Sjöwall & Wahlöö: The Locked Room (1972) Martin Beck Series

the-locked-room

One could say that Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the grandfathers of Swedish crime. They wrote long before Nordic crime was the thing it has become. Their Martin Beck series is said to be one of the best around. A true classic. While the books have been around for as long as I can think, I never picked one up, although I have always been curious. Now, finally, because I was looking for a locked room mystery, I came across the eight title in the Martin Beck series, The Locked Room, and thought I’ll give it a try. I know it’s not ideal to start with book eight in a series but it was OK. I never felt liked I was missing a ton of information. According to Michael Connelly, who wrote the introduction to this book, it’s one of their best.

This book was not what I’ve expected. It was so much better. So good in fact that I immediately downloaded the first in the series.

Detective Inspector Martin Beck isn’t the central character in this book because he’s been shot and only just returned to work after an eighteen month break. To help him get back into the routine, he’s been assigned a minor case. A man has shot himself and Beck has to wrap up the case.

Parallel to this case, we follow the police investigating a bank robbery that has gone terribly wrong. One of the customers was shot. For years, the police have tried to catch a group of bank robbers, but they always escaped. The police are pretty sure that the robbers they are chasing, robbed this bank as well, even though they never shot anyone before.

The readers know from the beginning that someone else has robbed the bank. We also learn that the suicide Beck investigates was a murder. The man was found dead, shot, in a locked room and no weapon could be found.

These are two very different cases. The one Beck investigates is more suspenseful as we only know as much as Beck knows. The other case is rather hilarious. And this is exactly why this series surprised me so much and why I loved this book. Very obviously Sjöwall and Wahlöö were very fond of their character Beck. Beck, who is a bit of a loner, is very intelligent, a thinker, slightly sarcastic and disillusioned but not bitter. His colleagues aren’t too keen on him, they find him bizarre and too unconventional. He’s definitely an outsider. While we can feel how much the authors like Beck, we also notice quickly, how little they think of the police in general. They make fun of the bank robbery squad wherever they can. More than one of their missions turns into a farce. Some of these characters are very likeable too but dorky. Others, especially those higher up in the ranks are just clueless.

I really enjoyed the mix of such different cases. The quiet, introspective case Beck was on and the big bank robbery investigation that took surprising turns and had many funny moments.

Another aspect I liked was that the book was full of social criticism. It’s really quite harsh in places. The authors excoriate Swedish society and politics.

I know that Beck is more prominent in the earlier books, so I can’t wait to read a novel in which he gets more room. He’s a great character.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise. Sharp, pithy writing, combined with dry humour, appealing characters, a realistic setting, and two interesting cases. What more could you want?

Announcing German Literature Month VI

german-literature-month-vi
“Who would want to be without Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month?” asks Sally-Ann Spencer in the 20th anniversary edition of New Books in German. The good news is that neither Lizzy nor I want to be without it. So it is our great pleasure to announce that German Literature Month VI is now inked in our diaries for this coming November.
Albeit a little less structured than in previous iterations. We’ve learned that regular participants are not short of ideas, and love to read as they please.  So that’s what German Literature Month VI is about. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poetry, classic or contemporary, written by male or female, the choice is yours. As long as the original work was written in German, read as you please, and enjoy yourselves!
That said, there are a couple of scheduled activities for those who like to take part in group readings.
1)  Lizzy will be hosting a Krimi week during week two, concentrating mainly on Austrian and Swiss crime fiction. (If anyone is looking for a cracking read to discuss that week, she recommends Ursula P Archer’s Five.)
2) I have scheduled a Literature and War readalong for Friday 25 November. The book for discussion is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing.
We are very much looking forward to this, and hope you will join us. Don’t forget to tell us your plans. There’s often as much fun in the planning as there is in the reading!
If you need ideas – go to the German Literature Page on this blog or to the GLM blog.

Lee Martin: The Bright Forever (2005)

the-bright-forever

This has been an odd reading and blogging year so far. I’m only reviewing about one in four or five books I read. Not only because I’m sometimes disappointed in my choices but also because I don’t have enough time to review them. But when I come across a book like Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and know it will be on my favourites list at the end of the year, then I have to review the book or, at least, write about it.

The Bright Forever was a Pulitzer Finalist but I hadn’t heard of it until I discovered Lee Martin via his blog and a nonfiction flash class he taught online at WordTango.

The novel is set in a fictional small town in Indiana in 1972. It’s a hot summer evening and nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the richest man in town, takes her bicycle to bring back her library books. She never returns home. Told from the points of view of different narrators, the novel explores a crime and its aftermath, explores themes of loneliness, guilt, shame, and the desperate struggle for happiness.

This isn’t a crime novel, it’s a literary novel about a crime but it’s just as suspenseful as a crime novel. For the longest time we don’t know what happened to Katie, nor who is responsible.

The choice of narrators is not only great and gives the novel depth but it’s also extremely well done. Lee Martin manages to give each of his narrators a very distinct voice. Not an easy thing to do. First we have Katie’s older brother Gilley who feels responsible for the disappearance because he ratted out his sister. He told their parents that she forgot to return her library books. The next narrator is Mr Dee. A lonely, older man who teaches math. He is a bit too fond of Katie. We’re never sure whether his feelings for her a really fatherly or whether he’s a pedophile. This makes him creepy and touching at the same time. Clare is another narrator. She has done the unforgivable. Shortly after her husband’s death, she starts a relationship with a foreigner, Raymond R. Raymond’s voice is the last. He’s the most problematic figure. The most enigmatic and dishonest. Needless to say, that more than one person looks guilty.

Chosing so many narrators allowed Lee Martin to explore many different topics and to depict his characters from many different angles. We see how they perceive themselves, but also what others think about them. In Mr. Dee’s case that’s particularly poignant, We know he has secrets, but we also know something he ignores— some of the villagers know his secrets. This creates a mirror effect that is very arresting.

While I liked the story and the characters, the thing I loved the most was how Lee Martin captured those lazy summer days that seem to never end when you’re a kid or a teenager. It’s also admirable how he shows that even small town people’s lives are complex and full of pain, mystery and beauty.

The Bright Forever is a stunningly beautiful, mellow novel. It is told in lyrical, evocative prose, which suits this bitter-sweet, nostalgic tale so well. I’m not a rereader but I think this is one of a very few books, I’ll pick up again some day.

Here are some quotes to give you an idea:

That dream was still in my head, that crazy dream about Katie and me on Dumbo the elephant and Mr. Dees walking in the clouds. When I opened my mouth, the dream was on my tongue, as was the feeling that I’d had ever since–the sensation that sometimes life was so wonderful it was scary, not to be trusted.

Here’s Clare talking about Raymond

I think it was this: like most of us, he was carrying a misery in his soul. I don’t say it to forgive what he done, [sic] only to say it as true as I can. He was a wrong-minded man, but inside- I swear this is true- he was always that little boy eating that fried-egg sandwich in that dark hallway while the steam pipe dripped water on his head. I don’t ask you to excuse him, only to understand that there’s people who don’t have what others do, and sometimes they get hurtful in their hearts, and they puff themselves up and try all sorts of schemes to level the ground- to get the bricks and joints all plumb, Ray used to say. They take wrong turns, hit dead ends, and sometimes they never make their way back.

And Gilley looking back

I thought to myself then that it didn’t matter where I ended up; I’d always be living that summer in that town, wishing that I had done things differently, tormented by the fact that I hadn’t. I’d never go far enough to be able to escape it. Maybe you’re happy about that. Maybe not. Maybe you’re carrying your own regrets, and you understand how easy it is to let your life get away from you. I wish I could be the hero of this story, but I’m not. I’m just the one to tell it, at least my part in it, the story of Katie Mackey and the people who failed her. It’s an old one, this tale of selfish desires and the lament that follows, as ancient as the story of Adam and Eve turned away forever from paradise.

And one more

When someone you love disappears, it’s like the light goes dim, and you’re in the shadows. You try to do what people tell you: put one foot in front of the other; keep looking up; give yourself over to the seconds and minutes and hours. But always there’s that glimmer of light-that way of living you once knew-sort of faded and smoky like the crescent moon on a winter’s night when the air is full of ice and clouds, but still there, hanging just over your head. You think it’s not far. Your think at any moment you can reach out and grab it.

 

 

 

 

How Do You Feel About Errors and Clichés in Short Stories? or Some Thoughts On Ann Patchett’s Switzerland

ceci-nest-pas-la-suisse

I’m baffled to say the least. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story with more factual errors. Since I haven’t read a lot of Ann Patchett’s work, I was glad to see that the September issue of One Story featured her short story “Switzerland”. To be entirely honest, I found the title a bit odd. Did she really write a story about Switzerland? Or is it only a setting? I’m not sure why, but I immediately found it a bit problematic to give a story the title of a whole country. Just imagine I would set a story in Rome and call it “Italy”. Be it as it may, I was willing to give it a try and expected to enjoy it.

The story can be summarized quickly. Teresa is a seventy-something woman from LA who just retired. One of her children, Holly, has been living in a Zen community in Switzerland for over twenty years. Teresa’s only seen her very rarely. Her decision to travel to Switzerland and not only visit her daughter but be part of the Zen community for a few weeks, eat, live and meditate with them, is major.

The stay at the Zen community is a life changer and will help Teresa come to terms with things that have happened in the past. So far so good, and I’m pretty sure, I would have liked this story if there hadn’t been so many errors and clichés. And not just little things but big things that annoyed me a great deal.

What kind of errors and clichés you may wonder. Here goes

  • Teresa takes a plane from LA to Paris and then to Lucerne. Her daughter waits for her at the airport in Lucerne. The airport and her stay there are described in detail The only problem – there is no airport in Lucerne. It’s impossible to fly there.
  • When Teresa gets off the plane she comments about the cold. It’s icy – because, of course, we’re in Switzerland and it’s September. Let me assure you, unless you’re on the top of the Matterhorn, it will not be cold in Switzerland in September. Not even cool. Right now it’s still 100°F. It might be cooler in Lucerne, but not under 90°F.
  • The Zen community sells walking sticks that have been made from original Swiss stone pine. Hmmm. This tree doesn’t really grow in Switzerland. It’s a Mediterranean tree.
  • She mentions two newspapers Le Matin and Blick and then says Holly didn’t buy them because she can’t read German so well. Well – Le Matin is obviously French. But that’s not the only thing. Someone living in a Zen community would hardly read such trashy newspapers (the equivalent of the UK Sun).
  • Teresa sees goats and, of course, the goats look like they were waiting for Heidi or her grandfather.
  • And then, of course, Swiss chocolate is mentioned. Holly eats Toblerone.

One or two internet searches and these errors could have been omitted. Teresa could have landed in Zürich. The sticks could have been made of some other wood. She could have chosen between the newspapers NZZ and Weltwoche – far more believable in this context. Upon seeing the mountains she could have thought of Meinrad Inglin or Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Instead of Toblerone, she could have eaten a Kägi fret. Or bought Ricola instead. And what if she’d stepped off the plane saying: “Wow, I never expected Switzerland to be this warm in September.” That would have been a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming changes in her perception. Alas!

I’m not normally hunting for errors  and clichés but these mistakes are huge and annoying. How did they get past the editor? Or are these just liberties she’s taken? If that were the case, I’m not sure why she would do that. Many readers enjoy discovering other countries via literature. As an author you have a duty towards those who are not familiar with a setting—don’t misinform them.

How do you feel about such errors/liberties?

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2016: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Next up in the Literature and War Readalong 2016 is Ben Fountain’s novel on the war in Iraq Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Billy Lynn is Ben Fountain’s first novel. Before that he was mostly known as a short story writer. Many of his stories were published in prestigious magazines and received prizes (the O.Henry and Pushcart among others). A lot of people who already read this novel, told me how much they liked it. If I’m not mistaken, the book is set in the States and not in Iraq. It’s neither a war zone story, nor a home front story but a story of soldiers who are back home to celebrate a victory, before they will be shipped out again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here are the first sentences

The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and limo’s mini bar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where over caffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.

*******

The discussion starts on Friday, 30 September 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

Angel

Angel was my fifth Elizabeth Taylor novel and it was nothing like the ones I’ve read before. It’s almost entirely a character portrait, covering one person’s life from her teenage years to her death. I can’t remember many other of her novels spanning so many years, with the exception of A Game of Hide and Seek, but even that stops before middle age, as far as I remember.

The novel starts with an éclat. Fifteen-year-old Angel is caught lying. She’s been telling two small girls of her glamorous life at Paradise House. In reality, she and her mother live in a crammed apartment above her mother’s shop and Paradise House is the place where her aunt, a lady’s maid, works. When her mother finds out about her lies, she’s so angry that she slaps her. Not something Angel’s likely to forgive. Since she was a child, Angel fantasizes about the house and thinks that she should be living there and not the other Angel, the daughter of her aunt’s mistress.

This early scene tells us a lot about Angel. Not only is she unhappy about her circumstances but she imagines a better life for herself, feeling that she’s entitled to it. Since she’s got such a rampant imagination, she thinks the best revenge is to do something with it and she begins to write a novel. Her mother and her aunt are horrified. Writing? What and idea! But Angel doesn’t care. No matter the cost, she will become a famous author. This is another of her traits – she is determined and when she’s determined she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. All this wouldn’t be so bad but Angel is also deluded. She thinks that she’s a great writer although what she produces is pure schlock. She loves to imagine things but she never does any research. She’s also quite ignorant. People in her books open champagne bottles with a corkscrew. Her books are not only risqué but full of inconsistencies, melodrama and bad taste. At first her novel is rejected but then she finds a publishing house that is willing to give it a go. The two publishers are so amused by her writing that they can’t let it pass, thinking that the public might enjoy it for its raunchy scenes and wild spinning of tales. And they are right. Angel’s novels are a major success, making her not only famous but very rich.

Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy, she doesn’t know that her books are loved in spite of being bad and not because they are, as she believes, masterpieces.

It wouldn’t be an Elizabeth Taylor novel if it wasn’t astute, witty, and wonderfully well-observed. Not only Angel’s mother, but also her aunt, the publishers, the servants, her friend Nora, and Nora’s brother Esmé, are all fully rounded characters.

Obviously, delusions like Angel’s cannot last a life time. While the book is funny and often hilarious in the beginning, the tone and mood get darker and very melancholic in the end.

I thought that Angel was grotesque in many ways but she had endearing qualities. She discovers vegetarianism and a deep love for animals. The big house in which she lives swarms with cats and there are many wonderful scenes. Elizabeth Taylor must have had cats because so many details are so well captured.

Angel’s a lonely figure but she has some relationships. With her live-in friend Nora, her gardener, and others. While they are all exasperated, they stay with her. Not only because of her money, although that’s part of it, but because she’s so genuine. She may be deluded, she may be flawed, but she’s true to herself. Always and at any cost.

I was wondering the whole time while reading this book where the inspiration for this novel came from. Hilary Mantel, who wrote the introduction, thinks that in writing this book Elizabeth Taylor showed how bad writers can make money while good ones, like Taylor herself, are never fully recognized during their life time. But that’s not all, according to Mantel, it’s also a very astute depiction of the life of a writer. I’m not entirely satisfied with these explanations. I think she must have met someone like Angel. When I started reading the book, I found Angel unrealistic, but then I remembered a woman I once worked with who was almost exactly like Angel.

Angel is very different from the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read so far but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t as good. It’s an amazing book. It’s funny, clever, and so well-observed. I read so many novels that I forget within a month or two, but I’m not likely to forget Angel and its fascinating eponymous character.

Here are my other Elizabeth Taylor reviews, should you be interested. They aren’t in any particular order.

At Mrs Lippincote’s

A Game of Hide and Seek

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Blaming

Emma Cline: The Girls (2016)

The Girls

I knew a lot about The Girls and Emma Cline’s publishing deal before the book was even out. It has been sold at an auction for 2,000,000 $ – together with the next, not yet written – novel and a collection of short stories. That must put a lot of pressure on the author. Another sign of a major hype is that the German translation came out at the same time as the US original. Oddly, since it’s been published, I’ve not heard so much about it or read many reviews on blogs. The title might not be doing it any favours as it makes it sound like another “girl thriller”. While it’s about a crime, The Girls is a literary novel, not a crime novel per se.

I’m in two minds about this novel. The first forty pages were terrific. Emma Cline showed major talent. Her prose was stylish and original and the approach to her topic daring, but then came the long, frankly rather boring middle section that made me almost abandon the book. I’m glad I didn’t because the end was good.

The Girls is told as a split narrative. Most parts are set during the summer of ’69 and told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd; the other parts are told by the now middle-aged Evie, who’s looking back. In 1969 Evie’s a lonely girl who lives with a mother who’s just rediscovered dating and doesn’t have time nor patience. She’s going to send Evie to a boarding school. That would be misery enough but on top of that, Evie’s just fallen out with her best friend and is discovering her sexuality, which she can’t handle at all. Then, one afternoon, she sees the girls—a group of beautiful, dirty teenage girls who appear self-assured, arrogant, and wild. Evie’s fascinated, especially by Suzanne. Evie finds out later that the people in her town are wary of them. There are rumours of drug abuse, delinquency and orgies.

Evie sees them again and is invited to their farm and introduced to Russell, their leader. She’s quickly sucked into the life on the farm and becomes one of them. Being part of that group means following Russell’s every move, waiting to be summoned by him, stealing for him, doing drugs, having sex with much older men. Russell pretends to be enlightened but he’s narcissistic and deranged. What he really wants is to become a famous pop star.

Evie’s too miserable in her life to notice that something’s going very wrong on the farm. Not only are they taking too many drugs, but there’s hardly any food. The houses they live in are decaying. The whole place is dirty and insalubrious.

Early in the novel, we learn that a horrific murder was committed and we know that, for some reason, Evie wasn’t part of the group who committed it. What we only find out at the end is why she wasn’t there and what happened to her afterwards.

It’s not often that a book comes full circle at the end like this one. For a long time, I didn’t like the dual narrative, found it artificial, but it made sense in the end.

Emma Cline does a great job at showing us the world through the eyes of a lonely teenage girl. A girl that’s very much a product of her time. She manages to make us see how girls like Suzanne and Evie were easy prey for a man like Russell (or Manson). But she also shows us that Russell wasn’t the only reason for a girl to stay on the farm. In Evie’s case, it’s not Russell who has a hold on her, but the charismatic Suzanne.

At first I was a bit afraid that given the nature of the crime, the book would be too sensationalist. It is sensationalist, but not because of the crime but because of the way Cline writes about sex. The book is explicit and occasionally shocking. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s not been marketed as a YA novel.

I didn’t find this novel entirely convincig and certainly don’t understand the huge advance payment she received. While there are great parts in the book, there are many parts that are dragging and the story was far from original. It certainly wasn’t a must read.

If you’d like to get to know her writing – here’s her only other publication, her short story Marion. It was published by the Paris Review and received the Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2014.