2006: 3rd Quarter [23]

Powers, Tim. Three Days to Never. NY: Morrow, 2006.

Powers is one of a small group of authors of whom I keep careful track; I want to be sure I know as quickly as possible when he has a new book coming out. Powers is the modern master of the “secret history” novel — in which you discover the unknown truth behind the historical people and facts you thought you knew, whether Keats and Shelley, or Edison and Edward Teach, or (in this case) Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. You’ll also learn about the occult activities of Mossad and its search for workable time travel, and its competition with the descendants of the Albigensians — all in Los Angeles in 1987 during the Harmonic Convergence. The author is also very skilled at painting characters and settings by means of small, telling details; Charlotte, the blind woman who sees through the eyes of others, is a masterful creation — and there aren’t many middle-aged male novelists who could invent such a convincing and appealing twelve-year-old as Daphne. Finally, the climactic scene is a doozy! (9/30/06)

Heinlein, Robert A. Friday. NY: Holt, Rinehart, 1982.

I began reading Heinlein as a kid back in the mid-’50s, and I’ve never stopped. His writing style is notoriously and self-consciously unsophisticated and naive (sometimes even “cute”), his sociopolitical hobby-horses are legion, and he can be a real pain in the ass at times, literarily speaking — and he’s still one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. However, like the little girl with the curl, when his books are good (like Citizen of the Galaxy or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), they’re very, very good, and when they’re bad (like I Will Fear No Evil and The Number of the Beast), they’re unbelievably execrable. Happily, this one, from late in his career, is well up toward the top of that scale, which is why this is my third or possibly fourth re-reading. Friday has no surname because she’s an Artificial Person, not legally human, produced in a creche by genetic tailoring. (Heinlein inveighs against the bigotry humankind practices toward people like her, but it’s much less a theoretical matter in George W. Bush’s America than it was when he was writing this a quarter-century ago.) Anyway, Friday is an extremely skilled “courier” (thanks in part to her physical enhancements) working for a shadowy private organization run by a revered authority figure known as “Boss.” (He’s another variation on the “Jubal Harshaw” wise-old-man character Heinlein so often uses.) She’s just come back from a successful assignment when all hell breaks loose in the form of worldwide – human-space-wide — assassinations and terrorist attacks. She’s gets captured, escapes, runs, dodges, occasionally kills people, and crosses borders in creative ways — and there are a lot of borders since North America has devolved into a dozen or so independent nations with a wide range of political systems. She acquires a family, loses it, acquires another, loses it, too, and eventually gets it back, after a series of hair-raising adventures, any one of which could be a short story in its own right. As always, Heinlein leavens the action with wry, often pessimistic observations on all aspects of society. Note that this is a separate, independent yarn, not part of the “World as Myth” cycle the author was constructing about this time (which I didn’t really care for at the time), so I recommend it highly. (9/25/06)

Robinson, Peter. A Necessary End. NY: Scribner, 1989.

This third outing for DCI Banks of Eastvale in north Yorkshire includes a generally well thought out plot, though the clues to the reader are a bit thin — but it’s the characters who really stand out. There’s a small anti-nuclear demonstration on the town square which turns into a brawl when the police attack the demonstrators and one of the out-of-town cops is knifed. For political reasons, a special investigator is sent up from London — a right-wing bully-boy named Brewster interested only in fitting up one of the local anti-government politicals for the murder rather than actually solving the crime. He outranks Banks, who is forced to go along with his illegal methods, at least for awhile. Most of the suspicion centers on a communal farmstead where half a dozen artistic activists live and work, and the reader is given plenty of reason to suspect most of them at one point or another. The actual (anticlimatic) solution, however, involves bringing in a new character and new information in the last chapter, which isn’t quite playing fair, is it? I really enjoy Robinson’s style, though, and the fact that Banks is a very human (and generally humane) person. Though the loathsome Burgess is probably more typical as a cop. (It’s also obvious that Robinson has never had to deal with white cops in the American South, who could make Burgess look like a saint.) My only other complaint is that the author makes rather too much, and in an annoyingly detailed way, of Banks taste for American blues music. (9/23/06)

Robinson, Peter. A Dedicated Man. NY: Scribner, 1988.

This is the second in the series set in Yorkshire and featuring DCI Alan Banks, a London refugee just beginning to adapt to Northern ways. The story this time is set in a small community up the valley from the market town of Eastvale, where the police station is located. A retired academic with a mania for industrial archaeology and the inheritance to indulge it has been killed and his body left in a farmer’s field. His immediate circle includes a local entrepreneur, an ex-folk singer returned home in disillusion, the local doctor, and another “incomer,” an author of mystery novels (which allows Robinson to get in a few tongue-in-cheek digs). But then a teenage girl whose precocity and theatrical ambitions lead her to poke into matters on her own becomes the second victim. Where the first book spent a lot of time on the Chief Inspector’s wife and family (necessarily setting the scene and establishing the characters), this one is much more the traditional police procedural, focusing on the murder itself, the suspects, and Banks’s tireless efforts to pin the former on one of the latter. The denouement isn’t exactly a deus ex machina, but I didn’t think the reader received sufficient clues to even begin to logically identify the culprit. Robinson’s beautifully orchestrated background narrative about life in rural Yorkshire, however, is worth the price of admission all by itself. (9/20/06)

Robinson, Peter. Gallows View. NY: Scribner, 1987.

This is the second “Inspector Banks” mystery I’ve read (though it’s the first in the series), having started with number eleven. Comparing the two, it’s obvious the author has matured greatly in a dozen years. DCI Alan Banks has been in Eastvale, a Yorkshire market town, for only six months, having transferred from London in search of a less hectic lifestyle, and he’s beginning to be accepted by the standoffish Northerners. Then he gets caught up in the murder of a semi-senile old woman as well as a series of burglaries, the latest of which ends in a rape. Then there’s the peeping tom who’s been frightening women as they undress for bed. Add in a disturbingly attractive psychologist and the denizens of his wife’s camera club, and you have a nice, complicated, multi-leveled mystery novel filled with generally well-realized characters. There’s a certain stiffness in some of the dialogue but this is an auspicious first offering in a very overcrowded field. (9/18/06)

Robinson, Peter. Cold Is the Grave. NY: Morrow, 2000.

This is the first of this author’s British police procedurals I’ve read (on a friend’s recommendation), but it won’t be the last. Alan Banks is a DCI of working class origins who relocated from the hectic pace of London to what he hoped would be a somewhat more sedate career in a smallish market town in north Yorkshire. While he’s moderately well educated and pursues a wide range of personal interests, he’s not a genius, a poet, or anything else really out of the ordinary. He’s just a very dogged investigator who sometimes stretches the rules a bit more than he should. And that makes him unpopular in certain quarters, both inside and outside the police department, but he gets results. In this case, Banks gets caught up in the family problems of one of his principal critics, the local Chief Constable, who had even had him contemplating a request for transfer. The CC’s sixteen-year-old daughter, a sultry wild child, has gone off to London and shacked up with a second-rate gangster and Banks is asked to go and rescue her — quite unofficially, of course. At the same time, a local small-time crook has gotten himself shotgunned, leading to a broad investigation across several police districts. And Banks himself, now separated and facing divorce, and having apparently gone through a brief affair with his Detective Sergeant, is trying hard to sort out his own life. The characterizations are first-rate and the plot is interesting and entirely believable. Moreover, even though you probably think you’ve identified whodunit halfway through, late evidence will have you wondering. But there’s no deus ex machina here. Very well done. This is the eleventh installment in the series and the frequent references to Banks’s past history, both personal and professional, make it obvious that I should have started at the beginning — which I certainly intend to do. (9/16/06)

Sterling, Bruce. Visionary in Residence. NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.

Bruce is one of those authors I always approach hesitantly. When he’s good, he’s very good, but when he’s not, he’s . . . well, not terrible, but certainly uninteresting. That goes for both his novels and his short stories. As I’ve noted elsewhere, he’s a kick to listen to in person at a con, but his ideas and enthusiasms and social concerns don’t always translate well into print. This collection of thirteen stories which first appeared in the past five or six years is divided thematically — “Fiction for Scientists,” “Design Fiction,” “Architecture Fiction,” etc. And there are several here that are great fun: “In Paradise” (love by means of real-time language translation in your cell phone), “Code” (boy-nerd meets girl-nerd), “The Necropolis of Thebes” (a very thoughtful look at “the old days” — really old), and “The Denial” (actually a ghost story set in Ottoman times). One of the best, under the heading of “Ribofunk,” is “Junk DNA,” written with Rudy Rucker, which is about a high-tech start-up built around genomics instead of software; it’s damaged, though, by the rather silly ending which makes me think Bruce simply got tired of writing it. The least-readable story, as it happens, is also about biotech — “The Scab’s Progress,” with Paul Di Filippo, which made almost no sense at all to me. Also, if the author would just learn to write endings for his stories instead of merely stopping his typing, I wouldn’t have to keep turning the page, wondering if the rest of the story had been omitted. (9/13/06)

Stewart, Mary. The Last Enchantment. NY: Morrow, 1979.

Compared to the first two volumes of the “Merlin” trilogy, this concluding volume is a bit weak — but it’s still far ahead of most romantic historical novels. Perhaps it’s because, by the nature of the narrative, Merlin must now take a back seat to the adult Arthur, the High King and a growing legend to his people. The enchanter is also growing older, the power of the gods is leaving him bit by bit, and he’s relegated to undercover espionage work in the north of the country, spying on Arthur’s treacherous half-sister, Morgause. Stewart does a good job of re-interpreting the legend of Merlin being shut up alive (“waiting”) in his cave in the hollow hill, and, as throughout the 900 pages of the trilogy, the author displays amazing powers of description, both of the characters and of their surroundings. Give it ten years to settle into my unconscious and I shall be re-reading this marvelous epic yet again. (9/11/06)

Stewart, Mary. The Hollow Hills. NY: Morrow, 1973.

It’s not uncommon for the middle volume of a trilogy — the “bridge” — to be the weakest of the three, but that’s certainly not the case here. The story picks up less than an hour after the end of the first volume, The Crystal Cave, with Merlin having ensured Uther’s night of lust with Queen Ygraine of Cornwall and the conception of Arthur, the once and future king (i.e., the “new Ambrosius”). Much of the narrative is taken up with Merlin waiting. First, waiting for the child’s birth (while being on the outs with Uther), then waiting for the beginning of his guardianship (when Uther becomes more realistic), then waiting while Arthur spends his infancy in Brittany (during which Merlin hits the road to the ancient lands of the Near East), then a long period of waiting while the boy grows up in the care of Count Ector (and he himself becomes the hermit of the Chapel in the Green). Along the way, he acquires the sword of the Emperor Maximus and tucks it away on a sacred island in a lake, knowing Arthur will recover it himself in good time. And, of course, the waiting ends with Arthur being hailed as High King at age fourteen minutes after his presentation to the lesser kings and his father’s sudden death at a victory dinner. The pacing is a bit slower, but there’s a strong sense of inevitability, both for Merlin and for the reader. Stewart’s amazingly sensitive and evocative descriptive powers are strong as ever. One of my favorite lines, on why you should never take the favor of the gods for granted: “The gods like the taste of salt; the sweat of human effort is the savour of their sacrifices.” Marvelous stuff. (9/06/06)

Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave. NY: Morrow, 1970.

I’ve read this marvelous trilogy three times in the thirty-five years since it was first published, so it was time for re-immersion in a believable 6th Century Britain. Because that’s what I really enjoy about it. Like Mary Renault in The King Must Die, Stewart has a way of (usually) rationalizing the magic and mythology in the story in such a way that the reader can say, “Yes, it might really have happened this way.” The basics will (or should) be familiar to everyone: The young Merlin makes a prophecy that Vortigern, the Saxon-appeasing High King, will be defeated by Ambrosius, the Romanized brother of King Constantine (whom Vortigern had murdered). Merlin rebuilds the Giant’s Dance (i.e., Stonehenge), and finally assists King Uther (Ambrosius’s brother and successor) in a night of lust with Ygraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall — but he does it for his own reasons, knowing that the result will be the birth of Arthur, the king for whom Britain is waiting. But the book is far, far more than a bare retelling of the Merlin legend. Stewart is a master of evocative description, whether of the Welsh countryside in winter, or of the loneliness of a young semi-wizard who knows the happinesses of this world are not for him. Even though she’s at pains in the “Author’s Note” to claim only to have written fiction, she nevertheless has the ability to put you there, in the midst of that world. Time-traveling at its best. (8/31/06)

Johnson, R. Kikuo. Night Fisher. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2005.

Hawaii has a long reputation as an “island paradise,” but it’s not like that anymore, if it ever was. It’s pretty much like everywhere else in the United States, with widening divisions between socioeconomic classes, a raging drug problem, professional men who have trouble paying the mortgage, and teenagers from good schools who become stupid and get in trouble with the law. The somewhat geeky Loren Foster came to Maui from Boston in 6th Grade; now, five years later, he’s saddled with backbreaking work for his AP classes, can’t get a relationship started with the basketball-playing girl of his choice, and has no idea what he’s going to do after graduation. His best friend, Shane Hokama, has gotten mixed up with crystal meth and a thirty-year-old pusher, together with a Hawaiian kid named Eustace. Loren, wanting to fit in with his supposed peer group, naturally gets roped into the dope world as well. Only the guys are paying for the stuff with stolen merchandise. Johnson has a sure hand with a pen and a clear eye for adolescent characters, and his “comic book novella” is one of the best written, best drawn, and most uncompromisingly (and depressingly) realistic I’ve seen in some time. And the “ending” doesn’t really end anything — just like real life. An amazingly beautiful and first-rate piece of work. (8/27/06)

Sterling, Bruce. Heavy Weather. NY: Bantam, 1994.

Bruce is one of those Texas SF authors I’ve seen and heard at Cons since the late 1970s. His style in public has always been to hold forth and fulminate, which can make for interesting and invigorating policy discussions but which sometimes get in the way of his fiction-writing. But he’s pretty much gotten it right with this one. It’s set in the 2030s, in the aftermath of several worldwide eco-economic disasters, most involving the total loss of water in places like West Texas and Oklahoma, without which they have become real deserts. In the foreground of the story is the Storm Troupe (“Storm Troupers,” get it?), a dozen-odd tornado-chasers led by Jerry, a highly charismatic mathematician cum atmospheric physicist who, after hundreds of hours in VR simulations, is predicting an F-6 storm a whole order of magnitude beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Jerry is also in a deep relationship with a young woman whose brother, Alex, an intermittent invalid, is one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen in quite a while. Sterling is in his element here, bombarding the reader with techno-jargon from several disparate disciplines while describing in detail the handbasket the world has gone to hell in. High adventure of the geeky variety. (8/26/06)

Schmitz, James H. The Witches of Karres. NY: Baen Books, 1966.

I first read this delightful space-operatic romp when it was first published. I was taking a required Young Adult Literature course in library school, one of the requirements of which was writing and doing a book talk before the class. Since I was (and still am) a serious science fiction fan, I picked this one, based on the reviews I’d seen. The funny thing is, while it certainly is a good book to recommend to adolescents, most libraries shelve it in the Adult Fiction section, where it has been doing equally well for forty years. Captain Pausert is the archetypal protagonist, a well-meaning, slightly stuffy, reasonably competent skipper of an interstellar trading vessel. Only he comes across three young sisters who were kidnapped and sold by slavers and are making life very difficult for their respective new owners. The girls, ranging in age from six to sixteen, are inhabitants of Karres, the “witch world,” and though young, they’re far from defenseless. The witches are the Good Guys, though, and the Bad Guys, who slipped into our universe accidentally, are very bad indeed. Pausert has his hands full, sometimes because of the girls — especially the middle one, who has set her cap for him — and sometimes despite them. But the Captain has unknown talents himself. It’s a light and easy read of less than 240 pages, and it has generally aged quite well. But you should ignore the Velez jacket illustration on the Baen harcover reprinting because it bears no resemblance whatever to the characters as described. (8/23/06)

Hartwell, David G. (ed). Year’s Best SF. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.

In the area of collecting the best of the year’s short science fiction, it’s hard to compete with a long-term winner like Gardner Dozois’s fat volumes (I buy them automatically), but Hartwell, an anthologist of long experience himself, comes pretty close. The fourteen stories in this first installment in what has now become a decade-long annual series.include contributions by a number of well-known authors, but also several by lesser-known quantities like William Browning Spencer and Joan Slonczewski. The best, for me, was the lead story, “Think Like a Dinosaur,” about a specific human’s attempt to mesh with alien psychology. It was one of two that reminded me strongly of the old days of ANALOG — the other being Robert Silverberg’s “Hot Times in Magma City,” about vulcanism in the Los Angeles Basin and how a bunch of halfway-house inmates have to cope with it. (That sort of socio-scientific combination is pure Silverberg.) Also very good was Joe Haldeman’s “For White Hill,” a far-future, end-of-the-world story seen from a decidedly artistic perspective. Spencer’s “Downloading Midnight” had some interesting bits but suffers from trying to describe a future Internet from the perspective of 1995 — and getting it horribly wrong. (Although Bill Gibson’s and Neal Stephenson’s early works had the same handicap but handled it much better.) Greg Benford’s work is often good but sometimes crashingly mediocre; “A Worm in the Well,” unfortunately, is one of the latter. “Evolution” by Nancy Kress — most of whose novels I very much like — just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. “The Day the Aliens Came,” by Robert Sheckley, is . . . well, it’s Sheckley being Sheckley, which is almost always a Good Thing. Gene Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat” starts out a more or less “normal” story, about an engineer dealing with an impending divorce, but becomes much more; the protagonist is well-drawn but comes across as too needy to be entirely sympathetic. Finally, “Coming of Age in Karhide” is a brief return by Ursula K. LeGuin to the world of Left Hand of Darkness; I don’t think she’s capable of writing anything less than an A-list story. (8/19/06)

Kent, Alexander. Band of Brothers. Ithaca, NY: McBooks, 2005.

This is the most recently published of the more than two dozen novels in the Richard Bolitho naval series, but by the internal chronology, it comes third. It’s here that Midshipman Bolitho is examined for promotion to lieutenant, and also here that he loses his best friend, Martyn Dancer, in a very minor action against a smuggler’s brig. The problem with this extremely brief “novel” (a mere 113 pages, not counting the glossary and the selection from the next book in the series) is that the narrative and plot line are both as thin as muslin. It’s almost a sketch of what ought to have been a full-dress novel three times its length. I found myself stopping to go back and reread a couple pages, thinking I’d missed something. And I kept checking the printed page numbers, in the suspicion that two had been glued together. The lieutenant’s exam, for instance, has only just begun, maybe two or three basic questions asked, when suddenly it’s over and Bolitho is being congratulated on having passed! When it becomes apparent Richard and his small party are going to have to capture a lugger on the beach in order to interrupt the loading of smuggled cases of muskets — at least, I think that’s what they’re attempting to accomplish, it’s never really clear — the narrative jumps from the beach, to a moment in their own boat, to a few minutes after they take the smuggler’s boat. If this were a movie, it would be littered with scene cuts and pages ripped from the screenplay. The whole thing seems to be a ploy on the author’s part to bring in some extra dough without having done anything to earn it. (8/14/06)

Waldrop, Howard. Heart of Whitenesse. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2005.

Back in the 1970s, one of the main reasons I tried never to miss ArmadilloCon was the opportunity to hang around as much as possible within earshot of Howard Waldrop, just listening to him talk. To anyone. About anything. He has the mind of a Van de Graaff generator, throwing off ideas and comments and observations of the most original sort, the kind of thing that makes his listeners pause and go “Hmmmm.” As he demonstrates in all his fiction, including the ten in this new collection, he never forgets anything and seems to have a total grasp of popular culture within, and frequently before, his lifetime. And since he and I are almost exactly the same age, I’m always fascinated at his crystal-clear memories of things and people I can only vaguely recollect. And then there’s his style; face it, the man could make a guacamole recipe mesmerizing. Take the title story here: There’s Marlow, the narrator from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there’s Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, the private eye, and there’s Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabeth playwright and spy. Mix ‘em all together and whattaya got? A trip up a river (instead of down) on an iceboat, a run-in with Dr. Faustus, and a Queen Elizabeth who steals lines from Bette Davis. And who else could write an existential story about pedal cars? “Us,” my favorite, is a series of alternate-reality shorts about what happened to the Lindbergh baby, who survived. And “The Other Real World,” the most complicated story here, is also a lot of fun, though it requires careful reading to pick up all the references before you get to the give-away footnotes. If only Howard’s rate of production weren’t so bleeding slow! (8/13/06)

Mankell, Henning. Before the Frost. NY: New Press, 2005 (orig. publ. 2002).

Chief Inspector Kurt Wallender of the Ystad police force is back, but he’s not the protagonist this time. That role goes to his daughter, Linda, who was often in the background of the previous novels in this excellent series. Nearly thirty years old, having attempted careers in furniture restoring and the theater, she’s finally settled on becoming a cop. Personality-wise, she’s very much like her father — which isn’t always a good thing — but she also seems to have his basic investigative instincts. However, being just out of the academy — she doesn’t even officially start her job for some weeks yet — she’s also prone to all the rookie errors as she becomes involved in the disappearance of a childhood friend who has only recently come back into her life. Dad is working on the brutal murder by beheading of an inoffensive old lady in a forest shack, and (naturally) the two cases creep closer together until everyone is embroiled in a fundamentalist Christian terrorist plot, the roots of which go back to Jonestown. (Mankell has a nice sense of irony, setting all of this in the weeks preceding 9/11.) Linda is an interesting character and I look forward to watching her professional development. Oh, and Stefan Lindman (from The Return of the Dancing Master) has transferred to Ystad, so you know Linda will be seeing some action in her personal life, too. (8/11/06)

Mankell, Henning. The Return of the Dancing Master. NY: New Press, 2004 (orig. publ. 1999).

Mankell has evidently decided to give Inspector Kurt Wallender a vacation, and has come up with a very likeable new main character. Stefan Lindman is a cop in his late thirties in the town of Borås, single (though he has a lady friend), and without close friends. He also has been diagnosed with a malignancy in his tongue for which he’s about to begin treatment. Stefan is, frankly, scared out of his wits, afraid he’ll never see his fortieth birthday. To distract himself, he becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of a retired detective who had served for awhile as his mentor. The old man, now a recluse in the northern forests, was bullwhipped to death — and the reader shortly finds out whodunit (Mankell gives this sort of thing away in every mystery novel he writes), but not who killed the victim’s distant next-door neighbor a few days later. The murderer of the retired cop, and we get to know him pretty well and to understand his motivation, knows it certainly wasn’t him, and feels bound to try to steer the police (who have assumed the two violent deaths must be connected) in the right direction. The author has some pungent things to say about Nazism in general and about the renascence of Aryan fascism in particular, especially in Sweden. In any case, I think we’re going to see more of Lindman, and maybe also of his oddly named colleague, Giuseppe Larsson. (8/03/06)

Mankell, Henning. Firewall. NY: New Press, 2002 (orig. publ. 1998).

It’s true that while the invention of cyberspace has made the flesh-and-blood world more efficient — no matter where you are geographically, as several of the characters in this novel point out, you’re always in the center of the world — it’s also made people and their institutions much more vulnerable. The story opens with the sudden death at an ATM of someone who is deeply involved in a worldwide plot involving computer networks and large financial institutions. Then two teenage girls stab a taxicab driver to death — for the money, they say, though there’s a great deal more to it than that. This sounds confusing, and it is. I suspect Mankell is not entirely comfortable with computers himself because his depiction of a young hacker and of what Inspector Wallender and his cohorts observe on the monitor is pretty shaky. Still, it’s a pretty good story. Wallender is still a lonely man, searching for a viable port in his personal storms, and is betrayed not only by a woman but by one of his subordinates, someone he had thought was a friend. He comes close several times to chucking the whole thing, from frustration and despondency, but then his daughter, Linda, gives him a new focus: She’s going to the Police Academy, following in her father’s footsteps. There’s more than one sort of “firewall” in this story. Not bad, but not one of the author’s stronger efforts. (7/31/06)

Mankell, Henning. One Step Behind. NY: New Press, 2002 (orig. publ. 1997).

The District of Skäne in the far south of Sweden seems to get more than its share of psychopathic mass murderers and serial killers. This dangerous and unpleasant workload certainly takes its toll on Inspector Kurt Wallender of the Ystad police force, and he often wonders himself how much longer he’ll be able to stand it. In his late forties, divorced, melancholy by nature, sometimes violent (though always apologetic afterward), Wallender is a driven man who can’t turn loose of a case, and that makes him very successful at his job — though, again, he would undoubtedly disagree. Now his body is betraying him on top of everything else, as he has to learn to cope with diabetes. This outing concerns a killer who can’t stand for people to be happy, though we’re never given a real explanation for that motivation — nor is Wallender. But besides the six young people who are killed, a fellow officer whom we’ve come to know through the series is also a victim, shotgunned in his own apartment. We spend a lot of time in the police conference room, watching re-examination after re-examination of the available evidence, listening as the investigative team, under Wallender’s competent management, tries to figure out who the killer is, where he could be hiding, and who his next victim will be. But they seem to be always one step behind. There are certainly the occasional heartstopping action scenes, but real police work takes place mostly in the mind, and Mankell knows how to take the reader inside the head of Kurt Wallender. (7/27/06)

Mankell, Henning. The Fifth Woman. NY: New Press, 2000 (orig. publ. 1996).

Inspector Kurt Wallender of the Ystad police spends a lot of time walking back and forth in parking lots, sitting alone in his car with the engine off, sitting on park benches and then changing to a different bench, sitting at his desk and staring at the wall. He’s always thinking about whatever case is plaguing him at the moment, often several at once. This time, he’s leading the investigative team trying to sort out a series of brutal, almost sadistic murders which don’t seem to be related (although he knows they must be), while at the same time having to deal with a rise in citizen vigilantism which even affects the family of one of his detectives. But sometimes Wallender thinks too much for his own good as a cop. Investigating a murder at a lake, “he looked at the men working on the pier. At the ambulance, the police cars, the crime-scene tape. Everything about it suddenly gave him a feeling of enormous unreality. He encountered nature surrounded by plastic tape stretched out to protect crime sites. Everywhere he went there were dead people.” He’s also trying to figure out the recent sudden death of his aged father, as well as his potential relationship with Baiba, the Latvian woman from an earlier book in the series. He knows he has trouble with the human relationships in his life. No wonder he tends to the melancholy. This continues to be a generally excellent series of procedurals populated by humane (but still human) cops trying to do their jobs and courting exhaustion in the process. It took a couple of volumes, but Mankell has certainly found his pace. (7/16/06)

Mankell, Henning. Sidetracked. NY: New Press, 1999 (orig. publ. 1995).

This is the best of the four Inspector Kurt Wallender police procedurals I’ve read so far. No secret excursions across the Baltic, no geopolitical-racial thrillers. Just a solidly professional, sometimes uncertain, often brilliant, but always persistent detective plowing through disparate evidence to catch a serial killer. The title is important, too — even a good, widely experienced cop can be led astray. “The first thing that happens isn’t necessarily the beginning of the case,” or words to that effect. Wallender is a fascinating character, and very human, too. He worries about his relationships with his father and his daughter, feels slightly guilty pleasure when his superiors compliment him, gets scared when he thinks he or those close to him are physically threatened. He even has vaguely erotic dreams about a female pastor he meets in the course of the investigation. But always, after spending an hour with his own bugbears, he shifts gears and becomes a cop again, and a good one. He’s a loner who can organize and lead a crack investigative team, an anti-bureaucrat who knows how to orchestrate a productive meeting, a logical rationalist who always listens to his hunches. And even though you’ll know pretty early who the killer is in this case, you’ll hold your breath every time Wallender unknowingly comes near him. A terrific story. (7/08/06)

Mankell, Henning. The White Lioness. NY: New Press, 1998 (orig. publ. 1993).

This third novel in the Inspector Kurt Wallender series is much thicker than the three others I’ve read, and I’m of two minds about it. It starts off the way you would expect from a procedural: A female real estate agent is cold-bloodedly killed with a bullet through the head, and for no reason Wallender or his colleagues can figure out. While they’re investigating the apparent scene of the crime (they haven’t actually turned up the body yet), a nearby house explodes. Then they discover the severed index finger of a black man. Naturally, all these odd clues confuse the hell out of everyone. But then the focus shifts to South Africa in the present day — 1993, that is, with Nelson Mandella newly released from prison and President De Klerk pushing for free election that will certainly mean the end of apartheid — and for the first time in the series, Wallender is no longer the P.O.V. character. It’s a bit unsettling. Maybe half the book deals with events in Sweden, with the Inspector chasing a thoroughly nasty ex-KGB officer working for a group of highly-placed Boer conspirators. The other half is a largely political thriller (with a strong flavor of Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal) set in Johannesburg and Pretoria. There’s lots of fascinating stuff about South Africa, and Mankell (who, apparently between the last book and this one, moved to Mozambique) seems to know his stuff. And the characters he draws are chilling in their lack of concern for human life — while Wallender, the cop, is pushed to the brink of a nervous breakdown when he has to shoot someone. Nevertheless, the book is structurally schizophrenic; I wonder if it shouldn’t have been written as a completely separate and independent novel, outside the Wallender series. Still, it’s generally an exciting and eye-opening yarn, even if it’s not what one would expect. (7/03/06)

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Published on 21 November 2009 at 4:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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