A heroine with uncanny powers from Peter Høeg, an epic set in Berlusconi’s Italy, unconventional sleuths from Fred Vargas, and a frozen corpse
The late Henning Mankell once said that the book he most wished he’d written was Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – with the caveat that he would have reworked the unsatisfactory sciencefictional ending (his reservations about that book’s coda were widely shared). Had the creator of Kurt Wallander lived to read Høeg’s new book, The Susan
Effect (Harvill Secker, £16.99, translated by Martin Aitken), there is little doubt that he would have once again wanted to rejig the unlikely climax. Høeg’s signature character, Smilla Jaspersen, had an almost supernatural intuitive ability involving weather that aided her deductive skills, and the author echoes that here by giving the eponymous Susan a similar gift: the ability to compel interlocutors to tell the truth. But Susan – who also possesses an Olympian sex- ual appetite – is responsible for putting her equally odd family in danger when she is called on to investigate a clandestine thinktank called “The Future Committee”, and finds the stakes are nothing short of apocalyptic.
Interestingly, Miss Smilla was marketed as literary fiction (about, among other things, Denmark’s post-colonial legacy), with its crime fiction trappings seen as incidental, in the same way that the axe murders in Crime and Punishment are less important than the study of guilt and redemption. But Høeg is evidently no snob, and now seems happy to move decisively into the less “respectable” field of crime. Judged in genre terms, this is an artfully written, exuberant thriller with a mercurial and interesting central character. It will please many – or at least those in whom the ending doesn’t inspire a Mankell-like desire to do a rewrite.
From Denmark to Italy – but none of Høeg’s ornate use of language is to be found in the caustic and blunt Suburra by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo (Europa Editions, £13.99). This massive crime epic, already adapted for TV, is translated by Antony Shugaar in unfinessed fashion (“Samurai ripped them into shreds. His friend never even fired a shot. Then they shovelled the remains into trash bags and dropped them into the Tiber”). Italy, with its endemic political and religious corruption, is fertile territory for crime fiction. Choosing the Berlusconi era as it enters its long-overdue final phase, Bonini and De Cataldo (a magistrate and journalist respectively) set their narrative in Ostia, a rundown and lawless area of Rome. The financial crisis of 2008 has allowed the mafia to gain even greater influence over the police, their own criminal foot soldiers, far-right extremists and a deeply compromised Catholic Church plagued by sex scandals. There’s no nuance here, but Suburra is a reminder that crime fiction can say as much about a society as other genres.
More European criminality in the distinctly off-kilter The Accordionist
(Harvill Secker, £16.99) – but then, the eccentric literary world of French writer Fred Vargas (here translated by Siân Reynolds) has quirkiness as a given. The eponymous musician is the principal suspect when two Parisian women are killed. He flees to sanctuary with Marthe, a former sex worker and the nearest thing he has known to a mother; Marthe then inveigles former investigator Kehlweiler into taking an unorthodox approach to unmasking the real murderer. The book is as beguiling as previous entries in the Three Evangelists series, with the pleasure here coming from the comic interplay between the unconventional sleuths. And (as this is Vargas) a pet toad has a significant role.
After so many tired police procedurals, who can produce something different in the genre? Sarah Ward, as
A Patient Fury (Faber, £12.99) demonstrably proves. Like Ann Cleeves, Ward infuses a degree of Scandinavian chilliness into her resolutely English scenarios, and has a gift for the macabre image – such as a burning body, strung from a ceiling, which turns slowly to face those who have discovered it. Diminutive DC Connie Childs finds that the key to three murders in a Derbyshire house may lie with an asyet-undiscovered fourth body. Readers may initially wonder why
The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet (No Exit, £12.99) bagged a big Norwegian prize. But those who persist will realise that the longueurs are intentional, and patience pays dividends. Winter holds Norway in its grip. Left-leaning lawyer Vilhem Thygesen finds a frozen corpse in his garden – that of a young woman, the victim of a bloody knife attack. The police dismiss the murder as drug related, but then a member of a biker gang once represented by Thygesen dies in what appear to be accidental circumstances. The common denominator in both cases – the bolshie, 60ish lawyer – is suddenly of interest to the police, who have long nurtured a dislike of him. It doesn’t hurt that the translation is by the reigning monarch of the art, Don Bartlett.