“The Department of Sensitive Crimes” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive CrimesOccasionally, a book comes along that I feel uniquely well-qualified to review. Such is definitely the case with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, the first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s new series featuring Swedish detective Ulf Varg. Not only have I been reading the author’s books for many years now, but because I was born in Sweden and have spent a lot of time there, I felt I would have a good sense for how authentically Swedish the characters and settings seem to be.

And the answer is… not very. The book is set in Malmö, which is located in southern Sweden, just across the Öresund Bridge from Copenhagen. I will admit that while I have crossed that bridge, I have never actually visited Malmö, but really, he could have chosen Karlstad or Mora or Göteborg and it wouldn’t have made much difference. There is a plot point that requires Varg to make a crucial discovery at a nude beach, and it is probably true that the province of Skåne has more beaches than other parts of the country. But otherwise, there’s no flavor of the city itself.

Curious about Zimbabwe-born Scotsman McCall Smith’s connections to Sweden, I found this article, which states that the author “has visited Sweden on numerous book tours” and is a big fan of Swedish crime shows. He calls his new series “Scandi-blanc,” the opposite of the Scandinavian noir of authors like Henning Mankell, Lars Kepler and Jo Nesbø. “The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir. I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits… there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”

Readers of McCall Smith’s Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency will be familiar with the kind of low-stakes crimes investigated by Varg and his colleagues in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority. A man is stabbed in the back of the knee; there are mysterious goings-on at a resort hotel; a college student invents a boyfriend to get her friends to stop asking her about her love life, but when she decides to make him disappear, one of her roommates reports the matter to the police, who must then investigate the case of a missing person who doesn’t actually exist.

I only found one really glaring error: the aforementioned college student was raised by a single mother, who was not able to pursue higher education herself because “she simply could not afford to pay for several years of childcare” along with her studies. Sweden has had free or heavily subsidized childcare available since 1975, so that shouldn’t have been an issue for a girl born in the 1990s.

Avid readers of Scandinavian crime fiction may spot some references to other authors’ work, intentional or not: for instance, there’s already a famous Scandinavian detective named Varg, Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen’s private eye Varg Veum. The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a bit like Copenhagen’s Department Q in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series, and Skåne was where Henning Mankell set his Kurt Wallander mysteries.

Still, despite these nitpicks, I’d happily read another one of these gentle, comically absurd mysteries, and while Ulf Varg is no Martin Beck, he does have a melancholy, reflective side: “He thought of all the ways that so many people felt about life. Life was a matter of regret—how could it be anything else? We knew that we would lose the things we loved; we knew that sooner or later we would lose everything, and beyond that was a darkness, a state of non-being that we found hard to imagine, let alone accept.”

“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.

“Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” by Roselle Lim

Natalie Tan's Book of Love and FortuneIn the world of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, a flock of ceramic bird figurines bursts into song; harsh words draw real blood; and tears crystallize, forming glittering piles, proving that “there was beauty to be found everywhere—even in sadness.” There’s more than a little magic in the San Francisco Chinatown setting of Roselle Lim’s novel. (As someone who lives in the area, perhaps the only thing that I totally couldn’t buy was the delicious smell of dumplings carrying all the way from Chinatown to the Mission; I only wish SOMA and the Tenderloin smelled that good.)

Natalie has been estranged from her agoraphobic mother for seven years, traveling the world and trying to pursue her dream of becoming a chef. Her mother had refused to support that dream, leading to their split. Natalie returns to Chinatown after her mother’s death—oddly, she died right after stepping outside for the first time in ages, and none of her friends and neighbors know why she finally chose to leave her apartment.

One of the things Natalie inherits is her laolao’s (grandmother) book of recipes, which seem to have mystical properties. Natalie wonders if she can bring the fractured, decaying neighborhood together again with her food, perhaps even opening the long-abandoned, decrepit restaurant where her laolao once cooked.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune has a wonderfully vivid Chinatown setting and lots of descriptions of food that will surely make your mouth water. I did find some of the plot twists a little too convenient (for instance, the discovery of her mother’s journals which pretty much answer every question Natalie had ever had), but overall, this is a fresh and fanciful novel, as long as you have an appetite for a few spoonfuls of magical realism.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune will be published on June 11, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Good Riddance” by Elinor Lipman

Good RiddanceMarie Kondo’s blockbuster The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has inspired millions of people to declutter their homes. And now Kondo has also inspired a novel: Good Riddance, which kicks into gear when Daphne Maritch decides that an old yearbook she inherited from her mother doesn’t “spark joy,” so she discards it in her apartment building’s recycling bin.

Who could possibly want a copy of 1968’s The Monadnockian, documenting the high school lives of a bunch of small-town New Hampshire students now approaching their 70s? Not Daphne, who has just moved into a tiny Manhattan apartment following her divorce. Her neighbor Geneva, however, discovers the book, as well as the copious and often snarky notes Daphne’s mom made over the decades about the students she taught (she faithfully attended each of the reunions held by the class of 1968): “Who’s fifty pounds heavier, who’s a failure, who’s wearing the same dress she wore at the last reunion?”

Geneva decides that the yearbook would be great fodder for a documentary film, and heads to New Hampshire to attend the class’s 50-year reunion, with a reluctant Daphne in tow. Geneva’s only previous credit is a doc about the last matzo factory in Brooklyn, so Daphne figures the odds of her actually financing and completing the film are slim. However, the contents of the yearbook cause long-buried secrets to come to light, wreaking havoc in Daphne’s already-precarious life.

Like much of Lipman’s oeuvre, Good Riddance is a light, fluffy, modern comedy of manners. (The fact that Geneva, unable to get her documentary off the ground, decides to turn her project into a podcast instead is a delightful touch.) However, Daphne often seemed a tad immature for a woman in her early 30s, and her romance with another neighbor, an actor named Jeremy who is several years her junior, kept annoying me for a rather petty reason: he is supposedly an actor on the hit TV show “Riverdale.” Now, I’ve never watched a single episode of “Riverdale,” but I have read enough about it to know that it films in Vancouver, B.C., and not New York. Why was Jeremy always at home and never jetting off to Western Canada?

In an afterword, Lipman acknowledges, “I do know that the TV series ‘Riverdale’ is not filmed in New York. I took liberties with the cast, plot, and location for narrative convenience.” By that point, the book’s general amiability had had its effect on me; you can’t stay mad at a book that tries this hard to please.