Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Jo Nesbø. The Son (London: Harvill Secker, 2014)

The Son"People called the boy Sonny and said that he has killed two people as a teenager, that his father had been a corrupt police officer and that Sonny had healing hands." (p1) This is a good introduction to the main character Sonny Lofthus, who sits in his prison cell and listens to the confessions of other prisoners. They find it easy to talk to him, and he absolves them from their sins. One day, a prisoner tells Sonny that his father Ab Lofthus did not kill himself, but was murdered. As Sonny says later: "when I heard the true story ... I was born again." (p419) Sonny breaks out of prison and goes after his father's killers. On his trail is Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, a man who used to be Ab Lofthus's best friend.

This is not one of Nesbø's best books. It is rambling and sloppy compared to his earlier, much more effective, stand-alone novel The Headhunters (2008). The cover blurb tells us that Sonny is on the run, well, for almost the first hundred pages he sits in prison. Only when he escapes, the plot starts to move forward. Then it is bogged down with back-filling. It is usually good to start a story in medias res, but the narrative in The Son constantly stops to tell us what went on in the past, before Sonny ended up in prison. These reminiscences and explanations, Sonny talking about his childhood, Simon thinking about his early career, all add up to a lot of retrospective explanation which clutters the narrative and slows down the momentum. The main characters are stereotypical. This is fine in a story that relies on plot rather than characters to engage its readers. Simon Kefas is a tough guy: "Me? I am the law. So I have to catch Sonny. That's just the way it is." (p366) He does of course have his weaknesses: a streak of recklessness, a gambling addiction and a beautiful young wife about to go blind. His sidekick Kari Adel is "the archetypal Scandinavian female as imagined by foreigners." (pp31-2) As expected, she is ambitious, straight-laced and turns out to live in a same-sex relationship. The Kripos ("the National Criminal Investigation Service") and Simon and Kari's "Oslo Police's Homicide Squad" have a pretty standard stand-off at the first murder scene: the Kripos' "You don't look like you've been told that we're taking over this case." (p142) turns into "We need help, Kefas" (p328) as bodies pile up and they have to admit Simon's superiority.
This is all fine, but Nesbo works too hard. The beauty of using stereotypes is that readers are familiar with them.The master villain is a traditional monster; a king-pin of drugs and human trafficking There is no need to continue to tell us that he is huge, large and enormous, with shovel-hands and a gigantic head. We get the point: the man is a big monster.

Sonny's transformation from a pigeon-chested jail-bird through a cold-turkey into "The Angel from Hell" (p454) is the most unconvincing part of the story: I have to agree with the assistant prison governor: "It was unbelievable that one man, a junkie, could cause so much mayhem." (pp333-4). He is an archetypal hero: a son avenging the death of his father. But the parallels to Jesus Christ are too heavy-handed to be either suggestive or funny. There is Sonny's name, the way he attracts confessions, "that look in his eyes. As if he was innocent." (p329). Then there are the frequent scenes of Sonny with Christ-like details: stigmata (p247), walking on water (p275), resurrecting the dead "by the River Drammen" (p281), turning the other cheek (p388), having a halo (p444), a wound in his side (p455), and I am sure there are others which I did not notice.

This is clearly a Second Coming - if a poor carpenter's son in Judea can be chosen, why not a policeman's junkie son in Oslo? Last time around, the worst thing the Messiah did was kick ass in the temple, why could he not this time go on a rampage with an Uzi? Taxi driver Pelle says to Sonny: "We're just a freezing cold bit of rock up here in the north, but we always had one thing that the other countries didn't have. A certain equality. A certain fairness But now we're busy wrecking it for ourselves." (p384)  Sonny, as the papers later write, "has declared war on organised crime and capitalism." (p407) He is not only clearing his father's name, but ridding Oslo of a criminals and purging corruption from the Norwegian police and business world.

All this rather makes me think Nesbø was writing with his tongue in his cheek. Many of his characters have biblical names, it is no accident that the good woman working at the drug-users' refuge Ila Centre is called Martha (her romance with Sonny is very 'Mills&Boon'), the assistant police commissioner is called Pontius and the story starts with a man called Ab.

Sons and fathers are another obvious theme in this novel. Sonny states that "All I ever wanted was to be like my father." (p419) According to Simon, "A son's responsibility isn't to be like his father, but to be better than him." (p442) There is the further theme of brothers, twins and mirror images. The master criminal is known as the Twin, following a legend: "he dreamt two nights in a row that he killed his brother. He concluded that since they were identical twins, it was logical to assume that his brother had had the same dream. From then on it was simply a question of beating the other one to it." (p270, see also p471) This has obvious parallels with the relationship of Simon Kefas and Ab Lofthus (pp428-430). The tale of the crying baby haunting the Ila Centre touches upon this, although its significance in the novel is not clear: the father of the baby was either a member of the Resistance movement or a Nazi sympathizer (pp219-21). It is a question of another national betrayal.

Drugs are more interesting. Sonny is a junkie, the novel is set among drug-users and drug-pushers. Heroin is not the only drug in The Son. Money is a drug for the criminals and Oslo's corrupt business elite: "once he had become hooked on money, it was like heroin" (p334). Love is another intoxicating and addictive substance, Martha suffers from it (p288). If so many of the people inside the narrative get high, what about the reader? Simon Kefas had a gambling problem, but now he gets his kicks from policing: "Because who can bear to live in a world without crime, without the idiotic rebellion of the stupid, without the irrational ones who bring about movement, change! (p438)  Is there a possibility that Nesbø's fast-paced violent, narrative that grips us and keeps us hooked is a kind of drug? In so many ways, we are no better than Sonny or Simon; we have to get our fix, too.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Unni Lindell. Orkestergraven (Oslo: Aschenhoug, 2010) 
Orkestergraven (The Orchestra Pit) is fifth in Lindell's series featuring police detective Cato Isaksen, (the story is also included in the TV-series made of her novels in 2009). The Norwegian title has an added sombre tone, because en "grav" also means a "grave." In this story, Isaksen is called to investigate the death of a woman found stabbed in a cold winter's night behind a trendy furniture store (which is now a garden centre) in the western part of Oslo.

The woman is Siv Ellen Blad, a violinist. The title, the occupation of the victim (although she also worked part-time at a post office) and several characters with large CD collections, give the story a musical flavour, but this theme does not significantly affect the course of the narrative.

The narrative's interest is very much with family life and its complications. The Blads, with a teenage daughter Maiken, were separated. The husband, Axel, has moved out to live with a new partner, who also has a son in his twenties. Ellen Blad has rented the basement of the large marital home to a single mother, who has a friend, a troubled young man with a problematic relationship with his own family. Cato Isaksen's family life is just as chaotic as those he is investigating: he has returned to live with his ex-wife and two older sons, but is involved in the care of his youngest son, whose mother is now in a relationship with a new (somewhat controlling or perhaps just jealous) partner. Families and relationships between parents and children criss-cross the narrative, not least Isaksen's relationship with his youngest son Georg.

Themes of family and parenthood are linked with questions about wealth and whether it brings happiness. The setting is very specific and significant: Vinderen on the T-bahn route 1, which meanders up the steep slope to Holmenkollen past large villas with apple orchards and heated driveways. This is a prosperous, wealthy and highly respectable neighbourhood of designer buggies, big Audis and shopping weekends in London. Lindell does not only give us the street where Ellen Blad lives, but she describes precisely the house (in the corner of Frognerseterveien and Dagaliveien) where Ellen's husband Axel now lives. This murder is located in the heart of comfortable, confident and secure Oslo and brought close to home to Lindell's audience.

The location gives the story a very explicit social dimension: as is so often the job of the detective, Cato Isaksen's job is to tear off the smooth, glossy mask of West-Oslo's wealthy and reveal the ugly, raw emotions beneath: greed, fear, loathing and desire.

Lindell offers more than just the traditional revealing of dark secrets. The tension and conflict between society's haves and have-nots, and how easy it is to slip between these categories, rumble beneath the surface of the narrative.

The pace of the police investigation is slow. The police fumble, they miss clues, occasionally they feel powerless. Witnesses and other people involved in the events have their own plans and motives; they are blinded by emotion; they hide or simply forget important details. Wally Steen is so upset by Isaksen's phone call that she hangs up without answering his crucial question.

This adds a sense of realism to the narrative. Lindell's characters behave in a way you might imagine real people to behave under pressure and in a chaotic aftermath of a violent death. In addition, the irrationality in people's behaviour is a source of tension and suspense. Lindell handles her characters well and shows their emotional states and turmoil through their behaviour. It is a shame that she has resorted to the old gimmick of opening and closing the novel with italicized sections giving us an agonized internal monologue of the killer. These sections are entirely superfluous.

Lindell creates convincing characters in all age groups; her children are as rounded as her adults. Perhaps this is not surprising as she is also a successful children's writer. There is certainly gender equality in this novel: the female characters (including the victim) are more active and determined than the male characters, despite the detective hero being a man.

The murder in Orkestergraven happens off the page. The narrative does not shock with violence; it entertains with suspense. Even in the final, dramatic scenes of the novel, this suspense remains realistic and the events believable. The focus of the story is in solving the murder. Yet there is enough in the narrative to make it a very good, traditional, detective story. The psychological depth of the characters, although not immense, is sufficient to make them interesting. The problems of parenthood and family relationships and the question of wealth and its effects add further food for thought.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Roseanna (1965) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (London: Fourth Estate, 2011)

Roseanna is the first book in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's ten-book series The Story of a Crime, better known to general readers as the Martin Beck-series after its protagonist. The authors explained their motivations in an article entitled "Kriminalromanens förnyelse" ("Renewal of crime fiction") published in the first number of the Jury- magazine (a Swedish magazine for friends of detective fiction) in 1972, and since then it has been generally acknowledged that they aimed to use crime fiction as a vehicle for social criticism. As Henning Mankell writes in his 2006 introduction to Roseanna: "They wanted to use crime and criminal investigations as a mirror of Swedish society". Much has been made of this idea of Swedish crime fiction as a tool for left-wing social criticism. I do not see much of it in Roseanna.

The novel has thirty short chapters, each one is a step in the long investigation into the death of a young woman, whose body is lifted out of the Göta-canal on the 8th of July 1964. There are no sub-plots and only just enough background detail to stop the world of Martin Beck from becoming too claustrophobic. The only other narrative strand is Beck's deteriorating marriage. Beck's wife and family are pushed to the margins as he concentrates on the murder case. This allows Beck to display the traditional doggedness of a detective on a case. It also reveals something of Beck's character: he is emotionally more concerned about the dead young woman than about his family.

The language in Roseanna is matter-of-fact. The sentences are short; there are no metaphors or similes. The movement is consistently forward in time (there are no flashbacks) and the focus is exclusively on the police. The third-person narrative does not speculate or explain; the narrator is very much a reporter describing what happens. The only back-story belongs to Martin Beck and it is squeezed onto a single page (page 12).  The narrative presumes an attentive and (reasonably) intelligent reader, who is expected to keep up with Beck's thinking.

There is much low-key humour. The novel opens with an incompetent bureaucratic muddle in organizing canal dredging "until someone picked up the phone and dialled an engineer who knew all about bucket dredging machines." (Page 2) This is followed immediately by an outline of the police bureaucracy in Motala, raising the question whether the police would be any more efficient. Due to a bad telephone line, Kafka is left under the mistaken impression that Beck has shot the culprit: "Great. Tomorrow you will be the hero of the day over there." Kollberg remarks, "Shoot-em-up Martin, the avenger from south Stockholm." (Page 56).

The investigation takes six and a half months. It takes three months to identify the victim as Roseanna MacGraw, an American tourist. The investigation moves between Stockholm and Motala and it is international. Already on page two we get a glimpse of a Vietnamese tourist. The boat where Roseanna is killed is full of foreigners: "Fifteen Swedes, ... Twenty-one Americans, minus one, of course. Twelve Germans, four Danes, four Englishmen, one Scot, two Frenchmen, two South-Africans, ... five Dutchmen and two Turks." (Page 64) There are references to Interpol cases (co-operation with Spanish and French police) and witnesses work on foreign freight-ships (someone in The Hague speaks Danish and so can interview a Swedish sailor on a German ship currently docked in Hook van Holland, page 101). "The case ... was spreading itself out all over the globe," (page 129) with Detective Lieutenant Elmer Kafka in Lincoln, Nebraska, Roseanna's home town, involved.

Gunnar Ahlberg, the Detective Inspector in Motala, where Roseanna's body is found, and Martin Beck, who is sent from Stockholm to help, are determined to find Roseanna's killer. From the start Beck "felt sorry for the girl that no one missed." (Page 20) As the first excitement surrounding the death subsides, these two agree that they will never let this one go (page 34, see also page 41). There is a strong sense of sympathy for the victim, the "poor, little friend" (page 44). Beck is literally sick with worry: he is constantly ill, unable to sleep or eat, and seems to feel better only when the investigation takes a step forward (see pages 53,129).

Starting with Kollberg's "real description" (page 34) and further through Kafka's interviews in the US (making up most of chapter 12 and 13), the first half of the investigation is all about getting to know the victim. Roseanna was an independent woman, who was not shy to approach men. She was "natural" with her sexuality, to an extent that makes Beck hot under the collar reading her ex-boyfriend's statement (page 88).

Seagulls remind Beck of his colleagues: "Their powers of observation and their patience were admirable, as was their staying power and optimism. They reminded Martin Beck of Kollberg and Melander." (Page 23). Later Beck thinks of "three of the most important virtues a policeman can have ... You are stubborn and logical, and completely calm." (Page 44) Officer Kafka displays these qualities too. He, together with Ahlberg and Beck share the same instincts. They communicate frequently and often anticipate each others' thinking. There are hints in the narrative that the obsessive nature of detectives is not exceptional. Beck receives a phone call in the middle of the night meant for Stenström; a voice tells him that another case has been solved: "I only wanted to tell you so you wouldn't lie awake and think about it unnecessarily ..." (page 39). There is also the mention of an older colleague who was plagued by an unsolved case for seven years (page 130).

Once Beck and his team have identified a prime suspect (after chapter 20), the focus switches to the perpetrator. His character becomes the object of interest. With the police, we get to know his habits, his daily routine; we meet him in an interview room. Beck is convinced that the man is the culprit, but he has no way to prove it. He resorts to a highly unorthodox and dangerous method (although supported by his superiors). For a long time Beck's plan does not seem to work. In a very effective way, the narrative ratchets up the reader's frustration and suspense alongside the police's, until it culminates in a dramatic scene.

Roseanna is a crime investigation in two halves: the portrait of the victim and the portrait of the killer. Neither one is a monster, neither one is flawless. There is an unpalatable subtle suggestion that Roseanna triggered her own killing. This novel shows crime as part of society and human interactions. Criminals are members of society and not alien to it. Or as Beck puts it: "A murderer is a regular human being, only more unfortunate and maladjusted." (Page 44) The crime is an almost casual side-effect of life: "Later, he had happened to kill her. She could just as easily have been run over on King Street in Stockholm." (Page 244). Beck's use of Sonja Hansson muddles the moral of the novel further: first, it reconfirms the idea that victims can 'trigger' crimes with their behaviour, and secondly it draws to question Beck's motivations in his willingness to risk Sonja in order to catch the killer. If victims can trigger crimes, crimes in turn, seem to trigger equally strong passions and obsessions in detectives.

At the end, stands the question as old as the detective story: is it a conservative, reassuring genre? Does it give us a warm feeling to know, that out there, there is an international brotherhood of detectives (Beck, Ahlberg, Kafka) who will stay on the case stubbornly, until justice is done and the order of society is restored? Rather, Roseanna seems to be saying that crime is part of the society's status quo, not because there is something fundamentally wrong with the current social order (maybe that argument comes later in the series), but because crime is part of the human condition.