “after he and his wife lived for two years on the shore of Lake Superior,” according to the note about the author at the back of the book. An interview in the blog Scandinavian Crime Fiction in English Translation explains the background and the circumstances to Sundstøl’s stay in the U.S. (For starters, he met and married an American woman.) He is the author of six novels to date.

 

Donna Leon’s latest is not “one of her best”

donna leonEarthly Remains (Commissario Brunetti #26), by Donna Leon

@@ (2 out of 5)

For some reason I cannot fathom, Marilyn Stasio raved about Earthly Remains. Stasio has been editing a column on crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review—forever, it seems. Her recommendations are often good. But this one wasn’t. She called this novel, the 26th in Donna Leon’s long-running Commissario Brunetti series, “one of her best.” I don’t agree.

Though there is a mystery underlying the action in Earthly Remains, it doesn’t even begin to surface until one-third of the way into the novel. And the investigation undertaken by Commissario Brunetti isn’t undertaken in earnest until more than two-thirds of the way.

Many of Leon’s signature themes are prominent in this curious book. She rhapsodizes about Venice, the surrounding communities, and the Laguna Veneta, the extension of the Adriatic Sea on which the islands of the city are located. In Earthly Remains, the romance of the Laguna comes in for special praise. Predictably, too, the corruption rampant in Italian society emerges clearly in the story. Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is, as always, obsequious with authority and disdainful of those who report to him. If anyone in a position of power in Venice is under investigation by Brunetti or his colleagues, Patta will surely intervene in the suspect’s favor. And, once the plot of the novel finally becomes clear, Leon spotlights the illegal activity that has helped to poison the Laguna and surrounding territory. In Donna Leon’s Italy, corruption engulfs business as well as government, the police, and the Church.

One of Leon’s bad writing habits is to describe action in excruciating detail. I have no idea whether she picked up the habit writing for magazines that pay by the word, but Earthly Remains and many of her other novels read that way. Here’s a representative example from one of the first pages in the novel: “Brunetti had apologized for the heat in the room, explaining that the ongoing heatwave had forced the Questura to choose between using its reduced supply of energy for the computers or for air conditioning and had chosen the former. Ruggieri had been gracious and had said only that he’d remove his jacket if he might. Brunetti, who kept his jacket on, had begun by making it amply clear . . .” That was 68 words. How many words do you think Elmore Leonard might have used to convey the essential information in that passage? In fact, is there any essential information there?

If you are a die-hard Donna Leon fan, you might want to read Earthly Remains. If you’re not, be forewarned: not a lot happens in this novel. It’s very slow going.

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