Variety is the spice of life… Nesser’s The Darkest Day (Sweden), Viskic’s Resurrection Bay (Australia), Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died (Finland), Alias Grace & The Sinner (Canada/Germany/US)

I’m going through a phase where I want lots of variety in my crime reading and viewing. This is when having scandalously large piles of unread crime fiction and a huge backlog of TV crime drama comes in rather handy…

Håkan Nesser, The Darkest Day, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Mantle, 2017).

First line: When Rosemary Wunderlich Hermansson awoke on Sunday 18 December, it was a few minutes to six and she had a very vivid image in her head.

Håkan Nesser is best known for his Inspector van Veeteren series, but his second series, featuring Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, has also enjoyed significant success, selling over 4 million copies worldwide. The Darkest Day is the first of the five Barbarotti novels to be translated into English, a happy development for all lovers of Swedish crime fiction.

The Darkest Day is a long, satisfying read, the kind of crime novel that’s a slow-burner and rewards the unhurried reader. The first 185 pages feel a bit like a Scandinavian version of The Corrections: we’re introduced to the Hermansson family, who have come together for a double birthday celebration at Karl-Erik and Rosemary’s house in Kymlinge on the darkest day of the year, and through the eyes of family members from three generations, form a wry picture of the complex dynamics between them. By the end of the weekend, two of the family have disappeared without trace, and Inspector Barbarotti and his team have very little to help them figure out what’s been going on. The resolutions to both cases are original and, thanks to the skills of the author, remain on just the right side of melodrama.

The existentialist Inspector Barbarotti also proves to be an interesting character. The product of a fleeting Swedish-Italian union, he attempts to navigate his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a dialogue with God (who is invited to prove his existence in various ways to the disillusioned policeman). All of this is handled with humour and a light touch, and adds wit and depth to the novel.

Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Pushkin Vertigo, 2017 [2015]).

First line: Caleb was still holding him when the paramedics arrived.

Jane Harper’s The Dry recently woke me up to the quality of crime writing in Australia. Like The Dry, Viskic’s Resurrection Bay has won a host of awards and (remarkably) is the author’s debut novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and features a highly unusual investigative figure, Caleb Zelic, who for much of his life has been profoundly deaf. The novel opens with the aftermath of a murder – Caleb’s childhood friend, policeman Gary Marsden, has just been found dead – and we are immediately shown some of the difficulties Caleb faces when communicating with others, as well as his extra powers of perception in relation to details like facial and body language. Caleb, who is a private investigator, starts to look into Gary’s death. Suspecting that it may be linked to an insurance case he was working on, he follows a trail that eventually leads him back to his childhood town of Resurrection Bay.

For me, one of the major strengths of this novel was its characterization. Aside from Caleb, we’re introduced to a number of other complex and well-drawn characters such as Frankie (his work partner), Kat (his ex-wife) and Anton (his brother), as well as contacts within the worlds of policing and crime in Melbourne. The dialogue feels gritty and authentic, and if there’s the odd touch of melodrama, this is a minor drawback. Overall, Resurrection Bay is an absorbing and thrilling read.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, translated from Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line‘It’s a good job you provided a urine sample too’.

Antti Tuomainen is one of the most versatile crime writers around. I was first introduced to him via the novel The Healer – a dark, post-apocalyptic crime novel written in a beautifully poetic style. Since then he’s written a number of novels, each of which has a beguiling premise, but feels stylistically very different to the last. The Man Who Died is no exception: here we have a grimly brilliant starting point – a man whose doctor tells him he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is a question of when rather than if – which is developed into black, comedic crime of the highest order. The man in question is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. He sets about investigating his own murder, and quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects.

The narrative is related in the first-person, which is always tricky to pull off, but Tuomainen does a great job. Jaakko is a great character: placed in a truly grave situation, he very quickly has to decide how to react. The easiest course of action would be to give up, but instead he decides to get to the bottom of the matter with admirable pluck, determination and resourcefulness. Comparisons have been made between the novel and Fargo, which is spot on – the heroes and anti-heroes are all engagingly imperfect and human, and there are a couple of set pieces that perfectly capture Fargo‘s cartoonish black humour. It feels like it was great fun to write, and I can’t wait for it to be made into a film.

I remember George Peleconos – scriptwriter for the HBO series The Wire – explaining to a Harrogate audience one year why crime writers like him were increasingly drawn to writing for TV rather than film. Aside from greater job security, the main lure was the chance to develop characters and story-lines with much greater nuance and detail than a film would allow.

I do think we’re living in a golden age of TV crime drama (e.g. Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, The Code). ‘Netflex Originals’ are also helping to lead the way, with superb adaptations of literary crime and psychological crime fiction by outstanding women authors.

Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel of the same name, tells the story of a young serving woman, Grace Marks, imprisoned for her role in two notorious 1843 murders, and a doctor, Simon Jordan, who is commissioned to write a psychological report on her, but finds himself becoming inappropriately drawn to her as well. The series provides a superb but also extremely sobering insight into the class and gender politics of the period, and Sarah Gadon is outstanding in the lead role.

The Sinner is adapted from German writer Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 novel of the same name. I’ve seen the first four episodes and have been hugely impressed by the quality of the adaptation and its leading actors. The first (pretty harrowing) episode shows young housewife Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) stab a man to death while on a family outing to a lake. While it’s absolutely clear that she committed the deed, neither she nor anyone else has any inkling why. Rather than locking her up and throwing away the key, as would probably happen in real life, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is determined to understand what motivated Cora’s actions, and starts to dig around in her shadowy early life. The characterization is outstanding, and the after-effects of the crime – particularly on Cora and her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) – are explored in a way that’s reminiscent of the first series of The Killing.

The Sinner is a top-quality, stylish crime drama that brilliantly questions the extent to which Cora can be labelled a perpetrator. If you haven’t yet read the novel, then do grab a copy of The Sinner, translated by John Brownjohn, from Bitter Lemon Press – it’s still one of my all-time top German crime novels nearly 20 years on. Perhaps one of the best psychological thrillers ever written?

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14 thoughts on “Variety is the spice of life… Nesser’s The Darkest Day (Sweden), Viskic’s Resurrection Bay (Australia), Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died (Finland), Alias Grace & The Sinner (Canada/Germany/US)

  1. So glad you enjoyed these, Mrs. P. I’m really looking forward to reading Emma Viskic’s new novel, as I enjoyed Resurrection Bay quite a lot. She is a real talent, and someone to watch. And I must catch up with Nesser’s other series, too! So much to read…..

    • Looking forward to Emma Viskic’s new one as well – and the next of Jane Harper’s too. Some very talented women crime writers down under at the moment.

  2. Morning Mrs P. Another fine set of recommendations to be added to my ever growing list of books TBR, so thank you for them. After reading Jane Harper’s brilliant book The Dry, I’ve already got Force of Nature ‘kindled up’, and will also have a look at Resurrection Bay as well. Of course the others will also need looking at too. So many books to read….

  3. Hi Mrs P, the Tuomainen sounds very interesting will have to look out for that one. Surprised you did not have the new Indridason, The Shadow Disrict, on your list. Certainly not one you want to put down sailed through thr first 100 pages , recommend it. Another great read is Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, described as an historical noir thriller, its one of my books of the year. Starts in the 30’s & mainly takes place in the Brooklyn Navel Yard during the war. Third one of hers I’ve read becoming one of my fave authors. Waiting on ‘When the Doves disappear’ from the library.
    Have you heard of the ‘British Library Crime Classics’? It’s a series of books from the 20/30s, British. I’ve just bought Mystery in White’ by j Jefferson Farjeon sound like a good xmas day read!
    Watched 2 Episodes of ‘The Sinner’, interesting, didn’t care for Alice Grace. Mind hunters on Netflix is excellent, set in the 70s
    About two FBI agents who start looking into serial killer profiling. Not your usual crash bang cop series, a lot more nuanced, also a very good female lead a university criminologist looking into the same thing, who encourages the to take it further. Really worth watching. Netflix have a great new device, skip recap! How i wish BBC 4 would use it, & every one else!

    • Thanks for reminding me about The Shadow District, Brian. I have read it and liked it very much, but somehow haven’t yet managed to cover it on the blog. Perhaps I can squeeze it in before the end of the year! Thanks for the other recommendations as well.

      I have indeed heard of the British Library Crime Classics – they’re doing a wonderful job of reissuing some forgotten gems. I’m not a HUGE fan of Golden Age crime (though I am partial to Christie, as I read a lot of hers in my teenage years) – but will dip in at some point.

      Mindhunter sounds really interesting – I’ll give it a go. Not usually a big fan of anything serial killer-y, as you know, but if you’re recommending…

  4. I have just finished watching The Good Place (not exactly crime), and I was trying to make up my mind between watching Mind Hunter and The Sinner last week. Sadly – or happily – I borrowed the latest Isabel Allende from my public library and there hasn’t been much TV watching. But if you say The Sinner is SO good, then it’s at the top of my list.

    • Hi Elena – I really did think it was an excellent adaptation. After finishing the series, I went back and read the novel, and was even more impressed by the job they’d done, because it’s really not an easy text to adapt. Will be interested to see what you think! Quite intrigued by Mindhunter now as well…

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