Sunday, 13 July 2014

MORE GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2014

He Who Kills the Dragon, by Leif G. W. Persson

Detective Superintendent Evert Bäckström, surely the most outrageous policeman in Swedish thriller fiction, returns to shock and infuriate his long-suffering colleagues – not to mention the reader – in Mr Persson’s latest offering.
Bäckström has had some narrow escapes since ‘Linda – As in the Linda Murder’ (see review below) which have nothing to do with apprehending murderers;  rather, the long arm of the law has reached out to grab him (him, shining example of all that is noble and honourable in the Force.  The nerve of them!) and it has taken all his resourcefulness to fend off charges of bribery, corruption – you name it – thrown at him, the result being not dismissal, as so many of his colleagues hoped, but exile for a year or two following up traffic violations - for Bäckström has an influential relative in the Police Association, so there!  He is not incorruptible (as everyone already knows), just immovable.
When the story opens, Our Hero through various circumstances has been recalled to his usual duties, investigating the murder of an elderly pensioner in a block of flats in suburban Stockholm.  He should be delighted to be back on the job, delegating with his usual superb flair all the work so that he ends up doing very little;  instead, he is in the depths of despair after a compulsory visit to the Police Doctor who prescribes immediate weight-loss,  lots of daily exercise and NO ALCOHOL – or else! 
Bäckström is inconsolable.  Life is shit.  Eating lettuce leaves and drinking water is no way to live for a man of his appetites;  he’s a gourmet, a connoisseur of strong drink and a fearless wielder of his Super Salami with various lucky partners in the comfort of his Hästens bed:  if this is his future, he might as well resign from life right now! 
Until God conveniently appears in a dream to Bäckström as he tossed and turned (on his Hästens bed) on the third day of his travail and Lo!  God tells him to forget about pursuing the new path;  the old path is his true path, so get back on it.  What else can Bäckström do but obey?  One doesn’t argue with God!
After a very satisfying meal of every food he loves and thought he’d never eat again, followed by a couple of very good beers, Our Hero is ready to concentrate again on his current murder investigation, and because he has a very good staff and a truly excellent Russian civilian investigator, it isn’t long before what everyone thought was the murder of an old pisshead by another old pisshead and all done and dusted by the weekend, turns out to be something much more challenging and complicated.
As before, Mr Persson gives us a wealth of detail, including mini-biographies of all the minor characters, but there is less sermonising than in ‘The Linda Murder.’  In this story that is not so important, for the dreadful Bäckström is such a force of nature and so outrageously entertaining that there is little room this time round for polemics - and it is an added pleasure to discover that (when he does it) he is actually very good at his job.  Much to the frustration of his superiors, most of whom detest him to a greater or lesser degree, the ‘fat little bastard’ CAN solve serious crimes and get results – whether they like it or not.  And Bäckström finds out that he who kills the dragon gets the princess – and what a princess!  He’s scared stiff.  Highly recommended.

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

This book was published in Sweden in 2005, which makes it a contemporary 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 every one
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, albeit a short fat one.  Highly recommended.

The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan

In 1947, a young copywriter named Frances Gerety coined a phrase which has resonated down the generations:  ‘A Diamond is Forever’.  The Advertising firm for which she worked had the De Beers Company as a major client and the object was to promote the diamond (the bigger, the better) as a symbol of love, commitment and permanence – not to mention status.  Frances’s work for her bosses at N.W. Ayer changed the way Americans regarded engagement and marriage;   even though she herself remained single all her life, her subtle, brilliant copy cemented irrevocably within courting couple’s minds the notion that Love is Forever too, and the diamond a fitting, starry symbol of that great emotion.
J. Courtney Sullivan has decided to explore in ‘The Engagements’ the institution of marriage, that partnership for good or ill that so many people aspired to as the ideal way of life when the story opens in 1947, until 2012, when one of the protagonists, Kate, considers that marriage is anathema – but will be attending her cousin Jeff’s gay wedding.
In between, we meet wealthy Evelyn in 1972, preparing to meet her dissolute son Teddy for the first time since he left his lovely wife and two daughters.  She and her husband are expecting him for lunch and hope to make him see (yet again!) the error of his ways:  they are devastated when he arrives with his new girlfriend and announces that he has asked his wife for a divorce so that he can marry his new love - ‘ She makes me feel great!’ 
Evelyn and Gerald are shocked and deeply hurt, but not completely surprised.  This is one more example of Teddy’s fecklessness, and yet more proof that he can’t stick at anything, including marriage – as they have done for more than forty years:  a vow is a vow and Evelyn has her rich mother-in-law’s wondrous engagement ring to prove it.  Well, she’ll go to Hell before she lets Teddy’s tramp get her hands on it.  Everything she has will go to her granddaughters.
The action shifts to 1987 and a family who are having great trouble making ends meet:  James is an ambulance driver with two sons.  He has married Sheila, his high school sweetheart and has found through a combination of bad luck and poor decision-making that life can put you behind the eight ball very quickly:  compounding his feelings of worthlessness are Sheila’s parents, ‘comfortable’ and it seems always dipping into their pockets to bail out his family when it should be his job never to have gotten them into that strife in the first place:  he knows that they disapprove of him and his failures and wish that their daughter had made a better choice for a husband.
The last straw comes when his Sheila is mugged and her wallet and engagement ring are taken at knife-point.  Sheila doesn’t care about the wallet but she loved her engagement ring, symbol of an earlier happier time before all the bad luck started:  once again James blames himself – why is he always such a loser?  He has to think of a way to make things up to her, but what?
In 2003 in Paris, we meet Delphine, married to Henri,  fifteen years her senior:  they run a successful business specialising in rare musical instruments and a lot of their clients are rich Americans – until terrorism and the refusal of France to send troops to help with the invasion of Iraq cause most Americans to boycott France in protest.  Henri is forced to take drastic measures to save the business:  he must sell his beloved Stradivarius to the young American violinist known as ‘The Rogue’, currently making a sensation wherever he goes.  It is a terrible day for him, but Delphine is struck by lightning:  she and The Rogue (call me P.J.) fall in love so completely that Henri loses not only the Stradivarius but his wife, as Delphine flies to New York to begin a new life with P.J.  As a symbol of their everlasting love P.J. gives her his mother’s engagement ring.  What could go wrong?  Love conquers all.
Which is Kate’s philosophy in 2012 as she helps her cousin prepare for his wedding to his long-time lover Toby:  love conquers all, but you don’t need to succumb to neo-liberal capitalist concepts (which are all based on advertising, anyway).  She hasn’t:  she and Dan are in a loving relationship and have a beautiful three year old daughter.  They have left the madness of New York City and live happily in the country, much to her mother’s consternation.  Though divorced Kate’s mother deplores Kate’s unwed status – almost as much as Kate hates all the bourgeois industry spawned by the wedding business.  She cannot understand why Jeff and Toby would want to buy into such artifice.
‘Because we are finally, legally, permitted to’ is the answer.  And to seal their love matching diamond wedding rings have been crafted.  Kate is disgusted, especially when everyone knows about Blood Diamonds, but her disgust turns to consternation when she, instructed to look after the rings until the ceremony, loses one.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s fine story has characters sufficiently diverse to make the reader feel as if they are reading four novellas within the book, cleverly linked by a single lustrous jewel.  She explores human relationships with the same expertise that she did in ‘Maine’ (see February 2012 review below), involving the reader completely in their lives, but this time she took longer than before to hook me in;  initially, there was a curious flatness to her writing that was never present in ‘Maine’.  And that is a shame.  Ms. Sullivan is a writer of great ability, and one doesn’t expect stilted prose from such a talent.  Regardless, this is a hugely enjoyable book.  Highly recommended.     

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Three generations of women from the same family congregate at the old family beach house in Maine for the summer month of June – not because they planned to be together, but because circumstance dictates it.  Alice, the matriarch, first came to the property as a newly pregnant married woman nearly sixty years before;  her husband had won beautiful beachfront land on a bet with a friend and since then the family, now spanning four generations, have made annual pilgrimages to this lovely and cherished place.  Alice is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, a devout Catholic with a tongue like a butcher’s knife – especially on matters of faith – and a defiantly heavy drinker.      
Alice’s granddaughter Maggie has also arrived to stay solo ‘for just a few days’;  the original plan of spending some idyllic time there with handsome but feckless boyfriend Gabe scuttled after a huge fight that has ended their relationship.  The problem now is that Maggie’s plan of confessing to Gabe that she is pregnant – in a setting guaranteed (she hoped) to introduce him gently and romantically to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood – has been thwarted:  she finds that at the age of thirty-two, she will have to soldier on alone.  Gabe informs her by email that he can’t deal with fatherhood ‘at this point in time’, which means it’s time to bite the bullet and inform the rest of the family, specifically her mother, Kathleen.
Kathleen is the oldest of Alice’s children, a former alcoholic and intentional rebel against everything that Alice holds dear:  thanks to several massive family confrontations, one involving the death from cancer of Kathleen’s beloved father Daniel, Alice and Kathleen are bitter foes.  Kathleen has sworn after her father’s death never to return to Maine – until she gets the news of Maggie’s pregnancy;  then she swoops in from California to take charge of her errant daughter and do battle with her detested mother.
And into this mix is added the long-suffering, martyred Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, married to son Patrick (‘I am the ONLY one of this family who looks after YOUR mother and what thanks do I get?), who  has reluctantly arrived two weeks earlier than usual to keep an eye on Alice (and her drinking) because she couldn’t persuade Kathleen to come from California to do her family duty – until Kathleen gets the news of Maggie’s dilemma.  Ann Marie is furious.

The stage is set for family fireworks, and Ms Sullivan does not disappoint us:  she writes beautifully of fraught family dynamics, the struggles of successive generations to break iron-bound ties of faith and Irish conservatism, and the attempts by Kathleen and Maggie to be as unlike spiteful Alice as possible, without realising that they are more like her than they can possibly imagine.  No-one to their lasting regret has inherited Daniel’s sanguine and sunny nature, that calming and amiable influence that always steadied the family ship, and as Alice eventually reveals yet another bombshell guaranteed to shock her divided family to the core the reader is treated to the long-secret reasons for all the family slights and resentments.  Each woman has successive chapters to herself, a narrative device that works particularly well here, and by the end of this tender, funny and loving tribute to an American family, the reader feels as familiar with the Kelleher family as their own.  Ms Sullivan portrays beautifully ‘The importance of generations:  one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before’.  Highly recommended.          

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