Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman: A Review

The inexplicable success of Stieg Larsson’s mysteries is the best thing that has happened to Scandinavian writers since Selma Lagerlöf. Larsson’s untimely death left a void that publishers are trying to fill desperately. Scandinavian names, long descriptions of cold weather and depictions of carnage in Sweden, Norway and Denmark are suddenly in vogue. Since many Americans are a bit confused on where Sweden is actually located, all European mystery authors are experiencing a surge of interest in their books.  

As you can see from the cover of Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, this author’s publishers are doing all they can to milk Stieg Larsson’s fame for all it is worth. This, however, is something that, in my opinion, this author doesn’t need. This book is very good. Its only defect is that it is too drawn out. In his zeal to create as many twists to the plot as humanly possible, Jo Nesbø goes a bit too far and creates a 100 or so pages somewhere in the middle of this long book that feel quite redundant.

If I had to compare Jo Nesbø’s style of mystery writing to another author’s, I would say he bears no similarity to the weirdly boring Stieg Larsson. Rather, Jo Nesbø is the Norwegian version of Michael Connelly. (Connelly apparently agrees and has published rave reviews of this writer’s work.) Nesbø’s protagonist called Harry (sic!) Hole is a police officer on a mission. He is also a lonely drunk and a die-hard romantic who gets treated badly by the woman he loves. Nesbø isn’t nearly as good as Connelly in creating a complex and richly-layered protagonist. His Harry looks a little cartoonish at times. He is much better than Connelly, however, in writing the ending to his mystery. Connelly’s endings tend to be much too abrupt. This gifted writer doesn’t seem to realize that you cannot announce the culprit’s name on the last page and just be done with it. The laws of the genre require that after the culmination there should be a winding-down period where the readers are offered an explanation of either what drove the murderer to commit the crimes or a description of the deductive process of the detective that resulted in solving the mystery. Nesbø’s ending is absolutely perfect.

The Snowman is a serial killer mystery. In the novel, Norwegians seem quite frustrated with the fact that they alone, of the three Scandinavian countries, have failed to produce a serial killer of their own. There are other cute moments in the book that have a very specific Norwegian flavor. See, for instance, the following passage that would have Ayn Rand die all over again were she around to read it:

‘It’s a very small shop. We don’t have many customers. Almost none until the Christmas sales, to be honest.’‘How. . .?’‘NORAD. They support shops and our suppliers as part of the government’s trade programme with Third World countries. The message it sends is more important than money and short-sighted gain, isn’t it.’

This is, of course, a very dangerous game that the third richest country in the world (after Luxembourg and Qatar) is playing. Oil comes and goes while people who have been corrupted by such ridiculous handouts remain.

There are some sparks of wisdom in this novel that I wanted to share with you. One of the characters says, for example:

Our generation has turned itself into servants and secretaries of our children. . . There are so many appointments and birthdays and favorite foods and football sessions that it drives me insane.

Anybody who has observed the frantic scrambling of the Western parents to organize endless play dates and activities for their children will have to agree with this observation. 

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and recommend it highly. Of course, it didn’t hurt that snow was mentioned pretty much on every single page making this summer heat somewhat more bearable.
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>Tess Gerritsen’s The Silent Girl: A Review

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Tess Gerritsen used to be a very unique mystery writer. Her Rizzolli and Isles series featured a police officer, Jane Rizzolli, and a medical examiner, Maura Isles, whose unconventional personal lives and intense personalities made the series especially interesting to follow. Gerritsen was a writer who did blood and gore especially well. If you are into the mystery novels filled with descriptions of human entrails glistening against the snow, torture and detailed autopsies, Gerritsen was the writer for you. She never shied away from explicit scenes and, as a result, managed to create some of the most memorable serial killer novels around.
And then television happened. A very stupid show started being filmed based on Gerritsen’s novels. The Silent Girl is the first novel by Gerritsen that came out since Rizzoli & Isles hit TNT. It isn’t a bad book at all, mind you. The mystery is good, the culprit is difficult to identify, the plot has quite a few twists and turns, the book reads very easily. The problem with The Silent Girl is that it isn’t a Gerritsen novel. It’s another installment of a very mediocre TV series. Rizzoli and Isles have been transformed into good girls whose personal lives are boring enough to be suitable for prime time. To give an example, Maura Isles isn’t engaged in her long-standing affair with a priest any more. She has now turned from a cold and harsh person into a weepy, miserable creature who is all of a sudden dedicated to wannabe mothering of a teenager more than to her career. Gory scenes have been substituted with descriptions that would look good on TV: Chinatown, martial artists, an obligatory scene with a mafioso, a grieving parent or two, mythical creatures leaping from roof to roof, etc. 
I used to look forward to Gerritsen’s new novels coming out. Now, however, she is no different than hundreds of other authors who produce sanitized, conventional mysteries that aim to be filmed rather than read. Until Rizzoli & Isles gets cancelled, it hardly makes any sense to read another Gerritsen mystery.
The Silent Girl will come out on July 5. 

>Male and Female Sleuths, Part II

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The reason why I enjoy Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch series is that this writer manages to create a truly complex and ever-evolving male protagonist. This is a risky proposition since it means that the novels in the series have to be read in order. Otherwise, Harry Bosch’s personality simply doesn’t make sense. I have now read seven of the novels in the series and the main character still manages to surprise me. 
There is, however, one area of Harry Bosch’s life where he sadly resembles the classic male sleuths of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Chesterton. What Holmes, Poirot and Father Brown have in common is a complete absence of any personal life whatsoever. Not only are these characters completely and utterly sexless, they also lack any family members. It is true that Miss Marple is also not known for her wild sexual exploits. She does, however, have a slew of relatives whose stories provide her with clues she uses to solve her mysteries.
The reason why the classic male protagonists of mystery novels lead such sexless lives is, in my opinion, that the authors of these books cannot afford to antagonize their female readers. In the noir genre and the spy novels that are geared mostly towards male readership, male protagonists engage in numerous sexual adventures. Female readers, however, do not appreciate male characters who have too much sex. When recently Elizabeth George killed off the character of Helen, Inspector Lynley’s wife, and had Lynley have sex with another woman, a huge number of her readers reacted with outrage. 
Of course, Connelly couldn’t have Bosch, a police officer in Los Angeles at the turn of the XXI century, lead a completely sexless existence. Instead, the writer chose the path of turning Bosch into a constant and wistful victim of women who use him, manipulate him and dump him. Every single one of Bosch’s love affairs follows the same path: he acts the role of a sad troubadour to a woman whom he keeps serving long after she betrays and abandons him.
Connelly’s Bosch novels are an important step in the direction of creating believable, multi-faceted male sleuths. This project, however, is far from being complete, and even Connelly took a huge step back when he introduced his new Mickey Haller series which features a one-dimensional protagonist who follows all of the worst conventions of the genre.

>Male and Female Sleuths, Part I

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It is extremely rare to find a male detective in a mystery series who has a complex, multi-faceted personality which grows and transforms over the course of the series. Male sleuths tend to be assigned a set of quirky characteristics in the very first novel of the series. Then, references to these quirks and tics are made in the subsequent novels to remind us of what this character is supposed to be like. Even Ruth Rendell, whose greatest talent (among many) resides in creating complex, fascinating characters, fails to do so with her Inspector Wexford. In Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, we see this character over the course of fifty years and can safely say that he experiences absolutely no changes in terms of his personality. For this reason, I have always found this series to be quite boring.
Or take, for example, Elizabeth George’s Lynley and Havers series. Lynley, the male sleuth, is always the same. If you have read a single one of these novels, you know all there is to know about this character’s personality. Female sleuths, however, fare a lot better. They are given personalities that are complex, profound, growing, changing with every new installment. Barbara Havers, the female protagonist of George’s series, differs from her male counterpart Inspector Lynley in that her experiences in these novels help her grow. The Havers of A Great Deliverance (the first novel in the series)  is not nearly the same person we encounter in This Body of Death, which is the most recent installment.
The same could be said about many other female detectives. Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren, Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are complex, interesting characters whose personalities undergo profound transformations in the course of the series.
I believe that the reason why male sleuths are frequently so flat, cartoonish and boring lies in the tradition of the early classics of the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown are the models on which the entire cast of later male sleuths was built. These three classic sleuths are quirky and original. They are, however, always the same. Poirot’s personality is exactly the same in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as he is in Curtain. As for Holmes and Father Brown, I have read all stories featuring these characters (usually more than once) but for the life of me couldn’t figure out the chronological succession of these stories.
(To be continued. . .)

>Why Didn’t I Discover Michael Connelly Sooner?

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My brain was about to melt from all the philosophy I had to read in the past two weeks, so I realized that I needed a new mystery series to provide a distraction from the complexities of Badiou and Laclau. Since my fellow Kindle owners are really into Connelly these days, I decided to start reading him, too.

All of my favorite mystery writers are women. There is a single male author whose work I follow (John Lescroart) but the rest are women. I’m over the cozy mystery genre, which is what male writers do best. If you want scary, gritty and bloody, you have to go with female writers every single time. Male mystery authors are squeamish about blood and gore, while their female colleagues pile up horrors in a very cavalier fashion.

Michael Connelly, however, is very good. He has two series that sometimes overlap: the police procedurals whose main character is a policeman called Hyeronimus Bosch (seriously) and courtroom dramas staring a lawyer called Mickey Haller*. The Mickey Haller series are quite crappy. The author based his protagonist on the cliche-ridden legacy of the noir fiction. If you are sick and tired of the characters developed by the supremely boring Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Dashiel Hammett, then you will be equally bored by this series from Michael Connelly.

There are two big drawbacks to the otherwise great Hyeronimus Bosch series. The first one is that Connelly doesn’t know how to end a mystery novel. His endings tend to be very unimpressive. “Here is the killer, case closed, the end.” This author seems to have no idea that a good mystery doesn’t end when the killer is revealed. At least a few pages need to be dedicated to the explanation of some previously unknown details about the crime, the criminal, or the search for the criminal.

Another huge problem I have with Connelly’s books is that they are set in L.A. Honestly, don’t writers get tired of placing every other series that comes on the market in the same city? I’m sick and tired of L.A. already and I’ve never even been there. And it isn’t just about the same annoying geography. When you place a detective series in L.A., this will define what the books in the series will be about. For example, whenever a novel is set in L.A., it’s bound to be filled with aspiring actors and actresses who don’t manage to make it in the movies and turn to prostitution. (Now that my favorite TV series Law & Order had also moved to L.A., I’m getting annoyed every time I hear this city’s name.)

In spite of these issues, however, Connelly’s Hyeronimus Bosch novels are very good. The writer’s greatest achievement in this series is the protagonist. Connelly has to be commended for reducing the noirish characteristics of the protagonist to a minimum. Writing about an LA police officer who worked in LAPD from the 1990ies on is fraught with danger. Connelly obviated the immediate dislike for a character who is an LA cop by creating a sensitive and tortured policeman. “Taking cases straight to heart is the way of the true detective. The only way,” Bosch announces in Echo Park in a way that would be pompous had it come from someone else. Coming from this particular character, though, the statement is very believable.

* From what I’ve been able to gather, Connelly has some stand alone novels too but I haven’t been able to take a look at those yet.

>Gender Stereotypes and the Mystery Genre: From Christie to Rendell

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In the mystery genre, no one can compare with the amazing British authors Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. The first of these authors created the genre* while the second one took it to incredible heights in a number of extremely well-crafted novels. Compared with the psychological and literary sophistication of Rendell’s work, Christie’s novels seem primitive. The language is simple, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plots are quite similar.
One thing, however, is shared by the two queens of the detective genre. Both Christie and Rendell know extremely well how to manipulate the gender stereotypes of their times to create a mystery their readers will not be able to solve. Take, for example, Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger and Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion**. In The Moving Finger, Christie attempts to prevent the readers from guessing the identity of the criminal by relying on their misogynistic vision of what constitutes “male” and “female” kinds of crime. This particular gender stereotype has lost its currency completely in the decades that elapsed since the novel was published. As a result, The Moving Finger is one of the lesser known of Christie’s novels. A modern-day reader will have no trouble guessing what really happened since the gender stereotype is the only thing standing between the reader and the realization of the criminal’s identity.
Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion is one of this prolific author’s best mysteries***. Vulnerability is the topic she explores in this novel in a stunningly successful way. Her characters are vulnerable to all kinds of things: sexual obsession, insanity, the desire to fit in at all costs, fear of rejection, the desire to fit in, alcoholism. The question of which one of them will prove to be the only truly resilient one remains unanswered until the stunning ending of the book. However, if it were not for our deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes, that ending would not surprise us in the least.
Hopefully, the gender stereotypes that Rendell based her novel on will pass into oblivion one day, just like the ones that informed Christie’s outdated mystery I have discussed here****.
* Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created the genre of the police procedural, not the mystery novel as such. Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes vicious fun of Sherlock Holmsian type of characters. Rendell has written quite a few police procedurals (her Inspector Wexford series), which I consider to be vastly inferior to her mystery novels.

** The novel was published under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine.

*** A Fatal Inversion, The Bridesmaid and Thirteen Steps Down are Rendell’s best novels, in my opinion. If I weren’t wary of making this list too long, I would add The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy and No Night Is Too Long to the list of her best work. If you like the mystery genre but still have not read anything by Rendell, what are you waiting for? She is absolutely the best. 

**** I have tried to discuss the plots of these novels as little as possible here to avoid spoiling the pleasure of their future readers.

Ricardian: A Review of Elizabeth George’s "I, Richard"

Elizabeth George’s collection of short stories I, Richard hasn’t been received very well even by her hardcore fans. The reason for what I believe is an unfair rejection of this collection is the disappointing first story titled “Exposure.” If you decide to read I, Richard, I suggest you skip this story altogether and enjoy the rest of the collection.

Only the very last story, “I, Richard” belongs to the genre of Ricardian Apology. George wrote this story to make her Ricardian allegiances known to her fans. Of course, as a mystery writer, she couldn’t fail to structure this story as a modern-day murder mystery that is inspired by one of the character’s belief in Richard’s innocence.
George is different from many Ricardians in that she does not blame Henry Tudor for killing the young princes. This writer makes us question why we always assume that history was made by men. She allows a woman (of course, I will not spoil your reading pleasure by telling you her name) to become a protagonist of the story. Both the mystery of the princes’ murder and the modern-day mystery that frames them are based on the idea that dismissing female protagonism is a big mistake. George reminds us that women make history as much as men do. Those men who try to treat women as objects with no will of their own always end up paying a very high price for this delusion.