The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag****

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“From a collection of parts all individually worthless, a clockwork is formed that functions anew.”

This guy can write. Many thanks go to Atria Books for the two invitations to read and review as well as the gorgeous hardcover book for review. Happy publication day; this book is available to the public now.

We find ourselves in Stockholm at the end of the eighteenth century; it’s a tense time, with a political backlash resulting from the French Revolution and the fears it excites among those in power. The poor lead miserable lives, and life itself is cheap. There are very few protections in place for the vulnerable.

Mickel Cardell, the one-armed watchman, pulls a corpse—or what’s left of it–out of the Larder Lake. He sends the children that found it to get a cop. One thing leads to another, and then the chief of police, Johan Gustaf Norlin, sends for Cecil Winge.  The two men know one another well.

Winge is the most tragic hero I’ve seen in a long time. He’s dying of consumption (typhus), and he has left his wife because he doesn’t want her to have to watch him die; also, he’s impotent, and it’s painful to walk in on her with another man. Not that he blames her; he’d just prefer not to watch or hear it. He’s an attorney and has all the money he needs, but this is one time that money doesn’t help all that much. His illness prevents him from sleeping well, and he’s inclined to seek a challenge here or there when he can in order to distract himself from his own condition. Norlin has a distraction for him now. Winge reminds him that the last time he helped him with a case, Norlin had promised not to ask again; but Norlin is asking anyway.

The title comes into it when Winge interviews the textile merchant that recognizes the distinctive shroud in which the body was wrapped. The merchant is financially ruined and plans to climb aboard the ship bound for his home and then jump off into cold deep water and die. Before he boards, he points out that man is a lupine hunter, and that Winge himself is well on the way:

“No one can run with the wolf pack without accepting its terms. You have both the fangs and the glint of the predator in your eye…one day your teeth will be stained red and then you’ll know with certainty how right I was. Your bite will be deep. Maybe you will prove the better wolf, Mr. Winge, and on that note I bid you good night.”

The historical setting and characters here are beautifully drawn; for some reason, I like the moments when a character reaches up and yanks his wig off because it’s itchy and it’s driving him nuts. A number of characters are resonant, but Winge—who is perfect for the reader that needs an excuse to just sit down and cry—and Cardell, who holds his own in a fight surprisingly well, even with one arm—are my favorites. It is they, imperfect individually, that together make up the clockwork that functions anew.

Those of us that read a lot of books within the mystery genre (and its many offshoots) see a lot of the same settings and plots almost often enough to create a mystery story using MadLibs. Just fill in the blanks. In contrast, the unique setting, well-developed characters, and bad ass word smithery in this one are a potent combination.

And now I have to admit that for me, it is too potent. There is a great deal of detail about the corpse’s mutilation, and once I pushed my way past it, it came up again and again, because it’s right at the center of the case they are solving. So although for some this mystery will be, as the promotional blurb promises, “deliciously dark,” for me it is far too dark. In fact, I cannot remember ever using the word “shocking” as a descriptor within a review, but I’ll use it now. There are some things that cannot be unread once you have read them. I haven’t had my gut turn over in this way in several years, and I don’t ever want to go there again.

But that’s me. My daughter is not as easily horrified as I am; she may love this book.

Those contemplating purchasing this well-scribed novel should do one thing, and that is to carefully read the promotional description. It does warn the reader. The first time I saw it, I read that blurb and decided not to read it; then I was invited to read and review, and I accepted the widget but declined to sign up for a blog tour in case I couldn’t stand it; but then I was offered a hard copy, and I saw that other reviewers loved it, and my resistance worn down, I caved. Once I had it, I felt like I had to read it even when it was beyond the point of not being a fun read. But if you can read that blurb and are still game, then by all means you should get it, because all of the technical skills that make up an award winning novel are here in spades and the urgency never lets up. Highly recommended for those that are not even a tiny bit squeamish and have strong literacy skills.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman****

beartown“You can fuck any girl you like here tonight; they’re all hockey-whores when we win.”

Fredrik Backman is a sly writer, and he has a way of spiraling around his central point so that readers are mighty close by the time they recognize where they are. He writes with philosophical grace tinged with wit, and his novels are popular because of it. And so it cheers me to see him examine what might happen to a small depressed town whose hopes are all hinged on youth sports. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Beartown is available to the public today.

In Beartown, everyone dreams of hockey, and those that don’t are stuck on the outside looking in. A man’s glory days are done before he’s 40; a woman has no glory days at all, since women cannot play on the men’s team and there is no women’s team. Everything comes second to hockey: education, social skills, and even the law are bent, sometimes to the breaking point, in order to accommodate star athletes. Hockey is the town’s only remaining business, and it seems to provide the only possible hope for young men that have grown up in the forest and don’t want to leave it to seek work.

Backman has a genius for drawing the reader in. Some of the scenes in this story actually make me laugh out loud. His respect for women is a breath of fresh air as well. In literary terms, though, the greatest success of this piece is the way a large number of characters are developed so that readers genuinely feel that we know not just a protagonist, but a whole town. We know who is related, what private baggage exists between individuals and families, which marriage is happy and which is not, and it’s delivered to us in a way that never feels gossipy or prurient. Rather, Backman makes us feel as if we are part of the town, and so everything is important to us as well.

Fans of Backman’s will be pleased once again here. My sole quibble is that I see a character at the end behave in a way that is so inconsistent with what we know of him so far that I can hear the violins play. It’s heartwarming, but if the same thing had been achieved more subtly, it would be credible as well.

Nevertheless, you won’t want to miss this book. Regardless of the ugly things that are said and done at various points, the author comes back, as he always has before, to the innate goodness of the human spirit, and it’s messages like this one that we need so badly today. Recommended to those that enjoy good fiction.

The Lion’s Mouth, by Anne Holt****

thelionsmouthWho killed Prime Minister Birgitte Volter? Was it the neo-Nazis? The Satanists? Was it a personal thing, perhaps an angry family member? The answer is cleverly built up to, so that the reader has a fair chance of figuring it out, and yet will most likely be surprised. I was.

Thank you, Net Galley and thank you also, Scribner for the DRC. Anne Holt is an established writer and it shows in the way she expertly crafts character and setting. I was at something of a disadvantage, never having been to Norway; the place names had no meaning to me, apart from the names of major cities, and I struggled with the governmental structure. When Parliament was mentioned I was fine, and likewise the Supreme Court made sense, but then we came to the President of the Supreme Court, a prominent figure—is that like a chief justice, or is it a very different construct from that of USA?—and also there is a President of Parliament. Americans should be prepared to either Google these items or accept a certain amount of ambiguity; I chose the latter, and it worked all right for me. I knew that there would be some new terrain when I began reading, and as part of my goal was to widen my own reading world a little bit, it was worth battling the unknown. A mystery is an accessible way to do this, and I enjoyed it.

The book was originally published in 1997; even so, I found a couple of stereotypes unsettling. The fat jokes seemed inappropriate and disturbing; Little Letvik started out a caricature, and even when she was developed a bit more at the end, it didn’t help much. Ruth-Dorthe is a “blonde bimbo” and “slightly worn Barbie doll”. There was also some slut-shaming that I could have done without.

On the other hand, the character for whom the series is named, Hanne Wilhelmsen, is a lesbian and is the hero of the story. She is sensible, even-tempered, (thin,) and very intelligent. Another character I really enjoy is Billy T, a boisterous, funny fellow who lightens the story considerably. In fact, there were a number of places that made me laugh out loud.

Although the book is part of a series—this novel being the fourth—I liked it just fine as a stand-alone.

All told, it’s a strong work of fiction and a good choice for the mystery lover to add to her collection. With the above reservations, I recommend it to you.

It is available for purchase February 9, 2016.