Sunday, March 18, 2018

STILL WATERS, cozy Swedish Scandicrime debut novel & CLOSED CIRCLES, its decent follow-up

(tr. Marlaine Delargy; Sandhamn Murders #1)
$2.49 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: On a hot July morning on Sweden’s idyllic vacation island of Sandhamn, a man takes his dog for a walk and makes a gruesome discovery: a body, tangled in a fishing net, has washed ashore.

Police detective Thomas Andreasson is the first to arrive on the scene. Before long, he has identified the deceased as Krister Berggren, a bachelor from the mainland who has been missing for months. All signs point to an accident—until another brutalized corpse is found at the local bed-and-breakfast. But this time it is Berggren’s cousin, whom Thomas interviewed in Stockholm just days before.

As the island’s residents reel from the news, Thomas turns to his childhood friend, local lawyer Nora Linde. Together, they attempt to unravel the riddles left behind by these two mysterious outsiders—while trying to make sense of the difficult twists their own lives have taken since the shared summer days of their youth.

My Review: I downloaded this onto my Kindle when it was a Kindle First offering about three years ago. It finally snagged my attention. I think it finally got me because, when I opened it, I read this:
The department’s coffeemaker produced a liquid that was positively toxic. How Margit could knock it back in such quantities was a mystery. Thomas had switched to drinking tea for the first time in his life because of it.
THOMAS!! RUN!! Run fast and run far, no good can ever come from a place where the coffee is so bad that *retch* tea *shudder* is a better beverage option!

*glowers Blightyward* Y'all got nothin' to say here, Brits, you gave the world chattel slavery, John Bull, and cricket, and kept National Health Service, Cornwall, and Prince Harry!

Thomas Andreasson is from Harö in the Stockholm archipelago's unfashionable bit, or at least it wasn't fashionable when he was a lad. His world has been upended in so many ways in recent months, his life as a husband and father is over without warning or any desire for it to be so, his best friend Nora is suddenly among murderers on their shared childhood home of Sandhamn, and he's got no clues to solve the suspicious death followed by sure and certain murder, followed by *very* suspicious death and bring the killer to justice.

So he plods along, doing responsible policework, following leads that don't lead, until he is weary of the routine as well as of the whole enterprise of staying alive. We switch PoV characters a good bit in this book, but Thomas is the policeman so he gets most of the tedious legwork in the story. His senior partner, Margit, is dying to spend the short, sweet Swedish summer with her husband and teenaged daughters somewhere south. This case is foiling her desire to get away. Interestingly, Thomas has no issue with Margit being the lead in the case; he's never once shown being resentful of her authority, but once feels a bit downhearted when she corrects an error he's made...because he made the error, not because a woman corrected him. This was refreshing.

One lead, found by Thomas' lovely young colleague (and clearly intended to be love interest) Carina, takes him and Margit to a self-made man's home on Sandhamn. Thomas' past on the island makes the appearance of the house grating to him, and Margit's social conscience shows up for a pleasant interlude:
Apart from the white eaves and steps, every last piece of timber was nauseatingly green. Without the eaves and steps you could easily have imagined you were standing in front of a giant marzipan cake. Only the rose was missing.

"I’ve never seen such a fine example of nouveau riche." (said Margit)

This is a Swedish Prinsesstårta, which is what Author Sten referred to in the original Swedish text.
We see that a lot on the South Shore of Long Island. It's the arrivistes buying old cottages and slapping down out-of-proportion McMansions onto their zero-lot-line dreams of seaside living. Drearily familiar to anyone living by a water feature. Thomas doesn't like the house and really doesn't like the man in it...there is something *wrong* with a person who moves to a strong, distinctive community like Sandhamn and flouts every tradition and norm that makes the place itself!

But then there's Nora, whose roots on Sandhamn go way back before even Thomas' do. She doesn't like this new reality at all, and doesn't like the cultural shift it represents. She feels it as an affront to her core principles, as we're told directly:
It gave Nora the unpleasant feeling that everything was for sale. Everything could be bought or sold.
Sandhamn is more than a place to Nora, it's a life and a lifestyle she feels is hers down to her very core. These values agree with mine. I approve of them and wish there were more Noras in the world.

So what the hell drew her to the insensitive clod of a scion of the booboisie that she married?!
Henrik just didn’t get it. He was blind and deaf to any hint that his mother might not be the best mother-in-law in the world. Nora gave in.

Now she had been offered her dream job, and he didn’t even seem to want to discuss it. It wasn’t fair.

Why challenge Henrik, instead of paying attention to the clear signals he had given her?
I found this infuriating. Which is it, Author Sten, Nora's a modern woman or a housewife? She started their marriage with compromises on where they'd live, what he'd be expected to do as a parent, and somehow thought he'd magically divine that she was seriously convinced he'd do the same for her?! Why?! How?! Begin as you mean to go on, Nora. Was it Mary Poppins who said that first, or just most famously? Anyway, there was absolutely no reason to think Henrik would ever be anything but his parents' son, since he never made a single solitary peep of dissatisfaction with them and the way they live(d) their lives. Oh! Oh! And then there's her best friend, Thomas, whose reaction to Henrik should've made Nora run screaming:
There was an underlying distance between the two men that never quite disappeared in spite of the fact that they had known each other for a long time. Henrik’s upper-middle-class background and deeply conservative values didn’t exactly improve matters.
There's no way in hell that didn't show in Thomas' responses to Henrik over the years. So lay off the shockhorror about the way the reactionary poltroon responds to your desire to do something for yourself, lady, he's never been different and expecting him to change will only make both of you and your kids angry and upset and end up in divorce. Skip the middle bit: Get the divorce, start the new life, and make sure the kids know *why* mommy left daddy without rancorous vituperative invective flowing from you. Him, you can't affect. As should be obvious to you by now.

The two sleuths are close friends and each has made a hash of their personal life. This isn't familiar at all, is it. But it's an evergreen for a reason, since it gives the author a great line of attack to keep series readers reading. Nora's marriage is doomed, Thomas' relationship with Carina is doomed, the whole island of Sandhamn...faithless to the crime statistics for Nordic countries...will soon be hip deep in dead bodies, much more will be made of Nora's diabetes (which figures in the action but not the resolution of this book), and if there is a just and merciful gawd Nora's mother-in-law will be savagely torn to bits by ravening wild dogs on live television.

Translator Delargy, based in the UK, uses some tricks to keep the prose feeling uniquely Sten's own. One is the use of a nonstandard form of the verb "to get hold (of)", viz. "ahold." In spoken words I'm not averse to this formulation of the verb, but it abounds in this book and I found it irksome after the sixth or seventh usage. It's purely a personal twitch, no knock on the skills Delargy brought to bear on the Englishing of the book. I am on record many places as despising the unnecessary and ungainly "u"ification of perfectly simple words like "valor" and "honor" so I needn't go into why that made me flinch every time I ran across it. Delargy does a creditable job making Sten's words readable in English, and that's no mean feat, so kudos to you Madam.

The world has lots and lots of gritty Scandicrime. You can hardly open your Kindle without being offered some more gritty Scandicrime. What the world doesn't have is cozy Scandicrime. Sten's involving debut novel is both pine-scented Scandi and cozy, sense-of-place crime. I like that about it and it's what will cause me to seek out the next book in the series.

So switch your mental gears to Swedish cozy. Step out of the Vauxhall and into the Volvo station wagon. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

CLOSED CIRCLES (Sandhamn Murders #2)
VIVECA STEN (tr. Marlaine Delargy)
$2.49 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s a beautiful day for a regatta—until one of Sandhamn Island’s most prestigious residents is killed aboard his sailing yacht.

Oscar Juliander was a rich lawyer and deputy chairman of the prestigious Royal Swedish Yacht Club. While at first his death seems like a tragic accident, there is evidence of foul play. Police detective Thomas Andreasson teams up with local lawyer Nora Linde to investigate. As they work to uncover clues, they face resistance from an elite world where nothing but appearance matters.

When the rich and powerful inhabitants of Sweden’s idyllic island getaway come under scrutiny, Thomas and Nora must work closely and secretively to seek justice.


My Review
: Ya know what's frustrating? Like lips moving from Heaven to flapping at you frustrating? NOT BEING ABLE TO TELL YOU WHY THIS ISN'T A 4-STAR REVIEW. Because major, major spoilers would be required for me to do that. And y'all're some seriously spoilerphobic readers.

So I'm left in a bad position...I can't get into much detail...but I can, and herewith will, offer some thoughts.

Minor irks: Carina and Thomas, as a couple, are brought up and dropped in the space of a few sentences. I'd like more of that please. The partial resolution of Nora's marital woes is a good start, but this entry has next to no Nora-and-Thomas time and I missed it. The Eva subplot's resolution doesn't seem finished, somehow. It seems unlikely to be complete as it stands and it itches for that reason.

What keeps me coming back is also what makes me a little impatient. Something about these books and their lutefisk-and-cardamom atmosphere makes me crave a jalapeño cheeseburger. I guess that's an index of how very Swedish they are. And how cozy are they? So cozy I want to cruise the piers (I'd have to learn to time-travel back to 1980s Manhattan, but that's just an added bonus) to recover from the wholesome.

That's a Scandicozy strength, like a nicer-neighborhood version of the immersiveness of Nordic Noir. Wholesome isn't bleached into blankness; it's the juxtaposition of Nora's and Thomas's friendship to their deeply unhappy marriages (over, in Thomas's case; needs to be over in Nora's). Thomas's police career is spent with a partner we don't see all that much of in this book; but she's got enough screen time to get her name in the credits, so to speak.

The mystery here is one that I found myself nodding along to, by which I mean the dead'un just needed killin' as we say in the US South. What Thomas, in his official capacity, has to do with the case is pretty peripheral. Mostly we're among Nora's husband-the-doctor's scummy social set of unpleasant, entitled (in the US sense, not as in "having titles") friends. Why she stays with this creep...well, kids. Plus stubborn, maybe, unwilling to admit to herself she's made an awful mistake. But it's the spoiler subject that annoys me the most. Once this happens, call it a day. And yes, it's about Nora.

There's a Swedish-language TV show that does away with some of the canon here, but is visually stunning. It's available to US audiences via the MHz Network.

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