Friday, October 31, 2008

Belated review of Little Face, by Sophie Hannah

I just got a copy of Sophie Hannah's second novel (the about-to-be-released-in-the-U.S. Hurting Distance) and realized that although I reviewed her third (The Point of Rescue, not yet released in U.S.) a while ago, I'd never reviewed her first (Little Face). Hannah uses a distinctive structure for her novels, alternating first-person narratives by someone involved in a crime (women, so far) with third-person narratives focusing on two detectives, Simon Waterhouse, and his sergeant, Charlotte "Charlie" Zailer in the English town of Spilling. It's OKfor a reader to start the series with later novels, but there's some backstory to Simon and Charlie's relationship that is more fully presented in the first book and retains importance in later books as part of their sometimes tense interactions. The first-person narrative, by Alice Fancourt in Little Face is as other reviewers have noted reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic feminist tale, The Yellow Wallpaper, in Hannah's use of the interior monologue of a woman in an oppressive household (in this case dominated by a mother in law) just after the delivery of her baby. But Hannah has given the story a twist appropriate for a paranoiac crime novel: Alice suddenly insists after returning from a short outing on her own that Florence, her baby, has been kidnapped and replaced with a look-alike. The police, though skeptical, become involved (and Simon becomes besotted with Alice), and the case of the perhaps-missing baby becomes intertwined with the earlier murder of the first wife of Alice's husband. Hannah keeps twisting the plot--nothing in this book is straightforward: once you've reached the conclusion, you'll be tempted to go back and reassess what you've just read (and if you do that, you will discover that Little Face is very carefully constructed, to support both the main character's paranoia and the final resolution). The setting and characters suggest that the book is a "cozy," but it's definitely not--Hannah's novel doesn't stay within any single genre (part thriller, part police procedural, part character study, even part comedy). It's impossible to say anything specific about the construction of the novel (or about the plot) without revealing too much and spoiling the book for a fresh reader. Suffice it to say that Hannah has established a pattern (and demonstrated her skill in exploiting it) that she is succesfully continuing in further novels (exploiting paranoia, as well as her structure and running characters, without repeating the plots or stories). We want to hear more about Simon and Charlie, and we also want to see what Hannah will come up with next--with the additional anticipation of finding another book by one of those writers who erase the boundaries between genres of crime fiction and call into question the ghettoization of crime writing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sandra Ruttan, the Frailty of Flesh

Imagine walking into a squadroom in an RCMP station in Greater Vancouver, and overhearing a couple of detectives discussing a case, not to explain it to you but to update one another on what's new without going over old ground. That's a bit like the dialogue in Sandra Ruttan's Nolan/Tain/Hart series, the second installment of which, The Frailty of Flesh, comes out this week. Ruttan doesn't spoon-feed the reader: what's happening in this complex plot is revealed slowly, not so much as the detectives reveal the truth in an objective way but as they update one another the details of the investigation. The result is a kaleidoscopic and at the same time realistic police procedural that gives a lot of space to the characters as they interact with each other, with the public, and with the victims and perpetrators of the crime. That structure is highly effective in involving readers in the story as they "overhear" the varied bits of the story but difficult to summarize in any coherent way without spoiling the experience for new readers. The Frailty of Flesh has a somewhat more straightforward plot than its predecessor (What Burns Within, which followed--at breakneck speed--arsons, child abductions, and rapes): here, the murder of a child reveals a family's deep dysfunction and the release of a murderer convicted of killing his girl friend raises questions of the motivation of the police, the emprisoned man, and the victim's family. Ashlyn Hart and Tain (whose use of a single name is explained in part in this book, along with a few other details about his closely guarded private life) are investigating the dead boy, whose sister has been implicated by the surviving brother. In this plot and in Nolan's investigation of the reopened murder case, there are a lot of suggestions (and outright depictions) of incompetence, coverups, and internal politics in the RCMP, some involving Nolan's father--and Nolan himself. The cases depicted in the earlier novel were not neatly resolved, leaving loose ends to be carried forward in this book--and this book also eschews a neat ending, either in the cases or the private lives of the main characters. Nolan and Hart are now involved personally, and a good deal of the interaction and the impact of the book is in the veering thoughts of those two as they anticipate and misunderstand each other. Tain's story is hinted at, perhaps to become the centerpiece of a future novel. Ruttan's splintered style and her three-pronged central cast create an unusually vivid crime story, with vividly rounded central characters who interact with a realism of partial truths, undisclosed agendas, poor communications, and emotional reticence: in other words, with behavior that we recognize from our own lives. What they discover about the crimes and criminals slowly emerges in patterns of abuse and distorted power relations within the family that are not grasped by those among the cops who are unwilling to struggle for understanding, leading to the tragic conclusions of the intersecting stories. Ruttan's complex web of dialogue and narrative leads us gradually deeper into the lives of those caught up in the crime, including the detectives, creating a distinctive and potent novel (and series). In the gap before the relase of further installments in the series it would be interesting to go back and reread the first two novels, to dig deeper into things only partly revealed about the three detectives and even about the cases already investigated. Ruttan's ability to pique the curiosity of the reader even about novels already read once (and even read recently) is a testament to the intricacy of her stories and the depth of her characters.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ken Bruen/Cross/Jack Taylor

As has been noted by a number of reviewers, Cross (like the five earlier novels in the Jack Taylor series) is not a traditional mystery or detective novel. The plots in this series seem to be an accumulation of misfortunes: if you think that what's happening now is the worst that can happen to Jack and his friends, you can depend on what's coming to be worse. The novels are short and told in short chapters (probably a mercy for the readers immersed in them, as much misery as they contain)--really more prose poetry than narrative. Bruen evokes an Ireland changing fast (and not for the better) and characters that are bypassed by the formerly (and now not so much) boom of the Celtic tiger. Bruen frequently mentions Charles Bukowski, who is really the guiding spirit of the series more than any of the crime writers that Bruen also often evokes--but since Taylor is now off the bottle, there's an inherent contradiction between the alcohol-soaked spirit of Bukowski and the sober but still down and out Taylor, a contradiction that Bruen exploits for the forward motion of his narrative (Taylor no longer lurching from one drunken encounter to another, but rather lurching from causing someone's death or misery to causing someone else's). And Taylor is truly a curse to himself and everyone around him. Most of the novel is in Taylor's voice, with a few chapters told from the point of view of a revenge-bound family on a collision course with Taylor. That revenge plot is only one of many threads (including stolen dogs, random strangers approaching Jack and then never seen again, the continuation of Jack's guilt over the death of his friends' child and his own protege, and so on). As with melancholy poetry, we don't look to a new Bruen novel for enjoyment but for a kind of catharsis or perhaps simply relief that we're not living his characters' lives, difficult as our own may be. Whether a particular reader appreciates what Bruen offers or not, we have to acknowledge that he's the reigning poet of noir.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Burns Within, by Sandra Ruttan

I've had Sandra Ruttan's first Nolan/Hart/Tain novel on my TBR pile for a while, and with the release of the second in the series this month, it's time for me to catch up. What Burns Within is a police procedural that takes very seriously the notion that a writer should "show" rather than "tell" a story: with a minimum of explanation and no introduction at all, Ruttan gives her story in dialogue among and interior monologues by each of the three main characters (detective constables in an RCMP station in greater Vancouver, each of whom has a different point of view and a different understanding of what's going on). The resulting story is revealed with clarity and rapid movement, rooted in the 87th precinct and Martin Beck's murder squad, but with a lot of Hill Street Blues, Third Watch, and The Wire mixed in, especially in terms of the pacing, which is very fast--I'm tempted to say cinematic, but that's not quite it. It's more like we the readers are running to catch up with investigators who are in a big hurry to reach their goals, with no time wasted on getting them from one place to another since each of them is working simultaneously. As we watch over their shoulders, the three cops become involved in three separate cases, serial arson, serial rape, and a series of missing and murdered children. One of the distinctive features of What Burns Within is that the reader is dropped in medias res: Nolan, Hart, and Tain, we learn gradually, had met in the course of an earlier disastrous investigation that left marks on all three, but we are not served up that case on a platter: we learn little bits and pieces as we listen to and learn about the characters--it's the characters that Ruttan cares about, not the back story, except as it has affected them and created a commonality among them. I won't summarize the plot any more than the little I have already suggested, because gradually working our own way into the story is one of the important parts of reading Ruttan's story: we see through the eyes of the three main characters as well as a few other cops, a few victims, and (very briefly) one of the people they're chasing. It's unusual, in my experience, for a writer to balance so many characters (and so many separate threads of investigation), as well as to focus on three characters without emphasizing any one of them: McBain shifted Carella to the narrative center, ultimately, Sjöwall and Wahlöö's characters are in orbit around Beck, and those TV series I mentioned hang their multiple casts on a few characters who are the moral and narrative center of the series. Craig Nolan, Ashlyn Hart, and Tain (nobody uses his other name) are equally important, and Ruttan keeps the intertwined cases going by giving each of the three their own process and focus. And just as you think that the plot is going toward a cliche, the story veers away into something completely different, revealing something new not only about the story but about the three cops and the other characters that you hadn't expected. The author's investigation of those characters and their struggles with the case and with each other (and with the chain of command, other cops, and recalcitrant citizens--guilty or not) is as much the real subject of What Burns Within as the investigation of the cluster of crimes. What Burns Within is a vividly told story with a propulsive forward motion and a very distinctive addition to the procedural wing of contemporary crime fiction. There turns out to be an advantage in my having been slow to get it to the top of my reading pile--now I don't have to wait impatiently for the publication date of The Frailty of Flesh, the second Hart/Nolan/Tain book (about which you'll soon be reading here).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News

Kate Atkinson's name was shorthand at the recent Bouchercon in Baltimore for a "mainstream" novelist who is doing crime fiction without bearing any of the burden of "genre fiction." Her third novel featuring former cop, former private detective Jackson Brodie, When Will There be Good News, isn't marketed as crime fiction by the publishers (see the covers of the U.S. and U.K. editions reproduced here). Neither cover says "a crime novel," "a mystery," or "a Jackson Brodie novel." And neither cover shows a crime situation. But all those things are publishers' choices: the novel itself seems unapologetic (and not condescending) in its use of crime tropes and crime novel conventions. For instance, almost anything I can say about the plot would be a spoiler. The novel contains a lot of mayhem (kidnapping, mobsters, drug dealers, a train wreck and a car crash, gruesome murders, violent self defense--and the story in fact begins with a mass murder that occurred in the "past" before shifting into the narrative present, rather in the fashion of a lot of crime fiction. Atkinson is more interested in the "surface" of her narrative than some crime writers (the pattern of language and metaphor) but there are certainly those who see themselves as crime writers who are equally concerned with style, texture, and metaphor (Sophie Hannah comes to mind--her first and third novels are fine examples of fiction, let alone crime fiction, and she was at Boucercon as a crime fiction author--her second novel has just been released in the U.S., out of order, and I've just acquired a copy so I'll be coming back to Hannah soon).

Atkinson uses perhaps more literary references than most crime writers, and I suspect that's one reason she's more often reviewed under a "mainstream" rubric: I have a theory that mainstream book reviewers are prone to giving positive reviews and "literary" designation to books that includeref erences that they will "get," references that the reviewers, at least, assume that "average readers" will need to have explained to them--giving the reviewers a chance to feel superior. However, Atkinson includes a lot of references of all kinds, to pop culture, to consumer goods (and in both those cases some of what she refers to is so U.K.-specific or even Scotland-specific that I have no idea what she's talking about), and the literary references are mostly not highbrow--in fact, the chief patterning device of the new novel is a series of nursery rhymes and traditional ballads and tales that are half-remembered by the characters (right up to the novel's concluding lines). With these motifs and the pop culture and literary references as well, a reader doesn't need to be too concerned about "getting" everything, they're just part of the richness of the book, no more or less than the devices and motifs in the best-written examples of crime fiction. Atkinson is funny in a very quiet (and occcasionally laugh-out-loud) way, in her various cultural references and most of all in the dialogue and the characters' interior monologues, and her underlying topic in the new novel (and the series as a whole) is the bad choices that people make in their relationships (another aspect she shares with crime and noir writing--what other segment of writing and publishing includes so many people making bad choices). The title, When Will There be Good News, is ironic, there not being much good news in the story, and her narrative progresses slowly through a series of encounters among the characters (told in alternating third-person interior monologues from the point of view of several characters), with occasional bursts of violent activity. But the humor, the richly drawn characters, and the mysterious quality of the spiralling coincidences in the plot, and the writer's habit of suddenly bringing in a fact or incident from the past that changes everything we think we know about the story (like a wife we didn't know existed, a previous connection among characters--things I can't be specific about without spoiling the experience of reading the book). Crime novel or not, When Will There be Good News is a very good novel, and rewards attention on many levels (it's possible to argue, for instance, that it's a comic, contemporary Gothic novel, with its many coincidences, impossible love, missed chances, and references to Wuthering Heights). And not least of its rewards are in its uses and subversions of the conventions and characters of the detective or police predural novel--Atkinson's book is up to the standard of the best of contemporary crime writing, so if some folks out there will read a Kate Atkinson novel but not pay attention to equally interesting books by Sophie Hannah, Gene Kerrigan, Arnaldur Indridason (refer to previous posts on this and other crime fiction blogs to keep this list of fine writers going for several pages at least) then its simply their loss (or our burden to spread the word about what a reader will miss by not paying attention to those fine crime fiction writers). The same applies, of course, to a reader who doesn't pick up Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books because they're packaged as "literary" rather than "crime" fiction.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Leighton Gage's 2nd, plus a bit on genre

One comment on the emphasis I seem to be putting on sub-genres like the thriller and the procedural, in the light of some discussion of genre and sub-genre at Bouchercon last weekend. I don’t expect writers to be “pure” in their use of the lines I’m drawing--to me, the genre and sub-genre distinctions are only shorthand descriptions I can offer when I’m recommending a book to another reader: if you have a particular taste for one kind of crime writing, you may not be a big fan of another kind (and the trash talk about cozies in Bouchercon is really only the trash that one segment of the readership is talking about another segment). A propos of that discussion and Bouchercon: One of the distinct threads running through “Charmed to Death” in Baltimore was “the Kate Atkinson phenomenon,” mentioned on several panels and in the hallways—shorthand for the use by so-called literary writers of crime-genre tropes and techniques, with a sense of condescension toward the genre by the mainstream press if not the writers themselves. My next “read” is K.A.’s new book, so I’ll be reporting on the Kate Atkinson phenomenon soon--and hoping for some comments and discussion.
Today’s book, though is Leighton Gage's new novel, due out in January. Gage’s major subject, in his series featuring Brazilian federal police chief inspector Mario Silva, is the income disparities and associated ills in Brazil (and in the third world). In this second novel, Buried Strangers, the depiction of this social and economic problem is more diverse, crossing back and forth between urban centers in São Paula and Brasilia, favelas, and small towns. The first half of the book is more police procedural, the reader following various detectives and seeing what's happening as if watching over their shoulders, and the last half is more thriller, with the reader privy to considerably more information than the cops--with some return to the procedural mode toward the end. The story is told in a complex manner, shifting from direct investigation of a group of bodies buried in a jungle-like park, to independent investigation by a local cop of Japanese descent, to Silva's investigation of the missing son of his housekeeper--each plot moving forward in parallel (with frequent digressions into the back stories of various characters), and each story contributing social information and emotional depth to the novel as a whole. Gage's writing, amid all the main and side roads of his story, is clear and straightforward, careful to explain some facts of the local culture but at the same time using local language in such a way that the meaning is clear without translation (adding local color to the narrative). Silva and his crew (his nephew Hector and their associates Arnaldo and Babyface) are also becoming more fully realized characters, and the minor characters (good guys, bad guys, and bystanders) are a diverse and interesting group (I found the cast of characters in the first Silva novel a bit "black and white," desperate peasants and their supporters them versus rapacious landlords and their minions)--though there are some very evil people in Buried Strangers, we approach them slowly, allowing them some humanity before discovering what they're up to, and there's more of a range of innocence and complicity in the larger pattern of laws, corruption, greed, and desperation portrayed). When the thriller plot takes over, even a reader not attracted to that format (such as myself) is swept along into some characters and events familiar from thrillers past (I won't name them because that could give away too much, since these aspects are revealed only slowly, as the story moves foward). By then, there's enough depth to the story, and enough sympathy for the characters, that even familiar themes are well integrated into a fresh and complex tapestry. Certain aspects of Gage’s fictional world resemble both the Brazilian environment of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa stories (rampant corruption among the police) and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels (rampant venality and incompetence among the higher ranks, with comic effect), but the particularly deep sense of amorality and ethical fog is particularly Gage’s own, and the comedy more of a running thread in the conversations among the characters, particularly the team of detectives. I have to say that I’m still more drawn to the procedural mode than the thriller mode of Gage’s writing (and in the field of crime writing as a whole), and I’m looking forward to the 4th Silva book, which Gage says (in an interview with Uriah Robinson on the Crime Scraps site) will be more of a “stone whodunit,” to quote Bunk Moreland of The Wire. But in the meantime, Buried Strangers is a vivid and entertaining thriller/procedural hybrid. I should mention that I recently gave a less-than-positive review to the first Silva novel, Blood of the Wicked--Buried Strangers may strike some readers, and Gage’s fans in particular, as very much like its predecessor in style and content, but the new novel seemed to me to be tighter, more focused on Silva’s crew, funnier (in the dark way appropriate to the horrors depicted), and more compelling--plus the awful crimes are off-screen, and perhaps more horrible for being left to the imagination, plus a bit less Silence of the Lambs than the torture scenes of the first novel.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Istanbul Noir

One of the latest in the Akashic Noir series, Istanbul Noir edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler, more than holds up the quality standard of this excellent series. There are 16 stories, all original, all but 2 translated by the editors. Most of the stories in the international segment of the City Noir series have not been focused on police or detectives, and the Istanbul collection is entirely populated by marginalized people, criminals and others who have stepped outside social norms in various ways--the only cops are a retired torturer and a detective haunted by his family's Communist past (perhaps literally). The result is an underground portrait of the city and of Turkey, told in evocative, often poetic, and always compelling language. The two stories by non-Turks, Lydia Lunch and Jessica Lutz, and Amy Spangler,are equal to the rest but somewhat different: Lunch uses sentence fragments and breathless phrases strung together with commas to evoke a couple of horny tourists who encounter a deadly world traveller. Lutz enters the head of a radical Islamist who has justified to himself actions more associated with the Mafia than social or religious movements. Ismael Güzelsoy's "The Tongue of the Flames" is a surreal odyssey of double revenge, multiple murder, and madness. In Feryal Tilmaç's "Hitching in the Lodos," a laconic narrator describes the erotic encounter of a retired teacher and a young man, leaving one dead and one at the brink of an encounter with the justice system. "An Extra Body" by Baris Müstecaplioglu twists time and motivation in a tale of deception, error, and surprise (for the reader and the characters). "Black Palace" by Mustafa Ziyalan combines a serial killer and political revenge. In "The Bloody Horn," Inan Çetin tells a melancholy and moving tale combining revenge, guilt, and submission. The editors' introduction is particularly important in this collection, setting not only the historical but also the emotional context for the stories.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bouchercon post

A bit of praise for Bouchercon in Baltimore. I went today--my first time (if only for one day). A great opportunity to re-establish contact with some folks (incl. Peter Rozovsky & Lauren Henderson), meet a bunch of folks I only know from blog-conversations and e-mail (incl. Declan Burke, Sandra Ruttan, Janet Rudolph, Brian Lindenmuth, Ali Karim, and J. Kingston Pierce), and meet some writers I only knew from their work (incl. Sophie Hannah, Declan Hughes, John McFetridge, Arnaldur Indri∂ason, and Scott Phillips), and glimpsed some other writers (Val McDermid, Lawrence Block, Dorothy Cannell, etc.). I saw some great panels, missed some other ones, and generally found the event rewarding. Kudos to the Crimespree folks, all the volunteers and organizers, and the always interesting city of Baltimore (even though I didn't make it to Faidleys for their fabulous crabcakes.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The last (and first) of Wallander

After closing the books on his series of Swedish crime novels featuring Ystad detective Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell published a collection of five stories under the title The Pyramid, filling in Wallander's career from his beginnings as a cop in Malmö until the beginning of his first "published case," Mankell's first book, The Faceless Killers. In fact, the last story in the collection, also titled "The Pyramid," ends with the phone call to Wallander that begins The Faceless Killers. It's interesting that the dedication of the collection is to Rolf Lassgård, the Swedish actor who starred in a series of TV movies based on Mankell's books. Lassgård's Wallander is amazing--as Mankell implies in his dedication, Lassgård brings not only an uncanny "impersonation" of the character to film, he also brings to the character nuances that amplify Wallander beyond his already substantial presence on the page. Wallander is not a master detective, he's a flawed three-dimensional character whose private life is hopeless (he's particularly unskilled in dealing with women in his personal life) and whose investigations frequently plod along with little progress until one fact comes to light that leads rapidly to a resolution of the case. The prose is very direct, almost flat: short simple sentences in which Mankell seems to be striving much more for clarity than style. In the story collection, Wallander learns his craft mainly by making mistakes, demonstrating to his mentors that he might succeed as a detective only by his curiosity and occasional insights. Mankell shows Wallander's marriage detiorating (though his wife, Mona, is hardly more of a fully realized character here than in the later books, when she's absent), and shows a mentor named Rydberg, often later referred to by Wallander as his model for detective work (but again, Rydberg is not fully present. Wallander is as always front and center, even though the narrative is in the third person--it's his ruminations (almost literally) that make up the body of the stories and the novels, mulling over the facts of the case (and his own unsettled private life) again and again. The first two stories fill in Wallander's early career and marriage, showing both his mistakes in his first case and his empathy with a young African immigrant with whom he is trapped in a robberty gone wrong. The last three stories are very much in the milieu and style of the novels, with most of the familiar Ystad detectives in place and in character and Wallander as already the chief of the group (with the unrespected police chief, Björk, as usual only interested in public appearances). The longest story in the collection deals with a mysterious plane crash and several murders, including a pair of old ladies and a drug dealer, that finally come together in a coherent but mundane plot (that's praise, by the way--I prefer Mankell's more mundane stories to his more global, "high stakes" plots). Of the other stories, The Death of the Photographer is a puzzle regarding the dead man's personality and a secret affair, and The Man on the Beach is a puzzling murder that demonstrates Wallander's intuition as well as his methodical routines. These are very high quality police procedural tales very much in the style of (and with the quality of) Mankell's Wallander books. As you may know, Wallander's daughter and another cop have appeared in later Mankell novels (and Wallander makes a "guest appearance" in the daughter's novel), not to mention several stand-alone novels--but the Wallander books are his best, and will be the stories he's remembered for. And The Pyramid is a fitting sequel or prequel, depending on whether you think of it as the first or last of the series.

Monday, October 06, 2008

New Swedish crime: Roslund-Hellström's The Vault

Anders Roslund is a well known journalist in Sweden and Börge Hellström is a former criminal and an activist in the rehabilitation of young offenders and drug addicts. They've co-written two interesting crime novels, The Beast and the just translated The Vault (which was originally advertised under the title Box 21, which might have been a bit more appropriate to the content of the novel--for reasons I can't go into without revealing too much). The novels are published in English with the author listed as Roslund-Hellström, and neither has received quite as much attention as others of the recent Scandinavian crime wave, perhaps because the stories of both novels are complex and the message of each is pointedly social (in that respect and others, these books resemble the famous Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels of the '70s). The Beast is ostensibly about pedophilia and child murder, and that's what the blurb leads the reader to believe. But a good portion of the novel is actually about the ills of prison life, and when the child abuse plot runs out (even when the revenge tale of one of the parents of the murdered children runs its course) the prison story remains and is the source of the twist at the novel's end. The cops, Ewert Grens and Sven Sundkvist, are not actually at the center of the story, though they're thoroughly characterized, particularly the angry Grens, who's always listening to outdated Swedish pop music by his favorite singer. The Beast is good, but The Vault is a leap forward: it's one of the most ambiguous (morally and thematically) of all recent crime novels. The topic this time is human trafficking and sexual abuse, though there's also a substantial story involving two of the criminals from The Beast, a professional enforcer and a junkie, whose paths cross on the outside with consequences that are at once tragic and just (in a left-handed way). The prostitution/trafficking plot is pretty lurid, and leads to a hostage situation involving guns and plastic explosives that would have been the climax of most thrillers or crime novels, but here only leads to the real resolution, involving corruption, cover-ups, loyalty, deception, and considerable obstruction of justice. The clearest moral position, involving the ability of the victimized Lithuanian prostitutes to have a voice (even to have the most minimal life of their own), is frustrated first by the traffickers and then by the complicated machinations of Grens and Sunkivist (for very different motives--and even those motives are undermined in a surprise ending that is more effective than the one in The Beast. That final twist is tellingly told in a flashback, adding a gloss to the whole story in retrospect). The Vault isn't a pleasant story: Grens is difficult to like, though colorful and even tragic (the enforcer had caused his girlfriend, also a cop, to be brain-damaged many years earlier) but his anger is not endearing, much less his moral failings. Grens and Sundkvist are not merely investigating the crime, they are in different ways implicated in it, and we become implicated along with them. Part of why The Vault works better than The Beast is an effect of the subjects: we can hold the topic of child abuse and murder at arms length--the perpetrator is indeed a monster we don't need to recognize in ourselves. Though human trafficking may have become something of a cliche in crime fiction these days, it's also a more pervasive crime, along with the prostitution that feeds on that traffic, along with the abuse of women vividly portrayed in the novel. It's harder for us (for male readers at least, and perhaps not just for men, as the book makes clear) to dissociate ourselves from the crime or from the illicit acts of the cops--their moral failings are too easy to see as possible in ourselves. Roslund-Hellström deserve to be considered at the first rank of the Swedish and Scandinavian crime novels being translated today (and that's actually saying a lot, given the quality of Nordic crime fiction these days). Though perhaps not as subtle as Arnaldur Indridason's work or as vividly realized as Jo Nesbø's, The Vault is nevertheless one of the most complex and most effective crime novels I've read, and the dilemmas faced by the characters are deeply felt by the reader and deeply etched by the authors.