Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sweden: Stieg Larsson's 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' - starting and stopping.

The world is thick with reviews of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' and there's little need for me to contribute another one. I haven't read other commentaries but the fact that it's a number one bestseller indicates how popular it is, and I believe that it has also achieved the feat of being critically acclaimed, too.

This is difficult for me, as I started reading the book a few months ago and found it less than compelling. The prologue was intriguing, but then I found myself bogged down with chunks of exposition about financial crimes far less exotic than those happening around me every day. I realised I was skimming paragraph after paragraph. Lisbeth Salander was introduced, but I wasn't moved by her, either. She struck me as a character very much following in the footsteps of, say, Donna Leon's Signorina Elettra crossed with the goth-chick-lab-tech traits of a variety of US dramas such as 'NCIS' (2003 - current) and 'Mysterious Ways' (2000 - 2002).

So I laid it aside as wave upon wave of praise crashed over it, and I felt compelled to give it another try. By the end of the week I'll know whether I've changed my mind!

Until then, here's my map of the (mainly) Stockholm locations of TGWTDT as far as I've now got:

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Sweden: Camilla Lackberg as the new Agatha Christie? A review of 'The Ice Princess'

The third stop on WhereDunnit's crime fiction tour of Sweden is the small fishing village of Fjällbacka, setting for Camilla Lackberg's first novel The Ice Princess.

Although she is the author of six books featuring Inspector Patrik Hedstrom of the Tanumshede police and writer Erica Falck, only one has been translated into English so far, with another, The Preacher, due for release in February. Lackberg has been called Sweden's Agatha Christie, and while it is certainly true that The Ice Princess is a beautifully plotted whodunnit, the characterisation and description is far more rich and dense than this comparison implies.

What she does share with many of Christie's stories is the setting she has chosen for her series: a self-contained community, where everyone tries to know everybody else's business, and secrets are hard to protect – but where keeping up appearances is vital. The community in The Ice Princess is the coastal village of Fjällbacka, where Lackberg herself was born and lived as a child.

When author Erica Falck returns to her childhood home in Fjällbacka to tidy up loose ends after the sudden death of her parents, she discovers the frozen, dead body of a schoolfriend she hasn't seen for decades. Reluctantly at first, and with the help of local police inspector Patrik Hedstrom, she begins to unravel the threads of mysteries that have lain hidden at the heart of the community for many years.

The importance of the setting is emphasised by the inclusion of a map of Fjällbacka, and the descriptions of the landscape are both vivid and an integral part of the story. One of the subplots concerns tourists and incomers from Stockholm buying up traditional homes just to use in the summer for holidays.

The characters are deftly drawn: Erica is a sympathetic lead: despite her tall blonde attractiveness – which would normally set me against her from the get-go - she is a little preoccupied about her weight, and, at thirty five and alone, worries about never having a partner or a child. The police squad are a cast of the usual suspects – the fiercely efficient secretary, the one coasting towards retirement, the suck-up – but my favourite is Police Chief Bertil Mellberg, with his paunch, his uncontrollable comb-over and his unshakable self-belief. Think Andy Dalziel without the charm or grace …. or skill.

Fjallbacka is about 90 miles north of Göteborg (Gothenburg) on the west coast of Sweden up near the border with Norway's coast. Although now primarily a tourist destination because of the picturesque aspect of the many original buildings, in the past it was a fishing village and it is this history which is important in The Ice Princess.

Fjällbacka means 'mountain hill' because the village is situated around the huge stone cliff of Vetteberget which is fractured by a fissure known as Kungsklyftan (King's Chasm/Cleft). The village is surrounded by an archipelago of lovely tiny islands, which also attracts many tourists – including, in the past, the famous movie actress Ingrid Bergman, who owned an island in the Fjallbacka archipelago and loved to go there each summer. At her request, after her death her ashes were scattered around Fjallbacka, and her statue was erected in the village square which was renamed in her honour.The hotel in the village, the Storla Hotellet Fjallbacka had mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, but most of the information available is of course in Swedish. There are more images here.

The Ice Princess and The Preacher have been made into a successful series for Swedish television. Lackberg has commented: " I loved the Swedish TV-series and especially the casting, which was great. They did the two first books and the series had very high ratings when it aired in Sweden, so they will now film the next two books come this fall." There are DVDs but they are only available in Sweden and I do not know if they come with English subtitles (I know some of the Swedish Wallanders do). This website, though in Swedish, shows the actors who play the main characters.

Last summer, Lackberg and Swedish chef published a cookery book called Smaker from Fjällbacka (Tastes from Fjällbacka), only available in Swedish. A review can be found here.

Finally, one of the things I was surprised to note in passing when reading this book, which struck me again as I start reading Stieg Larsson's The Girls With The Dragon Tattoo (yes, I know I'm way behind on this) is that Sweden has a statute of limitations on homicide, so that after 25 years even first degree murderers cannot be prosecuted. In 2005 there was discussion of removing this limitation, as DNA and other trace evidence can now be recovered from very old cases, but as far as I can discover it has not been repealed yet.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Northumberland: Ann Cleeves and the Vera Stanhope books.

The windswept coastal villages and rolling moors of Northumberland are the settings for Ann Cleeves's three novels featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, first introduced in The Crow Trap (1999).

In this book three women, all of them with secrets, come together in an isolated cottage in the Northumberland National Park to undertake an environmental survey. But after two sudden deaths it is up to Stanhope to untangle the mysteries they would rather keep hidden. Big, brisk but basically kindly and with a reputation for eccentricity, Stanhope gets results through dogged persistence coupled with a wise intelligence and the ability to see unexpected connections. She hides her decisive mind behind a lugubrious and down-to-earth exterior. The location for this story – Baikie's Cottage – is based on a settlement called Threestone Burns, right up in the hills of the national park.

The second in the series, Telling Tales (2005), sees Stanhope seconded to South Yorkshire to investigate an apparent miscarriage of justice, but she returns to her cottage in the Northumberland hills for Hidden Depths (2007). Cleeves's mastery of shifting persepective is particularly evidenced in this finely crafted tale. The investigation revolves around a series of bodies discovered drowned surrounded by flowers like pre-Raphaelite figures, and a group of four men bound by the ties of old friendship.

Seaton, where much of the novel is set, is based on Holywell, near Whitley Bay in Northumberland. Deepden, where one of the bodies is discovered, is a fictional village up the coast is somewhere on the wide sweep of Druridge Bay. Hidden Depths is an intriguing and beautifully crafted story, and Stanhope is a strong and interesting detective.

Although I am enjoying very much Cleeves's latest Shetland Quartet series, I hope we haven't seen the last of Vera Stanhope!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Italy: Andrea Camilleri's "Paper Moon" in paperback, and Montalbano's Sicily.

You won't find Vigàta on any map of Sicily. It’s the fictional setting for Andrea Camilleri's highly popular series of nine (in English) crime novels featuring temperamental yet wise Inspector Salvo Montalbano.

Paper Moon is the most recent to be translated into English, and the paperback version has just been reissued. It delivers the expected romp as Montalbano once again finds himself investigating beautiful women, this time involved in the death of a travelling pharmaceutical salesman, aided (or hindered) by his caricature police colleagues. And throughout the story he is plagued by intimations of his mortality.

Camilleri himself grew up in the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle on the SW coast of the island, and this is the inspiration for Vigàta, the little harbour town in which Montalbano serves alongside his small band of officers. In fact, so proud are the inhabitants of their literary connections that in 2003 the town was officially renamed Porto Empedocle Vigàta. The fictional city of Montelusa is based on Agrigento, the nearby provincial capital.The detective's favourite trattoria, the San Calogero, actually exists at 2 Via Roma, Porto Empedocle. The owners are used to tourists coming in and asking for Montalbano's favourite dishes.

The Italian television episodes based on the Montalbano novels were filmed in various places around Sicily, but much of Vigàta was shot in the hillside town of Ragusa (see map below) a glorious baroque fortified town with steep winding streets, slashed by a deep ravine created by an earthquake which split the town in two in the 17th century, now spanned by four impressive bridges.

Montalbano's beachside home with terrace was shot using the seafront at Punta Secca, although the bedroom was filmed a few miles away at a seafront villa in Marina di Ragusa.

For a taste of the fantastic scenery and settings for the Italian TV version, visit the RAI Montalbano website, and here is a direct link to go directly to this page from which you can watch all the TV episodes – in Italian, of course.

I especially love the opening sequence which has some fabulous shots, so it's worth a look even if you don't intend to watch each 90 minute show in full! My only difficulty with this series is that Luca Zingaretti seems a decade too young for my idea of Montalbano, but he's quite compelling in the role.

Finally, anyone wishing to follow in Salvo's footsteps, there are organised tours– or you can even have one customised especially for you!

Click on the map to view larger

Monday, January 05, 2009

UK: TV detective series scheduled for 2009 include the following:

Another six episodes of Alexander McCall Smith's The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency stories. Despite the sad death of Anthony Mingella. Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose return as co-founders Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, but find their turf being trodden on by newcomer Cephas Buthelezi (Paterson Joseph) - a fellow private detective who sets up a rival agency and moves in on Mma Ramotswe's patch. The series is currently scheduled to air from March 2009.

David Peace's Red Riding Quartet has been made into a trilogy of films set in Seventies and Eighties Yorkshire – and drawing on the real-life hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph rate it as likely to be one of the television highlights of the year. Paranoia, police corruption and the Yorkshire Ripper form the backdrop to three feature-length adaptations of Peace's bleak, violent novels. Currently scheduled to air on Channel 4 in March, it stars Warren Clarke (Andy Dalziel) and Sean Bean.

I was attending Leeds University and living in Leeds during the 1970s and it was very scary at the time. The final victim was killed just off Alma Road in Headingly, where a very close friend and his wife lived whom we had visited many times.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

UK: When will the Kindle be available here?

Why are we wa-aiting?

Of course, I know the technical reason given by Amazon: they have to sign up a variety of wireless networks to cover the whole of Europe before they want to go to the effort of introducing the Kindle over here.

But surely they must have some idea of when it is likely to be launched in the UK? I have been seriously thinking about buying the Sony Reader for several months, but each time I restrain myself in the belief that as soon as I do, the Kindle will be launched in the UK and I will kick myself for not waiting.

Today, searching for a copy of Charles Todd's A Fearsome Doubt which I want to read because it's set in Kent and I'm still working on my Wheredunnit book proposal [Promise to self: This WILL be completed by the end of January] I discovered that I could download it immediately as an ebook. So I'm all of a dither again.

There seem to be drawbacks and advantages to both the Sony and the Kindle.

The Kindle:
  • It's not available in the UK and there are no details as to when it will be: very big CON
  • Judging from the US website there are thousands of crime fiction books which I might want to read all ready for downloading: PRO
  • But - the UK website might not have as many as the US one, and we might not be able to download from the US Amazon - Sony US ebooks aren't available to UK readers: CON
  • From the available images, the Kindle isn't as attractive as the Sony 505: CON
  • The Kindle has a keyboard, so you can make notes on what you are reading: PRO
  • Eventually, when the wireless is set up, downloading wirelessly will be very rapid: PRO
  • There is no effective & attachable light for the Kindle, only those old-fashioned clip-on things which I've never got on with for real books: CON
  • Kindle books appear to be cheaper than Sony books, though it's hard to make a comparison: PRO
Pro: 4 Con: 4

The Sony 505
  • It's available here now: very big PRO
  • It's cheaper than the Kindle is likely to be, at £194, which includes a CD of 100 classics: PRO
  • It's prettier than the Kindle, and the 505 has buttons to make one-handed reading easy: PRO
  • A lighted cover is available for reading in the dark without disturbing anyone (or reading in most hotels nowadays): PRO
  • There's no way of entering notes about books being read: probably a CON
  • It isn't wireless. Can't see this as a problem for myself, as I won't be wanting newspapers and magazines. But never having experienced it, I might be quite wrong: probably CON
  • The choice of books from Sony/Waterstones (and other UK-available sites) is fairly limited. For instance, I couldn't have got the latest Arnaldur Indridason: CON
  • The books available from Sony/Waterstones are VERY expensive - 'The Private Patient' is even more costly as an ebook than it was to purchase as a hardback: big CON
Pro: 4 Definite Con: 2 Probable Con: 2

So I remain undecided - for now. But I don't think I can hold out much longer..........