Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Photo: Cover, from the book's Wikipedia page
Another of the Nordic Noir (this one takes place in Iceland) to become very popular in the last ten years or so, following in the wake of authors like Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and many more. Not reaping the rewards of this new trend, by the way, are the translators of such novels. They deserve just as much credit, if not more, than the actual authors. Or do people think that Stieg Larsson wrote in English? The style of the English, which has gained such notoriety from these Nordic Noirists, is more the translator than the author. I'm just sayin'. The translator for this one is Bernard Scudder.
Anyway, this one is very effective, and not much of a mystery, actually. A skeletal hand is found (Killer opening sentence: He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.) and the detectives in charge let an archaeologist unearth the whole skeleton, a long, painstaking process that allows the author to delve into the abusive past of the family who lived nearby the grave, as well as the self-destructive daughter of one of the detectives, and his own relationship problems. The story unfolds in layers of shifting third-person omniscient narration, and the reader soon finds that the actual mystery is the identity of the skeleton--and of the one found with it later in the book. There's a further subplot involving the broken relationship of the owner of the place that had once stood on the spot of the grave, and of his fiancee, who left him after she became pregnant with someone else's baby. That's a running theme of the book: broken relationships, both between a man and a woman and between adults and their children. In that sense, the book is especially Nordic--the noir comes not just from the writing style, but also from the insinuated hopelessness about relationships. Nobody's got a good one here, but it ends with a brief but hopeful touch, though that depends on your point of view, I guess. Less Nordic Noir than Henning Mankell's excessively cold and distant landscapes, and Stieg Larsson's detached characters and their often-xenophobic attitudes, but still noir nonetheless. Think Raymond Chandler, but without the ditzy dames.
If you like this kind of stuff, as I do, you'll like this one. I started and finished it in six hours, because I was unable to sleep. So it's a quick read, and the shifting third-person omniscient narration never confuses. I guessed the identity of the skeleton pretty quickly, and I think any astute reader would, too. I get the feeling that the author (and translator) sort of knew this, but the reading enjoyment isn't because of the final answer, but because of the journey it takes to get there. You let it unfold at its own pace, which is neither too slow nor too fast, and when it gets there, you're satisfied, even though you probably knew it the whole time.
Worthwhile as we enter the Noir winter in these parts. I wonder if I can start a series of novels that will give rise to other writers doing the same sort of thing, and it'll all be called New England Noir?