Saturday, July 13, 2013

Detective Inspector Huss

Can it be - a reasonably cheerful Swedish detective?  And not just one, but several, all working together?  Yes, at least in the charming southern Swedish city of Göteborg (pronounced, per Lonely Planet, "yer-te-bor").  This is not far from Malmö, around where that depressive Kurt Wallander hangs out, but miles away psychically.

And, literar-ily too.  In the end, I enjoyed Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Huss, but more because I liked the cops and the setting, NOT because this was a particularly well-written book.  There was the same stiltedness that I assume comes from translation as one finds in a Henning Mankel novel, but compounded with a really dreadful reliance on cliche and excess verbiage.  The writing was distracting to the point that I had to put the book down for several weeks after getting a few pages in.  Try this paragraph:

"Irene spent a few hours bringing Jimmy up to speed.  She had not complaints about his interest.  He hung on every word she said.  It couldn't be denied that she envied him his enthusiasm faced with this intricate mystery.  His puppylike eagerness was sure due to his youth, but his questions were intelligent.  Her instinct had been correct.  These days, the more complicated things got, the more tired she felt.  But she remembered how it had been the first few years.  The excitement, the aroused hunting instincts, and the feeling of triumph when the case was solved.  Of course, she still had these feelings, but noticeably attenuated.  Far too many cases had not left being the sweetness of victory, but rather a bitter aftertaste.  You become either jaded or cynical in this profession, she thought in her darker moments.  But she didn't want to become either jaded or cynical!  You had to go on, keep moving forward.  You couldn't stop and dig yourself a hole.  The job she had chosen was not without its dangers, but she had never wanted to do anything else and had always enjoyed her work.  The past few years she had begin to notice an insidious feeling that hadn't existed before.  Only recently had she been able to identify it.  Terror.  Terror of people's indifference to the human value of others and terror of the ever-increasing violence."  (205)

See what I mean?  The slightly stilted construction, larger-than-necessary words, change in subject (she to you), obvious emotions (hunting, cynicism, indifference) - John le Carre would have said all that in about four sentences.  Actually, he wouldn't have written it at all. But I digress.  I'm just starting A Delicate Truth, and am in the thrall of that perfect use of language.  Since Detective Inspector Huss is a work in translation, and I don't speak Swedish, it is impossible to know if it the author or the translator, Steven T. Murray, who is the source.  I'm a little surprised to see this difficult writing coming from the usually reliable Soho Press, didn't anyone copy edit this book?  Given its surprising length - 371 pp. - I'm guessing maybe not.

That said, I did end up finishing this story, and would not turn away the next in the series.  It is a pleasure to read a story filled with interesting female characters.  Some are strong and together and generally wholesome like Our Hero Irene Huss.  And some are hysterical or slutty.  But Tursten is to be praised for offering an alternative to the male-dominated world of police procedurals.

In this story, a rich and famous man is murdered a few weeks before Christmas.  Everyone in his deeply dysfunctional family is a suspect, and when another  person is killed in an assassination attempt that is clearly directed toward the first dead guy, you know things are going to get complicated.   The story quickly spins outward to include adultery, gangsters, drug trafficking, skinheads, motorcycle gangs, and that evergreen staple of mysteries, missing keys.  I felt like it covered a lot, but you know, it did all kind of make sense in the end.

And, while I found the writing hard to follow, I loved the setting of  Göteborg , even if I couldn't pronounce half the names and had no idea where I was most of the time.  (Again, a map would help!  Why don't more books utilize them?  Mankel does, and it is so helpful.)  The subplot with the twin daughters turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected.  I think the whole thing did, actually, although the final scene (pre-epilogue) kind of wraps things up a little too neatly when the individual pretty much confesses to everything under careful questioning so all of our questions are quickly answered.

Should you read this book?  That depends on your tolerance level for awkward writing.  If you aren't distracted by it, then yes, you'll enjoy Huss.  If you are, step away from the victim.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Dance of the Seagull

This is harder than I've been prepared to admit.

It only struck me with The Dance of the Seagull (2013, Penguin), just how much driving Salvo Montalbano and his crew do in these novels.  They are all over the place, thinking nothing of an hour or two there and back.  It's kind of like the American West, where people will drive 100 miles for dinner because they can do it going 100 mph.  I wish that Andrea Camilleri would include a map in his novels, so that I could sort out where, exactly, all of this is taking place on Sicily.  There are tours you can take of Montalbano's Sicily, but since I don't have plans to travel there (soon, anyway), I'll have to just do with imagining.

The Dance of the Seagull is a bit of a departure from Camilleri's usual sordid-not-so-under-belly-of-Sicily, in that the initial victim is none other than Salvo's sensible lieutenant Fazio.  Of course, the attack on Fazio happens because he is on the verge of discovering some nasty acts by some very bad guys, and the plot moves along quickly to involve the usual assortment of drug smugglers, transvestites, honey traps, mafiosi, bumbling jurists, grumpy pathologists, and so on.  This is not to say that any story featuring Salvo and his crowd is ever REMOTELY formulaic.  Rather it is that the neatly sketched characters and refreshingly non-per-le-touriste-Sicilia situations are regular elements to be happily anticipated, and slowly savored in every one of the Salvo stories.  Camilleri doesn't waste a lot of time, his scenes and dialogue move fast, and there is not so much in the way of long, deep introspective internal dialogue from anyone. Well, we do get Salvo's good and bad halves (Montalbano 1 and 2) arguing with each other occasionally, but they don't drag it out.  And nobody else thinks much, they just do.

A couple of differences from earlier stories.  Livia makes just a brief appearance, and an uncharacteristically gracious exit.  More critical is that there is a whole lot less eating going on!  Yes, of course Salvo visits Enzo's trattoria, and Adeli leaves some caponata or pasta 'ncasciata or something but mealtime just didn't seem quite the distraction that it has been in earlier stories.  And while there is a dalliance with a beautiful woman, it somehow seemed more clear than some of those in the past.  Who can figure out what Ingrid's role ever was, anyway?  Finally, the terrific translator notes at the back have been shrinking in the recent books, now comprising just a couple of pages of notes.

Perhaps I am the one distracted, as I am finding it hard to focus my thoughts.  So let's wind it up by saying that in any case, this latest entry is among the best in the delightful Salvo Montalbano series.