IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: European Crime Fiction takes the spotlight via the debut novel of a Swedish author, a French graphic novel, and one set in the UK. And we have a sci-fi alt-history tale set in Germany 1945.
‘Geiger’ by Gustaf Skördeman
Agneta—a grandmother, married to Stellan, a noted TV personality in his time—is saying goodbye to her daughters and their children, when the phone rings. A single word is uttered, geiger, and without hesitation, Agneta retrieves a gun she has kept in a drawer, sneaks up on Stellan, shoots him in the head, and “disappears.” Sara works in the Vice Squad of Stockholm’s police force and grew up as a playmate to the two daughters of Agneta and Stellan. Although technically not assigned to the case, her proximity to the family, and wanting to know what happened to Stellan, gets her involved—especially as the police are treating the disappeared Agneta as having been kidnapped by Stellan’s killer.
Vying to be a Stieg Larsson successor, Gustaf Skördeman successfully turned this mystery thriller from Sweden into the ultimate sleeper story. After all, we are talking about how many decades that this sleeper agent has just been waiting for the call to “awaken.” Enmeshed in the proceedings are one Abu Rasil, considered a terrorist responsible for many of the bombings in the 1980’s who simply vanished, and the peculiar family history of Sara, whose mother turns out to have been the cleaning woman at Stellan’s home. The daughters Malin and Lotta similarly have deep secrets. It’s one shocking revelation after another as we uncover the Stellan family, and what has been lying underneath all those decades. I mention Larsson in the sense that this is about those who ruled, or dominated, Swedish politics and business.
‘La Grande Odalisque’ by Vives/Ruppert + Mulot
If ever you have wondered what would happen if three of the brightest French cartooning stars came together and collaborated, you’ll find the answer in this new graphic novel. Carole and Alex have been working as professional art thieves for close to a decade and their synergy is half amazing, half amusing. While Carole has purloined a painting and is trying to escape from the Musee d’Orsay, Alex is derelict in her duties as crime partner because she’s on her mobile and can’t get over the fact that her current boyfriend is breaking up with her. When the next assignment involves the Ingres painting at the Louvre from where we get this novel’s title, a third member is recruited, and that’s Sam, a stuntwoman/motorcyclist.
Wicked, funny, fast-paced, smart, sexy and very French, this caper adventure knows how to stay revved up. If you felt the Ocean’s film led by women thieves was such a misfire, and enjoyed “Lupin” and are nostalgic for such films of yesteryear such as “Kill Bill” or “Atomic Blonde,” then you’ll enjoy this graphic novel. The three women are ultra-violent. They are physical. Then, without warning, they’re hilarious as they suddenly go vulnerable, soft, and neurotic. The dynamic between Carole and Alex, with all the subtext and what’s not being said, is entertaining—and the entry of newcomer Sam leads to surprises and additional nuance. And the three authors know how to balance the action with the character exposition. Fun read with an “old school” art work.
‘A History of What Comes Next’ by Sylvain Neuvel
One of the more imaginative young sci-fi authors on the scene today, Sylvain Neuvel is back with his latest book—and it’s one super-crazy hybrid. It’s alternative history that has most of the action taking place around 1945, then it’s pure sci-fi with aliens and clones acting as strong elements of the narrative. And then it’s an action adventure with pairs of mother-daughters trawling through earth’s history with strong implications on humankind’s progress. And, of course, it’s about family, given the strong mother-daughter nexus. Actual historical figures (such as Wernher Von Braun, the aerospace engineer/inventor of Germany’s V2 missile rockets) and true organizations (the OSS, a precursor of the CIA, and the space dogs of Russia) they all figure in this novel.
At the heart of this novel are Sara and daughter Mia, and the roles they played in bringing about the space race. Interesting how Neuvel invents this pair and makes them contributing to a number of actual events, including the death of Stalin and Beria in post-World War 2 Russia. To backtrack, the pair is also involved with the defection of Von Braun to the US and how NASA was formed to exist independent of the US military. It’s with the alien culture elements where Neuvel truly shines, creating a provenance and why they operate here on earth that has us happily suspending disbelief. That we’re getting a factual but cock-eyed history lesson at the same time is the bonus treat to reading this novel.
‘Exit’ by Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer is the author of the Booker-shortlisted “Snap,” and ”Exit” is her latest. Once again, it flirts with the genre of crime fiction while deeply dwelling on the motives and personalities of its protagonists. If “Snap” touched our nerves in the arena of child care, with “Exit,” Bauer tackles assisted deaths, and how the unscrupulous and greedy will prey on the weak, desperate and resigned. Felix Pink is a senior citizen who makes it his moral duty to be an “Exiteer,” the term given to those who will be present and bear witness to an assisted death—but not interfering or taking any active part, in order to stay on the right side of the law. It’s an industry unto itself, with medical practitioners dispensing with the nitrous oxide used in these mercy deaths and groups like the Exiteers offering their services.
The kink in the narrative happens when it would seem that Felix and a young girl Exiteer offer some minimal intervention at the home they visit, and the wrong elderly person dies. Fearful that they’ve somehow committed a technical form of murder, the plot thickens as it becomes apparent that there’s more than meets the eye in what happened, and Felix and Amanda may have been set up. Full of rich and satisfying twists, turns and revelations, Bauer is once again at the top of her game, as we fully invest in her characters, especially the widower Felix, who also lost his young son. It’s the classic situation of trying to be of help and possibly ending up doing more harm than good. What would be the legal consequences for these? Set in small town England, the local color is excellently etched.