Blog Tour: The Ice Swimmer by Kjell Ola Dahl – Guest Post

Like any avid reader and devourer of the written word I carry a continually evolving ‘wish list’ with me (it’s on my phone) to refer to whenever I find myself in a bookshop. At the top of that list are a couple of authors represented by name only. These are authors where it’s a case of wanting to get hold of anything they’ve written.

Kjell Ola Dahl is amongst those authors. He’s one of the godfathers of the Nordic Noir genre and since I was introduced to his Oslo Detectives series with last year’s Faithless I’ve been anxious to read my way though his back catalogue. This year’s The Ice Swimmer (review to follow) is another ridiculously good installment in the series – absorbing and masterfully written.

As such I’m delighted, as part of the blogtour for The Ice Swimmer (out on ebook now and paperback April 30th via the wonderful Orenda Books) to host a guest post from the author himself. So I’ll shut up and get out of the way…


My first novel was a police procedural, and I didn’t reflect much on the implications of this choice at that time. I was inspired by writers like Ed McBain, who wrote about Steve Carella and a collective of police officers solving crimes in the 87th precinct in a fictive city called Isola. One thing I liked about those books was that McBain wrote about the full collective. The readers got to know many of the police officers. And when McBain changed the main protagonist in some books, Steve Carella was always there, although not always at the front of the action. McBain even chose criminals for protagonists in some of his books.

After publishing Lethal Investments I did not stay with my police officers, and I went on to write other things. The second book in the Oslo Detectives series was published years after the first one. But then I said to myself, you cannot stop at two: A trilogy is the thing. So I was quick this time and published the third book in the series a year later. But after that novel – The Man in the Window – I returned to my old sins, writing other things.

This year in Norway, I will publish the ninth book in the Oslo detectives series. I still write other things in between – fiction, non-fiction, short stories, crime fiction – and I always write under my own name. Ed McBain used a lot of pseudonyms: Richard Marsten, Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannon and more, and not one of these names was his own! Privately he called himself Evan Hunter. And even the name Evan Hunter was a pseudonym: his Christian name was Salvatore Albert Lombino. It is like one of those Russian dolls. Inside every name, new ones would pop up. I guess Mr Hunter/Lombino himself had some sort of system for the use of names. His production was huge.

The use of pseudonyms is a widespread habit among writers – especially writers of crime fiction. Even Georges Simenon used a lot of them. And the truth is, I don’t really understand why.

Many of my fellow writers use their series to explore their one and only protagonist. I stick to the method of Ed McBain. I explore my collective. The protagonist in the Ice Swimmer is Lena Stigersand, a female police officer in her mid-thirties. She was not present in the first book in the series, and first appeared with minor roles in the two novels previous to the Ice Swimmer. Even if she is the protagonist in The Ice Swimmer, there is one super protagonist in the series – Mr Gunnarstranda. In fact, everything in the series rotates around him, and he has developed over the years. He is no longer as grumpy as he was in the first book. And these days he is more into jazz music than he was to begin with. I think it is because I know him better now. But he is still a widower. And he still doesn’t have a first name. That is a fact. I have never dared to suggest a first name for him. I fear he won’t like my suggestions very much. Personally, I think that shows how strong he is as a character. He is still mysterious to me, which means that he will still be able to surprise me. It also tells me that I will write more about him. I am still curious about his whereabouts and especially curious about his first name. But I doubt I will ever find out what it is.

 

Blog Tour: Wolves In The Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “Reeling from the death of his great love, Karin, Varg Veum’s life has descended into a self-destructive spiral of alcohol, lust, grief and blackouts. When traces of child pornography are found on his computer, he’s accused of being part of a paedophile ring and thrown into a prison cell. There, he struggles to sift through his past to work out who is responsible for planting the material … and who is seeking the ultimate revenge.

When a chance to escape presents itself, Varg finds himself on the run in his hometown of Bergen. With the clock ticking and the police on his tail, Varg takes on his hardest – and most personal – case yet. Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Wolves in the Dark reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

Right now I don’t think there is a writer whose new novels I look forward to as much as Gunnar Staalesen. And I’ll probably say this every year with every new novel; Wolves In The Dark is the best Varg yet! It’s just so fucking good I never wanted it to end.

I cannot recommend the Varg Veum series enough, Staalesen is the sitting King of Nordic Noir and this, the 21st (!) in the series puts Bergen’s finest into his most challenging and dangerous case to date.

Woken up by the police knocking on his door, Veum is shocked to find himself arrested and lead out to a waiting police car for the worst crime imaginable; possessing, sharing and even creating child pornography “of the must repugnant kind.” Having spent a number of the almost-four years previous lost in grief and his alcoholic coping method following the events of We Shall Inherit The Wind, Varg begins slowly pulling together threads of memory and seemingly random cases he’d worked on in the ‘fog’ of those years to try and work out just who might have sufficient a grudge (and ability) to put him in the frame – turns out it’s a pretty long list. When a chance presents itself Veum escapes from the police and sets about investigating for himself.

I read a news story not so long ago about a man whose life was completely ruined after a mistake (an error in one police force’s writing down an IP address) led to him being arrested under child pornography charges and placed on the sex offender’s list. A devastating account of a life turned upside down – his job was lost, he was traumatised, his relationships and family suffered – all because of an error. Turns out there’s a few of these. It seemed stranger than fiction and fascinating – where would you even begin, how could you hope to fight such a case?

I’d like to believe I’d be incensed and able to fight enough to clear my name. But then what about the impact on your life, on your person? To know that so many people – including, in some cases, those near and dear believe you capable of such horrors? Will people ever look at you the same? And these are innocent people. Rendered criminal and untrustworthy, monstrous even, by a mistake.

In Varg’s case it’s not a mistake – the material is on his computer but who put it there? Who has deliberately thrown him to the wolves to be shredded in public? The more he investigates the more he uncovers, the more he shakes the tree the more potential enemies fall out each baring him ill and each with the ability to implicated him via his computer.

The chase, as Varg tears through Bergen as both hunter and prey (to his increasing list of enemies as well as the police) is the most thrilling and gripping in pace as I’ve read from Staalesen; Veum is very much against the clock and working within strict confines of both geography and tool set as he has to evade detection. In previous Staaleson novels I’ve loved the almost leisurely, calm and confident manner in which Veum slowly and methodically pieces together his cases – like a Zen master who knows his craft. Here, though, as much as he knows his craft the shattered state of his memory almost leaves him clutching at straws with thoughts and fragments coming back out of the ether and it’s an absolute joy to read as Veum is forced to work as frantically as possible against the odds.

But what about the human element? The effect of being accused of such horrendous and unspeakable crimes? Well, I’ve said this before and I’ll save it again: Staalesen is the master. He paints an intelligent, detailed and thoroughly convincing portrait of a man on the edge, plagued and sickened (physically) by both the accusation and the crimes themselves (let’s not forget Varg was a Social Services man before a PI) and torn at the prospect people believe him capable of such inhuman crimes.

The underworld of Norway never fails to prove a complex and riveting backdrop in Nordic Noir and Staalesen spins a delightfully well plotted story that delivers a hugely satisfying read as all the strands come together toward a denouement that left this reader gobsmacked.

Again: I cannot recommend Staalesen enough and even though it’s only June, Wolves In The Dark may well be the best book I read this year.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy, do check out the other stops on the blogtour and get your hands on a copy of Wolves In The Dark.

 

The Bird Tribunal

From the PR: “Two people in exile. Two secrets. As the past tightens its grip, there may be no escape… TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44- year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough…”

the-bird-tribunal-a_w-v4When I think of short books there’s many a favourite read that springs to mind – Pereira Maintains, Mother Night, Of Mice And Men… These are novels that manage to deliver  a cracker of a plot, great characterisation and plenty of punch without ever feeling rushed. There’s not a wasted full stop. And now I’m going to add The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn to that list.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but I’d been eagerly anticipating this book since its cover was revealed back in April – there’s something mesmerising about that boat, empty and adrift on the fjord that’s not only intriguing but most certainly helps set the tone – after all, we all know what lurks beneath such still waters.

I wasn’t disappointed – I hungrily devoured this book in two sittings. It’s an intensely captivating read.  The Bird Tribunal is an intense, beautifully written book which pulls you in with its chilling atmosphere, weighted with an undertone of menace and barely-concealed dread as the initial calm and tranquillity is soon consumed by the darkness in the shadows, leaving you absolutely gripped as it builds to its thrilling conclusion. 

The pacing is superb, the characters and their motivation captivating, the plot gripping and original and the atmosphere – making full use of the stark, imposing nature of its remote Norwegian setting – is chillingly beautiful and spell-binding.

If there were stars at the bottom of these reviews this one is an easy five.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending this to me and do check out the other stops on the The Bird Tribunal blogtour:

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We Shall Inherit The Wind

Having gotten a taste for Nordic Noir I’ve now been given the opportunity to read the man hailed as one of the fathers of the genre – Gunnar Staalesen.

First published in 2010 in Norway, We Shall Inherit The Wind is the 18th novel in the Varg Veum series and now published in English by Orenda Books (if ever there’s a publisher to follow devotedly it’s Orenda Books) with translation by Don Bartlett.

We Shall Inherit the Wind BF AW.inddSet in 1998, Staalesen’s private investigator Varg Veum sits at the hospital bedside of his long-term girlfriend Karin as she battles life-threatening injuries bought about by the events surrounding Varg’s latest investigation.

From here Staalesen takes us back – by “barely a week” – to re-trace those events (when I re-read that line for this review I had to read it twice as so much is packed into just a few days). Given how we know where they lead, the edge of the seat is pretty much all you’ll occupy from here on in.

This ominous start leads us into a missing-persons case, with Veum pretty certain that the missing man – Mons Mæland – is already dead. Veum’s initial digging into Mæland’s affairs opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions with no clear answers. Every clue seems to point toward a more complex mystery which becomes all the more thrilling when Mæland is found dead – in a most dramatic fashion – and the plot thickens.

Location is key. While Veum operates out of Staalesen’s own Bergen, most of the action takes place on the fictitious Brennøy and nearby islands. We’re a little outside of the comfort-zone here, you got the sense that you’re out in the wilds on each occasion that Veum leaves Bergen behind, with civilisation just a little too far over the horizon – indeed, law and order needs to arrive via helicopter.

From experience I know how stunning Norway can be but this isn’t a summer holiday; this is autumn and Staalesen uses the isolation afforded by the setting to up the chill-factor. From the off, almost, the remote locations hang heavy with foreboding:

…the trees stood like dark monuments to a time when not only the mountains had to be clad but every tiny scrap of island skirted by the fjord. Accordingly spruces lined long stretches of the Vestland cost. No one had thinned the striplings, and no one had cut down the trees except the cabin owners who had desperately tried to clear themselves a place in the sun. It looked as if they had given up here ages ago.

So much to love in that paragraph alone… “dark monuments”…. “desperately tried”…  “given up here ages ago”… you almost have the “abandon all hope” sign nailed to the start of the chapter.

Far from being a run-of-the-mill who-dunnit, We Shall Inherit The Wind is an intense read, pulling in eco-terrorism, religious fanaticism, corruption both at corporate and local-government level, plot twist after plot twist and a cast of characters with plenty of secrets and hidden connections. Two, three, four times I thought I’d sussed out who was behind Mæland’s murder only to be left utterly open-mouthed by the final reveal with Veum keeping his cards close to his chest right until the bitter end. I’ll admit I also felt like I’d been emotionally sucker-punched come the end, having been so caught up in the mystery as to be left open for the impact of the human consequences.

Varg means “wolf” in Norwegian and the novel approaches the plot just as a wolf its prey; elements come together piece-by-piece, as the wolf slowly and assuredly stalks it prey Varg is a wise hunter, patiently letting events unfold with delicate pacing. Rather than rushing in and barrelling along at a frantic pace there’s long drives and ferry rides (the novel is set in the fjords of Norway, not down-town LA afterall), a stealthy gathering of every shred of evidence (and a lot of people’s cages rattled) before going in for the violent and bloody climax.

Gunnar Staalesen is clearly a master-at-work by now, having first introduced the world to Varg Veum back in 1977. The prose is richly detailed, the plot enthused with social and environmental commentary while while never diminishing in interest or pace, the dialogue natural and convincing and the supporting characters all bristle with life.

A multi-layered, engrossing and skilfully written novel, there’s not an excess word in We Shall Inherit The Wind. It’s a slow-building exercise in suspense that’s 100% addictive, one that gets you in the wolf’s jaws with the first few lines, sinks its teeth in and won’t let go until long after the finale.

After my first dip into the world of Varg Veum I’m left wanting more. With We Shall Inherit The Wind I’ve been afforded a snap-shot into the life of a very complex but nonetheless endearing and relatable character and anxiously await the next two instalments from my favourite publisher. Though I may search out the earlier two novels to have made it into English.

I’m one of the last stops on the blog tour for this novel so do check out those that have come before me including yesterday’s great interview with Staalesn at Nordic Noir and get your hands / kindle / e-reader / whatever on a copy of this hugely rewarding read via Orenda.

We Shall Inherit the Wind Blog Tour

I love anyone who wants to phone home

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This is a house of horror. A house of metal and country music. That Coldplay stuff isn’t even funny. It just makes for a bad atmosphere.

Not too long ago I came home from holiday to find two boxes waiting for me from Arcadia Books. One of those contained See You Tomorrow by Norwegian author Tore Renberg. The other contained Fan by Danny Rhodes (which I’ve just finished).

I was caught up in finishing two other books (The Goldfinch and Overlord) prior to picking up See You Tomorrow. I wanted to give it a clear run, the attention a glance at its first pages showed it clearly deserved. I knew nothing of Mr Renberg – first published in ’95 and widely known in Norway for his Mannen som elsket Yngve (The Man Who Loved Yngve) series (upwards of 400,000 copies sold).

This is the first novel from a Norwegian author I’ve read and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s set in Stavanger – a city I’ve been lucky enough to visit. That being said, the Stavanger within these pages is so far from the tourist’s snapshot I got of the city on my visit that were it not for the mention of a few landmarks and one character visiting Platekompaniet (a music store I shopped in during my own visit), I’d not be able to bring the two versions together in my mind.

There’s a great few articles to read around this, on the use of music within the novel (link) and a great interview (link).

Even now, two books on, I still feel under the spell of those red-edged pages. To review it was hard. I needed to review it, I wanted to review it but how to find the words when I hadn’t come across something this (and I don’t often use this word) groundbreaking for a long time.

How was the question I was faced with, how….

How do you review a book like See You Tomorrow; a book that deftly defies classification by mere genre yet incorporates elements from each, creating a compelling tapestry of a novel that satisfies every criteria for great fiction?

I suppose that’s a start. At least it’s a start that doesn’t – deservedly – lay every superlative possible on it.

See You Tomorrow captures the events of three days in which Stavanger is treated to unexpected, unseasonable warmth and sun as the lives of eleven characters cross paths with violent results.

Tore Renberg has said that it took six years to write See You Tomorrow. That he created playlists for each of the principle characters from whose perspectives the story is told (all eleven of them) in order to get into their skin. It shows. Each of the characters live and breath in these 600 pages with such an alarming vitality – very alarming in the case of Tong – that I hated putting this book down for fear something would happen while I wasn’t immersed in its world. It’s just that gripping.

Yes, there are 600 pages but there’s not a spare word amongst them. The narratives are so densely written and the events of the story’s three days so closely examined from every angle that the story rips along at a breakneck pace.

Themes abound – from broken families, social criticism, criminal undercurrents and the destructive power of secrecy to the frustrating catchiness of Coldplay – all served with dark humour and a quest to find the light in such a world.

And there’s the key. For all the damage the characters in See You Tomorrow carry with them and into the lives of others, this novel is ultimately uplifting. Whether it’s Pål’s desperate measures to end his financial burdens, Daniel’s ‘life-plan’ to mute the horror of his past to Tiril’s singing Evanescence to a crowd… even the delightfully unhinged petty criminal Rudi is a self-declared man of love. All are looking for the ray of light in these dark times, a way out, a release from their secret. In most cases, though at no small cost and in ways previously undreamed of, they find just that by the end of the three days.

Three days of unexpected warmth and light when least expected.

I cannot imagine just how tricky this book must have been to translate yet Sean Kinsella deserves praise for managing to do just that while retaining Renberg’s mastery of prose and wit.

See You Tomorrow is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but is in serious contention for one of the best I’ve ever read. It would be a struggle to find such an original and compelling book as this. That Tore Renberg has a sequel to unleash upon us can only be good news.