European Crime Fiction – Mini Reviews

by Ruchira Paul

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks … Anything can happen.” —Red Wind, Raymond Chandler

Crime fiction.1It is not just the Santa Ana that inflames a fevered mind; the sirocco that raises a dust storm, the arctic wind which howls over frozen fjords and the gentle Mediterranean breeze that rocks tethered boats too can fan murderous intentions. From slums to manicured suburbs the world over, sudden ill winds blow in the depths of the human heart when it comes to crime and crime fiction.

My devotion to mystery / detective stories began early -around age nine or ten – and as was common among English speaking Indian children of my generation, it followed the usual trajectory of Enid Blyton, Conan Doyle and the formidable Agatha Christie. British mysteries dominated the shelves of Indian book stores and libraries at the time. The first encounter with American crime fiction took place in my teen years when I began rooting through Ellery Queen's mystery magazines and the Perry Mason books in my uncle's paperback collection. The hardboiled American gumshoe caught my attention in college – the down-at-the-heel, smoking, drinking, quietly desperate philosopher-avenger was a far cry from the polished and well mannered British crime busters. The first such charming prototype appeared in the form of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and I was hooked. Macdonald provided the gateway into the vast world of American crime fiction. His hypnotic story telling led me to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Cain of the pulp fiction era and later to dozens of newer writers, some of whom continue to write to this day. Thus began a life-long habit. No matter what else I read – high, low or middle brow – after a while I go back to a good mystery book for a dose of adrenaline induced relaxation.

I began sampling European crime writings only recently. Among the writers featured here, I have greatly enjoyed some and not so much the others. (Britain is excluded from “Europe” for the purpose of this post. The long tradition of excellent British crime lit warrants a separate review of its own.) All good mysteries dwell not just on the whodunnit aspect of murder and mayhem but also the whydunnit. The dark broodings of the human mind are as crucial to the story line as nefarious criminal acts. In that respect the good writers on both sides of the Atlantic succeed. But unlike American detective stories, few European crime novels feature lone wolf protagonists. Even when an investigator acts alone, he or she is part of a team and an official action plan. Detectives rarely use their guns and when they do, they do so reluctantly. One similarity between American and European crime novels is that the main characters are usually male, middle aged and with a couple of exceptions, tend to have troubled personal lives.

Good writers of any genre bring alive the local flavor of the place in which they set their stories. The mood in the Scandinavian mysteries is generally bleak. Cold rains, dark nights, icy roads and muddy slush routinely figure in the atmospherics, as do characters who keep their private thoughts private and their conversations laconic. Even when a story is set in the long days of arctic summers, the thinly populated landscapes and the quiet lives of the inhabitants evoke a sense of loneliness. In Italy, France, Spain and Greece in contrast, the stories bustle with people, traffic jams and voluble interactions. Then there is nourishment. From the sparse mention of food in the Scandinavian novels, one may be led to believe that the northern detectives' sustenance derives solely from alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Their Mediterranean counterparts on the other hand, savor their food and drink and even in the midst of gruesome happenings, the writers take the trouble to describe the content of the investigative officer's lunch plate, occasionally stopping to share a recipe.

Fred Vargas (France) Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg

Shoes of corpses with the feet still in them; a three hundred year old superstition that drives a modern day murder and mutilation spree; an old man kills his wife for stifling him with monotonous household routines but then continues to live by her rules after she is dead. These are some cases that Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg encounters in his capacity as the commissaire of a police department in Paris. Adamsberg is astute, introspective and attentive to his surroundings, if not so much to his personal life. In his idle moments he may be given to weighing questions such as whether seagulls mewl in different languages in France and England. He wears two watches set 90 minutes apart, but tells time by the hour when his one-armed neighbor goes into to the garden to take a leak. He recognizes the unique talents of the officers in his squad but is also keenly aware of their failings and personal predilections. In the midst of pressing professional demands, Adamsberg can be coaxed/ bullied into delivering kittens for his neighbor's cat.

If all this sounds slightly goofy for a mystery novel, readers can rest assured that real crimes do occur in Fred Vargas' stories and the perpetrators are duly apprehended by old fashioned police work. On the way one also learns that a man once ate a wardrobe (a thekophagist, if you must know)! Fred Vargas is the pseudonym for Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a biological archeologist. The brilliant Ms Vargas is a very engaging story teller.

Andrea Camilleri (Italy) Salvo Montalbano

The small town of Vigata in Sicily has its fair share of criminal activities and DS Salvo Montalbano is responsible for getting to the bottom of it all. Montalbano's task is made especially perilous by the involvement of the powerful local Mafia in almost all unsavory events. A workaholic, Montalbano is an aging bachelor with a long time, long distance, long suffering girl friend who is routinely stood up at carefully planned romantic occasions. Living alone in a house by the sea, the detective is given to flashes of insight into complex cases while sipping coffee early in the morning or having a drink late at night on his verandah facing the ocean. Montalbano knows Vigata well and possesses a lively imagination. Those qualities come in handy in making the right connections between seemingly unrelated events such as a modern day robbery and the accidental discovery of a pair of fifty year old skeletons found in a sealed cave. His crusty demeanor and long years as a criminal investigator have not made him cynical. He is made queasy at autopsies, not so much by the physical detritus of violent death but by imagining the suffering that preceded it. In a melancholic moment he is likely to see the parallel between the death dance of a seagull and the brutal dying moments of a ballet dancer. Throughout police procedures that do not always unfold strictly by the book, we hear Montalbano rant against the corruption of Italy's politicians, its judiciary and business establishments.

Andrea Camilleri began writing at a late age and became a best selling author with the Montalbano series. His stories have plenty of action, twists and turns and interesting local flavor. I could have done with a little less buffoonery from some of the characters (perhaps some things translate badly from Italian to English). Camilleri is great fun to read.

Jean-Claude Izzo (France) Fabio Montale

Jean-Claude Izzo's protagonist Fabio Montale is an ex-cop who reluctantly gets involved in helping friends who are victims of crime. The contemplation of life and his surroundings – the ruthless underbelly of the port city of Marseilles – leaves him feeling despondent and fatalistic. Of Italian ancestry, Montale sees himself as somewhat of an outsider in France although he has lived there all his life. He tries to take a balanced view of the struggles, aspirations and prejudices of both the natives and the immigrants (North African Muslims, mostly); the anger and suspicion that boil over the social and cultural divide alarms him terribly.

Izzo was an excellent writer. (He died in 2000) Like his main character, he was a life long resident of Marseilles. Some writers make the physical features, history, architecture and the underlying vibes of a place such an integral part of the narrative that a city or region becomes as much a character in their stories as the human actors. Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, Carl Hiaasen's hilarious rants against the despoilers of South Florida, Elmore Leonard's gritty city of Detroit come to mind. Izzo was passionate about his birthplace. His Marseilles trilogy is as much about crime as it is about his beloved city – its storied past, uncertain present and what Izzo (through the eyes of Montale) feared would become its bleak future. I thoroughly enjoyed Total Chaos, the first book in the trilogy. I picked up Chourmo soon thereafter but did not like it as much. I chose not to read Solea, the last in the series, for the same reason that initially made me eager to read Izzo a second time – I knew it too was likely to be another love letter to Marseilles.

Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark) DS Carl Morck

Homicide detective Carl Morck first appears in Jussi Adler-Olsen's The Keeper of Lost Causes just after he has been “promoted” to the post of chief and sole employee of Department Q located in the basement of his precinct in Copenhagen. His new job is to take care of cold cases. Morck knows that he has been sidelined without actually being fired and the new job is a pointed reprimand for dereliction of duty. In his last operation, one of his colleagues got killed and another was paralyzed in a deadly encounter during which Morck neglected to draw his gun. Depressed, isolated and licking his wounds, Morck asks for an assistant and is assigned the freshly hired Hafez el-Assad, a recent Syrian immigrant with no experience in law enforcement. The cheerful and energetic Assad proves to be adept at cleaning the basement offices, cooking oily snacks and ferreting out information from uncooperative secretaries. When an old case starts to break open, the newly formed team of Morck & Assad begins the hunt. During the confounding and action filled events that follow, it becomes clear to Morck and the reader that the unflappable Assad is not who he claims to be – he is probably not from Syria and his real name certainly is not Hafez el-Assad. His shrewd grasp of the criminal mind and lethal skills with weapons point to a more “professional” past than Assad is willing to own up to.

The son of a psychologist, part of Adler-Olsen's childhood was spent living on the premises of psychiatric institutions where his father was employed. His books are described as psychological thrillers. A very good writer, Adler-Olsen's plots are complex and the characters vivid, including the minor ones. The unlikely Morck-Assad pairing is handled cleverly with considerable humor, a successful launch of the Department Q series.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden) Inspector Martin Beck

A young woman from Nebraska is found dead in a canal in Sweden; an American detective named Kafka from Lincoln provides background information of the victim; the case of the Laughing Policeman turns out to be not so jolly. Veteran police inspector Martin Beck handles the cases with patience and without flamboyance. A serious man of a somewhat dour temperament, Beck hates driving, is susceptible to violent winter colds, suffers from frequent dark moods and doesn't much like going home. A father of two young children in a lackluster marriage, his loyalty to police work is unwavering. Colleagues trust him and he has no qualms in seeking help from others. A case may drag on for months but Beck pursues the slimmest of leads with doggedness until it reaches a satisfactory conclusion.

Sjowall and Wahloo are widely recognized as the pioneers of modern Swedish crime fiction. Author Henning Mankell (Inspector Kurt Wallander) credits them for his own interest in the genre. Beginning in the 1960s, the couple wrote several books together until the death of Wahloo in 1975. Their popularity paved the way for other Swedish crime writers, turning the focus to human interactions and motivations rather than mechanical sleuthing. Sjowal & Wahloo's style was matter-of-fact but not without empathy. Over many books the recurring characters are fleshed out well. Marxist in their leanings, Sjowall & Wahloo wrote their novels during the Vietnam War and widespread student protests the world over. Except for the occasional passing reference to prejudices against immigrants and Sweden's indigenous Sami population, there is not much evidence of heavy handed politics in their writings.

Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland) Inspector Erlendur

Arnaldur Indridason's well written series features the lumbering, lonely and stoic Inspector Erlendur (like all Icelanders, he goes only by his first name) of Reykjavik. Erlendur nurses an ancient guilt and new sorrows but doesn't let them get in the way of his professional duties at which he is very good. The mood in the books is bleak – persistent gloomy weather, with the backdrop of an even gloomier personal life of the main character. The tightly knit stories unfold at a fast but not frantic pace on the field, pausing occasionally to cast a glance at Erlendur's dispiriting personal life. The author avoids getting snared in excessive navel gazing and contrived scenarios. The violence too remains within digestible limits. Free of gimmicks, Indridason's books are classic crime fiction – complex but not convoluted. Worth reading.

Karin Fossum (Norway) Inspector Konrad Sejer

Another Scandinavian whose books are described as psychological thrillers, Karin Fossum is deft at what she does. The books center around a quiet little town outside Oslo, a seemingly unlikely place for brutal murders. But murders do take place even in idyllic places like Elvestad. The experienced Inspector Konrad Sejer and his young assistant Jakob Skarre of the local police department are at the helm of the investigations which they conduct quietly, reassuringly and shrewdly. Fossum's low key writing style is civilized and compassionate. The creepiness of some of the crimes, many involving children, therefore comes as a surprise. Her focus is not just on the murderer and the murdered but also on those who must stand by and watch. We learn that the unexpected can happen when placid lives are thrown into turmoil.

A very good writer, Fossum sometimes dwells a bit too long on the fragile workings of the human mind. She comes across as vaguely moralistic but not judgmental. I have read two of her books and will probably check out a couple more.

Michael Dibdin (Italy) Inspector Aurelio Zen

Michael Dibdin was British by birth, died in the US and lived in Italy for a while. His popular Aurelio Zen books feature the capable but crotchety inspector from Venice who lives with his mother in Rome. An experienced and dedicated crime fighter, Zen is not above the occasional deception, pulling rank and intimidation of witnesses to ensure results. Aurelio Zen mysteries are set in different Italian cities and Dibdin does a good job of capturing the character of each place, its inhabitants and the protagonist's dyspeptic view of life everywhere he finds himself.

Petros Markaris: (Greece) Inspector Costas Haritos

Petros Markaris' straightforward police procedure stories are narrated in first person by Inspector Costas Haritos of Athens. The politically incorrect (but not unsympathetic) Haritos spends his days dealing with ambitious superiors, undependable subordinates and pestering reporters. He loves his daughter and his relationship with his wife of many years is often contentious but always reconcilable. After a hard day at the office, he likes to read dictionaries for relaxation. The job requires Haritos to drive up and down the congested streets of Athens. We are told the names of scores of Athenian streets that he covers in his beaten up Mirafiori. But we learn very little about the layout of the city, its sights and sounds other than the traffic jams and road rages that Haritos must negotiate to get to his destination. The reviews point to Markaris' popularity in several European countries. I wasn't terribly impressed.

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (Spain) Pepe Carvalho

I could not finish the only book by Manuel Vazquez Montalban that I tried. Montalban is a well regarded author and he wrote much more than detective novels. My curiosity about him was piqued when I came across his name in one of Andrea Camilleri's books. Camilleri's fictional detective DS Montalbano (see above) is a fan of his real-life Spanish namesake. Apparently, so is Camilleri himself. But I found the novel starring ex-cop Pepe Carvalho less than compelling. It was distracting to keep up with various different threads – national and international crime and politics, Carvalho's lively appetite for food and sex, his travels. Others may find him more readable or may be I picked the wrong book.

(The list was gathered from the recommendations of friends and from book reviews. Naturally, the mix contains well known writers deemed worthy of translation by Anglophone mystery fans. I had initially planned to give all ten writers equal billing. But as the word count began to rise, I decided to describe five in more detail than the rest. I have left out the two best known Scandinavian authors – Stieg Larsson (Sweden) and Jo Nesbo (Norway); I have never read Larsson and Nesbo, the most “American” of the lot, is probably familiar to readers.)