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.    

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