Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

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I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)

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Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    

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Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

Books in Brief, Part 3

If you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know that I devote full reviews to only a small number of the books that pass through my hands each week. Here are three novels that I abandoned after a few chapters or just skimmed through. They may have qualities that engage you more!

In the Name of the Family     Sarah Dunant     (2016)

You’d think that the inclusion of the famously conniving historical characters Niccolò Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia would spark up this novel, but I found the 40 pages that I read to be lackluster. I’ve liked other Sarah Dunant novels set in the Italian Renaissance (eg, The Birth of Venus), so perhaps with In the Name of the Family Dunant is trying too hard to redeem the reputation of Lucrezia. Or perhaps I’m weary of the slimy Borgia brood and their confederates from too many books and television series.

 

 

My Italian Bulldozer     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

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I’m a big fan of several of McCall Smith’s series of novels, especially the 44 Scotland Street Series, which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Sadly, McCall Smith’s stand-alone novels tend to be weaker narratively. My Italian Bulldozer is a lightweight romance/comedy, in which the main character is forced to accept a rental bulldozer instead of a rental car on a business trip to Montalcino, Italy. McCall Smith can usually pull off ridiculous plot twists, but this one didn’t work for me.

 

 

Six Four     Hideo Yokoyama     (2012/2016)  translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

The international bestseller from Japan is finally available in an excellent (British) English translation. The central character of this police procedural murder mystery is Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective who now heads media relations for the police. The title refers to the year of the emperor’s reign when a notorious child-murder occurred. In addition to solving this cold case, dealing with the press, and fighting police corruption, Mikami is dealing with the disappearance of his teen daughter. The insights into Japanese culture are fascinating, and the extended dialogue is well done. But I just skimmed this one, simply because I don’t care for police procedurals. If you do, Six Four is a winner.