Saturday, December 27, 2008

Switzerland: "And Then There Was No One" by Gilbert Adair - Review

And Then There Was No One
is the third and possibly last book to feature Gilbert Adair's Agatha Christie pastiche caricature, Evadne Mount. She first appeared in the Boxing Day country-house mystery The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which I read, and then A Mysterious Affair of Style, which I didn't.

This novel is written as a first person narration in the persona of the author 'Gilbert Adair' – a writer, who could be mistaken for David Hockney, who has written two Agatha Christie pastiches featuring a detective called Evadne Mount….. get the idea?

We are presented with the facts of the murder – who, when, where – on the first page of the prologue (a necessity, really, since the first body doesn't turn up until two thirds of the way through the book) – a prologue which exists as a wily chunk of exposition about the dead man's backstory. The victim – Gustav Slavorigin –was a Rushdie-esque figure, the author of a highly controversial polemical essay denigrating the American experience on 9/11 who has been pursued by, amongst others, the backwoods followers of a rabid neo-con Texan zillionaire.

The narrator, Slavorigin and several other ill-assorted authors meet in the Swiss town of Meiringen, site of the Reichenbach Falls, for the first Sherlock Homes literary festival. Meiringen is a real town with a real Sherlock Holmes Museum, proud of its literary associations and the Sherlock Holmes Hotel, though it sports the SportHotel (it must be catching…) branding is actually, I understand, one of the Hilton portfolio, though for some reason they keep this quiet.

Bravely, the Adair-narrator recites complete a piece from his "Unpublished Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes" to the audience at the convention – the completely new story 'The Giant Rat of Sumatra' as referenced in Conan Doyle's tale 'The Adventure Of The Sussex Vampire'.

Self-references abound, and real people are mixed with fictional creations: the real-fictional and the fictional-fictional worlds are dizzyingly interwoven, and the climax left me grinning with admiration.

The book is full of sly allusions to Christie's stories (Adair rents a house in the Cotswolds and travels down to it weekly on the 4:50 from Paddington) and to other crimewriters' works, for example the Martin Beck stories of Sjowall & Wahloo. But any jokes in German – and those in many other languages also – will have flown unnoticed right past me.

And that's really the problem I had with this book. This reader felt frustrated that she was probably missing more than half the jokes; it was frequently unclear whether the "author's" mocking tone was directed at himself, his story, or – most probably – at me. Although I enjoyed the romp and the worthy ending, I was left with the feeling that I'm not clever enough to fully appreciate the dazzling virtuosity on display in And Then There Was No One. And that, dear reader, is not a comfortable realisation!
The bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes outside the museum at Meiringen, Switzerland

Iceland: "Arctic Chill" by Arnaldur Indriðason - Review

Arctic Chill
is the fifth book featuring Reykjavik detective Erlendur Sveinnsson to be translated into English – the first two in the series, Sons of Dust and Silent Kill, are still not available to the English reader.

The bitter cold of an Icelandic January sees Inspector Erlendur and his team - Sigurdur Oli, struggling with the concept of adoption as his wife desperate for a child, and Elinborg, whose own infant is sick – investigating the death of a ten year old boy found stabbed and abandoned in an icy garden.

His mother is a Thai incomer, and Erlendur must consider a range of suspects from teachers and classmates to neighbours and local racists. Matters are complicated further when it seems that a dangerous paedophile might be living in the area. At the same time Erlendur is preoccupied not only by the disappearance of a local housewife but also the questions raised during a visit from his daughter, Eva Lind, which he does not wish to answer.

This is a compelling police procedural which I can thoroughly recommend: Erlendur is in the mould of depressed Scandinavian detectives Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander, but is his own man, and the gradual unravelling of his personal tragedy from novel to novel is intriguing, as is the insight into Icelandic society and the finely drawn characterisations and spare prose style.

The next Erlendur novel, Harðskafi, promises much. It apparently takes the detective back to his childhood home (see below) deep into his soul and the defining trauma of his youth, the loss of his younger brother. Released in Iceland in 2007, it is due to be published in English in the Autumn of 2009 under the provisional title Hypothermia.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sweden: In the footsteps of the first police series - up the Göta Canal with 'Roseanna'

The second stop on WhereDunnit's crime fiction tour of Sweden: the Göta Canal at Lake Boren.

The ten books by Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo
featuring Detective Martin Beck of Sweden's National Homicide Squad, which together form one work consisting of ten individual instalments, have been called the first true police procedurals, and the first great series of police thrillers. As a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction for several years, I felt it was about time I went back to this source.

It's perhaps difficult now to appreciate quite how revolutionary the concept was - a series with a protagonist detective who was an ordinary man, not a hero or Lord or ratiocinative genius, but instead which demonstrated the day-to-day slog and tedium of a protracted investigation.

It is clear where Henning Mankell found some of his inspiration for Kurt Wallander - in fact, so many European policemen can trace their lineage back to Sjowall & Wahloo's creation, an introspective, wise, philosophising man with an unhappy home-life. In this very first novel, Beck reminds himself: "You have three of the most important virtues a policeman can have – you are stubborn and logical and completely calm."

The strange thing about these books is that there is so much that is familiar and up-to-date that it's easy to forget that the first one, Roseanna, was first published in 1965. It's only when the policemen have to wait for weeks and exchange letters and crackling telephone calls with their counterparts in Lincoln, Nebraska, that the reader is pulled up with a start, to realise that this was a world without mobile phones, computerized records and internet searches.

Roseanna begins with a dead body, specifically located in date and time and place, being pulled out of the water at the western edge of Lake Boren, where a series of five locks steps the Göta Canal up to Lake Vättern. (See map - the starting point of the plot is indicated by the green circle). The investigation into the death of the girl - eventually identified as the eponymous Roseanna - develops slowly through the following seven months until Beck finally arrests the killer.

It is wonderful to discover that the cruise ship which features so vividly in the story in 1963 – the MS Diana – still operates the route today: you can take the same cruise along the Gota Canal on the same ship as the ill-fated Roseanna! The scene of the crime was cabin A7: the MS Diana was refitted in 1987, and Cabin A7 is still on the main deck, but not quite in the correct position for Roseanna's cabin as described by Sjowall and Wahloo.

To travel on the cruise Stockholm to Gothenburg costs about £3,600 for two, although as Roseanna only made it to Boren Locks (Borenshult) a few miles east of Motala before her body was dumped in the water, you can get the experience in a two-day cruise from Soderkoping to Motala for £800 for two people in a (tiny) double cabin - a bargain, then! To see for yourself, visit the Göta Canal webpage in English.

I highly recommend the edition I read, published by Harper Perennial in 2006. It features an interesting introduction by Henning Mankell, and articles and interviews at the back by Rick Shepherd. The only criticism I have is that the jacket designer clearly hadn't read the book, as Roseanna on the front has blonde hair and much make-up and bears no resemblance to the girl in the story. I intend to collect them all in this edition, if I can get hold of them – while I'm saving to to take that cruise up the Göta Canal from Stockholm to Gothenburg……..