Kristina Ohlsson. Unwanted. 2009. New York: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2012.
Am I on the crest of the Scandinavian wave, or what? This is Ohlsson's first book — and it shows. Try as she might the author fails to elicit from me an empathetic connection with our heroine Fredrika Bergman, a civilian worker with Stockholm police. Nor with most of the players, for that matter. Possibly the foolish detective Peder is the exception. Her boss Alex spends far too much time contemplating his reputation; he is no Kurt Wallander: it's hard to warm up to him. We also hear way too much whining and disparaging from the men about women in their workplace.
After a nasty crime takes place, Fredrika undertakes what amounts to an unofficial parallel investigation and the results justify her instincts, grudgingly accepted all 'round. The story itself has complications and red herrings, of course; my light bulb came on just before Fredrika found the key to the solution. Somehow it all lacks some human depth, some life. The climax is strangely dull. Adding the romantic or domestic life of two characters does not make up for rather stilted prose. However, why not give Ohlsson another chance?
Lack of confidence:
Of all the questions raging in her head, one was more insistent than the rest.
What the hell am I doing here? she thought. How did I end up working in a place like this on a job like this?
Fredrika was on the point of ringing Alex back there and then and saying, "You're right, Alex. I'm not cut out for this. I'm too weak, too emotional. I've never seen a dead person in my life, and I hate stories with unhappy endings. And it doesn't get any unhappier than this one. I give up. I've no business being here." (83)
More lack of confidence:
Alex heaved a sigh and looked out into the blue sky, flecked with clouds.
Maybe he was getting old and grumpy. Maybe the spark was going out of him. Or still worse — maybe he was turning into the sort of reactionary DCI no newly qualified police officer wanted to work with. How long could you carry on being known as a legend if you didn't deliver the goods? How long could you live on your reputation? (260)
Peggy Blair. The Poisoned Pawn. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2013.
I'm always happy to support Canadian books, in different genres, actually, and this is a crime writing doozy. We have enough elements here to make your head spin ... a Cuban detective, Canadian police, Vatican diplomats, Santería and brujería, First Nations, and a small girl in a wheelchair. In fact, the convoluted plot and variety of characters need your utmost concentration while the exposition lags behind many cryptic references. But who can complain about a complicated story line when the writer pulls you right into life in Havana with the amusing Inspector Ricardo Ramirez? Blair's previous novel, The Beggar's Opera, was the first in a series, winning an impressive handful of awards.
The reader is whisked into the plot directly — none of those mysterious nameless-voice teaser introductions we see quite often. The Inspector is required to go to Canada to escort a detained pedophile back to Cuba for trial. But crimes of the past and present begin to involve many more dubious characters. Residential schools in Canada, orphanages in Cuba, credible chemical analysis, a lively pathologist, a philosophical homeless man, and more! Good one, Peggy Blair!
Life in Cuba:
... When imagining a future without Fidel Castro, Cubans alternated between hope and fear.
"Were there the typical speeches?"
"Of course," said Sophia. "But much shorter with El Comandante in the hospital. Raúl only spoke for three or four hours. I hear you are going to Canada soon, Inspector." She sounded wistful. "I hope someday I can leave the island, too. To see what it's like to live in a country that has cows and chickens. Sometimes I think I would kill for a pencil."
Ramirez chuckled. "I'm sure that day will come, Sophia. Not when you will kill someone for — or even with — a pencil but when we will be able to travel more easily. Things are changing quickly. The fact that I'm going to Canada is proof of that. Don't be envious. A week ago, I expected to enjoy the first days of the New Year drinking anejo. Now it looks as if I will spend it in a country whose citizens come here to get away from their harsh winters. I'm starting to wonder which orisha I have offended." (36)
Life in Canada:
" ... Here," Jones said to him, grinning, as they walked to the elevator. She handed him a plastic bag. Inside, there was something that looked like a giant red condom made out of wool. "CANADA" was spelled on it in white letters. "This is for you."
Ramirez gave her a quizzical look, not exactly sure what to do with it.
"It's a toque," Jones said. "A hat. I have a parka for you in the car that you can use while you're in Ottawa, too. As well as some warm mitts. Alex is about the same size as you. We were pretty sure you wouldn't have any. I'm working on finding you some boots."
"That's very kind of you."
Ramirez tried it on, wondering exactly what a parka and mitts were. The knitted hat fit comfortably over his ears, but he felt clumsy wearing it.
"A toke?" he asked. "Is that how you pronounce it?" It would make a particularly effective contraceptive, he thought. A hat like this would deter almost any Cuban woman who saw him wearing it from ever wanting sex again. (130)