Monday, March 21, 2011

On the Book Beat Again

My quarterly column for Pomp and Circumstantial Evidence, the magazine of the Magna Cum Murder Mystery Conference at Ball State University.  You can read all of my reviews on every genre at

The Devil's Star by Joe Nesbo
Harry Hole is a brilliant cop who fights alcoholism and other personal demons; Tom Waaler is his partner, the ace detective in the Oslo police force.  But Hole also believes Waaler is the murderous crime lord Prince, although nobody else believes him.  In a blazing Norwegian summer, these two cops must team up to find a serial killer in Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star.
Nesbo's first Harry Hole novel translated into English, The Redbreast, is one of my favorites from the large spate of Scandinavian mysteries that have landed on these shores in recent years.  I thought the second in the series, Nemesis, was good but not up to the first one; but The Devil's Star is close, a dark, delirious crime drama chock full of odd characters and colorful writing. 
I think Nesbo compares favorably to one of my other must-read crime novelists, Michael Connelly, although Nesbo does not have the body of work yet.
For better or worse, Nesbo writes in a more American style with plenty of action, and doesn't often dwell in the gloom and doom of his Scandinavian brethren. 
Nesbo also injects a lot of quirky humor, a welcome respite from these frequently wintry novels. Recommended.

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason
Morose Reykjavik cop Erlendur becomes fascinated with a depressed woman's suicide as tragedies in his own past resonate, ending with him taking up an unofficial investigation that uncovers more family trauma in Arnaldur Indridason's Hypothermia, part of his long-running police procedural series set in Iceland.
This is one of my favorite authors in the batch of gloomy Scandinavian imports that have reached U.S. readers over the past few years.  Each novel features great characters that grow and change along with complex crime drama.  The philosophical underpinnings of most of the mystery novels from Scandinavia offer a welcome change of pace from American crime fare. 
And it's not often you see a U.S. detective/protagonist tuck into a boiled sheep's head in jam.
The dead of winter probably wasn't the ideal time to pick up Indridason's latest, but when I see the newest one on the shelf I can't resist.  This series starts with Jar City, recently made into a movie, and all entries so far come recommended.  I thought this one was perhaps the best yet.

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
A doctor in a chaotic hospital ends up with even more stress than usual when he is outed as a former hitman hiding in the Witness Protection Program in Josh Bazell's darkly comic debut Beat the Reaper.
Beat the Reaper is fairly outlandish, penned in a cinematic style, and is quite funny throughout (and rather oddly provides footnotes for the medical terminology and other asides).
It does suffer a bit from a somewhat rushed, slam-bang ending which seems to segue into a sequel. 
The novel is written in a pretty unique voice (with undertones of other mafia and hospital stories) with lots of temporal distortion (and roller-coaster reveals) and recommended for a fast, fun read. 

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte
A former war photographer has isolated himself in a lighthouse on the Spanish coast, painting a giant mural; soon he is joined by a former soldier who was the subject of one of his most famous photographs and now wants to kill him.  Their conversations about life, death, war, art and love make up the center of Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles.
Although the description makes it sound as if the novel has the barest wisp of a plot, it is a dense, cerebral novel with rewards for the patient (including a surprising, chilling ending). 
I am more familiar with Perez-Reverte as the author of the swashbuckling Captain Alatriste series and the memorable, whacked-out The Club Dumas (filmed as The Ninth Gate). 
This book is a departure from what I have read into a more literary bent but is quite a good read.