Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell- a Review of this Swedish Police Procedural

Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well-known throughout the world for his police procedural novels, especially those about policeman Kurt Wallander. These novels typically involve gruesome murder, but are dominated more by the inner workings of Walander’s mind and his investigation of the clues than they are by the violence that pervades, say, one of the Kenzie-Gennaro stories by Dennis Lehane.

In The Return of the Dancing Master, TRotDM, we meet a new protagonist, Stefan Lindman. Lindman is a fairly young, though experienced, policeman who is greeted by two sets of bad news rather early in the story: he has a cancerous tumor in his throat that requires him to start chemotherapy in a few weeks, and Herbert Molin, his old partner and one-time mentor, now an elderly, retired policeman, has just been murdered in the remote area of northern Sweden to which Molin had retired.

Understandably beset by malaise, Lindman has trouble communicating with his girlfriend and doesn’t really want to talk to anyone about his condition or his possibly-impending demise. Instead, he feels like hopping on an airplane to the Spanish coast to drown himself in pity and alcohol in the company of strangers. However, as disconnected as he feels from reality, suffering what he thinks of as an old man’s disease while only 37, Lindman is roused by the tragedy of his partner’s murder, and ultimately decides to visit the scene of the crime during his medical leave, until it is time to start chemotherapy.

As everywhere, matters of protocol and jurisdiction must be followed in Swedish police procedures, and Lindman has every intention of doing so, but, since he is really just curious as a friend, he ends up at the actual murder site before contacting the local authorities. Lindman’s instincts as a detective kick in, and he notices a few things that had been overlooked by the local officers. This infraction against protocol earns the immediate resentment of the regional commander, but Lindman eventually finds an ally in the form of the highly effective, if somewhat oddly named, inspector Giuseppe Larsson of the Ostersund police force. Larsson is an intelligent man, and is grateful for the presence of Lindman, who not only continues to find evidence that had been overlooked, but serves as an excellent sounding board for theories. The two become de facto partners, while needing to hide this collaboration from higher authorities.

So, you ask, “What is unusual about this book? It seems to follow a relatively common formula…” I can assure you that the book is not common nor formulaic, however. It turns out that almost nothing and nobody, except Giuseppe, can be taken at face value here. The partner that Lindman thought he knew turns out to have had a hidden life, a life that terrified him, and which may finally have caught up with him. The killing itself is carried out by torturing Molin to death, and the circumstances are truly bizarre.

In the course of assisting the local police, unofficially, with their inquiries, Lindman uncovers facts about his own life and family that are profoundly disturbing, just as he uncovers facts about the existence of a neo-Nazi organization that is by no means a group of mere skinheads, but is a sophisticated and well-funded network.

In the Afterward, Mankell makes the usual disclaimers about TRotDM being a novel rather than a description of actual events and people, but he also says that, intermingled with the fiction, there is a set of truths, placed intentionally, for a purpose. These truths were as disturbing as they were illuminating. Although I have read extensively about the Second World War, I was completely unfamiliar with any close connection between some segments of Swedish society and the Nazi Party. However, this connection did exist, and more than a few Swedes served under Hitler as volunteers. In TRotDM, we learn about these wartime allegiances and how they may have survived to the present day. Of course, many Swedes also helped rescue Jews fleeing the Nazis, so this is no simplistic story, either in the book or in history itself.

The revelations about Fascism in Sweden come as a shock to Stefan Lindman. Able to work at the fringes of the investigation, he manages to employ unorthodox police procedure and to pursue possible tangents that end up becoming central to the story. Through Stefan’s eyes and ears we learn much about isolated Swedish villages, the varied terrain, the good-hearted people who live far from the bustle of cities, and the evil ones who might show up wherever a rock is overturned, be it at the side of a country road or in the confines of a modern business park. The book provides maps to help us follow all of Stefan's travels across Sweden.

The story is one of revenge, of the Holocaust, of wartime cruelty and long-delayed peace-time repercussions, of skin-heads and businessmen with the same agendas (if not tactics), of the repressed and suppressed memories of Swedish-Nazi collaboration, of how that collaboration may be continuing at this very moment, and of how this knowledge repels and horrifies the modern-day police investigators, who view Sweden as a peaceful country and who learned in school only of its careful neutrality during the war.

In the case of TRotDM, the policemen face a number of dilemmas, not the least of which is “What exactly the heck is going on? Are the murders connected? Is there a lone killer, a group of killers or several unrelated killers?” The revelations about complicity and duplicity take a good while to be completed, and we meet many well-drawn characters along the way. The young girl who works as a hotel clerk and waitress is a minor character, but she is very much alive. Life goes on, and sometimes stops, in small villages as it does everywhere else, regardless of what external circumstances may intrude.

Of particular interest, we are given entrée to the mind of a killer who was bent on taking revenge for war crimes against his Jewish family no matter what the cost– revenge he has been fixated on for more than 40 years. Nonetheless, this man is troubled by guilt about a number of things, though not the execution of his intended victim. This guilt causes the killer to stay in the area, at great risk to himself, to discover what forces may have been unleashed by his act of revenge.

Judging Herbert Molin’s killer is no easy task, even for his official pursuers, the policemen Stefan and Giuseppe, and even though the costs of his crime include many unintended consequences: a pleasant country constable ends up shooting someone dead and never really recovers from the experience, and other murders are committed. As the story unfolds, the killer must evade police dogs and police cordons, and a fascist group that is determined to trap and exterminate him.

Caught up in the crimes, Stefan is largely able to forget his fears of death and throat cancer while he works in tandem with Giuseppe to peel back every layer of the mystery, though, at night, when he is alone, the fears usually return.

Is it acceptable to take “an eye for an eye”? Clearly not in the view of Swedish law, which, like most developed nations, does not allow capital punishment. But is it acceptable under some circumstances? Stefan and Giuseppe must answer this question very specifically as the mysteries are wrapped up, just as they must acknowledge the hidden and shameful past that haunts a part of the Swedish soul, perhaps even with living ghosts. Author Mankell provides us with everything we might want in a novel, and adds extra elements that give the book an unusual resonance: suspense that ebbs and flows; human frailty and courage; stark terror; the remorse associated with unintended consequences of one's actions; historical fiction that exposes the (unfortunately, all too common) savage secrets of nominal wartime neutrality; several likely and unlikely comradeships; a backdrop of Swedish villages and beautiful lodges; and wonderful language.

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Nightlife, thrilling crime fiction by Thomas Perry– a Review

Nightlife: A Novel

I have enjoyed a number of Thomas Perry’s books, especially the early books in the Jane Whitefield series, a set of books about a Native American woman whose special gifts allow her to help people disappear from the face of the earth, assume new identities, and escape the evil that men would do.

Like the Whitefield series and many of my favorite detective stories (see books by Cara Black (Cara Black's books), Linda Barnes, and many others discussed on this blog), Nightlife also has a woman protagonist: Catherine Hobbs, who is a homicide detective from Portland, Oregon. Catherine is on the trail of a murderer and possible kidnapper, or perhaps several murderers; her picture of the crimes is muddled at first by a profusion of contradictory and incomplete evidence. We, on the other hand, have the advantage of hearing the killer’s own thoughts, though they are dissociated enough from reality that it takes some time to filter them properly and obtain some semblance of the truth.

The first victim whose murder Catherine investigates is Dennis Poole. She is joined nearly from the start by a private detective and retired member of the L. A. district attorney’s office, Joe Pitt. Pitt is extremely charming and an experienced investigator, and was brought on board by Los Angeles-based crime boss Hugo Poole. Hugo and Dennis, as it turns out, were cousins. What bothers Hugo, and Catherine for that matter, is that Dennis was, in a nice way, simply “a nobody”: a nondescript computer salesman in a seemingly boring job, one that he actually loved and was good at. Dennis was not a “player”, he was just a pleasant and unadventurous fellow, highly unlikely to meet the kind of person who would do him in. Yet the murder was clearly committed by a close personal acquaintance, or, more likely, with the unwilling help of such a person. Certainly someone involved was intimate enough with Dennis to have access to his apartment while Dennis was taking a bath. Access enough to walk up to Dennis and shoot him in the head during that relaxing bath. At least he never saw it coming- his eyes were closed while he rested in the tub after a long day at work. Perhaps, Hugo worries, the killing is some kind of retaliation for one of Hugo’s criminal enterprises in L.A.

There is immediate concern about the location of Dennis’ new girlfriend, whose presence is indicated all over the apartment, but who has disappeared. Was she used by a thug to gain entrance to the apartment, is she still alive, was she a witness to the crime?

The excitement and considerable suspense of Nightlife make for an enjoyable ride. At the heart of things is a killer who is nuts (a technical term), but who has developed an extraordinary skill at identity theft, and at preying on unsuspecting victims carefully set up for the kill with detailed planning. The killer’s mental illness manifests in the way that each new personality and identity are truly inhabited, bringing to them an authenticity of performance that fools everyone.

Adding to the suspense, one never knows what the murder will look like, or what the murderer’s new name might be. However, Catherine applies insight and exhaustive detective work to track the schizophrenic killer, hoping to put a stop to the seemingly endless trail of victims who are apparently connected by nothing except their availability and ready assets. Catherine is, however, able to tease out of the matrix of assembled and possibly unrelated data a couple of threads that send her off to investigate.

With a small but significant amount of help from Joe, Catherine finally tracks the killer down, but she is off her home turf, without backup, and in serious danger before she figures out the complete story. When Catherine realizes the new identity that the killer plans to assume, she is horrified, frightened and more determined than ever to try to stop the serial killing. Who survives this final struggle? Read Nightlife to find out.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Darkness, Take My Hand– a Review of the Detective Story/Murder Mystery by Dennis Lehane

I recently read and reviewed several books by Dennis Lehane, and, as part of the discussion, I referred to Lehane's outstanding and powerful Mystic River. With one slight bump in the road, I found my appreciation for these books growing rapidly. Darkness, Take My Hand (DTMH) is one of two extremely satisfying books I've enjoyed in the past week, courtesy of Mr. Lehane (one more review is in the works).

In DTMH, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro team up once again as private detectives working their old neighborhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and any other parts of the Boston area that their cases call for. The chemistry between these childhood friends is consistently engaging, perhaps in part because their lives remain a confused tangle of old love and restrained desire.

This particular tale starts out with a brief childhood memory: we see Kenzie and his abusive, fireman father sharing some “quality time” at the scene of a fire, a memory that haunts Kenzie decades later. Then comes the Prologue to DTMH, where we find Kenzie, alone, on a Christmas Eve. The doors to the Kenzie-Gennaro agency are shut, forever, and Angie is nowhere to be found.

Kenzie is, in fact, very much alone, mostly abandoned by his friends and seemingly without work, uncharacteristically spending his time watching the news on TV, taking in the latest tragedies like the rest of the city, doing little or nothing beyond feeling depressed, feeling considerable pain, and wondering why life had gone off the rails. How did this crisis come to pass? What is the origin of this particular pain he feels? The key to the answers unfolds as reminiscences begin and we go back in time, to the start of Kenzie's trouble.

What we find is a complex story, full of misdirection, full of tragedy, full of horror and full of guilt. It is a story that starts in a near-contemporary setting and also ends near the present, but which connects to the distant past in unusual, sad and frightful ways.

From a reader’s perspective, the large cast of characters and the nonlinear, practically exponential way in which the truth unfolds are no cause for concern– this is a very tightly written, brilliantly plotted book. There is no bloat, and, though we read of horrific crimes that multiply and proliferate, the story has its feet on the ground: there is no reason to suspend much disbelief in order to forge ahead through Lehane’s masterpiece.

In some crime fiction which will remain unidentified, I am truly annoyed by the way that an outstanding cast, developed and painted with realism, ends up confronting a villain of comic book proportions. I find myself reading such novels to keep up with the fascinating or appealing main characters and their lives, but without much interest in what we might call “the evil genius of the month. In DTMH, there are no such problems. The increasingly familiar main characters, and the new characters we meet along the way, inhabit a world that is not our world, but it feels like all it might take is a little bad luck to bring us to the office of Kenzie-Gennaro Investigations, asking for help.

The bad guys we meet in DTMH, the worse guys, and the worst guys of all, have all grown organically from the mean streets of small, homogeneous, closed communities that appear like satellites, or something less celestial, around big cities. The innocent victims that we come across have grown up in these same places, as have those who long since shed their innocence, making whatever peace they can with the lines they constantly cross.

In DTMH, we find out a lot about crossing the lines of normal, decent and lawful behavior: how frequent the transgressions are for some, who can manage to transgress under duress, who enjoys it and seeks out transgression, who can’t cross the lines at all, and who can’t live with themselves after taking steps, even necessary steps, that leave the boundaries of humanity behind.

You'll want to know how the characters fair as they tour the different levels of Hell, willingly or not, that DTMH provides. The guide for these tours is neither the Moon and St. Christopher nor Cicero, though these thoughts started me musing and free associating on Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dante, Virgil, The Band, and Virgil Caine for some reason (relevant musical/cultural references given below). Perhaps Mr. Lehane's excellent use of music and musical tastes as both backdrops to his stories and a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff amongst characters started me off on these tangents. Perhaps it was his stealth use of classical themes as old as Western Civilization, if not older. Probably (c), "all of the above".

Shooting Straight in the Dark Mary Chapin Carpenter- a great album. The Moon and St. Christopher is not a song to miss.

Selected Works (Penguin Classics) Cicero, orator and statesman

The Inferno No comment needed

The Aeneid (Penguin Classics) Some of what Virgil did before he showed up in the Inferno

Rock of Ages The Band sings of Virgil Caine (live)

The Band The Band in the Studio with Virgil Caine

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