When I created my website, I was excited about the Book Reports section. Not only did it take me back to my teaching days, it also gave me a focus for my reading. What could be easier and more fun than to write some quick reviews?
Like many of the assignments I give myself, this one turned out to be harder than I imagined. I believe writers benefit from devoting equal time to reading and writing, but often, the push-pull of time management is daunting. Sometimes, I come to a long dry spell in my reading life – either I don’t get much reading done or I don’t have much to say after I finish. Sometimes I have a lot to say, but no time in which to say it.
So, repentant and newly resolved, I offer a short synopsis of some of the thrillers I’ve escaped into the past few months. The more literary reads of this period will be covered in a separate installment.
Ian Rankin -“Even Dogs in the Wild”
I’ve enjoyed Ian Rankin’s crime novels for a long time. “Even Dogs in the Wild” finds recently retired detective John Rebus joining his former partner/protégé Siobhan Clarke and sometime-nemesis, Malcolm Fox in solving a murder. Senior government prosecutor David Minton is the victim in what at first appears to be robbery gone wrong – except, nothing seems to be missing.
Then, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, an aging gangster Rebus has crossed paths with for years, reports that someone has fired a bullet through his front window. Big Ger will talk about it only with Rebus. Turns out, the gangster has also received a written death threat identical to one sent to Minton.
The background noise created by competing gang families from Glasgow and Edinburgh complicates the investigation. As the threads that eventually lead to solution knit together, a past of unspeakable crimes committed and covered up by men in high places emerges.
I can count on Rankin to spin a tale that keeps me turning pages and putting off chores. Complex plotting and three-dimensional characters are standard fare in his novels. But what sets Rankin apart for me is the essential humanity of his characters. Even the bad guys are worth spending time with, and Rebus never takes himself too seriously for long, infusing even the darkest times with an element of humor.
Jussi Adler-Olsen -“The Hanging Girl”
Jussi Adler-Olsen, a popular Danish crime writer, created the Department “Q” series with”The Keeper of Lost Causes” and populated it first with Carl and Assad, then brought in Rose and later, Gordon. Once you meet these ‘cold case detectives’ , you might think that “Q” stands for quirky. Besides the intricate and sometimes tedious efforts that go into solving crimes committed in the past, each team member brings a personal story that intersects the primary plot line. Carl, Assad, Rose and Gordon are frequently at odds with one another, providing a backdrop of ‘familial’ tension that is at times poignant and, at other times, laugh-out-loud funny.
The cold case in “The Hanging Girl, “ began 20 years ago with the disappearance and death of a vivacious 17-year-old on the remote Danish island of Bornholm. Multiple subplots flesh out the core story of a messianic figure at the center of a cult, at times overshadowing the primary story. Of course, that may well be the nature of a cold-case investigation. The murder happened years ago, so solving it requires pursuing tangentially connected clues and other events in the more recent past.
Compared to earlier Department ‘Q’ novels, ‘The Hanging Girl” was a disappointing read. Perhaps there was just too much going on. If you are hooked on this series, as I am, it is worth the slog. But I missed the humor and the personal intensity I’ve grown to expect from Carl and his cohorts. They seem to have lost their zip, their trademark quirkiness.
David Lagercrantz – “ The Girl in the Spider’s Web”
When I read that journalist and Swedish crime fiction writer David Lagercrantz had written a sequel, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web, ” to the Millennium Trilogy, I jumped at the opportunity to once again spend time with punk and pierced hacker Lizbeth Salander and political journalist Mikael Blomkvist. In the Trilogy novels, Blomkvist exposed corporate and government corruption in Sweden through articles published in Millennium, a magazine he owns in partnership with other like-minded journalists. Falling on hard times and a reduced readership and bankroll, Millennium magazine partners with investors who promise a hands-off relationship, a promise they have no intention of keeping. Blomkvist hasn’t had a scoop in a long time, and the new owners launch a campaign designed to get rid of him by painting him as irrelevant.
Frans Balder, a computer genius, discovers that a corporation he has worked for is being assisted by corrupt NSA officials and has stolen sensitive and valuable secrets from another corporation. Ready to expose this and fearing for his life, Balder calls Blomkvist in the middle of the night, asking for a meeting to share the information. Blomkvist complies, arriving just as Balder’s assassin is making his escape. Blomkvist sees the man from a distance but is unable to identify him. There is one witness who can: Balder’s eight – year-old autistic son.
The novel unfolds rather fitfully. The use of nearly mind-numbing computer and mathematical jargon may be of interest to those readers who speak that language, but for the rest of us, it slows things down. There also are too many bad guys to keep track of. Several times I looked back to clarify whose side a particular person was on.
The villain and leader of the criminal hackers turns out to be Lizbeth’s sister Camilla, who comes to life as the fully fleshed-out evil twin. She is motivated by greed and driven by her hatred of her sister. Camilla is beautiful and brilliant in her own scary way, although she lacks Lizbeth’s moral compass. Camilla is set up for a return performance in Lagercrantz’ next installment in this series.
Balder’s son August is the most interesting and sympathetic new character. He cannot speak, but is gifted in mathematics and art and possessed of an eidetic or photographic memory. Once it is apparent that August can draw the image of his father’s assassin, his life is in danger. Salander throws herself – quite literally –
into protecting him, finding a kinship in the abuse he suffered at the hands of his negligent mother and her sadistic boyfriend. Salander treats August with respect and understated affection. She challenges him to solve ever-more complex mathematical puzzles and eventually, together, they break a code, necessary to the story’s ultimate resolution.
I was excited to read this but I approached it with my expectations in check. It wasn’t a complete surprise that “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” lacked the intensity and vigor of Larrson’s narrative. It was a bit like returning to a favorite restaurant on the chef’s night off. The menu was the same and the meal was good enough – just not as satisfying as before.