FIRST GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2014
The Son, by Jo Nesbo
It has taken some considerable time, but I have finally, FINALLY read a book by one of the most popular thriller writers (Nordic or otherwise) on the planet. My only excuse is ‘too many books, too little time’, and I didn’t want to start his Detective Harry Hole series in the middle: there are now too many of them to go way back to the beginning. So.
Better late than never. Mr Nesbo is an effortless storyteller; he constructs his plot efficiently and in this stand-alone novel provides the reader with the satisfying knowledge that they don’t have a clue Who Done What until the very last chapter – which is indeed the least we should expect from such a master craftsman.
Mr Nesbo’s characters are examples of human frailty, i.e. Chief Inspector Simon Kefa, a superb Oslo detective until his gambling addiction ruined his life –but he is reborn through the love of his wife, who is gradually losing her sight. There is no money for corrective surgery: Simon has gambled it all away. Will he be tempted to turn a blind eye to massive police corruption in return for cash for his wife’s operation? What an irony, but at the start of the story he is staunch in his principles, being more interested in the prison breakout of Sonny Lofthus, the son of his late best friend, Ab Lofthus – Ab, who, about to be exposed for being on the take, committed suicide, and condemned his wife and son to ruin.
Sonny is a hopeless drug addict and has been in prison for twelve years, confessing to crimes he never committed in order to have a steady and plentiful supply of heroin – until the revelation of a shocking secret by a departing inmate. He is driven to get clean and make his escape from the supposedly impregnable fortress that is Staten prison, causing huge embarrassment and humiliation to prison staff from the governor down.
Then the murders start: each victim turns out to have a connection with Sonny’s father’s disgrace: it is obvious that Ab’s suicide was faked. He was murdered and Sonny is taking revenge.
Mr Nesbo marshals his large cast of characters with all the aplomb of a top tilm director. They play their parts beautifully, and even the most peripheral extra is essential to the flow of the story. His writing of addiction, be it gambling, women or drugs has an uncomfortable authenticity: the reader is suitably horrified, thrilled not to inhabit such a savage world. We are grateful to sit in our comfy chairs and read about it instead. And it is a surprise to learn that we come to feel an affinity for the bad guy of this story: Sonny Lofthus must surely be one of the most appealing anti-heroes in contemporary fiction .
Mr Nesbo deserves his mighty reputation and his huge fan base, and I am thrilled that I have finally sampled his great talent as a storyteller. Highly recommended.
The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld
I was horrified by this story, and found it almost impossible to finish – but I managed to stay the distance because Ms Denfeld has produced as her debut novel a story searing and brutal, yet with an entirely credible nobility of spirit in the very worst of her characters that leaves the reader, despite the horror, feeling uplifted and deeply moved by the enormity of her talent.
In a nameless American state that still has the death penalty, Death Row prisoners are kept in poor condition in the bowels of an old prison. A river runs by its walls, and when the river floods their cells flood too, but fortunately for them this seldom occurs – most of the time the cells just weep moisture. And what else should they expect? They are there because they have committed heinous crimes for which they have received the ultimate penalty: should they stay in a five star hotel until their appeals are exhausted and they are executed? The conditions they endure are the result of their own evil actions.
The story is narrated by one of the Death Row inmates. He calls few (except the guards) by name, including himself, but he misses nothing – he sees clearly the burgeoning feelings between the lady and the fallen priest (outside the prison walls a death penalty investigator, currently working for one of the inmates, and a former catholic priest, trying to atone for a terrible sin he committed); he sees the endless bribery and corruption between guards and prisoners in other parts of the prison; and the detachment of the warden, who has his own problems.
The inmate regards the prison as an enchanted place: bad magic abounds within its walls. He was sent there when he was eighteen for doing a very bad thing. A mute, he was very frightened initially of everything – until he found the library: this was a place of good magic. With a great deal of effort he taught himself to read, and was transported with every book over those prison walls and far away to wherever his imagination led him. Until someone decided it was time to have some fun with him. And they did.
So he was forced to do the very bad thing again, and this time he was sent to Death Row.
He has been there a long time now, and he watches from the shelter of his blanket as the lady visits York, a young man who has committed unspeakable crimes against women: York has renounced all his appeals and says he welcomes his forthcoming death, but if the lady finds enough mitigating evidence to prove that he was of ‘unsound mind’ when he committed his crimes she can get his sentence commuted to life. York doesn’t care: he sneers at her efforts. His mind is made up. He wants to die.
But it is the lady’s job to keep trying, and her investigations eventually reveal the terrible truth, the ghastly history that turned a tender child into a killing machine. Still, York doesn’t care: it is time to go.
I have never been able to read with any objectivity stories of cruelty to animals and children, and Ms Denfeld lays it all on the line here: she writes with stunning imagery of men’s myriad brutalities against those most vulnerable, and the reader knows that her fictitious characters are based on her true-life clients, for Ms Denfeld is herself a death penalty investigator. She is writing about what she knows.
This is a wonderful book that deals with terrible themes. It is not for the faint-hearted (like me!) but Ms Denfeld has crafted her real-life experiences into something very special indeed. She is a great new voice in contemporary American fiction. Highly recommended.