Back in August I called Peter Høeg’s whodunnit Smilla’s Sense of Snow the grandaddy of Nordic noir/Scandinavian crime because it was published in the early 90s, long before authors like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell achieved international notoriety. Lo and behold I learned just this week there was a Swedish husband and wife duo writing such novels way back in the 60s. While searching on Overdrive for something set in Hungary for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I came across an available copy of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1966 mystery novel The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Intrigued, a downloaded it to my Kindle and gave it a shot. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how a 50 year old piece of crime fiction would hold up after all these years but fear not, for The Man Who Went Up in Smoke met, if not exceeded my modest expectations. And now I want to read more from this pioneering Swedish duo.
Published in 1966, our story begins when Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck is recalled from a well-deserved family vacation on orders from the Foreign Office. A Swedish journalist has gone missing while on assignment in Budapest and government officials are desperate to find out why as quickly and quietly as possible, fearing he’s either defected or has met some untimely end. (One official fears they might have another Raoul Wallenberg on their hands since he also vanished in Hungary without a trace.) Admitting he doesn’t speak a word of Hungarian (neither does anyone else on the force his superiors point out) he can nevertheless liaise with the local police in German and English, both of which he speaks. Once in Budapest Inspector Beck begins retracing the missing journalist’s steps looking for clues in hopes of solving the mystery of his disappearance.
I was struck while reading The Man Who Went Up in Smoke just how the authors depicted the Hungarian authorities as reasonable and sympathetic characters, even though the country was a Communist dictatorship when the novel was published in 1966. (At one point when Beck visits a Budapest police station he remarks to himself how much it looks like his own back in Stockholm.) For a crime novel written 25 years before the Fall of Communism and set mostly behind the Iron Curtain I found it surprisingly apolitical and wondered if this had anything to do with Sweden’s long history of political neutrality. On the other hand, maybe its the authors’ opinion that no matter our political differences, we all have to deal with a world plagued by criminals.
Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2019 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.
The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2019.
- GI Confidential by Martin Limón
- The Swede by Robert Karjel
- Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
- The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey
- Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
- Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White
As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end, Smilla’s Sense of Snow edged out Remarkable Creatures my favorite. As high as my expectations were for Smilla’s Sense of Snow I was not disappointed.
Typical of me and my reading tastes, all six novels on this list are set outside the USA. Also typical for me, four are historical in nature, ranging from the 19th century to the early 1970s. Lastly, four of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. Could I be developing a taste for crime and mystery novels? Perhaps only time will tell.
After a heavy diet of nonfiction it was time for something lighter. With no clear idea where to start I decided to explore the New Books shelf at my public library. It was here I came across a copy of Martin Limón’s 2019 historical mystery/police procedural GI Confidential. Flipping through Limón’s novel it looked to be both light and entertaining . Once I saw it’s set in South Korea in the early 70s I simply had to read it. But why you might ask?
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become fascinated with the politics of the 1970s, both domestic and international. It was a decade when American and Soviet leaders sought to achieve a degree of peaceful coexistence between the USA and USSR, even though both nations and their respective allies were locked in a bitter rivalry. As a result, just about every armed conflict and international rivalry around the world from Southeast Asia to Latin America to Africa was seen as another manifestation of the struggle between East and West. Perhaps nowhere in the world better exemplified this global standoff than the Korean peninsula, a land divided by two sworn enemies forever on the brink of war.
Back when I was a kid, whenever South Korea was in the news it was never good. From the assignation of President Park Chung-hee, to a young American soldier’s defection to North Korea to two American Army officers killed by North Korean troops while pruning a tree in the DMZ I kinda got the impression growing up the country was an awful place. Looking back, this was probably made worse thanks to the unflattering depiction of Korea on the TV show M*A*S*H.
But even sour memories can make one nostalgic, or at least curious enough to engage the ghosts of the past with the courage, intelligence and wisdom of a learned adult. No better place to start then with GI Confidential.
Previously unbeknownst to me GI Confidential is the 14th book in the Sergeants Sueño and Bascom series set in South Korea. In this latest installment, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers George Sueño and Ernie Bascom find themselves investigating a string of bank robberies perpetrated by a gang of American servicemen. As they race to identify and apprehend the robbers they discover they’re being shadowed by Katie Byrd Worthington, an aggressive yet talented reporter for the Overseas Observer, an investigative tabloid reviled by America’s military brass. If having to capture a gang of American bank robbers was tough enough, before long Sueño and Ernie are tasked with investigating rumors of an American General involved in sex trafficking dangerously close to the DMZ – who by the way might also be losing his mind.
Fast-paced with sharp dialog, cleaver and entertaining as hell, I totally lucked out with GI Confidential. With 13 more books in this series, I can almost guarantee you’ll see more of them featured on my blog.
For the last few months I’ve been wanting to branch out when it comes to my fiction reading. Specifically, I wanna read more Scandinavian crime/Nordic noir and spy thrillers. Imagine how intrigued I was when, at the public library when I came across a Swedish novel that looked to be a blend of both genres. Taking advantage of my good fortune I helped myself to a copy of Robert Karjel’s 2015 novel The Swede.
Swedish security police officer Ernst Grip has been ordered to semi-classified military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. According to FBI agent Shauna Friedman, he’s there to interrogate a high value prisoner known only as “N” to determine if he’s a Swedish citizen. Grip is told almost nothing about the mysterious man, other than he’s a suspect in an Islamist terror attack on American soil. Showing obvious signs of extensive torture, N refuses to speak. Slowly however, Grip gets him to talk and when he finally does, starts at the beginning, on the beaches of Thailand after the disastrous 2004 tsunami. N and three other survivors, each from a different country and strangers to each other until just recently, are recruited by a shadowy deep-pocked American (think The Blacklist’s Raymond Reddington character without the charming amorality) to inflict bloody revenge upon the pastor of a Westboro Baptist Church-like cult for their hateful gloating in response to the tsunami. The more he tells Grip, the more he suspects the Americans aren’t telling him the whole story, including the reason he’s really there.
The Swede is a novel of firsts, starting with its author. Karjel is a Lt. Colonel in the Swedish Air Force and the first, and so far only Swedish helicopter pilot who has trained with the U.S. Marines. It’s also his first novel. Lastly, to the best of my knowledge it’s the first thriller to feature a male protagonist who’s bisexual. According to a piece Karjel penned for The Guardian, Ernst Grip was inspired by Hugh Swaney, a legendary American homicide detective Karjel interviewed just before he died of Aids. “He was the toughest man I’ve ever come across (including many in the special operations community I’ve met over the course of my military career).”
It took me a while to get into The Swede but once I did I enjoyed the ride, finding Karjel’s thriller smart, tense, full of surprises and satisfyingly entertaining.
Ever since I saw it advertised in the Quality Paperback Book Club catalog just over a decade ago I’ve been wanting to read T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution. Honestly, I’m not sure why since I’ve never been a giant fan of organized crime sagas. (Although The Godfather and its sequel The Godfather Part II are two of my favorite all-time films.) But maybe I could not resist its promised tales of glamorous and sexy floorshows, high stakes gambling, corruption, and political intrigue from years gone by. Last week at my public library I finally gave in to my slightly less than wholesome desires and borrowed a copy of English’s 2008 book. Either I’m morally corrupt or it’s a heck of a book because I couldn’t put it down.
For 60 years Americans pretty much did as they wished in Cuba after defeating the Spanish in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century. During Prohibition Americans flocked to the island to imbibe its many intoxicants while others illegally shipped those same liquors back to the states. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 things quieted down for the next 10 years or so because of the Depression and World War II. Then, after the United States emerged victorious from the War and entered an era of unprecedented prosperity Cuba’s capital of Havana transformed was transformed into a roaring adult playground of hotels, casinos, brothels and nightclubs. And the Mob ran it all.
Even though the FBI’s dictatorial Director J. Edger Hoover publicly proclaimed the Mafia was a myth, many powerful American congressmen thought otherwise and began using the new medium of television to hold televised hearings to expose the Mob’s many criminal activities. As a result the barons of American organized crime like Meyer Lansky, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Santo Trafficante saw Cuba as a potential goldmine untouchable by American law enforcement. By investing in casinos, fancy nightclubs with world-class entertainment and high-rise hotels the Mob bosses hopes to build the Caribbean’s answer to Monte Carlo. With the island nation’s dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies paid off and in on the operation Cuba was, in effect a sovereign nation ruled in the best interests of organized crime.
As the old cliche goes, nothing last forever. Even though by the late 1950s Cuba had one of the strongest economies and highest standards of living in Latin America and certainly in the Caribbean, no matter how much money the casinos and fancy hotels generated, or rum, sugar and nickel Cuba exported little if any of that wealth trickled down to the nation’s millions of peasants and impoverished urban dwellers. Sweeping reforms were impossible since the nation was hopelessly corrupt and Batista ruled with an iron hand. Only after Fidel Castro and his band of armed revolutionaries toppled the old order would change come. When it finally did, Havana’s reign as the Caribbean’s premier entertainment capital came crashing to an end.
For as long as I’ve been done the European Reading Challenge I’ve included a book about Italy. Last year it was Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy and in previous years I spotlighted works of historical fiction like Tariq Ali’s A Sultan in Palermo and Dasa Drndic’s Trieste to nonfiction fare like Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s The Monster of Florence and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. In 2014 it was In the Sea There are Crocodiles, Italian writer Fabio Geda’s novelization of Afghan refugee Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. Chances are, if I’m doing the European Reading Challenge, I’m gonna read a book about Italy.
John Hooper’s 2015 The Italians had been on my radar for the last three or four years before I borrowed a Kindle copy through Overdrive. Like Tobias Jones, Hooper is also a British journalist, having worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers and now covers Italy and the Vatican for the Economist. Also like Jones, Hooper has written a book that paints Italy in broad yet nevertheless revealing strokes – and entertaining ones.
According to Hooper, Italy is nation of contradictions. Proudly Catholic and home to the Vatican, it’s also fiercely anticlerical. Judging by the country’s declining birthrate many Italians are ignoring the Church’s prohibition on birth control. For a nation that fought long and hard to unify itself in the 19th century, the wealthy and industrialized North still can’t stand the impoverished South and visa versa. Organized crime syndicates like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and Neapolitan Camorra plague the country but also generate 10 percent of Italy’s GDP, and yet a 2009 European Commission report revealed the United Kingdom’s violent crime rate was eight times that of Italy.
No other example from The Italians sums up both Italy’s reputation for bureaucratic lunacy as well as its national pastime for fantasia, a word Hooper translates as meaning “somewhere on the permeable frontier between imagination and creativity” like the case of the Italian army battalion Terzo Corpo designato d’Armata. In 1950 with the Cold War in full gear and Stalin’s armies firmly in control of Eastern Europe many feared the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact would soon invade America’s NATO allies like Italy. To deter them, the Italian high command secretly created an army of 300,000 troops based in Padova. However, even with a real commander-in-chief this army existed only on paper. Over the years tons of paperwork was generated in the form of promotions, payroll records, procurements and the like. If any Soviet spies operating in Italy picked up even snippets of this information they’d report back to Moscow the existence of a 300,000 man army and perhaps think twice about invading.
If any of you plan on traveling to Italy for your next vacation, do yourself a huge favor and read Hooper’s The Italians before you leave. You’ll be glad you did.
To me there’s nothing like taking a chance on a book you knew nothing about but in the end you thoroughly enjoyed. Recently, I noticed my public library had an available copy of Matthew Palmer’s The Wolf of Sarajevo. Knowing only that it’s set in Bosnia and therefore applicable to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed it. (Being the cynic that I am, I tried not to put too much stock in the favorable comments on Amazon.) After just a few pages I was completely sucked in. The Wolf of Sarajevo is one of this year’s early pleasant surprises.
Published last may, The Wolf of Sarajevo is set in present day Bosnia. Even though today’s headlines are all about North Korea and the Middle East, (or President Trump’s train wreck Presidency) back in the 90s the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia was all over the news. While the fighting might have ended decades ago, old wounds haven’t fully healed and the young nation limps along held together by an uneasy peace between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Just when it looks like a landmark peace agreement is about to be struck, a deal that could finally fully heal the fractured nation as well grant it membership in the EU, Bosnia’s Serb leader suddenly and inexplicably pulls out. The State Department’s man on the ground Eric Petrosian, along with Danish EU rep Annika Sondergaard are at a loss why, but after doing a little investigative work soon learn a shadowy figure with the nom de guerre Marko Barcelona is pulling strings behind the scenes. His goal isn’t just to scuttle the peace process but reenergize simmering animosities and ultimately plunge Bosnia and probably the entire region into another round of bloody warfare.
Holy cow what a fun novel. I found The Wolf of Sarajevo fast-paced, intelligent, dark and at times, even wickedly funny. (Perhaps for those reasons it reminded me a bit of Chris Pavone’s outstanding 2012 debut novel The Expats.) Palmer knows Bosnia and its history and none of this should be a surprise since he spent 25 years in the State Department, much of it in the former Yugoslavia. Believe me, I have no problem recommending this terrific page-turner.