Sunday, March 29, 2009

Finland: 'Ice Moon' by Jan Costin Wagner - a strange and haunting story cracked through with grief.

"Sanna was dead, and this fact would govern his life from now on."

This is a book I gave up on first time round. Not because of any fault in the prose or story, but because of my own situation I found the opening almost unbearable to read. I put it aside for a while, but the quality of the writing drew me back in.

Young Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa's wife dies of cancer and now everywhere Kimmo sees people he imagines them dying. Driven back to work by the appalling emptiness of his life he leads the investigation into a series of killings in the city of Turku, on Finland's west coast. Kimmo's isolation is reflected in his home outside the city in woods by a lake.

This is not a whodunnit: we know who the killer is very quickly and follow his story in a parallel narrative to Kimmo's investigations. His superiors are preoccupied with a search for the attempted assassin of a local politician, which descends into a farce and his immediate boss Ketola seems to be losing his mind. His colleagues are deftly drawn, and his relationship with the volatile Ketola strengthens as the book progresses. Turku and its surroundings are a vividly portrayed backdrop against which the story is played out.

The city of Turku is on the SW coast of Finland, 2 hours drive from Helsinki. It's situated at the mouth of the Aura River on the Baltic Sea, but sheltered by an archipelago of islands. The summer average temperatures are surprisingly similar to those of London, England, though the winters of course are much colder. It's roughly on the same latitude as Bergen, Stockholm, and Lerwick in the Shetland Isles, though in my ignorance I always thought of Finland as much further north.

Turku is the oldest city in Finland, and its history plays a part in the story: the Great Fire of Turku in 1827 destroyed most of the city - which was at that time the largest in Finland - including many significant buildings; after this, power transferred to Helsinki, where it remains. Turku is linked to Stockholm in Sweden by ferry, a 10 hour Baltic crossing, which Kimmo takes to interview a witness.

The only area which survived the Great Fire was a hillside on the outskirts of the city, which since 1940 has been preserved as the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, an open-air living history museum in which the visitor can experience life as it was in Turku 200 years ago. It consists of a dozen or so blocks of original 18th and 19th century buildings. During the summer season, the museum's workshops have craftspeople working there every day, and this site plays a significant role in Ice Moon.

Also important in the story is the little seaside town of Naantali, ten miles west of Turku city centre, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Apart from its beaches and the islands of the archipelago, it's also home to Moomin World, a theme park based on the Moomin books by Tove Jansson - one of the world's best theme parks for children according to The Independent on Sunday.

Ice Moon is Wagner's second novel, but the first to be translated into English. The author himself is German but is very familiar with the landscapes of Finland - clear from reading the novel - as his wife is Finnish and they divide their time between the two countries. I look forward to reading more about Detective Kimmo Joentaa.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sweden: 'Shadow' by Karin Alvtegen - a comment

First of all, an apology for the lack of recent posting, due to ongoing health issues - I now have to play catch-up over the next couple of weeks!

Karen Alvtegen's Shadow is a psychological mystery dealing with dark secrets surrounding Nobel prizewinning author Axel Ragnerfeldt and his family. The story opens with a young boy abandoned on the steps of an amusement arcade in 1975, and proceeds to unravel the repercussions of that act thirty years later. It's nominally set in Stockholm, but in fact could be anywhere.

The major problem I had with this book - apart from the fact I found the characters entirely unlikeable - is that one of the twists at the end is a well-worn contrivance and thus not much of a surprise. Apart from unremarkable plot-devices, though, this is a reasonably entertaining and undemanding read, but I won't be adding any of her other novels to my 'To Be Read' pile in the near future.

A small point - I nearly didn't pick up this book at all: from the picture on the front I assumed it fell into the misery-lit genre and was to be avoided at all costs.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Netherlands: 'The Reunion' by Simone Van Der Vlugt

Sabine Kroese, the narrator of The Reunion by Simone Van Der Vlugt, remembers little of the day nine years ago when her classmate, 15 year old Isabel Hartman, disappeared. As the story opens 23 year old Sabine returns for the first time in seven years to the small Dutch coastal town of Den Helder, 55 miles north of Amsterdam, where she grew up and went to school and from where her friend vanished. She has seen in a newspaper the notification of an upcoming school reunion and has begun to think about the past.

We learn that Sabine is about to take up her job at The Bank in Amsterdam again after some kind of mental breakdown, and it is not a happy return: her friend has moved to another job and a dictatorial co-worker has been promoted above her. Sabine feels isolated and ostracised, but takes comfort finding that an old schoolmate of her brother's is now working at The Bank too.

After seeing a recontsruction of Isabel's disappearance on TV, Sabine is haunted by the feeling that deep in her memory may be important information about the case, and she feels compelled to use the snatches and details she recalls to try and find out what happened. These clues lead her deep into the heart of the mystery where she uncovers several suspects, and gradually reveals to the reader the truth of her own childhood and the force which makes her so determined to uncover the truth.

The Reunion is Van Der Vlugt's first novel in the crime genre, and I was so engrossed in the story that I read it in a day. I don't always enjoy 1st person narrations, but this one worked very well, and I look forward to more from this author.

Among the many pleasures of the book is the author's evocation of this little seaside town in the off-season: the flat landscape, the lead-coloured sea and salty wind. Sabine doesn't look back on it fondly: it's a place for old people, sailors and tourists, she thinks. Den Helder is at the tip of the North Holland penninsula, and is the site of a large naval base, as well as being a tourist destination for both Dutch and foreign visitors. Not only does it boast a magnificent beach and sand dunes at Huisduinen, but woodlands, hiking and biking paths. Huisduinen is also famous for its lighthouse - Laang Jaap (picture above). The Dark Dunes, which feature prominently in the story, are a real and much visited location - click on the map at the bottom for WhereDunnit's The Reunion locations map.

The Frisian island of Taxel, another lovely and windswept destination, is a ferry-ride north of Den Helder - read about it here. Although I've visited the Netherlands a few times, I've never been to this penninsula - it's certainly on my wish-list now!

UK: The new Miss Marple on ITV at Easter - & the location of St Mary's Mead?

I've been doing some web-searching to try and find out when the new series of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories featuring Julia McKenzie will be shown on ITV, and according to some folk on DigitalSpy the first one, A Pocket Full of Rye, is scheduled for Easter. We'll see.

This programme has already been broadcast in several countries outside the UK, and for anyone desperate to know if Julia McKenzie's portrayal of the aged sleuth will be more Joan Hickson than Margaret Rutherford, several episodes (A Pocket Full of Rye and Murder Is Easy) are available on YouTube I'm not at all sure about the legality of whole episodes being there, and you would have to watch ten or so segments to see the whole thing, so personally I think I'll wait for the TV version!

As a matter of interest, although many people believe St Mary's Mead to be located in Hampshire between Basingstoke (Market Basing) and Bournemouth (Danemouth), and the location may indeed have evolved over the years through Christie's novels, the first reference to the village places it firmly in Kent, and in a Poirot story.

First mentioned in The Mystery of the Blue Train, a Poirot mystery published in 1928, St Mary Mead in Kent is the residence of its heroine, Katherine Grey.

During the same year Christie created one of her most famous sleuths, Miss Jane Marple, whom she introduced in a short story, The Tuesday Night Club. Miss Marple becomes the armchair solver of mysteries in a series of six short stories published in various magazines over the next few years. The club, founded by Miss Marple’s novelist nephew Raymond West, meets every week in St Mary Mead to discuss unsolved crimes, and quiet, genteel Miss Marple is always the one who solves each mystery. She explains: “Human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.”

In 1932 these stories and seven others were gathered together and published in one volume as The Thirteen Problems. By this time the first full-length Marple novel, Murder At The Vicarage, had been published and Christie had fictionalised Kent as ‘Downshire’.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sweden: "Mind's Eye" by Håkan Nesser: Introducing Inspector Van Veeteren

It's a given - Swedish author Håkan Nesser's acclaimed Inspector Van Veetering stories are set in Sweden, surely? That's certainly what I assumed last summer when I read Borkmann's Point – the 2nd in the series, though the first to be translated in English. I enjoyed that book, despite some obvious plot twists. So I was surprised to discover last week, reading the first in the series Mind's Eye, that the books aren't set in Sweden at all, but in an unnamed European country that could be Holland, Poland, Germany…….. with the locations sounding distinctly Dutch.

Janek Mitter wakes up one morning after a mammoth drinking session to find his wife of three months Eva Ringmar dead in the bath. Arrested for her murder he tells his lawyer and DCI Van Veeteren that the only thing he recalls of that night is that he did not kill her.

Van Veeteren is introduced as a man despondent when the weather is poor, separated several times from his wife, depressed by the prospect that they might be getting back together, and responsible for a sick elderly dog. He is distant from his adult daughter Jess, and his son Erich is serving a prison sentence for drug-smuggling. He rarely smiles – though he has a dry wit – and at one point compares himself to a posturing male gorilla when he unexpectedly catches sight of himself grinning.

He is sustained on a daily basis by a supply of wooden toothpicks and the ambition of beating his colleague Münster at badminton. As possibly the best interrogating officer in the country his attempts to resign from the police are consistently refused by Chief of Police Reinhart.

Van Veeteren prides himself on his ability, in 19 out of 20 cases, to tell with accuracy whether an accused is guilty or not. But Janek Mitter is the 20th, and Van Veeteren's not sure. Without the accused's co-operation, though, Van Veeteren is unable to take the investigation in any new direction before Mitter comes to trial.

Mind's Eye is a little slow to get going, and Van Veeteren is hardly the first disaffected, middle-aged curmudgeon of a detective in crime fiction, but he is entertaining in his mordant moodiness and his persistence in spite of the inefficiency and incompetence which sometimes surrounds him. It's a very enjoyable read, with a puzzle I didn't decipher until the end.

As for the locations, although Maardam is a fictional town and the made-up northern European country where the stories are set is never named, many believe that Nesser took his inspiration from the towns of Kumla and Örebro, about 130 miles west (thanks, Anonymous!) of Stockholm. As Kumla is where Håkan Nesser was born and grew up, this would hardly be surprising.

The TV series featuring Van Veeteren was filmed in the south of Sweden, and for the first three programmes, a great deal of attention was paid to making the locations culturally neutral, by using non-Swedish registration plates on the cars, and non-Swedish police uniforms. The later three films are less scrupulous in this regard.

In 2006 Håkan Nesser created a new detective: Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish police inspector of Italian descent, and this time, although he has created another fictional city - Kymlinge - the location is firmly in Sweden.