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Two new novels add to the Nordic crime fiction tsunami.

Liza Marklund and Jo Nesbo are both mega-bestselling international authors, as the covers of their books proclaim, and among the most widely read of the present wave of Scandinavian crime writing. Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon series, of which this is the latest, and Nesbo’s earlier Harry Hole novel, The Snowman, are currently being adapted for film, the latter with Martin Scorsese directing.

Phantom is set in Norway and Vanished in Sweden, but the Oslo and Stockholm of these stories offer similar landscapes of former Eastern Bloc mafias, drug cartels and displaced persons. Both writers also set their plots against a background of eroding social democracy in countries where ethical living and caring for the disadvantaged have previously been implicit ideals of government and culture, although they do this in different ways. Nesbo’s Harry Hole is cynical and world-weary and takes this erosion for granted, much in the way of Western crime heroes. He will battle the slice of evil that comes his way, but he is resigned to addressing the symptoms and not the root of corruption. Marklund’s characters, on the other hand, still retain some ideals and hope to expose these roots and cause them to wither away.

In Phantom, Hole has returned to Norway after three years in China  (where he’s been playing the heavy for a well-known business identity) because his de facto stepson Oleg has been arrested for the murder of a drug addict in Oslo. Not everybody welcomes Harry’s return – in fact, most don’t, including his former police colleagues. He is left with very few friends in the police department since he resigned, but fortunately for the story, those few are in useful positions. His ex-lover, Oleg’s mother, depends on Harry to get her son off, and Harry, beset by guilt, love and responsibility, pulls out all the stops to do so.

He re-examines the whole investigation in detail, a process that takes him through the underworld of drugs and street people and into the lives of the dispossessed underbelly which seems to be exponentially increasing in Norway and Sweden, until he finally works out what must have really happened. Or he thinks he has. His journey is complicated – along the way he comes up against the almost obligatory Russian drug lord, ‘Dubai’, who has been distributing the new drug Violin – and enhanced by the different levels of narrative Nesbo uses to convey the story. As well as following Harry’s progress, we have a first-person narrative from the murdered boy as he is dying, which cleverly informs the reader of things that need to be kept from Harry at various stages, like his and Oleg’s involvement with Dubai and there are also rather whimsical sections from a rat’s point of view, which I think could have been delivered more strongly as straight description.

Nesbo’s books are not as contemplative or ideas-based as some of the other Scandinavian writers. Although Harry does indulge in a lot of interior monologue (too much, I think, in this book) it is mostly about himself, his investigation and his disappointing life. Nesbo writes a more American or British style of thriller, where action, plot, pace and character carry the story; the glimpses of social disintegration and political corruption are provided as a given environment and a trigger for criminal activity and investigation, more than imbuing the narrative throughout. The crime itself is just a small knot in the vast web spun by the criminal power-brokers and corrupt authorities.

The plotting and structure are tight and fast-paced. Harry Hole is a supremely successful series character, who makes us care about his life and relationships, and other characters are well-drawn and convincing. There are many twists and turns and there are two real kickers at the end of Phantom. What more could you ask?

Marklund is not as skilful a plotter as Nesbo – Vanished depends on some unlikely coincidences at the beginning – but her novels have a richer social texture and her characters are more ordinary, and perhaps more interesting, than the lone-avenger Harry Hole.

In Vanished, we have another series character – Annika Bengtzon, lowly copy-editor at Stockholm’s Evening Post. Annoyingly these novels have been translated out of sequence and Vanished takes place before the events of the previously published The Bomber. It can be read as a one-off, but part of the pleasure of books like this is in following the sequential events of the protagonists’ lives, feeling that we get to know them better as we see them develop and their circumstances change.

Annika is precariously hanging on to any job at all in journalism, following her killing of an abusive lover, and she is ambitious to get back to proper crime reporting. There is a gruesome murder at a disused port facility and Annika’s male colleagues are covering the story. Meanwhile, Annika is approached by a woman called Rebecka Björkstig, who claims to be part of an organisation (the Paradise Foundation) that finds new lives and identities for abused women. Since this seems to be a ‘soft’ story, she is allowed to follow it up. At the same time, she meets Nadia, a young Bosnian woman afraid for her life. It seems logical to put her in touch with the Paradise Foundation.

But as Annika tries to find out the truth about the Foundation, she comes up against brick walls wherever she turns and Rebecka Björkstig seems less and less plausible. Now she has real misgivings about Nadia, who, the reader comes to realise, was the young woman who escaped from the scene of the original murder at the port. There is a sub-plot involving Annika’s lover, Thomas, a social worker at one of the local authorities, who also becomes involved with Paradise, and the stories converge in more death and violence.

Again, the social backdrop involves Eastern Bloc mafia figures  – this time Yugoslavian – who have infiltrated all levels of the Swedish power structure, as well as a sinister smuggling boss who has a personal interest in Nadia’s fate, and as with Phantom, this is what drives the story and the events of the plot. But there is also more immediate social texture in Vanished. We watch the struggles of a newspaper to retain professional ethics and integrity; we observe the frustrations of local care services battling red tape and budget cuts; we follow the separate stories of Annika’s and Thomas’s personal lives as their relationship falters and changes and we watch the protagonists trying to pit decency and honesty against an increasingly selfish and dishonest social environment. These protagonists have not yet given in to the cynical resignation that marks Harry Hole. Annika is a complex but ordinary woman, dogged in her pursuit of the facts, but in no way the tarnished knight that Harry has become, which makes her both less predictable and more interesting.

The pace of Vanished is slower than in Phantom – we have more time to observe the effects of all the various problems on the main characters, and therefore to feel we get to know them better. The structure of Vanished, although it is perhaps too reliant on coincidence, is satisfying in that it has many strands that eventually come together to form the whole picture, as characters and plotlines converge. Annika’s friendships and her relationships with Thomas and with her colleagues are more complicated than the relationships in Phantom, and draw the reader into what feels like an authentic emotional world.  Like Phantom, Vanished has more than one narrator, and the main story is interrupted by an unknown first-person voice apparently trying to justify its evil actions. This voice reveals itself surprisingly at the end to be one of the main characters, a revelation that leaves Annika deeply shocked and turns everything inside out, and again like Phantom, provides a major sting in the tail.

Both novels, in their slightly different ways, are excellent examples of the intelligent, well-written and plotted crime novels coming out of Scandinavia. (See The Nordic Phenomenon in Crime Scene for an overview.)

Liza Marklund Vanished Bantam 2012 524pp PB $32.95

Jo Nesbo Phantom Harvill Secker 2012 452pp PB $32.95

If you would like to purchase these books from Better Read Than Dead, click here for Vanished, or here for Phantom.

If you would like to see if these books are available through Newtown Library, click here.