Trying to expand the base of my relaxation reading, I took off on a tour of some mystery and spy and crime fiction writers from around the world. Results were mixed. Boris Akunin (Russia) and Leonardo Sciascia (Italy) delivered the goods, but a few others, including Jo Nesbo, disappointed. His first novel, not yet published in the USA, introduced detective Harry Hole on an overseas mission to Australia where a Norwegian citizen was the victim. The Bat was awarded the Riverton Prize (Rivertonprisen) in Norway in 1997 for Best Norwegian Crime Novel of the Year, as well as the Glass Key (Glasnyckeln) award in 1998 for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year. I have heard uniformly positive reviews of Nesbo and responded to the narrator's distinctive voice, but the details of the crimes were too gruesome. Thinking that pleasure reading should not disgust can be an obstacle. The Bat was more than I could take. Sean Barrett gave an excellent performance in narrating the audiobook for Audible; Nesbo creates notable minor characters and a complex protagonist; he excels at description. I will read him again, but The Bat was just too grisly.
To put this in perspective, I did not get beyond the first novel in Stieg Larsson's millennium trilogy, although the three Swedish films of his novels were well done. Powerful characters, but he is just more sleazy and graphic than I am willing to endure. Unfortunately, my first encounter with Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus (Scotland) had the same result. After watching the old TV dramatizations of the Rebus novels, I was eager to get started on reading, but the plot of The Hanging Garden was too painful to sit through twice, once on DVD and then again in print, so that one was abandoned unfinished. This was the Rankin book sitting on my shelf, and so this is the one I picked up. Rankin is terrific; I will try another of his novels soon, one less brutal I hope.
Georges Simenon's (France) novel Maigret in Montmartre (1954) indulged in petty misogyny of the type that makes a woman of today want to swear off any novel written by any man from any country in that decade. That is a bit harsh, but the novel irritated instead of entertaining. Sigh. This one I finished, but it was another read gone wrong.
Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Pepe Carvalho novels (Spain) have a good reputation. The one I started, but did not finish, Off Side, came across as unnecessarily supercilious in tone. He is a much-loved writer, and I should probably find another of his novels. Czech writer Josef Skvorecky sounded promising, but I was bored by Two Murders in My Double Life and did not finish it. He gets great reviews all over, and I will give him another try. Perhaps The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka will be better. Nicholas Freeling's police inspector Van Der Valk (Dutch) is kind of a snooze as well. I suppose it is becoming obvious why the blog has been relatively quiet lately.
I read another of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels, The Laughing Policeman (Sweden). This duo gets credit for inspiring the next generation(s) of Scandinavian crime writers, including Henning Mankell. The moody Kurt Wallander is an engaging character. Mankell spins absorbing plots, usually with an element of social conscience, and it may be time to seek out another of his Wallander novels to break the current streak.
My beef with Sjöwall and Wahlöö, in a book like Roseanna, is their commitment to breaking down taboos in content, which might have been brave in the 'Sixties, but by now the grunge and grime, as repeated over and over in the work of too many contemporary writers, is getting tiresome and, in some cases, prurient and cheaply manipulative. The in-your-face, aggressive ugliness, seemingly for the sake of shock value only, makes me want to stop exploring and go re-read Trollope and Austen exclusively for a while. Well, no, not really. Just feeling exasperated.
A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming struck me as a bit flat, even if it did win the Scottish Crime Book of the Year and the UK Crime Writers' Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in 2012. It was good, but not great. I have heard positive things about some of his other books and will give this writer of spy thrillers another go.
A few other writers still to be read are Andrea Camilleri, creator of Inspector Montalbano (Sicily); Jakob Arjouni whose Turkish PI Kemal Kayankaya lives in Frankfurt; and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Switzerland/ Germany). Dürrenmatt was a fine playwright, and a BBC radio reading this autumn of one of his mysteries, The Judge and His Hangman, piqued my interest in reading his crime fiction. Also need to give Scottish crime writer Val McDermid another try. She seemed too intense on first reading a few years ago, but that might have been my mood and not her work, so I will sample her again. My favorite Scot these days in the crime genre is Denise Mina; time to read another of hers.
Speaking of tried-and-true, reliable authors who always appeal, Donna Leon usually succeeds in providing a good read with her Commissario Brunetti novels, but number 15 in the series, Through a Glass Darkly was not altogether satisfying. Brunetti does not encounter a crime scene until halfway through the novel, an interesting experiment in structure, but it left me feeling adrift. A familiar, casual read for existing fans of this Venice-based series but not a good first Leon.
My reading of American history, music history, short stories, and cookbooks continues, pleasurably and rewardingly, but this foray into world crime has been often a sorry business and explains why the blogging has been slower than usual. I will often remain silent on a book that does not meet expectations, but this run of bad luck seemed worth mentioning. My apologies to anyone whose favorite writer has been glossed over disdainfully here. It may be that my taste in international crime novels is quite narrow, and the disappointment was inevitable, based on my preferences as a reader. Any suggestions of crime writing in translation for a reader who likes noir and strong characters and intense ambiance, but not the feeling of being mercilessly cudgled by the author?