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Friday, May 20, 2011

Woman With Birthmark. Hakan Nesser. Laurie Thompson (Translation) Pan Books (2010)

Vivid and compelling crime story that has smart structure,superb cast and powerful emotional undertow. A man is shot and investigation reveals that he had received odd phone calls prior to his murder, when a second man is murdered in the same way and having received similar calls the police struggle to find the connection and the killer. As the police investigation proceeds two other men realise the the cause of the deaths and the fact that they too are in danger, unwilling to involve the police they plan their defences. The reveals are superbly staged, the various strands of the story are brilliantly drawn together to a bitter and satisfying conclusion.
The most striking aspect to the story is the way Hakan Nesser solves the story problems in deeply satisfying and unpredictable ways.Two of the cast know they are being hunted and they know why, this does not release the tension as surprise murder becomes a deadly battle of will and wits. The police investigation is thoughtful and competent, it drives the story as a nearly random factor in the deadly duel between the hunter and the hunted.
The cast are vivid and sparkle with life, all of them are given the space to emerge as fully fledged characters, the reader becomes involved with them all. Inspector Van Veeteren has a cranky forcefulness that is entirely engaging, the woman who finally finds a life purpose in revenge is brilliant, believable and finally, truthfully unheroic. The men she hunts are discovering that actions can have consequences very much after all thought of them had gone, they struggle to understand just how utterly their lives have been torn asunder. A must read.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Savage Sword of Conan. Volume Six. Dark Horse Comics (2009)

This volume collects issues 61 to 71 of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian black & white magazine. It includes all the original covers as well as the various pin ups from each issue. The volume is packed with great stories and outstanding art.
The stories are written by Roy Thomas, Michael Fleisher and Bruce Jones all of who understood how to manage the story formula with skill and care. The mixture between sword and sorcery is a delicate one and requires subtle skill to bring off successfully. The ingredients are obvious, scheming politicians, kings and queens, power hungry wizards, beautiful women and lots of fighting. The hinge of the stories is that Conan with his taste for wine, women and swordplay and his instinctive dread of magic is also possessed of a sophisticated understanding of how power works. His wits and observation are as quick as his sword arm and knowing how and when to highlight one or the other is the craft in these stories. With the extended length provided by the magazine format and no requirement for issue to issue continuity the writers had the scope to mix plot and character to great effect.
The art is the most obviously striking aspect to the stories, it is as subtle and sophisticated as the stories, providing a nuanced and detailed flow for the stories that draws the reader in. My favourite artists on the stories are John Buscema and Ernie Chan, together they have a detail and texture that is unrivalled. In the "The Lurker in the Labyrinth" there is a single panel of a brawl in a tavern that shimmers with action, the details are crisp and clear, the physical reality of Conan's world is made plain. This volume is a slab of unadulterated pleasure.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Red Wolf. Liza Marklund (Writer), Neil Smith (Translator). Corgi Books (2010)

A Swedish thriller with a great plot and a very engaging cast lead by a intriguing protagonist. Annika Bengtzon is a journalist, recovering from a severely traumatic event, she becomes interested in the death of a fellow reporter. The dead reporter had been working on the story of the worst terrorist incident in Sweed that had taken place years before, the same story Annika was interested in. As Anniks takes a closer look at the death she discover it may not have been accidental and that the incident at the airfield may not be ancient history. The reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
Annika Bengtzon is a very engaging and somewhat unsympathetic character. She is struggling to regain her equilibrium after nearly loosing her life and her work and home life are coming under pressure. She responds in unexpected and dynamic ways to her circumstances, is never willing to give up or knuckle under. She is very willing to fight dirty to protect her interests and this adds depth and force to her character.
The context of the enthusiasm of a lot of young people in the early 1970's for both Russian and Chinese communism and the unexpectedly long shadow it would cast in their lives is carefully explored. One of the nice aspects to the book is that the honest idealism of the times is not undermined by the bitter aftermath and weary hindsight. The cast are allowed to managed their own choices and the fallout from them as individuals. Liza Marklund sidesteps any stereotypes or cliches by giving her cast such strong personalities, the story is unexpected because they are happily unpredictable. There is also a very strong and pointed thread in the book about the Swedish media and the steps its owners would go to to preserve their assets, it is backed up a nice afterword by Liz Marklund which shows how skillfully she created fiction out of fact. Great fun.

Hypothermia. Arnldur Indridason (Writer), Bernard Scudder (Translator). Vintage Books (2009)

A quietly effective crime story that delivers a considerable punch. Icelandic police detective Erlendur is approached by the friend of a suicide victim who has doubts about the death and he agrees to investigate it further. At the same time a thirty year old missing person case is weighing heavily on his mind. As he steadily pursues his investigations into both cases it becomes clear that there are significant questions regarding both that need to be answered. The reveals are quiet and superbly staged, the apparently irrelevant investigations into the two cases starts to reveal unexpected turns. The conclusion is as cold and gripping as the hypothermia of the title.
Arnaldur Indridason has taken an interesting route in this book, the investigations are shrouded in questions of memory and loss and how they can overshadow the the present. Erlendur is conducting the investigations as a private crusade, there is no official reason for them and the question of why he is undertaking them is nicely woven into the story. The Icelandic context is strongly drawn in the story and adds to the flavour of the book.
The structure of the narrative is clever, the suicide victim emerges as someone looking for answers all her life and seeking them in increasingly strange places. the way her search to understand her past collides with the present is subtly and effectively woven together. The missing person case stirs a dark pool of memory and long term loss with skill and a melancholy grip. Thoughtful and gripping, a great read.