Jo Nesbo – The Bat

The Bat is the first Jo Nesbo novel I’ve read, and in fact among only a few Scandinavian crime fiction books. It tells the story of Harry Hole, a Norwegian detective sent to Sydney following the brutal murder of a Norwegian there. He, of course, is a troubled cop dealing with alcoholism and the past mistakes his condition caused (particularly, the death of a fellow officer). But he is also a brilliant detective. You know the type. It’s a cliche but works when written well (I’m thinking of Lawrence Block in particular).

They track the killer down , eventually, but we meet a host of unfortunate people on the way, many of whom appear for brief periods, to be the killer – including Andrew, a high functioning drug addict and fellow police officer and Otto (the bat), a troubled gay man, Joseph an alcoholic aboriginee, drug dealer Evans White. And we meet Birgitta, a fellow Scandinavian, with whom Harry has a brief and tragic affair.

I enjoyed it, in an Ian Rankin kind of way. It was a cut above a lot of conventional page-turner crime fiction in that the characters were largely believable, the plot was interesting and credible, and, importantly, it was very easy to read. The most compelling parts were not the tracking of the criminal but the troubles of the main protagonist Harry Hole.

But, for all its entertainment, it is the kind of book that is largely forgettable. Hence the need for this blog post!

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Like its contemporary Girl on a Train, Gone Girl is part of a supposedly new genre of ‘psychological thriller.’ 

It tells the story of a couple who start off happy but end up with disappearances, accusations and murder. It alternates between each of their stories – Amy a rich New Yorker, Nick from parochial Missouri. Both out of work, they move back to Nick’s Missouri hometown and their relationship unwinds.

We see his chauvinistic tendencies first and then her controlling insecurities. The story twists and twists some more until the bizarre, if slightly far fetched truth, emerges. The end is strong in its ambiguity, revealing one of them as a dangerous murderer; yet they stay together because they need one another, despite everything.

Whether the label of psychological thriller describes anything new or not I don’t know – probably not – but Gone Girl, like Girl on a Train, works. What they in common is alternating first person narratives from unreliable narrators that gradually reveal what has happened. And what they both share, too, is a sophisticated understanding of our inner-minds that goes beyond the average crime fiction novel. Girl on a Train’s particular insight is into alcoholism and the psychology of being alone. Gone Girl’s is into relationships, what we know and don’t know about people we are close to, and how we can choose something because we need it, even if it is no good for us.

A strong novel worthy of it’s acclaim.

Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

I don’t read a lot of horror which may or may not explain why I was captivated by Ligotti’s book of short stories.

There are around twenty stories, each telling an eerie and disconcerting tale of strange occurrences in a world devoid of hope. It is horror (or perhaps what seems to be referred to as speculative or weird fiction) with a focus on creating an atmosphere or creeping terror rather than any recourse to violence or gore. Each story is written in a flowing but formal matter of fact tone, which adds to the distance the reader feels.

Take The Town Manager, which tells the odd story of a town which has a manager who runs it. There has been a succession of managers, each bringing in new and stranger decisions, with the latest boosting tourism by forcing all the shopkeepers to turn their stores into bizarre carnival-like attractions. As always the town manager eventually disappears. The protagonist leaves the town, only to be approached and asked to be the next town manager.

Our Temporary Supervisor is perhaps the most powerful in the collection. Written in the first person it describes a factory where the supervisor is replaced by a dark phantom like presence and, more strangely still, where a new worker appears who is faster and works harder than everyone else. Not to be seen to be lazy or inefficient, everyone else starts to work longer and longer hours until their lives are spent working in the factory, rarely leaving or stopping.

Many of the stories are driven by themes of determinism, of dark forces – both supernatural and the very material power of capital – driving everyone’s behaviour, of our lives being the plaything of others. The books are full of despair and almost entirely lacking in warmth or character. Yet they are absolutely compelling reading, as if you are being forced to read on by powers beyond your control ….