BOOKS: “Some Kind of Peace” and “Last Will”
Scandinavian thrillers are most frequently written by men and feature semi-loser but scruffily endearing crime solvers of one north country or the other. The gender balance appears to be shifting. Of my stack of new murder mysteries from the Village Bookstore in Grand Rapids the majority are the work of female writers. And what an interesting bunch they are.
Women crime solvers aren’t societal models for mental health or organized living either but their flaws are definitely more interesting than the average male investigator—at least up north. The two books I’ve just finished “Some Kind of Peace” by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff and “Last Will” by Liza Marklund feature high-powered women who screw up at work a lot (while overall performing brilliantly of course!), have real relationship difficulties and between them exhibit characteristics of mental illness, intense jealousy, inordinate bouts of indecision/self-doubt and alcoholism (this latter being a stable of their male counterparts across much of global club of crime solvers).
“Some Kind of Peace” was written by sisters, one with a business/econ background and one a psychologist—both areas of expertise which figure prominently in the story. Essentially a personally troubled youngish prettyish therapist who drinks way too much finds herself in the same position as a client—believing she is going mad. Her disbelief that she might be the target of a killer leads to excessive consumption of wine and messy work relationships before she finally believes that—yes, someone is trying to kill her.
The setting is Stockholm and as with many of the best in this genre the location figures prominently in the story. It’s one of those books you wish you had read while you were there in that very city so you could walk down that same street and go wine-drinking in the very neighborhood where something suspicious happened, etc. The terribly flawed but equally terribly appealing heroine, Siri Bergman, grows on you even as you want to pour out all of the wine in her house and sober her up so she can better keep an eye out for the very bad guy.
“Some Kind of Peace” can be safely labeled a psychological thriller with lots of interesting references to various mental illness diagnoses. My favorite class when pursuing an MSW was on the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) where we analyzed and diagnosed all of the characters in “Prince of Tides” (Pat Conroy). Reading this book was a little like that.
“Last Will” by Liza Marklund also takes place in Stockholm with that same strong sense of place. Down that street, over to that neighborhood, bar, restaurant—the smells and sounds of a climate and place. In this case our crime solver is a journalist for a tabloid paper—a possibly failing enterprise where she is not very popular anyway. Annika Bengtzon is smart, conflicted about her job and home life, and manages to get herself in the middle of a situation involving Nobel prizes, the Karolinska Institute, multinational pharmaceuticals and a whip-smart and beautiful female assassin just a little too reminiscent of Lisbeth Salander (but in this case she’s not anything close to being the main character).
Bengtzon takes a little longer to warm up to than Siri Bergman because, while being a disposed to a certain amount of chaos, she is less vulnerable. Still, it takes her too long to realize she might be in personal danger even as she connects with a number of people with extensive credentials and in impressive positions. Unfortunately none are without possible ulterior motives for the various bloody deaths that make up the murder part of this murder mystery.
Both “Some Kind of Peace” and “Last Will” are perfect examples of why I prefer crime fiction that does NOT originate in the U.S. The main characters are both fleshed out and smart and flawed enough for the reader to care about them and identify with them. And, best of all, this is good good writing. Brilliant, maybe not, but damn good—which is generally NOT true of most American crime writing.
Footnote: In Iceland, my granddaughter, friend and I participated in a city tour featuring the sites and sounds of that country’s plethora of chilly crime. It wasn’t a very good tour but the idea is brilliant and could be further developed. For example, if I win Powerball my contribution to the world could be to live comfortably as I develop these crime-reading sojourns in the world’s really fine murder sites like Stockholm, Reykjavik, Oslo, Cape Town, etc.