Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Between the Covers: Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer, Nele Neuhaus’s The Ice Queen and Laura Lippman’s Hush Hush

The Swimmer (HarperCollins), Swedish author Joakim Zander’s first novel, is a lightning-quick page-turner with sparse, evocative language (courtesy of translator Elizabeth Clark Wessel) and a terrific cast of characters. The novel opens in Damascus, in the summer of 1980. It’s blisteringly hot. An unnamed CIA agent is holed up with the woman he loves and their infant daughter. He is waiting for the right moment to tell her that he must leave Syria, and her and their child. But the baby is feverish, and before he can leave, the woman takes his keys and heads out to find medicine. His car – the car in which he was about to escape, containing money and his next identity – explodes. The explosion is “awful, majestic. It’s a whole battle compressed into one moment.” UA spends the rest of his life trying to find out exactly who placed the bomb, and why. We next meet Klara Waldéen, the young Swedish aide to a European Union parliamentarian in Brussels, and George Lööw, an ambitious and unscrupulous lobbyist working with a giant PR firm, also in Brussels. At the behest of his über-powerful boss, George is about to take on a mysterious new client. It’s gratifying to be sought-after, George thinks, but he’s uneasy because he can’t find out anything about that client. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Shammosh, an Uppsala-based academic and an old friend of Klara’s, is in Brussels taking part in a seminar on Middle East affairs. When he comes into possession of information about bad U.S. behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan, he also runs into an American hit-team determined to recover that information. He and Klara are pursued in Brussels and Paris, and eventually to a Christmas Eve shootout on a tiny island in the Swedish Archipelago. This book – all crisp dialogue and fast action – is outstanding. Stieg Larsson may be dead, and Henning Mankell has retired Kurt Wallander, but the Swedish thriller is in good hands.

German author Nele Neuhaus’s The Ice Queen (Minotaur), translated by Steven T. Murray, is the latest in her robust series featuring detectives Pia Kirchhoff (no relation) and Oliver von Bodenstein. The novel begins with the death of 92-year-old Jossi Goldberg, an American citizen and Holocaust survivor who has returned to Frankfurt to live out the remainder of his life. But that remainder proves shorter than it ought to have been: He is shot execution-style in his luxurious home. The investigation is complicated by Goldberg’s wealth and citizenship, and by his relationship to several other rich and influential German families. The U.S consulate becomes involved, and Goldberg’s American children make their opinions and desires known as well. There are two mysteries within the murder mystery: a five-digit number written in blood on a mirror at the murder scene, and the discovery that Goldberg once had a tattoo, unsuccessfully removed, of a blood-type symbol commonly used by members of the SS. Before the investigation is properly underway, there are two more murders. An elderly, wheelchair-bound lady is kidnapped from her nursing home and brutally, painfully slaughtered. And almost immediately after that, another old man is killed in his home, also shot in the back of the head. His basement office is full of German newsreels from the 1930s and ’40s, and stuffed with Nazi memorabilia including a photograph of Adolf Hitler with a personalized inscription. All three victims knew each other, and all were acquaintances of Baroness Vera von Kaltensee, matriarch of a large and important family, and much respected as someone willing to donate money to worthy causes. Kirchhoff and Bodenstein and the other police detectives follow several leads in the cases, trails that take them through the upper reaches of aristocratic society and deep into history. Secrets – some important to the case and others incidental – are uncovered and exposed, and the resolution of the many plot strands comes in Poland, in a ruined castle, in an area that used to be part of East Prussia. This is a meaty and substantial novel, enlivened by the personal lives of the principal characters and the genuine-sounding relationships among the detectives.

Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan is in a good place in Laura Lippman’s most recent novel, Hush Hush (William Morrow). She is settling into a rhythm with her three-year-old daughter, Carla Scout, and her live-in lover, the health-food fanatic and restaurateur Crow. She has a new business partner in Sandy Sanchez, a hard-working ex-cop whose straight-talking pragmatism is a useful counterweight to Tess’s more volatile, and voluble, temperament. So when she is asked to take on the case of Melisandre Harris Dawes, she is not enthusiastic: Ten years before, Melisandre had parked her car, and her infant daughter, on a blistering August day, then sat down nearby and waited while the heat killed the child in the super-heated car. At the subsequent trial, she was ruled not mentally competent and, after a stint in a luxury therapeutic facility, left the country to live with wealthy relatives in South Africa and England. But now she is back in Baltimore. She has hired a documentary filmmaker to record her story, including a reconciliation with her two other daughters, now teenagers. Tess and Sandy are being hired as supplemental security, a job Tess doesn’t much care for. But she takes on the job at the request of Melisandre’s lawyer, Tess’s old friend and mentor, Tyner Gray, who is also the husband of her favourite aunt. The first problem is that Melisandre’s ex-husband, who has custody of the two daughters, isn’t sure the documentary is such a good idea, and is dragging his heels. The second problem is that Melisandre becomes the prime suspect in a brand-new homicide investigation. Not only that, Tess comes to realize that someone from her past is stalking her – someone with possibly murderous intentions. And on top of it all, Tess and Crow decide that they should get married, for Carla Scout’s sake, of course, but also because their relationship is working. And this novel works, as well. The characters, even the minor ones, are complex, likeable and convincing, the writing is crisp and clean, and the various mysteries keep you guessing right to the end. What’s not to like?

- Jack Kirchhoff is a writer and editor in Toronto.

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