And following on from Monday’s post, here’s the second part of the feature on horror in translation that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-
SHOCKING ALL OVER THE WORLD (continued)
Given his name I’d expected Sascha Arango to be either Spanish or Portuguese, but in fact he is German, and the protagonist of his debut novel, THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES (Simon & Schuster pb, 352pp, £7.99), has an Anglophone name while the never named setting feels distinctly Mediterranean. Henry Hayden has everything going for him – he is a critically acclaimed and bestselling novelist, he has a beautiful wife and a lovely house, more money than Croesus. But Henry has secrets, darker than most, and when the young woman he is having an affair with gets pregnant the applecart of his life looks set to overturn, and Henry will do anything to prevent that happening.
This book is pretty much an open mystery in that Henry’s big secret is revealed early on, though there are some murky events in his past that are the subject of a later revelation, with the book engaging the reader’s interest on the level of wondering how he will get away with what he does, always staying one step ahead of the police. The book’s blurbs raise comparisons to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley character, and from what I know of that, which isn’t really a lot beyond the Matt Damon film, it’s a fair cop, but at the same time this is the lightweight version of the character. We’re asked to believe that Henry is utterly amoral and ruthless, but all his problems seem to stem from an inability to say no to the pregnant girlfriend, who he doesn’t care for as much as he does his wife. His actions seem more accidental and spur of the moment than intended, criminal acts that he just blunders into, with any planning done in retrospect. Negligent homicide is par for the course as far as this character is concerned (and yes, the same could be said of Tom Ripley for the most part, at least in the Damon interpretation of the character). But, all blurbs aside, at bottom Henry is not some cold, calculating criminal mastermind, but somebody who just seems to be bumbling through.
And there is little consistency to his character either, with Henry pausing to commit acts that would see him in line for the Good Samaritan of the Year Award, such as saving the life of the unofficial biographer who is about to disrupt his own, or surreptitiously paying for repairs to a friend’s fishing vessel. Perhaps the detachment with which he does these things is intended to telegraph his sociopathy, but to me it just felt like the author was making it all up as he went along, with little regard for character consistency. I’m not saying that Arango’s depiction of Henry’s character is inaccurate in psychological terms, but that it doesn’t feel convincing. I never had the sense that there was any real depth to this book, or that events were playing out as they did for any reason other than author whim. It was entertaining in a pass the time sort of way, but Henry Hayden is not in contention to be one of the great villains of fiction, another Ripley or Hannibal Lecter, and I suspect I will have forgotten nearly everything about the book in a few months’ time. Oh, and anyone who takes Henry as a role model for the writing life is way overdue a reality enema.
Scandinavian noir is very much in fashion at the moment. THE CHOSEN (Simon & Schuster pb, 592pp, £7.99) by Kristina Ohlsson is the fifth volume in a series detailing the work of an elite Swedish police unit headed up by Alex Recht and investigative analyst Fredrika Bergman. It opens with a pre-school teacher getting shot in front of a Jewish school in Stockholm and continues with the abduction of two Jewish boys, who later turn up dead with paper bags over their heads on which are drawn silly faces. The case is linked to a Jewish urban legend, that of a supernatural killer called the Paper Boy, a bogeyman figure used by parents to keep their young under control. But because of the Jewish angle and possibility that this is a hate crime, the police have to seek the help of the security services, and Recht’s contact Eden Lundell is holding back information for reasons of her own, while Mossad agent Efraim Kiel wanders in and out of the action at will.
I had some reservations about this. A great deal of the plot hinges on the fact that the parents of the missing boys are holding back information for no good reason, thus forcing the police to pursue various red herrings and allowing a lot of padding to gather. There is an element of plot convenience in that a former colleague of Recht’s finds himself employed by the Jewish community as security head, putting him in the ideal place to drip feed clues to his former boss. And I was rather irritated by the interludes which foreshadow the murder of more children, especially as they were slanted to muddy victim identity issues for the reader, a tactic that in these circumstances felt rather unnecessary and overly contrived (e.g. let’s have two of our female leads out of town, let’s have them both carrying violins).
Against all that, there are engaging characters here, each with their own back stories and personal problems that add depth to the story, the interplay between the two lead investigators a particular delight and entirely credible. There is a twisty and absorbing mystery to be solved, and some satisfyingly convoluted plot developments. We get insider information on the workings of the intelligence community and the police, all of which I’m going to guess is kosher given the author’s background as a political scientist and Counter-Terrorism Officer. The Swedish setting is magnificently realised, with the cold seeping off the page and the icy grandeur of the buildings casting their shadow over the story. Elsewhere we have trips to London and Israel, the latter especially effective in conveying the sense of another land and culture, one where different rules apply. There is a feeling of verisimilitude to the whole enterprise, that this is how the police operate. And at the same time the Paper Boy angle adds a degree of resonance, the idea that actually this could be a whole lot weirder than we, or the characters, believe or expect. Finally, perhaps the thing I liked the most, at the end the police think they have cracked the case, but actually it is only we, the readers, who have the whole story. Overall this was a gripping and enjoyable read, and I’d have no hesitation in picking up other books by Ohlsson.
(TO BE CONTINUED)