Review: Depths by Henning Mankell

21 November 2007

DepthsHenning Mankell has written a series of novels which take us through the life and cases of Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Skane police in southern Sweden. Inspector Wallander is not the happiest of men and the atmosphere of the books reflects this. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, in Depths, makes Wallander look like a model of sanity and decorum. This is someone who is more than troubled, who is in fact a criminal, in many different ways. So this book is the other side of the coin of the Wallander novels – it is about the collapse of a man who tries to understand himself but cannot help embracing the terrors that lie within his mind.

The story is about Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, a commander in the Swedish navy in the early years of WW1. He is a naval engineer, an expert at sounding depths in order to chart channels so that Sweden’s warships can safely navigate the archipelagos of its Baltic coast. He longs to find an unfathomable depth. In the course of his work, Lars chances on a woman, Sara, living on a remote and rocky islet, and becomes obsessed with her, while at the same time obsessing about his relationship with his wife, Kristina Tacker. His relationships with colleagues are strange – his captain drops dead, and his private journal reveals that he hated Lars. Lars strikes out, physically, at others when he is disappointed or frustrated – a seaman, Sara’s cat.

The tale is about Lars’ descent into madness as he succumbs to his obsession with Sara, and returns to her islet. He finds a German deserter living with her, and his descent into his own unfathomable depths begins. The shallow facade of his professional and personal life self-destructs, as his carefully laid plans, lies and stratagems to maintain a facade for his life begin to crumble under the weight of their unreality. There are no navigable channels for Lars – only shoals and reefs and inevitable wreckage.

Depths confirms for me that Henning Mankell is a powerful and thoughtful writer. I always look forward to his books.

The translator of this book is Laurie Thompson, who has also translated Åke Edwardson’s novels, as well as some of Mankell’s other books.

Details Publisher: Vintage ISBN: 9780099488651

Other books by Henning Mankell – see Wikipedia entry.

Review: The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

13 November 2007

pelecanos1.jpgGeorge Pelecanos writes about the mean streets of Washington DC and the surrounding suburbs. In his books he has chronicled the lives and deaths of the people who live there. Their stories are not about national politics or international intrigue – they are about family and about getting along in a sad and violent place. They are about the choices we make and about the realities that drive those choices.

The Night Gardener begins with a murder scene in 1985, one of a series of bodies found in community vegetable gardens that are killed in the same way. Twenty years later another body is found in another such garden, with scary similarities – is the serial killer back? The story focuses on two policemen – Gus Ramone and Dan Holiday – uniformed patrolmen in 1985 but now gone different ways – one is a detective sergeant, the other left the force under a cloud – as they work through their days and circle closer to a resolution of sorts on the killings and on their relationships. We find out a lot about being a cop, from these men and also from T C Cooke, a homicide detective in 1985, now old, ill, but still trying to get the killer he couldn’t catch in 1985.

The story is also about other men who have to make choices about how mean they want to be and why. Romeo Brock and Conrad Gaskins are cousins, making a living by shaking down kids who sell drugs on street corners, until the chance comes for a major score. But major scores bring major risks – death and meagre glory, or life. Ernest Henderson and Michael Tate are the major risk that stalks Romeo and Conrad, and they also have to make a choice – are they killers or not. In each case we find that not all who go down the mean streets are irredeemably mean.

This is above all a story about families and values and how those values can help the right choices be made, but also about how they will not always guarantee that smart choices will be made. Pelecanos sets all of this out against a backdrop of Washington and the tensions of race and poverty and prejudice that show his love and care for his city. His writing is so solid and sure and so well founded in a knowledge and understanding of the places and people that he writes about, that we are locked in to his world and accept it utterly.

But, and there is a but, a sense of preachiness is not far below the surface; the constant cataloguing of places, clothes, cars and other possessions starts to hint at a formula; and the narrative goes on a bit too long in places.

However, this doesn’t really matter. The story works; the characters are believable; the resolution is not predictable. It’s good.

Details: Publisher: Phoenix (Orion) ISBN: 978-0-7538-2211-1

Other books by George Pelecanos
Nick Stefanos series:
Nick’s Trip (1993), Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995)
D.C. Quartet Series
The Big Blowdown (1996), King Suckerman (1997), The Sweet Forever (1998), Shame the Devil (2000)
Derek Strange and Terry Quinn Series:
Right as Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), Hard Revolution (2004)
Shoedog (1994), Drama City (2005), The Night Gardener (2006)

Review: Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

4 November 2007

tapping_the_source1.jpgTapping the Source was written in 1984 and marked the beginning of Kem Nunn’s “surfing noir” novels. The others are The Dogs of Winter, previously reviewed, and Tijuana Straits. I was pleased that I did persist with Kem Nunn, and I can see why this book was a National Book Award First Fiction finalist. It is much better than its successors, with a plot and characters that are more sustainable.

The story is about a young man’s search for what all young men seek – his self. Ike Tucker leaves his life as a motorbike mechanic in the California desert to look for his sister. The only clues to where she might be come from a young surfer who says she was at Huntington Beach, went to Mexico with three men – Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs and Frank Baker – but didn’t come back. Ike sets off for Huntington Beach. He meets Preston, a former gun surfer, now a biker, who teaches Ike to surf and tries to steer him away from his quest (since, of course, he is bound up in it). Ike finds Hound Adams and the rest, and gets sucked into the violence, sex, drugs, porn and surfing scene of Huntington Beach. It turns out that Preston and Hound used to own a surf shop together, using the brand “Tapping the Source” on their boards for a while, but they made some bad moves, and bad friends, things went wrong, at least two girls died. Ike is heading downhill, but meets Michelle, and begins to realise that there is more.

It all comes together as the events reach a tragic climax – Ike recognises something about life and himself, and he finds the key that conclusively links his sister to the events that are unfolding:

It struck him this morning that what he was doing was not separated into different things. Paddling out, catching rides, setting up. Suddenly it was all one act, one fluid series of motions, one motion even. Everything coming together until it was all one thing: the birds, the porpoise, the leaves of seaweed catching sunlight through the water, all one thing and he was one with it. Locked in. Not just tapping the source, but of the source.

At this point, Ike recognises the wreckage of the dream that Preston and Hound had once had, but also that there is hope:

And he saw too that it was not just Preston and Hound who had lost. He thought of the pier, the crowds fighting for waves, the entire zoo of a town crouched on the sand and what had once passed as hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue, because they had all lost and it was one great bummer, one long drop with no way back over the top. It was plain now, plainer than it had ever been before, what Preston had wanted him to see here. And he did see it. Preston had been right. There was something here, in this moment, that was worth hanging on to, that was worth building a life around. And he could see it within reach, if he could only break away now, if he could only go and take Michelle with him.

Ike does survive, thanks in part to having a tattoo, people die, not all of them nasties, and he starts to put his life back together, having resolved his quest. To my mind the writing is better than the later books – the magic of surfing is there in all of them, but in Tapping the Source the action is better conveyed and the focus on Ike to convey it makes for a better structure and more tension.

It would be possible to get all analytical and to draw parallels and extract metaphors from this novel about the way in which people screw up themselves and the world, but I think its best left as a good example of a coming-of-age novel, which first novels often are, and to recognise that its a good and effective example. With sufficient nastiness in it to make it noir.

Details: Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press ISBN-13: 978-1-56025-808-7 ISBN-10: 1-56025-808-X

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, The Dogs of Winter, Tijuana Straits.