Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On My Bedside Table (if I had one)...

...would be a large pile of books, some read, some in progress, some waiting.

Since, however, I don't have such an item of furniture, books tend to get piled (well, neatly stacked) on shelves or the floor until I can get to them.

Recent additions to the library include The One From The Other, a novel of post-war German private eye Bernie Gunther, in which Philip Kerr's eponymous hero finds himself involved in a missing persons case where the client wants the subject to stay missing; Faceless Killers, the first of Henning Mankell's Wallander series, in which the detective is introduced in the investigation of a brutal murder on a remote farm in Sweden; and Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in his so-called Millennium Trilogy, a locked-room mystery set on an island and introducing the unlikely pairing of Mikael Blomkvist, journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, the titular character, a young woman with a troubled past who finds herself assisting Blomkvist with solving a forty-year-old murder.

I've long been a fan of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, following the adventures of the Weimar-era homicide detective in Berlin's KriminalPolizei or KRIPO, striving to do his job while the Nazis begin their rise to power. Forced to quit the police, he becomes the hotel detective at the famous Adlon Hotel, before finding himself back in uniform and co-opted into the SS. Choosing a combat assignment on the Russian Front rather than continue in his police battalion, Gunther survives the war and life as a POW under the Russians and returns to Germany, trying (and failing) to run a hotel with his wife in (of all places) the town of Dachau before giving up and returning to his old trade as a detective, this time in Munich.

Kerr weaves fiction and history deftly, evoking the realities of pre- and post-war Germany while crafting solid, almost Chandler-esque detective fiction. Actual historical figures move through the stories, among them some of the most evil characters of the era, and Kerr effortlessly conveys Gunther's distaste for Nazism and its proponents, while painting a portrait of a proud society destroying itself from within and the struggle to rebuild.

In Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell gives us another character in the archetypal mould of the divorced detective, complete with problems that only his work keeps at bay. The difference, of course, is that the stories are set in Sweden, and thus while character types are familiar, the locales and customs may not be, certainly to readers used to skyscrapers, high-speed pursuits and 9mm automatics. Having recently seen episodes of both of the series produced lately that feature the character, with Kenneth Branagh in the English-language version and Krister Henriksson in the Swedish-language drama, I was sufficiently interested to go in search of the first novel, and I wasn't disappointed.

The late Stieg Larsson wrote three novels featuring Lisbeth Salander, and I've just finished the first. There is a Swedish-language movie version on release at the moment which I'd like to see, and I understand a Hollywood adaptation is in the works. (My casting suggestion would include Natalie Portman as Salander, with Stellan Skarsgaard as Martin Vanger and nobody but Max von Sydow as Henrik Vanger.) The book follows Salander and Blomkvist as, hired by octogenarian industrialist Henrik Vanger, they investigate the disappearance, forty years earlier, of his niece, Harriet, from the family home on an island from which the only bridge was blocked. Along the way they uncover family secrets and intrigue, and are met with resistance by those intent on keeping the truth hidden. Intermixed with this story are the personal lives and backgrounds of the two protagonists, who both grow as sympathetic, three-dimensional characters long before the end of the novel. Excellent stuff.

I'm about to begin book two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, which finds Salander on the hook for murder...

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