Saturday, 22 February 2014

Linda, as in the Linda Murder, by Leif G. W. Persson

 This book was published in Sweden in 2005, which makes it part of the new wave of Swedish crime fiction made so popular by the late Stieg Larsson:  now English-speaking readers can finally enjoy Mr Persson’s singular anti-hero Evert Bäckström thanks to an excellent translation by Neil Smith.
Detective Superintendent Bäckström is short and fat but makes up for his physical shortcomings with a massive ego, native cunning and a happy knack of getting everyone else to do his work for him – the euphemism is ‘delegating’, and Bäckström is a champion delegator – in short, he is a master at working the system to his own advantage.  None of this burnt-out, angst-ridden cynicism that dogs most detectives of today’s crime fiction:  he is serene in his self-belief and his ability (thanks to his delegating powers) to crack any kind of case presented to him.  And the Linda murder is just such a case.
Trainee police officer Linda Wallin, aged twenty, has been found raped, tortured and murdered in her mother’s flat in Växjö , a picturesque town inland from the Swedish coast.  The police have little to go on initially;  most of the townspeople are away for the summer holidays and there are few clues to get the ball rolling.  Due to the inexperience of the local police in crimes of such seriousness, Detective Superintendent Bäckström is sent from Stockholm to oversee operations.   
And he couldn’t be happier!  He can turn in all his dirty laundry (there’s a month of it) to the hotel drycleaning service and charge it to the job;  he can take full advantage of his room’s minibar and dining room – he can even watch blue movies in his second-in-command’s room while that worthy is elsewhere so that he can state, hand on heart that he would never watch such filth:  he’s in heaven.
Except for the lamentable fact that PC counselling seems now to be reigning supreme in the Swedish police force:  staff feelings and wellbeing must now be considered (by a specially trained counsellor –‘ call me Lo’ -  whose lack of a bosom dismays Bäckström), particularly for those who had close contact with the crime scene – for the love of God:  wouldn’t that be everyone
The investigation puddles along at a frustrating rate – and sadly, so does the plot.  Despite the outrageous and diverting presence of Detective Bäckström Mr Persson allows his good story to be overwhelmed by pedantry – which is not surprising, given the fact that he is one of Sweden’s renowned criminologists, an eminent psychological profiler and Professor at the National Swedish Police Board.  He knows his onions, but ….
But Linda’s murder and the unveiling of her killer becomes swamped by Mr Persson’s great scholarship, intentionally or not.  He has several important arguments to make about murder, particularly the selective reporting by the media, maintaining correctly that the media ultimately decides which murder is sexy enough to keep before the public eye for an extended length of time:  those that are solved quickly sink without a trace, especially crimes of passion and that old chestnut, domestic violence;  his points are inarguable but cost the plot vital pace.
Fortunately, Evert Bäckström saves the day yet again:  he is outraged to find that a scheming female journalist who shamelessly pursued him for advance information on the case is now suing him for sexual harassment.  He is furious – not because of the harassment charge, but because she called his display of his ‘super salami’ (‘what do you think of this, my dear!’) an angry red sausage.  She doesn’t know quality when she sees it!
So:  were it not for our fearless, ruthless and unscrupulous Detective Superintendent, this story would be little more than a detailed expository text on a particular crime and how it was solved.  Bäckström gives it sorely needed humanity.  He’s a babe!

Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith

Contrary to Evert Backstrom’s enormous faith in himself, special investigator Arkady Renko has faith in nothing except his powers of deduction, which are considerable.  He is the archetypal burnt-out, depressed and cynical sleuth, but he is also Russian, which, by popular decree, means that part of his dolour is attributable to his nationality.
This is Arkady’s eighth adventure.  He first appeared in ‘Gorky Park’ when the Soviet Union was still in existence;  now communism enthusiastically embraces capitalism in the Russian Federation:  corruption is blatant and politicians shamelessly rub shoulders with the latest Mafia bosses:  the face of crime has changed but Arkady, in spite of many trials, tragedies and serious injuries, has kept up with the play;  he is as sharp as ever and as interested as always in crimes that are disguised as accidents – as in the death of Tatiana Petrovna, a crusading journalist and thorn in the side of Oligarchs and criminals.
She fell to her death from her sixth-floor apartment and the authorities have ruled it a suicide, the only problem being the lack of a corpse:  where has her body gone?  A search of Moscow morgues reveals little information except a marked lack of interest in Arkady’s enquiries and the plot thickens when an interpreter’s notebook, the last thing that Tatiana was investigating before her death, comes into his possession.  The only problem is that it is all in code, seemingly indecipherable – and wanted by new Mafia boss Alexi, son of murdered Mafia billionaire Grisha Grigorenko.  Alexi is only too eager to prove to other criminal leaders that he has the right stuff to take over from his dear old dad and is more than displeased that Special Investigator Arkady Renko is showing an inordinate interest in his affairs – and the identity of Grisha’s killer.
There are many intricate strands to be woven into the complex pattern of this plot, and all is revealed in Mr Cruz Smith’s usual thorough and intelligent fashion.  He shifts the action from Moscow to Kaliningrad, (formerly Koenigsberg, a German outpost for hundreds of years until the end of World War Two) and writes so well of the little province that one would swear he was a Koenig born and bred:  his research is excellent, and all his characters are well drawn and possessed of a mordant humour well-suited to their environment.  Unfortunately, the last chapters which should be action-packed seem to lose air – what should have been a heart-in-the-mouth climax to the tale ends with a sigh instead of a bang, and that is a shame, for Arkady is a very strong and intelligent character on which to base a series.  He carries a heap of baggage but one hopes that he will always keep on toting the load. 
This is not Mr Cruz Smith’s best work compared to excellent earlier titles, but despite the ultimate loss of pace ‘Tatiana’ is still a worthy episode in the drama of Arkady’s life.  Highly recommended as a series.    

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Theo Decker is in a heap of trouble at the smart Manhattan school he attends (thanks to the hard work and sacrifices made by his solo mother) – he dreads her disappointment in him as they are summoned to a meeting with the Principal.  He wishes to be anywhere else but in a cab, heading towards his disgrace and possible suspension. 
Serindipitously (he thinks) their cab is stuck in a traffic jam, forcing them to leave and walk the rest of the way, only to be so drenched with rain that they take shelter in an uptown Museum that is currently hosting an exhibition of 17th century Dutch Masters:  could anything be better, thinks Theo;  his mother, an art lover, intended to see the exhibition anyway and Theo feels fortunate that art has always nurtured her spirit throughout a chaotically unhappy marriage to Theo’s father, an alcoholic, and the consequent struggle after he deserts them to provide a stable and loving environment for her son: who knows - by the time they meet with the Principal she might even feel moved to defend him, rather than take the opposite view.
Ah, chance is a fine thing, but it refuses to work in Theo’s favour:  he is sent to the Museum gift shop to buy postcards while his mother returns for a last look at Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, and in that short time a terrorist bomb is detonated with catastrophic results, including the unthinkable:  his beloved, beautiful and loving mother is killed instantly in the explosion.  Theo is knocked out, miraculously spared serious injury, and able to comfort an old man who dies a little later;  he even retrieves (at the old man’s request) one of the paintings seemingly untouched by the blast:  a small and beautiful painting of a Goldfinch – but where is his mother?  The great pillar and support of his life, the fulcrum, is there no longer:  what is he to do?
After this literally life-changing event, Theo measures his life by his existence before the explosion, the peace, security, affection and stability of his mother’s presence, and after, when he was forced to face life without her.
In Theo’s post-explosion world, he is compelled to face many huge changes, not always for the better:  he is taken in at first by the Barbour family, wealthy Park Avenue residents and the parents of his only school friend – until his father materialises after a year with a new girlfriend, Xandra. (Xandra?  What kind of name is that.)  ‘We live in Vegas now, Buddy – you’ll really like it out there.’  Yeah, right.  Las Vegas is no place for a grieving, traumatised thirteen year old boy, ignored and uncared-for by a couple who live their lives oblivious to his everyday needs – until he meets Boris at his high school:  Boris, battered son of a Russian mining engineer;  ebullient, indefatigable, crime-wave-waiting-to-happen, try-anything-more-than-once Boris, who, despite his nihilism and fatally bad influence on Theo, manages to steer his friend back to New York and the stability he so sorely needs.  And throughout Theo’s Las Vegas sojourn, he has gained comfort and solace from a secret and unexpected source:  the Goldfinch, that little jewel of a painting that Theo should have handed in to the authorities but never did:  it is now his lodestone, his talisman, and his life, so miserable and despairing would be even worse without it
Ms Tartt has written an extraordinary story, tumultuous and sweeping in plot and characterisation;  her prose is sumptuous and deft, and despite the sadness of Theo’s circumstances there is a wonderful, Dickensian humour that colours most pages of this vast (770-odd pages, but fear not:  all you need is strong wrists!) and superlative page-turner.  As an additional delight, her writings and musings on art are beautiful and moving, especially her thoughts on the Goldfinch, that brave, dignified little creature, tethered always to his little brass perch.  Her characters leap from the page;  the kindly Hobie, decent and tolerant, who becomes a guardian of sorts for Theo and teaches him a trade;  Mrs Barbour, ‘a fashion drawing come to life’, spectacularly undemonstrative but responsible and caring – and Boris, always Boris who, despite fulfilling early everyone’s predictions that he would embrace ‘a life of crime’ and at one stage betraying Theo in the worst possible way, manages to turn up trumps for him when it matters most. Boris is unforgettable.  

My only criticism is this:  ‘The Goldfinch’ is Donna Tartt’s third novel in twenty years.  She gained great international acclaim for her first work, ‘The Secret History’ in 1992:  there followed ‘The Little Friend’ in 2002 and now we have opus # 3.  She has famously said that ‘a novel takes as long as it takes to write’ and I don’t doubt that for a minute:  the only trouble with long gestations is that I might be pushing up the daisies by the time she produces the next masterwork, and the thought of that ticks me off no end – not the fact that I might have reached the end of the trail, but that I could miss Ms Tartt’s next wonderful book!  Most highly recommended.