Sunday, August 09, 2009

Your daily crime fiction chuckle

Nemesis may be Jo Nesbø's best novel, more tightly constructed, sticking more closely to its central story than his others, with only hints of the flashbacks that are such an integral part of The Redbreast. It muses philosophically but unobtrusively on revenge both personal and national and, as usual with Nesbø, it contains wonderful deadpan humor. One of my favorite bits mixes humor and philosophy:

"`One of the most celebrated bank robbers in the world was the American Willie Sutton,' Raskol said. `When he was arrested and taken to court, the judge asked him why he robbed banks. Sutton answered: Because that's where the money is. It's become a standing expression in everyday American English and I suppose it's meant to show us how brilliantly direct and easy language can be. To me, it just represents an idiot who got caught. Good robbers are neither famous not quotable."
I'm not sure where that stands on a scale of philosophical weightiness, but it sure adds to the pleasure of reading the novel. As always with Nesbø in English, Don Bartlett has provided a fluent, unobtrusive translation with the added small pleasure of leaving street names in the original Norwegian.
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Nemesis, which comes after The Redbreast and before The Devil's Star in order of original publication, highlights the desirability of reading the books in that order rather than in order of their appearance in English. Devil's Star was first of the three to be translated, followed by The Redbreast and Nemesis.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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32 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

OT but I dont know if you caught this nice piece about the Philly press in the NYT?

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That piece was the subject of some discussion here. I know the writer from when he used to work here.

The piece was a well-intentioned sympathy card for his reporter friends, and, by extension, for the newspaper that I work for. That's all to the good. Beyond that, I'd best not comment here.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

"Nemesis may be Jo Nesbø's best novel, more tightly constructed, sticking more closely to its central story than his others, with only hints of the flashbacks that are such an integral part of The Redbreast."

This is good news, for me anyway. Thanks for posting the description of _Nemesis_. My greatest complaint about _Redbreast_ was that the novel spent too much time in the past and too little time solving the present day problems. I realize that the novel's argument is that the roots of the present day crimes lie back then, but Nesbo spent what I consider an excessive amount of time in the past.

Otherwise, I found Nesbo to be an excellent writer and one that I should look into again, hoping he spends more time in the present in his mysteries.

I just finished _Child 44_ by Tom Rob Smith and had a similar problem with this work. It, too, is more of a historical novel than a mystery. I will also take a look at his second one, which I hear is out already, as I hear it also is more present-oriented.

In both novels, we see talented writers with considerable skills creating police procedurals with interesting and well-developed characters, on both sides of the law. I'd like to see more emphasis on them and less on the past.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was of mixed feelings about The Redbreast's flashbacks. They're a good story, especially about the cold, enigmatic happenings on the Russian front. But that story feels like a separate book, a historical romance more than a mystery.

Nemesis is a long book, but it sticks largely to the present. I think Nesbø is a restless writer who likes to take his imagination and his characters on long trips, whether abroad or into the past. The Redbreast is the earliest of his novels available in English, and its excursion is longer and more detailed than those in the other books. It would be interesting to see what he gets up to in the first two books, as yet untranslated. Child 44 is a first novel. I'm not sure what young Mr. Smith did in his second books as far as flashbacks.

Incidentally, it's good to see that the Fantastic Fiction Web site lists the Harry Hole novels thus, taking into account the discrepancy between series order and order of English-language publication:

Harry Hole
1. The Redbreast (2006)
2. Nemesis (2008)
3. The Devil's Star (2005)
4. The Redeemer (2009)

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

That was my reaction also. I wish he had written a novel about Norwegian soldiers with the German army at the Russian front. I would have found that quite interesting. I sympathized with them--the Germans or the Russians. I gather that they saw the Russians as being a greater threat to Norway than the Germans. And of course, there were also the Nazi sympathizers.


As it was, he had at least sufficient material for a long short story, and if one includes the hospital segment, almost a novella.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Someone could certainly set a story in Nesbø's mysterious liminal space along the Russian front, perhaps moving back and forth between there and the Vienna hospital. He captures that strangeness wonderfully, I think.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I agree. There's even a mystery there that was quite confusing until the gaps were filled in.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if Nesbø found that mysterious zone so tempting that he just couldn't pass up writing about it in a Harry Hole novel, even at the risk of wandering far from the main action.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Has Nesbo ever said anything about writing _Redbreast_?

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you read French, he discusses The Redbreast briefly here. He talks about "the strange idea that Norwegian resistance is a model for subsequent generations." He appears to hate the idea of Norwegians' delusions of virtue about their wartime conduct. "There is no worse trauma than to live" with it, he tells the interviewer. So it appears that he was fascinated with that idea and wanted to explore its roots.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

It's unfortunate that Nesbo buried it in a mystery, or at least that's the way I think. He should have written a novel focusing solely on those issues.

Or, perhaps it's a marketing issue. Could he have felt that a novel that focused solely on that issue would not have been received by the readers?

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who knows? I've read little about Nesbø, but my tentative guess is that he was restless and felt like telling the war story at the time he was writing a mystery, so decided to go ahead and write it.

But then, I know little about publishing and marketing of books and have not learned to take those points of view into account.

August 10, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Per Fred's comment "I gather that [the Norwegians] saw the Russians as being a greater threat to Norway than the Germans" is perhaps true, politically and militarily, esp. as the war went on but, on a personal note, my mom spent the war in Stavanger, Norway. The Germans commandeered her parents' house, made the family move upstairs, kept all the good food for themselves (my mom still doesn't like fish to this day as that and potatoes was about all they had to eat for years). A friendly, captured Russian soldier carved two wooden toys for her and her sister that they still have. My mom has never "dined out" on her deprivation during this time, doesn't hate Germans (in fact became a h.s. German teacher), etc.

Which brings me to... Peter, I read the Nesbø link in French, too. But was his intent to say that Norwegians cloak themselves in a smug virtuousness about the Resistance? From what I know, this seems a bit out of (national) character to me as none of my Norwegian relatives ever carry/carried on about "what we did/how we suffered in the war" (certainly not like the English when I lived there in the late-1970s) and having been to Norway a number of times in my life I've never gotten a sense of overly congratulatory pride in Norway's resistance movement from family or newspapers/TV. Is Nesbø angry at his country? I'm not quite sure how to understand his take on this period in Norwegian history. In any case, I've recommended this novel to my parents.

And on the subject of amusing translations from the Scandinavian languages... "Slut" for "The End" at the end of a film

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Those are all good questions, and my answer to most is a big, fat "I don't know."

I don't know Nesbø's attitude toward his country, and that was a far from comprehensive interview. My guess is that he's a bit of a freelance as opposed to full-time angry young man. He does say in the same interview, after all, that he's tired ot reading realist Scandinavian crime novels about the day-to-day problems of people in rich countries. So it strikes me that he would not put a lot of energy into criticizing Norway. His novels have seemed to me more personal than political at their moral center.

I've never been to Norway, and I don't know what that country's attitude is toward its wartime past. I don't suspect Quisling will be turning up on its currency any time soon. I also don't know if any particular official act in Norway may have sparked Nesbø's anger in this matter.

It will be interesting to hear what your parents say about The Redbreast. I recommend John Lawton for Englishmen smug about their country's conduct during the war.

August 10, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, I've found Lawton's first two Frederick Troy novels, which take place in 1944/48 and 1956, perfectly capture the smugness I recall so clearly from my time there, always talking about the war as though it had been weeks before instead of decades before. His protagonist's impatience with and observations on British "stiff upper lip" behavior are frequent elements in the stories.

August 10, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Forgot to remark on your comment re Nesbø as "a freelance as opposed to full-time angry young man." Now *that* sounds very Scandinavian!

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Second Violin is rather hard on Churchill, the embodiment of all that virtue.

I mentioned that I heard Lawton read from Second Violin. In person he bristles and rails against the internment policies as a disgraceful period in British history.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A disgraceful episode, that is, not a disgraceful period.

August 10, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I look forward to reading all the Lawtons. Similar to an observation you made about Nesbø's books' publication in the US, Lawton's Troys have not been released here in the order they were published in the UK. They aren't linear in chronology (with "Second Violin" a prequel to the others, I understand) so it doesn't really matter, but it is odd that so many translated-into-English books don't start with the first ones, isn't it?

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Forgot to remark on your comment re Nesbø as "a freelance as opposed to full-time angry young man." Now *that* sounds very Scandinavian!

Yes, anger, social concern, but all in a prudent, somber manner.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I believe that Second Violin was not the first time that Lawton had deviated from chronological order in the Troy series, so order becomes even more confusing with him than with other authors. Is it more important to read the books in order of the time they depict, or in the order in which Lawton wrote them? I wouldn't know; I've read just the one, but I might like to read them by historical period.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oops, I forgot to answer your last question.

I suppose publishers who are thinking about bringing an author's work out in translation want to figure out first which book will sell best, and only later, if at all, think about series order.

August 10, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, if you want to read the Troys by historical period, you started with the first one as, in order of publication, the novels are set in 1944 and '48, 1956, 1963, 1941, 1959, and 1938.

I think Lawton is more interested in excavating history and in good, old-fashioned character development than he is in the thriller component of the novels. He's clearly making parallels between the mid 20th c. setting of his novels and the late 20th/early 21st c. in which the books are written but, as one review noted, allows the reader to come to his own "perspective" on events. I enjoy this very much as I've read too many contemporary authors who tell the reader what he *should* think.

I think your theory re what US publishers publish and when is correct. If they had known the third Troy, "A Little White Death," would be full of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (as well as murder and political crimes) they probably would have waited on the others and published it first.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is A Little White Death the one about the Keeler-Profumo scandal?

In re Lawton's interest in character and history more than thriller elements, I seem to recall reading that Second Violin is less a thriller or crime novel than other novels in the series; the protagonist does not enter until Page 124.

My verification word would have been appropriate for my recent posts about crime fiction and space: suspace

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

"it is odd that so many translated-into-English books don't start with the first ones, isn't it?"

I suspect US publishers are waiting to see if the book does well. Sometimes it's not until the 2nd or 3rd book in the series that publisher decides to go the expense of a translation, along with the usual costs of publishing a book.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

"It all begins with a bank robbery - usually a rather boring crime, I think - but already on page 15 I found myself holding my breath while the female teller counts to 25 at gun point."
From my own review of Nemesis - I am still impressed by Nesbø´s ability to make any subject or crime interesting.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, that makes all the sense in the world, and out-of-order publication is not usually a problem for English-language readers. Nesbø's case is the only one I can think of where I strongly would have preferred to read the books in order. In Fred Vargas' case, on the other hand, order made little difference. It was good to have the first book made available after a number of the others. Reading it was a bit like reading those comics about the origins of some superhero -- a pleasant exploration into the origins of characters I already knew.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, I had not made that obvious connection, but you're right. Nesbø´s ability to drive the attention high is probably one of the reasons I find myself thinking of his books as thrillers. I don't think of most crime fiction I read that way, but with Nesbø, yes.

August 11, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, "A Little White Death" is drawn from the Keeler-Profumo scandal, with a "what if this had happened instead" thrown into the plot. This novel appears to be as much social history (with Troy, as ever, the keen if distant observer of changing times and mores) as thriller/mystery. It's so well-paced it simply reads like a thriller.

I can see why reviewers thought this would be the last of a Troy Trilogy... without giving more away than is on the dust jacket, Troy contracts tuberculosis while in Moscow and the old euphemism for TB, white death, also references the ubiquitous pill-popping at the dawn of Swinging London. Of course, it is the last novel (to date) chronologically, so perhaps it is the last Troy.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, that is quite the plug. I had thought I might begin at the beginning when I take up the Troy books again, but perhaps I'll start with A Little White Death.

I very much like the idea of a portrait of swinging London. I have confidence in Lawton's ability to draw such a portrait, free of moralizing, sensationalism and the appalling commercialism that attends every hip, liberating trend.

August 11, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

My sense on reading The Redbreast was that the story described a situation in which many Norwegians after the war denounced Quisling (why it became a noun meaning "duplicitous" or turncoat - I heard it growing up at least as often as "Benedict Arnold") and purported to have been supportive of the resistance when in fact they sat on the fence to see who would come out on top. A few supported the Germans (as did the main character) and a few were actively fighting the Germans, but most tried to keep their heads down and stay alive without declaring themselves for or against the Germans. The character who did fight for the Germans is disgusted by the revisionist way most people portrayed their own actions and by the way that history was made more comfortable for these people whom he considers hypocrites. There's also a neo-Nazi thread, but the sanitized past (at least according to this embittered character) was the thing that struck me.

I loved this book. I know it was slow in parts (unusual for Nesbo) but I didn't mind. It felt a little like War and Peace in those bits - a reconstruction of the past (and personal experiences in the past) that says something about society now.

I'm guessing The Devil's Star must have been getting a lot of buzz at the Frankfort Book Fair or something and some bright mind said "Hey, we should buy this," coming to the party a bit late. And it is the most "commercial" of the books in terms of pacing and the rather outlandish crimes. Whatever. I'm just glad he's being translated.

I notice a reviewer at LibraryThing says The Redbreast was voted "Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written."

August 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew one of Nesbø's novels had received that honor, but I didn't know which one. Perhaps the historical background you mention had something to do with that, if the book struck a chord with Norwegians.

The Devil's Star also invokes Satanism in a way that several other Scandinavian crime novels also did at roughly the same time. Perhaps this, too, has something to so with the publisher's decision to translate it into English first.

August 13, 2009  

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