“The Breakers” by Marcia Muller

The BreakersI’ve griped a bit about recent entries in Marcia Muller’s long-running Sharon McCone private-eye series—The Breakers is, by my count, #34—mainly the emphasis on the once-scrappy detective’s elevation to the one percent, complete with frequent references to her fancy downtown San Francisco office building, her Mercedes, and the “buttery leather furnishings” in her luxurious Marina District home. Plus, Sharon now has so many employees, friends and relations that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Well, McCone fans rejoice, because The Breakers is the best novel in the series in years, a real back-to-basics private-eye story. As the book opens, a lot of the usual suspects—husband Hy, computer whiz Mick—are out of town, so Sharon has to do most of the investigating on her own, at least initially.

Regular readers will be familiar with Chelle, Sharon’s former next-door neighbor, cat-sitter and all-around enterprising young businesswoman. Now in her 20s, Chelle has purchased a derelict building called The Breakers in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset and is planning to rehab it. Her worried parents reach out to Sharon because they haven’t been able to get in touch with their daughter, who had moved into the run-down apartment complex while she worked on it.

Another resident of the building, Zach Kaplan, tells Sharon he has no idea where she is, either. When Zach takes her on a tour of The Breakers, McCone finds a horrifying tableau in Chelle’s room, hidden behind a decorative Japanese screen: a collage of newspaper clippings about notorious California killers, from Charles Manson to the Zodiac. The grim discovery adds to her feelings of dread about Chelle’s disappearance.

By coincidence, I had just visited the neighborhood where The Breakers is set a couple weeks before I read it; the novel takes place in August, and I enjoyed Muller’s vivid descriptions of the chilly San Francisco summer, with fog “so heavy that it felt almost like drizzly rain.” Gradually, McCone’s associates and loved ones reenter the picture and offer assistance with the investigation, but the focus is always on the detective herself, as diligent and determined as she was in her 1977 debut, Edwin of the Iron Shoes.

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“The Word is Murder” by Anthony Horowitz

The Word is Murder by Anthony HorowitzBy far the most popular review I’ve published on this site in 2018 was that of White Houses by Amy Bloom, a fictionalized retelling of the love story between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. People who have read the book are obviously Googling Parker Fiske (a gay cousin Bloom invented) to find out whether or not he’s real. I can understand the impulse—I found myself reaching for my phone more than once as I was reading Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder, a work of metafiction which features Horowitz himself playing Watson to an eccentric former police detective-turned-consultant named Hawthorne.

Did Horowitz actually take a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson about writing the script for a Tintin movie? (He did.) I already knew that he’d written a Sherlock Holmes novel called The House of Silk, because I had read it. What about his formidable literary agent, Hilda Starke? (She appears to be fictional.) Did he really turn down the chance to work on the “Mamma Mia” musical? (Unknown.)

If I didn’t know better, I might have checked IMDb for Damian Cowper’s filmography, since Horowitz “casts” the character in several real-life TV shows and movies, including “Mad Men,” “Homeland” the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot and “two of the Harry Potter films.” But Cowper’s name will not be found there, since he’s a product of the author’s imagination. Damien is the son of the murder victim, Diana Cowper, who was found strangled with a curtain cord just hours after she’d visited a funeral parlor to plan and prepay for the her own service and burial.

Called in to investigate this puzzling case is Hawthorne, who summons Horowitz to a meeting to pitch a book project. “I want you to write a book about me,” he tells the author. When Horowitz asks why anyone would want to read about him, he responds, “I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.” And the Cowper case is attractive: “She was rich. She’s got a famous son. And here’s another thing. As far as we can see, she didn’t have an enemy in the world. That’s why I got called in. None of it makes any sense.”

Horowitz isn’t sure if he wants to get involved with the prickly Hawthorne, who is forthcoming about the case but oddly secretive about his own life. Nevertheless, he eventually decides to go ahead with the project, and learns that Diana Cowper wasn’t quite as squeaky-clean as Hawthorne initially thought she was.

I am proud to say that I figured out the identity of the murderer, thanks to one clue that leapt out at me, but it doesn’t really matter, because The Word is Murder is another delightfully twisty treat from Horowitz, whose Magpie Murders was one of  my favorite books of 2017. And what a joy to learn that he’s planning at least nine more books in the series. It sounds like the fictionalized and the real-life Anthony Horowitzes will both be keeping very busy.

“Polis Polis Potatismos” (“Murder at the Savoy”) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

korvLet’s talk about mashed potatoes. If you are an American, you probably think of them as a delicious side dish served with steak, meatloaf or fried chicken. But in Sweden, a popular combination is korv med mos—hot dogs with mashed potatoes.

Korv is an ubiquitous street food, usually sold from free-standing kiosks instead of carts, as is common in the U.S. The accompaniments on offer would most likely confuse American visitors. Shrimp salad is a thing a lot of Swedes put on their hot dogs. And so are mashed potatoes. As you can see in the illustration, you can get scoops of potatoes on a hot dog in a bun (korv med bröd, or with bread), for the true carb-a-holic; inside a rolled-up flatbread; or on a plate with a couple of bun-less wieners.

Polis Polis PotatismosWhy do I offer you this culinary/cultural lesson? Because it’s important in understanding the original title of Murder at the Savoy, the sixth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series of police procedurals. That title is Polis Polis Potatismos, which translates to “Police Police Mashed Potatoes.” (My reviews of the first five books can be found here and here.) This week, I decided to do something different and read the original Swedish novel as well as the English version. I wanted to explore how the translators dealt with something that is essentially un-translatable.

The translation is credited to Amy and Ken Knoespel. This is the only book in the series that they worked on (perhaps they were exhausted after trying to figure out how to get around having to explain the title). Ken is now a professor at Georgia Tech. According to LinkedIn, Amy spent much of her career at accounting firm KPMG. How the two of them came to translate this book is something I was unable to discover online. It appears to be the only novel either of them ever worked on.

Murder at the SavoySo what in the world do mashed potatoes have to do with cops? “Polis polis potatismos” is a take-off on “Polis polis potatisgris” (“Police, police, potato pig”), which was reportedly chanted at anti-police protests in the 1960s. In the novel, the bumbling cops Kristiansson and Kvant are tasked with apprehending a suspect landing at Arlanda airport in Stockholm; however, they fail to get there on time because they felt compelled to deal with “a man riding by on a bicycle [who] shouted insults at us.” Further questioning reveals that the duo were actually taunted by the cyclist’s three-year-old son, who exclaimed “Daddy, this little pig” as Kvant was eating a hot dog.

In the Swedish novel, the child cries “Polis polis potatismos” (“he is just three years old and hasn’t learned to speak properly yet”). Naturally, Kvant was eating korv med mos.

This delightfully absurd twist is much more fun than “this little pig,” but how do you convey that in English without including several paragraphs’ worth of footnotes? It would interfere with the amusement of those just wanting to read a good crime story. But it’s a shame that English-language readers miss out on something so funny and significant to the plot.

I could quibble with a few other minor things, like the way Detective Inspector Per Månsson’s favorite cocktail, the Gripenberger, is described as a mixture of gin and “grape soda”—in the original, he’s drinking gin with grapetonic, which is something very different than the sweet purple drink that the American translation brings to mind. Grapetonic is a grapefruit-flavored carbonated beverage, so the Gripenberger is actually just a variation on the normal gin and tonic.

But on the whole, the translation is fine, and Murder at the Savoy is significant as being the first book in the 10-volume series where the authors’ left-wing political leanings are well and truly on display. The murder victim is Viktor Palmgren, a businessman who is, in the words of Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl’s introduction, “given virtually no redeeming or even human qualities… The extremely predictable depiction of the capitalist circles criticized by the book is unrelenting.” However, as a police procedural, it is very enjoyable, as Martin Beck, Månsson, Lennart Kollberg, and the other by-now-familiar characters on the Malmö and Stockholm forces puzzle through sparse clues in order to discover who shot Palmgren. (Of course, if Kvant hadn’t been eating that hot dog, they would have had a much easier time of it. But as is often the case in the real world, one small human screw-up can have massive ramifications.)

To those of us familiar with today’s Scandinavia, as opposed to how things were in 1970 when this book was first published, the milieu of the book often seems unrecognizable; there’s a mention of how polluted the water is (this was certainly true back then, but strict environmental laws have made a huge difference over the past 30 years or so) and Stockholm is described as “an asphalt jungle, where drug addiction and sexual perversion ran more rampant than ever.” As someone who’s spent a lot of time there over the years, I can attest to the fact that it is a clean, safe city, albeit one that constantly seems to be under construction and, much like my current home of the San Francisco Bay Area, suffers from a perennial housing shortage and sky-high cost of living.

Some things never change, though, like the national taste for hot dogs accompanied by a few scoops of mashed potatoes.

“Closer Than You Know” by Brad Parks

Closer Than You KnowThis week, I decided to take a break from the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series and read some contemporary mysteries. The first book I read was awful and I’m not going to say any more than that because while I don’t know the author personally, the crime fiction world is a small one (though I was gratified to see a bunch of negative reviews on Goodreads). The second one, though, was a winner: the latest stand-alone novel by Brad Parks, Closer Than You Know.

Parks, best known for his six-novel series about New Jersey investigative reporter Carter Ross, chose to write most of Closer in the first-person voice of his female protagonist, Melanie Barrick. Melanie is also a rape survivor and a new mom. This is tricky territory, but I think Parks did a wonderful job of making her a well-rounded, complex character you want to root for. And oh boy, if the reader wasn’t firmly in Melanie’s corner from the get-go, this book would not work at all, because she goes through some truly horrendous experiences.

Melanie discovered she was pregnant shortly after her rape, but until the baby was born, she wasn’t sure if the biological father was her rapist or her boyfriend Ben. No matter what happened, Ben vowed to raise the child as his own, and the two of them got married. Unfortunately, it was immediately obvious that pale-skinned baby Alex did not share any DNA with African-American Ben Barrick, but the couple worked to get past the trauma and immediately bonded with their newborn—until their nightmare began.

After going to pick up three-month-old Alex from day care after work, Melanie learns that he has been taken by social services. Thanks to a tip from an anonymous source, a large quantity of cocaine and drug paraphernalia were discovered in the Barricks’ home—in Alex’s nursery, no less. That turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Melanie, who grew up in foster care and has few resources and little financial stability, gets caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic hellscape that seems to presume she’s guilty of all manner of horrible things.

Now, I have to admit that I was pretty certain that Melanie would ultimately be exonerated and get her baby back in the end—it would be too depressing otherwise—so I just kept turning the pages (I did not want to put this book down!), eager to find out what would happen. A couple times, I was pretty certain I had it all figured out, but I turned out to be mistaken. There are a lot of legitimately surprising twists, but none of them seemed gratuitous; if the Gone Girl-inspired domestic suspense craze eventually runs its course, I hope there will always be room on the bookstore shelves for thrillers like Closer Than You Know, which are written with heart and genuinely make you care about the fictional people within their pages.

“The Laughing Policeman” and “The Fire Engine That Disappeared” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Laughing PolicemanThis week, I continued my reread of the Martin Beck series (here’s part one, covering the first three books). My book group had read The Laughing Policeman a few years back, so this was actually my third time reading it. Did that mean I remembered the solution to the crime? I did not. However, it’s a pretty complex case.

A Stockholm city bus is discovered with everyone aboard, including the driver, shot to death (except for one passenger, clinging to life). Among the slaughtered: one of the homicide squad’s own, Åke Stenström. He was found to be holding his service weapon.

What was Åke doing on the bus? No one on the force has a clue whether it’s a coincidence or if he was investigating something unknown to his colleagues. It takes a long time to unravel the solution. Along the way, another case comes to light, involving a murdered woman named Teresa. She was a “strict Catholic… the most moral person imaginable” who was seduced (I believe the 2018 term would be “sexually assaulted”) by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer; this experience turned her into a nymphomaniac (“[She] started running about like a bitch in heat”) who subsequently got involved with underworld figures. Honestly, I do enjoy this series, but reading them all in a row definitely makes you aware of the retrograde sexual politics.

The Fire Engine That DisappearedI thought perhaps book #5, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, would be refreshingly nympho-free, until late in the novel when a policeman goes to interview a possible witness. He knocks on her door, and before he can start questioning her, she casually asks him, “Do you want to sleep with me? It’ll be easier to talk afterward.” (Naturally, the policeman takes her up on the offer.) But let’s look at the rest of the book, shall we?

Inspector Gunvald Larsson is staking out a small apartment building when it suddenly bursts into flame. Larsson is not the most popular person on the homicide squad among his fellow officers, but in this case, he acts heroically, managing to save the lives of several residents. Among those who didn’t make it out is Göran Malm, the man the police were shadowing. Since he was dead before the blast, it looks like he had intended to commit suicide; did something go horribly wrong? Or was it murder?

There are some cute moments involving the son of a police officer, whose birthday present, a toy fire engine, has mysteriously gone missing; Martin Beck is very much just one of the ensemble here, though we do get some additional glimpses into his rather dysfunctional family life. This time, he begs off of a weekend family trip because of job demands, but he actually just stays home and drinks cognac and works on his model ship. In the evening, he lies in the bathtub reading a Chandler novel. It may be the happiest we’ve ever seen him; but never fear, soon he’s back on the case, complaining about the polluted Stockholm city air and the overcrowded subway.

“Roseanna,” “The Man Who Went Up In Smoke” and “The Man on the Balcony” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A couple of decades ago, I purchased a complete set of the Martin Beck novels by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The editions I owned were mass-market paperbacks, first published in the U.S. by Vintage in the 1970s. They have remained in my collection ever since, even through several moves. I had always intended to reread them someday.

RoseannaWith everything going on in the world right now, it seemed like a good time to revisit the Stockholm of 50 years ago, so I picked up the first book in the series, Roseanna. I turned to the first page, and was immediately struck by how tiny the font size was. Combined with the brittle yellow pages, I found it almost impossible to read. Cheap paperbacks were not made to last; however, living in the modern era has some advantages, as I was able to promptly download the Kindle edition (thanks, Libby)! The ongoing popularity of the series has ensured that it has remained available; a handsome set of trade paperbacks is now available from Penguin Random House, and each book now features an introduction by a well-known writer. Henning Mankell, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly, Colin Dexter and Jonathan Franzen are among those who contributed essays.

Roseanna introduces readers to Martin Beck, the Everyman homicide inspector who plugs away at his job (he often finds a lot to complain about, too). He seems to live on a diet of cheese sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes, and has found the silver lining in all the nights he has to work—it means he has to spend less time with his wife, Inga.

In Roseanna, Beck is dispatched to the town of Motala after the body of a young woman is dredged from a lake. At first, the focus of the investigation is determining the woman’s identity; no one seems to have reported her missing, and she was naked, so there was no ID on her. Once they finally learn who she is, the police attempt a rather risky stunt in a last-ditch effort to find out who killed her.

The Man Who Went Up In SmokeThe emphasis in Roseanna is how plodding policework done over a lengthy period is sometimes required in order to solve a crime; Beck finds himself slightly obsessed. He encounters a very different case in book #2, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke. Beck’s family vacation in the Stockholm archipelago is interrupted when he has to return to the city and then fly to Budapest to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist who traveled there on assignment.

“It seemed to [Beck] quite ridiculous that he should be gadding about Budapest trying to find a person to whom he was completely indifferent. He could not remember ever being given such a hopeless, meaningless assignment.” The contrast with Roseanna, which saw Beck completely wrapped up in his investigation, is clear.

The Man on the BalconyThe Hungarian job is by its nature pretty much a one-man show, since Beck is working far away from his colleagues and for various reasons is not supposed to be in contact with the local police. The third novel, The Man on the Balcony, depicts an all-out effort by the entire Stockholm police force to discover who is killing young girls in the city’s parks. (According to the introduction by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, it is based on a real 1963 case.) This book also introduces us to Kristiansson and Kvant, the two patrolmen who function as a bit of comic relief in several books in the series.

I wouldn’t say the books are hilarious, but there are some chuckles to be had. (In an interview, Maj Sjöwall said that she often “tried to make [her late co-writer Per Wahlöö] laugh” as they were writing the novels.) Having watched Swedish state TV myself, an anecdote in Roseanna about a documentary airing while Beck is interviewing a witness—”[he] looked with despair at the television screen which was now showing a program that must have been at least one month old about picking beets in southern Sweden”—struck me as quite funny.

The books are obviously dated; in one novel, the death of an American tourist requires Beck to get in touch with a police officer in the U.S., which he must do either by staticky long-distance call or by sending a letter. And when a suspect is being tailed, the policeman following him has to check in by making calls at public phone booths.

In the 1960s, of course, Sweden was frequently thought of as a libertine’s paradise, thanks to the export of notorious films like “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and Swedish erotica magazines. Each of the first three Beck books features at least one sexually voracious female character. (“Ari is a nymphomaniac. There’s not much you can do about it,” one man matter-of-factly explains to Beck in The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.) From my vantage point in 2018, I’m not sure if the authors were leaning into the stereotype for the titillation of their readers, or if they were influenced by femme fatale characters in detective novels and films.

However, I’m pleased to report that the series still holds up beautifully, thanks to the authors’ solid plotting and well-drawn characters. I look forward to diving into the next seven books.

“The Seagull” by Ann Cleeves

The Seagull by Ann CleevesIs there a readers’ equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me”? Ann Cleeves’ The Seagull is the type of book that’s usually right in my wheelhouse—British police procedural, strong female character—but it took me almost two weeks to get through. I had a lot of distractions, ranging from planning a big trip to hosting an out-of-town guest, and I often found myself unable to concentrate on the words on the page. Instead, I’d turn to my phone and scroll through Twitter or look at Instagram photos of cute hedgehogs. Or I’d pick up a different book, read the first couple pages, and then put it back down.

A few months ago, I first encountered the phrase “reading slump”—”the dreaded moment when the words on the page simply fail to captivate them and when picking up a book feels like a 50 pound weight,” according to Bookish.com. The Internet is full of advice for folks in a slump, ranging from the odd (“ripping pages out of a book you don’t like but happen to own is oddly therapeutic”) to the obvious (“reread an all-time favorite”). Were it not for my self-imposed obligation to post something here each week, I might find myself taking a bit of a break from reading. But let’s hope I pull out of this slump soon, since normally, reading is one of the best parts of my day!

As for The Seagull, this is the eighth book in Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series; my book group was reading it, which is why I didn’t start with the first Vera book (though this feels like the sort of series where the individual novels can stand alone). It is the basis for a popular TV adaptation featuring Brenda Blethyn, who has described Vera as “big, fat and ugly.” The inspector’s appearance is frequently commented upon in the book, to the point where I felt it got a little excessive; one of her underlings notices her Velcro-strapped sandals, which reveal her “filthy” feet: “[he] felt a moment of revulsion.”

Vera is one of those detectives who is married to her job, which she does exceptionally well. In The Seagull, she is dealing with a cold case involving the discovery of two dead bodies which had remained hidden since the 1990s. One is identified right away, but the other is a mystery. Vera must consult a man in prison, John Brace, for information about the crime; Brace was a bent cop who was close friends with Vera’s late father, who frequently associated with shady figures, a group “held together by loyalty and shared secrets, that strange kind of male friendship that seemed more important to those involved than either marriage or family.”

At 400 pages, The Seagull seems a bit overlong, and the web of crimes, both modern-day and long-ago, grows almost too tangled. Apparently the Vera TV episodes each feature a complete case and clock in at a brisk 90 minutes. The story Cleeves tells in The Seagull is a good one, and maybe watching a pared-down version would prove more satisfying than reading the book.