Burned, Pierced and Scarred – the Henning Juul series by Thomas Enger

My crime novel collection is varied in style and geography. I have American Jeffery Deaver for thrillers, Australiaburnedns Peter Corris for PI procedural and Kerry Greenwood for the most fabulous 1920s lady detective ever, Andrea Camilleri for Sicilian detection brilliance, CS Harris for Regency romance and murder, Elmore Leonard for noir, and many more. What had been missing from my shelves for some time was a regular Scandinavian crime writer, but now I have found one—Thomas Enger.

It may seem odd that it has taken me so long to commit to a Scandi crime novelist. It does to me. What with the explosion over the last decade or so of excellent Scandi crime and thrillers hitting the English-language world. I had intentions. Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Anne Holt… I think perhaps I was sated by the television: Unit One, The Eagle, The Killing etc. It doesn’t really matter, does it? I finally got there.

Henning Juul is a journalist with a knack for working out those things others don’t. A loner with a personal tragic mystery to solve—who set the fire to his home that killed his son, and why? In book one—Burned—we meet Henning as he returns to the workforce after he has recovered (physically) from the tragic fire. He is quiet, wearing scars and carrying a heavy heart. Each night he obsessively changes the batteries in his smoke detectors, and most of his thoughts are focussed on his son and his loss.

He starts work at an online newspaper in Oslo and covers the police rounds. He is an experienced journo—professional, eagle-eyed, able to get people to tell him things even if they didn’t want to.  Before long he is re-establishing contacts with the police, including a former school mate. And then there is the anonymous police source who contacts him piercedonline—who gives tips and helpful advice, and also seems to be able to assist in Henning’s quest to discover the truth surrounding his son’s death.

Meanwhile in Oslo, a young woman’s body is found on a frozen expanse. She has been stoned to death, whipped, and one of her hand’s is noticeably absent. Henning is sent to cover the story, and even though an arrest is made early on, something doesn’t add up for our protagonist and he finds himself continuing to investigate the crime.

In book two, Pierced, a former enforcer turned real-estate magnate has been found guilty of a murder he says he didn’t commit. He contacts our hero and promises information on the fire that killed Henning’s son if Henning helps clear his name. Henning understandably agrees, determined to get further in his personal quest, as long as he can avoid getting into deadly trouble himself.

In the latest book, Scarred, Henning is assigned to cover the murder of an elderly woman in a nursing home. At the same time his estranged sister Trine, the Minister for Justice, is accused of sexual misconduct and has the media at her door. Though the siblings rarely speak, for reasons of which even Henning is not clear, he believes his sister has been set up and seeks to discover the saboteur. As the two cases collide, we learn more of Henning and his childhood than we have before, and in some ways so does he. There is a family secret that is still not scarredperfectly clear but there is a sense our hero may be investigating his own background, along with discovering more about the deadly fire in his home, sometime soon.

I was recommended these books by their English translator, Charlotte Barslund. We sat next to each other at a dinner a couple of years ago and I asked her what were some of her favourite books to work on. She nominated Thomas Enger’s series and despite the generous wine pouring during the night I remembered them. And I’m very glad I did. They are some of the first novels I’ve turned to for holidays, a crime fix or when needing something different in tone after a great big sweeping novel.

Henning, despite his quiet intensity and personal distractions, is the kind of character who gets under others’ skin. In the books, this is partly due to his journalistic training, but for the reader it’s because he is a good man; a good, intelligent and sensible man who has lost a lot of himself due to his life’s tragedy but is capable of rebuilding over time, if he can get a few breaks, if he can find out who killed his son and learn to move on. He himself is a mystery we are keen to unravel, and at the same time we are happy and intrigued to join him as he unravels other crimes.

Thomas Enger’s novels are everything you need from your Northern crime stories—dark and mysterious, thoughtful and wry, with a protagonist we want to meet again and again, watching him solve crimes, avenge tragedy and grow as a person.

 

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

I don’t have a lot of willpower. I can be stubborn, I can be persistent, but they’re other things entirely. But willpower. Put an item in front of me that I either like or suspect I will enjoy and I find it tricky to turn my interest elsewhere. This makes me a rather bad dieter, a fluctuating exerciser, an ‘accidental’ book and handbag buyer, and a regular flirt. It should also help give you an idea of just how hard I’m finding it right now to not write this entire review of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window in a Chandler-esque fashion. Because how on earth can one resist using such stylish expression?

Chandler’s writing, and the narration of his character Phillip Marlowe in particular, invites mimicry. Everyone thinks they can do it and everyone thinks they do it fairly well. Some people do it and don’t even realise who they’re imitating, such has Chandler’s style weaved its way through the gullies of our collective subconscious. The reason for this, I think, is because of the appeal of his storytelling style, of the language that he uses, of the specific and often slightly quirky observations he makes, of the dry wit. Boil all that down and we end up with words. The words he chose and way he uses them. A fellow blogger recently reviewed The Big Sleep, which has also been reviewed on Pile o’ Books before, by simply listing some of his favourite sentences from the novel. It was a cool way to talk about the appeal of Chandler’s style in an entertaining way, and to be honest I wish I had thought to do it first. Because for me, the pleasure of reading Chandler is all in the kick I get out of coming across his descriptions and observations, of reading his snappy dialogue, of hearing Marlowe’s comebacks to the clients, broads and scumbags who pepper his cases.

This is usually the general area of a post where I would attempt to give a brief rundown of the plot of the book I’m discussing, but you know what, I’m starting to realise that I don’t really read Chandler for the ‘story’. Sure, sure, private detective tale, someones wants the hero to find something, someone is dead, some crazy bird is causing a fuss, our hero must sort out everything for all involved, get paid and try not to wind up dead in a ditch himself. I dig that kind of thing, I do. And we all know that Chandler is the writer other crime writers should erect a small shrine to and give thanks that he made detective stories what they are. But! I confess that in the end, at least with The High Window,  I wasn’t as concerned about what had happened to the coin, who’d copied what, double-crossed who, wanted which person dead, pushed which chap out of a window. I mean sure, I paid some attention—I was reading the book after all—but the ‘whodunnit’ and the ‘wotsgunnahappen’ were not my main focuses. I was more wrapped up in the words and phrases and descriptions. And if you read my post from last year on the Big Sleep, you’ll see that what I gushed about the whole time were these exact things.

So here is a rather short, crass review of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, from a so-called avid and wide reader who may need her head read: ‘Words good, plot passable. Will read novels written by this author again but won’t necessarily be breaking into the local second-hand bookstore to snaffle another noir crime special on the double.’ (But can we make that a double? Thanks.)

I read The High Window in p-book form. If I had read it on my Kindle I would have used the highlighting tool on every second page. And because I read a paper version this book is sitting on my (currently sparsely inhabited) bookshelf in London. If you happened to be gawking about my bedroom, spied the novel and pointed at it, I would tell you that Raymond Chandler is a wonderful writer, a superb stylist and that reading The Big Sleep was a joyous experience for me. So read The Big Sleep first. And if you fall in love with the words and style of this breakthrough crime fiction writer, then you can read The High Window and enjoy those types of words and that same style all over again. You just may not recall exactly what happened to that coin, or perhaps, in the end,  just not care so much.

Here: Torn Apart by Peter Corris

The city of Sydney, Australia, is many things. Sitting on one of the most beautiful harbours, edged by stunning beaches on one side and breathtaking mountains on the other, it is brash, sparkling, fast-paced, expensive, sprawled, traffic-choked, obsessed with real estate and restaurants, and full of workaholics who play hard and live hard. It is exciting, interesting, fun, confident and charming and knows how to have a good time. It can also wear you down, isolate you and make you hate public transport with a vengeance.

Sydney is sometimes accused of being a ‘hard’ city; all shine and gloss without much substance.  And though I am a Sydney lover (born and bred), I do believe it’s a city which lacks introspection. Sydneysiders don’t often think about what Sydney means, about its special character. Sydney just is. And perhaps because of this, one of the things you don’t associate with Sydney, sadly, is literature. That’s not to say we don’t have wonderful resident writers, nor books which are set in this town, yet the city doesn’t often feature in novels as anything more than a backdrop. But there are a couple of authors who write the Emerald City marvellously, and Peter Corris is one of them.

It was day one of the new year’s cricket test (an institution), and I was sitting in a stand, parallel to the pitch, munching on a corn beef sandwich, sipping on a beer and reading my book, Torn Apart by Peter Corris, during a break in play. Life does not get much better. All I needed was to be enthusiastically conversing about books, and lo I did as one of my co-spectators and I went on to discuss how we both viewed Corris as possibly the best writer of Sydney.*

It is one thing to write a book where the setting is written such that it inspires people to travel to that destination, it is another to write a book where the people who live in the place you are writing of nod their heads in agreement and feel a flutter of affection in their heart for their hometown, it is another again to inspire this beating of romance as your character trails around the city’s seedier domains looking for a killer.

Peter Corris has been writing novels starring private detective Cliff Hardy for as long as I’ve been alive (both Cliff and your little  blogger were ‘first published’ in 1980). Cliff Hardy is a man who knows his city inside out, from the big end of town to the dingiest back room. Beach, bush or high street; park, bar or boxing ring—Hardy has Sydneytown and its people pegged. This doesn’t mean he is a Sydney evangelist (Hardy sometimes seems to loathe it in the way you can only loathe something you are close to) it is more that he acknowledges the way the city pulses beneath his skin, that we are all shaped by the living culture around us, and that we in turn shape it. Hardy would not be Hardy without Sydney, and the Sydney in these books would lose some of its substance without Hardy. 

Peter Corris may not stand on a sandstone block and wax lyrical about the natural beauty and appealing customs of his people, his Cliff Hardy novels may not resemble Oprah’s take on the harbour city, but dammit if he doesn’t write Sydney to a T. You will be equally happy to tag along with Hardy whether he is buying a coffee in the inner city, taking a stroll along an eastern suburbs beach, conversing with a particular subset of the greater Sydney crime population, or trading blows with some deadbeat. It is all so honest and gut-feelingly ‘true’.

Corris writes about the city in a knowledgable and effective way that speaks to those who also know it. But you don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Sydneyphile to enjoy a Cliff Hardy story. But if you do know and (mostly) love this city, you will like his excellent crime novels all the more. Corris’ writing, like his protagonist, is succinct, uncomplicated, intelligent and to the point. As a result, his novels are not long, though you will experience more story than you would in many a weighty crime thriller. And despite the relative slimness of his books’ spines, Corris still manages to include a healthy sprinkling of social commentary, the odd twist, and to delve ever deeper into the ticking of his character. In Torn Apart Hardy meets up with a long-lost cousin, who is his spitting image, and they befriend each other and journey to Ireland to discover their Travellers’ roots. On their return to Sydney his cousin is murdered and Cliff is obliged out of personal loyalty to find the killer, and also to satisfy his curiosity about his newfound family member, who, his instincts had already told him, had a shady side. 

It’s lovely to read books which transport you to exotic, picturesque, inspiring locales. Goodness knows I’m quite a fan of them. But sometimes it’s heartening to spend time in a more authentic place. To notice the unmade beds, the uneven footpath, to acknowledge the everyday business of catching a bus, of contemplating life and other people in the little ways we do most days. Peter Corris succeeds in giving his readers enjoyable, intriguing, original crime stories, against a background of reality. And that reality just happens to be the city I call home, which is why I like them all the more. The Hardy books give glorious fiction-life, to a glorious living, breathing city.

¨

* Ruth Park was a wonderful writer of Sydney and I just so happened to be having this conversation with another author who ‘gets’ Sydney, Malcolm Knox. There is also John Birmingham’s biography of Sydney, Leviathan, which details the metropolis’ life in glorious, mucky splendour. It was published over a decade ago but is still one of my favourite non-fiction books.

C is for Chandler

I like to think cartoons teach us everything worth learning. How else would we know that cats hate dogs, coyotes are stupid and a secret agent mouse lives in a pillarbox in London? And there’s a cartoon character that is partly responsible for my love of the detective novel and, surprisingly, it’s Tweety Bird. Yep. Sorry about that. But the annoying yellow fluffball had one inspired incarnation and that was as a Philip Marlowe-esque P.I.  It was possibly only one episode I saw repeatedly on weekday afternoon re-runs of Loony Tunes but it has always stuck in my head. So much so that it informed me of Raymond Chandler, Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of hard-boiled detectives long before I knew anything about noir crime fiction. 

And so here have the letter C. For Raymond Chandler and his classic noir detective novel, The Big Sleep.

The thing with a writer like Chandler and his intertextual popularity, is that he is one of those authors I’d always felt I had read when, in fact, I hadn’t. I once had someone say to me, ‘I don’t think I’ve read any Austen,’ and I wanted to reply, ‘Hell, if you can’t remember, you illiterate moron…’ But I was a bit like that with Chandler. I could wing my way through long conversations about him, sounding totally informed and being totally fraudulent. And Tweety Bird is to blame for some of that.

But now I have finally read some! And it’s the stuff goddamn dreams are made of, sweetheart. So what is it about his writing which is so deliciously detectively delightful?   

Chandler’s use of language is imaginative, specific and stupendous. I adore slang and informal language. I love that it’s always changing, it’s egalitarian nature and that it can be so particular to certain people, places or eras. It is colourful, expressive and can be intricately precise in its definition and use. When I started reading The Big Sleep I began to dog-ear pages with the most exquisite one-liners and descriptions on them until I feared I would find myself with a book resembling a Crufts catalogue and so desisted. But trust me, nearly every page contains some gem of literary usage of the English language, and what is great about Chandler is he was one of the first (and one of the best) to use it in this way. And just because his prose reads a bit free and easy and isn’t stiffly formal, he is an extremely considered wordsmith and every single word is working very, very hard, and to me, that’s the sign of a classy writer.

Dames, joes, broads, grifters, cops on the take, criminals on the make – there are no innocent bystanders in this novel, our protagonist Marlowe included. Marlowe is a fascinating character – the down and out gumshoe with the bottle of whisky in his filing cabinet, the man men either want to trust or kill, that women want to throw themselves at or slap silly. The P.I. who wants to do right by his clients, even if that means doing wrong. A man who plays his cards close to his chest, who doesn’t mind resorting to the rough stuff to get the information he needs. I could go on and he would still sound like a lone-wolf, hard-drinking, no-friends, down-and-out, heart-in-the-right-place, wise-cracking, trenchcoat-wearing stereotype, except that we must remember that the stereotype largely comes from Marlowe and for that we can revel in its magnificence.

The Big Sleep is a reflection of the time it was written and the time it is set, but it is also a novel with a strong sense of place. As a reader I felt I was among the action. Just little old me, standing in a corner of a room or slumped in the back seat of a car, perhaps trying to hide behind that cop with the big arse at a crime scene. When you read this novel you are on the streets of LA, you drive along the California coast, you sit in a diner with your coffee and eggs, you stand amongst the fog and squall of an incoming storm. And you do it all in the 1930s which is why the language is so engaging, why the little details of dress, furniture or driving a car are so interesting, why you let the chauvinistic behaviour wash over you (or perhaps raise a wry eyebrow and then continue reading). Often when we get that strong sense of place in novels it is when the setting is in a small community or perhaps in a country we see as exotic. I love that this sense is so strong in a story set in an American city, in the type of story where you think you should just be focusing on the plot and who did what to whom.

Lastly, I love that I have finally actually read Raymond Chandler and met his Philip Marlowe before he was Humphrey Bogart. And I can’t wait to read more.

Book 9: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

resized_9780747597285_224_297_fitsquareNon-fiction makes its first appearance in my pile o’ books  this year with a fascinating and accomplished book from Kate Summerscale.  (Though I should explain that this work encompasses many of my fiction loves and does indeed read somewhat like the murder mystery genre which was inspired by the events The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details… just in case you suddenly thought we were going to be travelling down some modern history/current affairs/biography path for the rest of the year. We’ll be back to fiction next time)

The murder of a young boy becomes an almost obsessive interest in 1860’s England with the details of the crime and the search for his killer, playing itself out throughout the land in any 2-bit rag that could print a story. For the first time, the reporting on this crime allows the public into the privacy of the middle class family home (previously sacred) and sets off a chain of investigations, hearings, theories and more letters to the editor than you could imagine. The most well-known police detective in London is sent to solve the murder – his name is Jack Whicher – and the case leads both to his prolonged fame and fall from the graces of a fickle society.  

What you learn in Summerscale’s fantastic book is that Whicher and the Road Hill House murder were the inspiration for detective fiction to come. Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ Bleak House, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and her manor house murders, gosh, I’ll even suggest that Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library, and just about any modern detective story some gruff, unmarried loner can poke a bottle of 12 year single malt at, all have some kind of beginning in Jack Whicher and Victorian society’s fascination with the art of detection. Summerscale blends details and comparisons such as this with the real-life story of Saville Kent’s murder and the quest for his killer.

This is the kind of non-fiction I like: an interesting topic, told from a fresh angle, written in a narrative style and peppered with tidbits, facts and historical suppositions, such as you have never before encountered. The excitement the case roused and the endless appetite the public had for stories of ‘detection’ is fascinating, and you find yourself drawn in to the investigation and lives of the main players in a similar way. Victorian society’s intrigue is contagious and Summerscale entices you to try to work out the culprit for yourself and work out why they would do such a thing (just like you would if you were indulging in some Miss Marple).

Kate Summerscale is coming to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’m going to see her speak (she is a former literary editor and has judged the Booker prize, which is interesting in itself). I’m also now keen to add Wilkie Collins to my reading pile and brush off some old Arthur Conan Doyles.

Not a bad review for a book then, if its readers want to see the author and read some of the books her book discusses…

Book 7: Rounding the Mark, Andrea Camilleri

If ever I wanted a character from a book to be real and whisk me away to their world, then Inspector Salvo Montalbano is the one for me. roundingI want to swoon into his arms and have him carry me to Sicily and we will live in his villa by the ocean and eat broccoli pasta and freshly caught squid (lightly grilled, with lemon), slurp espresso after a morning swim and catch the evening breeze on the verandah while sipping the very best whiskey as he tells me of his day policing an island which is endearing, terrifying and somewhat nutty all at once. Ah, Salvo, the times we would have…

I first came across Montalbano in my insomniac days when I would wathc the Italian telemovies on SBS late at night. They are fantastic and wonderful renditions of the novels, the characters are spot on, the humour just right, the attention to food, dress, literature, architecture, human relationships and foibles and all the things that make up Salvo and his compatriots is spot on and no one, no one aside from Luca Zingaretti could play Montalbano (and I freely admit to the Italian actor being a significant part of the reason I am in love with Salvo). And of course there is a liberal sprinkling of exclamations to the virgin mary, swearing against mothers, head slapping and cheek kissing that make any one who likes to like Italia tingle with joy. And there is the food, oh the food… and that romantic almost-decay of the buildings and people of Sicily…

The Montalbano novels are exquisite. I’m not sure what version of the crime oeuvre we should put them under. They’re more than cosies but never venture into the forensic or gruesome, they’re not procedurals because the over-bureaucracy of the Sicilian police force is often ignored by Salvo and his crew. They are just good – let’s say that. Any one who enjoys a classic British detective tale (or telly show – think Morse, think Frost, think Poirot) will like them. Camilleri is a master – his ability to portray life, to portray how humans and relationships areis a delight. The translator, Stephen Sartarelli, does a marvellous job – you wouldn’t know they were originally written in Italian.  They are funny (Catarella – the most perfect clown-simpleton character you will find), intelligent, whimsical, sad, beautiful – a joy to read (and also easy to read – how nice!).

I love these novels because they reflect a great love for life, for the things that make life a joy. Montalbano is a Good man, who often finds the modern world saddening, who fights for what is right, who is respected by his men, and also by most of the mafioso who tend to sit at the back of a lot of the crimes he investigates. He can be gruff and moody (especially if he is hungry), insubordinate, and the occasional insensitive bastard (oh poor Livia his long-term but far away girlfriend) but he is full of so much passion for all those joyous things: food, literature, sex, love, theatre, nature, children, humanity, his homeland, the good in people. Like many detective-protagonists he is often trying to retire (he’s said to be a little over 50 – and no, that doesn’t stop me wanting to run away with him) or be on holiday but the case will draw him in, usually because of some kind of injustice, the tragedy of the victim’s life, the inhumanity of the crime, the insanity or insensitivity or inability of the top brass. Oh and he doesn’t like guns and drives really, really badly.

Rounding the Mark is the seventh Montalbano tale to be published in English. It is a fine addition to a glorious series of novels (this one focuses on some nasty folk trading illegal immigrant children). They simply bring joy and happiness to my life and I’m sure if you read them they will to yours too.