Review: Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

30 September 2007

voices1.gif Thanks to the efforts of translators, there is now an increasing number of works of non-English crime writers available to us. This is especially true of the Scandinavians, and in this case the Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indridason. His previous books that I have read featuring his detective, Erlendur Sveinsson and his colleagues, were Tainted Blood and Silence of the Grave. While Iceland, and its particularities are a feature of the books, it is increasingly the character of Erlendur which they explore through the crimes he investigates.

In all of the books, the past holds the key to the crime under investigation – in Tainted Blood (originally published as Jar City) it is a forty-year old crime; in Silence of the Grave it is a long-buried body found in a building development; and in Voices, it is the past of the victim. Family tragedies, pains and struggles drive the plot, as factors in both the crimes and in Erlendur’s life. Collectors and what drives them seem to be significant, because they also feature.

The story is about the death of a hotel doorman, who turns out to have been a child singing prodigy, but whose career and family relationships have fallen apart. However, his records have attracted the attention of collectors, and are now reputed to have considerable value. The action takes place in the days that run up to Christmas, and Erlendur is in a very strange mood – taking up residence in the hotel while the investigation takes place, while the issues of family and relationships that are revealed in the murder investigation prompt flashbacks into his own family history around the loss of his younger brother in a blizzard. There is also another parallel story going on in the background about an investigation and possible prosecution of a father for physically abusing his son. So much of the book is about the relationship between fathers and sons (and daughters), and between siblings. Throughout the investigation people keep back information that would help resolution or understanding, and it takes time for the real sequence of events and their drivers of shame and guilt and responsibility to be revealed. And this applies as much to Erlendur’s relationship with his troubled daughter as it does to any of the other relationships being investigated. Everything is not always as it seems, however, and we need to remember that.

The importance of collecting and collectors goes beyond a plot mechanism, as Erlendur says:

Isn’t collecting an attempt to preserve something from your childhood? Something to do with your memories, something you don’t want to let go but keep on cultivating and nourishing with this obsession?

In his case, it is the memory of his brother’s death that meant, in his words, “I’ve avoided looking anything in the face ever since” and led, eventually, to his divorce and neglect of his own children. For his daughter, Eva Lind, it is the memory of a family that never really was, and that she has been looking for ever since.

This book focuses more on Erlendur and less on his colleagues than I recall from the previous books. They are there contributing information, and worrying about finding time to spend their families in preparing for Christmas – providing a nice contrast to the Erlendur’s state of emotional suspension. If there is one thing that made me feel a little let down it was the fairly late clarification of the relationship that drove the crime, although it is perfectly consonant with the themes of the story. However, the book works, and Arnaldur Indridason is definitely on my must read list.

Details: Publisher: Vintage ISBN: 9780099494171

Other books by Arnaldur Indridason:
Sons of Dust, Silent Kill, Tainted Blood/Jar City, Silence of the Grave, The Draining Lake, Arctic Chill

Rugby: Winning the World Cup

22 September 2007

The 2007 Rugby World Cup is getting to an interesting stage, but is the result inevitable? What sparked this post is an article in the New Zealand Herald by Robbie Deans, Crusaders coach and formerly part of the All Black coaching team, in which he sets out the view that:

To win the World Cup, a team has to think it can. It then has to transfer this into a series of meaningful actions that grows belief.

While there will be up to eight so-called contenders who will be trying to convince themselves that they can win the tournament as we head towards the quarter-final phase, the reality is just two teams know they can win it: New Zealand and South Africa.

He then goes on to outline why this is so, i.e. that the South Africans have experience of winning, with the nucleus of the side beating New Zealand at under-21 level, plus the success of South African sides in the Super 14, plus strength of key players, plus effective leadership. He doesn’t elaborate on why New Zealand assumes it can win but I think we can take that as axiomatic – the All Blacks always assume they will win.

I agree with Robbie Deans, and I think his thesis is confirmed by the English win at the 2003 World Cup. It’s my belief that England knew they could win the Cup when they beat the All Blacks in Wellington in June 2003, even when down to thirteen men at one stage. This confidence took them through to ultimate victory in Sydney later in the year. New Zealand contributed to England’s Wellington victory through selection decisions and a lack of agility to adjust the game plan. In particular, that game marked the All Black debut of Ma’a Nonu, and the selection of a still green Rodney So’oialo at No 8. Now don’t get me wrong, Rodney is now a great player and one of the most effective All Black forwards, but in 2003 he was still learning. Similarly, Ma’a Nonu was very promising, still is, but to debut against a strong England side was a risk. The outcome was that New Zealand were reactive, played the game the way England wanted it played, and lost.

The risk that now arises, and which also derives from a New Zealand decision, is the point Robbie Deans makes about South Africa’s success in the Super 14. The winning records established by South African sides in this year’s competition can be largely attributed to the decision by New Zealand Rugby to rest key All Blacks for most of the Super 14 as part of the conditioning campaign for the World Cup (I know, I know, this could be challenged – but what are the Hurricanes without Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo). While the conditioning programme may well contribute to the All Blacks reaching the finals, it would be ironic if it also served as a mental conditioning for the Springboks, who should be their opponents in that final in Paris.

Today saw France defeat Ireland, and neither country looks, or plays, as though they believe they can win the World Cup. I was surprised that Robbie Deans didn’t include Australia in his list of believers, especially since they are the only side to have beaten the All Blacks this year, and also because they have the star players and are the most agile thinkers of the major contenders. While some of their star players might be just too old this time around, there are others who are still young, fresh and fast.

So things are starting to get a bit interesting, even if it is only around whether England, Ireland, Wales and France can stagger into the quarter-finals, or suffer some ignominy at the hands of more lowly-ranked nations.

One thing, though, is that this World Club has been clearly marked by the triumph of the blogs as a means of communication about the events and people’s take on them. Great engagement!

Review: The Mission Song by John le Carre

14 September 2007

The Mission SongA John le Carre book is immediately recognisable. It is something about the way that the story is conveyed by the characters talking directly to you, confiding in you and flattering you into believing that you share in some arcane knowledge of how the world really works. The Mission Song does not disappoint.

In the earlier Cold War books of Smiley and Karla, the struggle between good and evil was, in the end, difficult to resolve – it was more of an espionage game played between professionals. In The Mission Song, as in The Constant Gardener, the stakes are higher, the anger is real and the sense of outrage palpable. This is another of le Carre’s stories of the small man caught up by more powerful forces, naive, perhaps, but not entirely innocent, and complicit to an extent in his own plight.

In this book, Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, is a part-time, contract interpreter and translator for the British Secret Service. Through accident and coincidence of genes, geography and fortune, and especially for his knowledge of Central African languages, Salvo finds himself sub-let by the British Secret Service to interpret at a meeting where a mysterious syndicate is trying to get the agreement from the hostile factions in a potentially wealthy region of the Congo that would give them independence in exchange for mineral and trade concessions. The events take place on a remote North Sea island where every room and and even the gardens are bugged. Salvo is privy to all of the conversations, and the story is about his increasing engagement with the unfolding of the plot to seize power in that part of the world that is his real home. In particular, he feels a chord of empathy with Haj, the son of a wealthy East Congolese trading family, who seems to respond to and recognise the link between them – exhibited, for Salvo, by Haj’s humming of an old Mission church jingle to show that he remains defiant, despite the pressures applied by the syndicate. The beauty of le Carre’s writing is that this complex set of events and characters and relationships seems entirely clear, logical and compelling. The rhythm of the book is well nigh perfect for the most part, which makes it very hard to put down.

Of course, nothing runs smoothly; it all ends in tears of one sort or another; the really guilty tend to go free; the pawns are destroyed or damaged. This includes Salvo, but having lost so much, he also finds something that may well be more important to him.

Details:Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton ISBN-10: 0316016756 ISBN-13: 978-0316016759

Other books by John le Carre: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, The Secret Pilgrim,The Night Manager, Our Game, The Tailor of Panama, Single & Single, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends

Review: The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

8 September 2007

The Dogs of Winter

On the basis of John Williams’ descriptions, as described in a previous review, I put Kem Nunn on my list of authors to look for. This led me first to Tijuana Straits and then to his earlier The Dogs of Winter, which are the second and third in a trilogy of surf novels beginning with Tapping the Source which, not unexpectedly, John Williams describes as “surfing noir”.

The story is about Jack Fletcher, a clapped-out surf photographer, who is given a last chance to capture shots of a legendary surfer, Drew Harmon, and a mystical surf break – Heart Attacks – in the cold, isolated and shark-ridden waters of Northern California. The magazine funding the venture sends along a couple of younger surfers, to help the saleability of any shots. The tale of the journey north from Los Angeles reflects the change from a known world to a place that is murky, uncomfortable and confused, climatically, physically, socially and morally. In this world Indian tribes feud over fishing rights and are at odds with the white man, preferring to deal in drugs, violence and memories of past traditions. At the heart of the action is a past murder, and it is the responses of Drew and his wife Kendra to this event, and the consequent impact on Jack Fletcher, and Travis, who works for the Indian Council, which drives the story. This involves other deaths, some leading to guilt and consequences, all leading to pain.

I’m not sure where I am on Kem Nunn. This book ends with a six-line sentence:

But then, he had come to the belief that all things were so ordered, from the steps a man took in time, to the tracks of a storm, the likes of which came with the season, exchanging their energies with that of a frigid and turbulent sea, and thereby raising waves as if they were themselves some variation on God’s erring Wisdom and so able to labor their passion into matter.


There are also some egregious errors in syntax – “wretched” when he means “retched”; “throws” for “throes”, etc.

There is the requisite mindless violence and cruelty that makes us despair about human beings. There is a lot of going to and from A to B to C in remote and difficult places, that does seem to go on a bit. But in due course, the bits do all come together – after a fashion – and the characters do end up in a different – and possibly better – place by the end.

However, when he’s writing about the waves and the sea, Nunn is powerful and compelling in conveying the magic and challenge that keeps surfers going back (and I don’t mean the turgid prose quoted above). Other kinds of magic are hinted at as the denouement is reached and the moral dilemmas resolved – sort of.

Tijuana Straits has a lot of similarities in the plot and character (and killer break) – old surfer has another chance, meets girl, helps girl deal with very nasty men, and by doing so helps himself – but its in a warmer climate. Whether he gets the girl, in either book, I won’t say, but remember, this is “noir”.

So, if I see another Kem Nunn I’ll probably read it, but he’s not up there at the top of my list.

Details: Publisher: Scribner ISBN-10: 0671793349 ISBN-13: 978-0671793340

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, Tapping the Source, Tijuana Straits.