Åsa Larsson. Sun Storm. New York: Bantam Dell/Random House, 2006.
This is the first novel (original Swedish publication in 2003) for Larsson who has since become a Scandinavian winner. It's strong on atmosphere without being suffocating (you know—sun-deprived days and all that snow). Personally, I found the first part slow going mostly because I find religious evangelists boring and my eyes want to skim-skim-skim their self-righteous comments in answer to questioning about a crime. Also I found it difficult at first to get a grip on the character of Rebecka Martinsson. As the story's protagonist, she seems to waver neurotically between love and hate for the people who need her.
In defending a childhood friend from a murder charge, Rebecka revisits scenes of her youth. The police presence pales in comparison—in fact, the tiny pregnant cop has little character definition or presence. We are given ample candidates for the real perpetrator but it's the friend Sanna who evokes as much mystery as the crime. Her quixotic behaviour is irritating. But the author creates glimpses of life in northern Sweden, in this town, absorbing the reader in a different world. It's the kind of good writing that forces us to infill character motivation, at times, from our own imagination. While not completely hooked on Larsson's heroine, I intend to pursue the next in the series.
Once she had been so in love with this church that it almost hurt. The divine acoustics. Like now. Long, drawn-out notes swirling up toward the ceiling, then cascading down to a depth only the bass voices could reach. The warm light. The polar night outside the immense glass windows. A bubble of God's strength amid the darkness and the cold. (73)
Break time with the dog:
Sara and Lova were still sitting in the backseat. Their hands and elbows kept meeting in some mysterious nonsense rhyme that Sara had mastered to perfection; Lova was making a huge effort to learn it. Every so often she got it wrong, and they both exploded into giggles before starting all over again.Jo Nesbo. The Bat. 1997; translation Random House Canada, 2012.
Virku [pet dog] was running around like a mad thing, taking in all the new smells with her little black nose. Circled around two unfamiliar parked cars. Read with interest a haiku that next door's dog had drawn on the white snowdrift in golden yellow sign language; she seemed flattered. Followed the irritating trail of a mouse that had disappeared under the front steps where she couldn't follow.
Sanna tipped her head back and sniffed the air.
"It smells like snow," she said. "It's going to snow. A lot." (117)
What a treat! A newly available Harry Hole mystery that happens to be the first in the series (there's probably a reason for not translating the books sequentially but I'm not going to worry about it because each is a stand-alone novel). Here is a slightly younger Harry, already a seasoned detective battling alcoholism and not always winning. Even in his worst moments―and there are some, completely realistic I'm sure―we can't write Harry off. It's partly a love story too, two love stories in a sense, that go a long way in building the likeable, engaging character.
He is temporarily sent to Australia to shunt him away from attention in Oslo. Then the mundane task at hand develops into the complicated suspense at which Nesbo excels. Serial killer or one-off murder? Harry's canny forensic skills shine through the murk of dark deeds and clutter of suspects. His intuitive response to his new Aboriginal acquaintances coincided beautifully with my recent reading of Robyn Davidson's Tracks―one of those serendipitous follow-ons that crop up at times from one random book to another. The affable, often inscrutable Abo cop is intriguing in his own right.
Was there ever a disappointing Harry Hole story? One where the author or the character seems to have slipped a notch or two, didn't stay true to form? Nuh-uh. Not yet. The second in the series of nine—The Cockroaches―is the last to await publication in English translation.
Harry answers his girlfriend:
"You're a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel another murder case. Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie. At first I saw myself as a kind of knight dispensing justice, but at times I feel more like a refuse collector. Murderers are generally pitiful sorts, and it's seldom difficult to point to at least ten good reasons why they turned out as they did. So, usually, what you feel most is frustration. Frustration that they can't be happy destroying their own lives instead of dragging others down with them. This probably sounds a touch sentimental ...". (56)
Speaking of repercussions on the worst incident in his life:
"I think people feel a kind of need for punishment when they can no longer accept their own actions. At any rate I yearned for it to be punished, to be whipped, to be tortured, to be humiliated. Anything so long as I felt accounts were settled. But there was no one to punish me. They couldn't even give me the boot; officially I'd been sober, hadn't I. On the contrary, I received recognition from the Chief of Police in the press because I had been seriously injured on active service. So I punished myself instead. I gave myself the worst punishment I could think of: I decided to live and I decided to stop drinking." (126)