Europa Blues by Arne Dahl

25793827Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl, was a really different kind of crime book, even in the genre I am so enjoying, the broadly termed “Nordic Noir.” Not realising this was book four in a ten book series, I picked it up, seduced by the synopsis on the back of the book which explains that his novel is about a series of crimes involving the grisly death of a Greek gangster, disappearing Eastern European prostitutes and the macabre murder of a famous Jewish professor. From the start, it was pretty clear to me that the police involved in the investigations had complex lives and histories to which I was only partly privy and which no doubt earlier books explored. But (and this is testimony to the strength of Dahl’s writing), at no point did I feel this disadvantaged me. Such was the power of the prose and the way the principal characters were presented and their back-stories hinted at, I felt I knew them and any gaps and omissions were filled. Better still, I cared about these people deeply.

With three investigations on the go and one man down (he’s on extended leave in Italy), the A-unit, or National Crime Investigation Department’s Special Unit for Violent Crimes of an International Nature (what a mouthful!), is busy, especially when, after a street thug is brutally murdered by a woman in a train station, they begin to suspect that all the murders are linked. When they seek help from Interpol and Europol, their suspicions are confirmed. But it’s when they ask one of their own, the man in Italy, to do some investigating there, that the connections reveal themselves. What’s exposed goes back decades and into one of the most violent and cruel periods of human history. Not one to shy away from both the individual’s or country’s role in human suffering and genocide, through is characters, Dahl is highly critical of Sweden’s “neutrality” or ability to look the other way. Exploring huge issues such as complicity and national shame, Dahl uses history to also critique the present in an intelligent and searing manner.

The final twists and turns are both shocking and gratifying.

The way characters are developed; the use of literature and history and the sense of social and personal justice that pervades this book is so strong. I was drawn into the story and the relationships – professional and personal. The writing is sublime and always powerful – though humour, particularly between those who have worked together and known each other so long – relieves some of the bleaker moments: gallows’ humour indeed.

A magnificent book that makes me long to lose myself in another in the series.

4.5 stars.

 

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Book Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

I was so excited when this book came out, I dropped all others I was either reading or about to in order to lose myself in the world of Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner in crime, Sergeant Barbara Havers. And what a wonderful world it is – fraught with danger, beauty, secrets, betrayals, threats and promises – and this time against a magnificent and frustrating ItaliaJust One Evil Act (Inspector Lynley, #18)n backdrop.

After being ever so slightly disappointed in the portrayal of the grieving Inspector Lynley in the last couple of books, it was nice to have the sleuthing Earl return to form… but, just when George brings Tommy back, Havers goes off the rails and behaves in a manner that seems out of character to the fiercely loyal, street-wise and committed detective we’ve grown to know and love.

The explanation for Haver’s erratic behaviour is quickly established. It’s due to the disappearance of her neighbour’s daughter, Hadiyyah, a child Barbara adores (and whose father she clearly harbours deep feelings for). Watching Hadiyyah’s father, Taymullah, grieve for the loss of his child breaks Haver’s heart and she does all in her power (and beyond) to help him track her whereabouts, including hiring a private detective and putting her own job under threat (nothing new there).

Never one to worry about compromising her work or other’s opinions of her in a professional sense, when Hadiyyah is eventually located with her mother, Angelina, in Lucca, Italy, but is then kidnapped from the mercato, Haver’s common sense and uncanny ability to sum up a situation and work within it, vanishes. It’s not her desperation to help Taymullah at all costs, or that she makes some silly decisions that irks, it’s the fact that she not only puts her trust in someone who clearly demonstrates they are less than worthy, but that she also fails to share important information and confidences with her partner Lynley that somehow doesn’t ring true…not after all they’ve been through together.

But I am being pernickety.

For it’s due to Havers impulsive behaviour that New Scotland Yard is put on the case of the English child missing in Italy. Instead of being the one chosen to go to Italy and thus to Taymullah Azhar’s aid to help find his daughter and deal with the Italian authorities, much to Haver’s chagrin, Inspector Lynely is sent in her stead.

Once in Lucca, Lynley deals with the Italian law with aplomb. Not only is he fluent in the language, he is masterful at putting people at ease and being able to ferret out the facts. While on the surface, it appears as if Hadiyyah’s kidnapping is the result of a shady deal gone wrong, Lynley, and his wonderful Italian counterpart, the beautifully drawn Inspector Savatore lo Bianco, soon discover that the culprit is much closer than they think.

Like the twisting, narrow roads that bisect and wind around Lucca, so too, the plot turns and angles, and more and more people are drawn into the web being woven around the missing child. Secondary characters enter and exit, their personalities rich, seedy, daring and passionate – like the place in which they live. But nothing is simply black and white. In fact, most often even seemingly honest and respectable characters are cast in unfavourable lights, shadows, showing the depths to which even decent folk will stoop in the name of love, family and honour.

Distraught and angry at being left in London, Haver’s soon turns her fury into purpose but, as she closes in on the truth, her job and reputation don’t only go on the line, but look set to be destroyed once and for all.

I really enjoyed this book and found it very hard to put down. Even the out of character behaviour of Havers, as far-fetched as it sometimes seems (and you have to read the book to understand) made sense within the narrative, albeit with a big suspension of disbelief.

And, while I revelled in the evocation of Italy and Italians, I wondered how non-native speakers or anyone with no Italian language would find reading the book as it is liberally peppered with Italian words, phrases and even conversation. I can speak it quite well and found it distracting and, at times, the amount of it unnecessary. There isn’t always a translation offered either and I imagine that would be very frustrating if not off-putting as sometimes a key description is hinted at and various character traits are revealed with just a word or two of Italian. Without an English equivalent, some readers would lose the benefit of that additional piece of prose or subtle clue and fleshing out of individuals. Nonetheless, like all George’s books, the prose is beautiful, the dialogue crisp when it needs to be, languorous as well – just a wonderful read.

This is definitely a return to form for Lynley. Though, I did wonder at the end how the mess Havers created would be resolved. The denouement is surprising, even if it does have someone else acting in a way that a reader would not have anticipated – but in this instance, it’s a very pleasant surprise.

Bring on the next Lynley – please!

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Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s books come laden with so many expectations – and not all good. Savaged by many critics, and often unfairly, it is for his fans to decide whether or not one of his books deserve the kudos the sales suggest and, if you go by those alone, then his books are not only popular, but eminently readable.

Inferno, the fourth Robert Langdon book, is a strange and ofttimes predictable beast. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the previous Langdon outings (love a book that makes an academic an intellectual and action star – shades of Indiana Jones – and has as its core mystery literature, art and symbols) Inferno, for all that it presages the passionate poet Dante, flames and the burning heat of hell, left me mostly cold.

Once again, a quest features and a puzzle that’s centred on a famous work lies at the heart of the mystery, a mystery that begins when Langdon awakes in hospital in Florence with no memInferno (Robert Langdon, #4)ory of how he got there or why. When strangers try to take his life and a beautiful and clever female doctor offers rescue and potentially some answers to the blanks his memory has become, Langdon jumps (literally) at the chance.

Pursued relentlessly, able to solve cryptic questions and read the stories into and behind famous and old art, Langdon moves around Europe and Turkey, discovering friends and enemies with abandon. All the while, the reason for his memory lapse and deadly pursuit starts to become clear – and, if Langdon doesn’t find the answers required of him in time, then not only is his life forfeit, but the safety of the world is at stake.

Blending very relevant and fascinating modern science conundrums and a pressing social issue (no pun intended), Langdon is once again up against an all-powerful megalomaniac who will stop at nothing to see his vision realized.

Brown has the formula for these “intellectual thrillers’ down pat now. Only, the rush of Angels and Demons, the development of plot and character that made his earlier works retrospectively well-liked, has been sacrificed to a degree for too much didacticism. In many ways, Inferno is part travelogue and part historical, literary, art, and scientific treatise, as if Brown wants to prove his research and travel credentials by packing all the information into the novel. As a result, some of the characters function as little more than mouthpieces who serve this purpose alone. We are given asides about art, buildings, and scientific research – not all immediately pertinent to the story – that could have been delivered more subtly or not at all. They tell don’t show and the story suffers as a consequence. Perhaps this is also why so many of the characters are black or white in terms of their ideologies and motivation. Even when Brown tries to paint shades of grey (and he does) they are tinged with obvious good or evil hues that makes them unsurprising and sometimes dull.

For all that, this is still a page-turner, even if sometimes I was turning them because I wanted the tale to end. Overall, however, it’s a good holiday, escapist read. I knew what I was getting and in that sense, wasn’t disappointed. I do think some critics judge Brown as if he should have written War and Peace, Mrs Dalloway, or The Dubliners or at least judge him by weighty and incomparable literary criteria, when what he does write is thriller cum potboilers that are, as sales and other evidence attest, definitely crowd pleasers.

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Book Review: Antonia and her Daughters, Marlena de Blasi

Having read and loved Marlena de Blasi’s other ‘Italy’ books, I longed to read this one and share her next adventure -and I am so glad I did. De Blasi has this wonderful capacity to include the reader in her life, to open her door, take you by the arm, and welcome you into her adopted country, relationship with Fernando, house, bedroom, and most certainly, her kitchen. She also takes you along when she visits other people and we become privy to their lives and the role they’ll inevitably come to play in de Blasi’s. In her previous books, these encounters have been brief and tended to further our understanding of de Blasi and her relationship with her Venetian. This is where Antonia and her Daughters differs from de Blasi’s previous books. While the sense of the author and her warm and empathetic personality are evident, this story is very much as the title suggests: about an amazing 83 year old woman, Antonia, and her gorgeous daughters. It is also about the next generation of this family, very much a matriarchal one dominated by the tempestuous, intelligent and intense Antonia who feels, when she meets de Blasi, that she has found a worthy sparring partner. And believe me, Antonia doesn’t hold back. It’s testimony to de Blasi’s comprehension of human nature that she seeks to understand Antonia’s barbs, her attempts to challenge and embarrass an even undermine  her as well as her overt xenophobia, not simply relate it to us. That she patiently allows this woman to open herself to her and thus us by a slow retelling of her history, is superbly and sympathetically done. It is also incredibly respectful and honest. The story unfolds in typical Italian fashion, over laden tables, groaning with delicious repasts that have been lovingly prepared by the females. Between meals, walks, arguments and other episodes, Antonia’s tale and that of generations of Italian women (and those of other cultures) is revealed. Like an onion being peeled, we gradually get to the core of what makes Antonia the feisty, formidable and utterly fascinating creature that she is. When the reveal comes, and the heart of the story/person is exposed, it is powerful, emotional, tragic and beautiful.

From war time Italy through to the invasion of tourists and expats from Europe and America in contemporary times, who seek to interpret or worse, impose themselves and their ways on the Italian landscape and culture, this story spans many years, subjects and profound emotional states and how we recover (or not) from heart-ache and how the past inflects the present. It’s about memory, love, loss, family, friendship, the brutality and beauty of human nature; it’s about how we cope in extraordinary circumstances – how these can bring out the best and worst within us. It’s about cultural differences and similarities and what we can do to both sustain and bridge these. Beautifully written, the book has a haunting melodic quality that not only transported me to the Tuscan hills, but reminded me of the exquisite prose of Shirley Hazzard. The depth and richness of some of the dialogue makes you want to linger over it in the way you would a fine wine or, appropriately, a wonderful meal. I reached for my quote book a few times, wanting to remember lines such as : “Solitude untethered by love is loneliness…” or “there are no miracles to be had from geography” (though I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth Gilbert – author of Eat, Pray, Love – might beg to differ!). These are just a couple out of a book that is filled with philosophical and practical gems. Furthermore. The end of the book contains recipes – so not only are our minds and heart nurtured by this book and the stories contained within, but our bodies as well. Thank you, yet again, Marlena de Blasi. Bellissimo!

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