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Åsa Larsson The Black Path, Kathy Reichs Bones Are Forever, Karin Slaughter Criminal, Camilla Lackberg The Drowning, Tess Gerritson Last To Die, Anne Holt The Blind Goddess.

Åsa Larsson’s The Black Path is the fourth in the Rebecka Martinsson series to be translated into English. It’s set in Sweden, and in story terms, it predates the previous one, Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which seems to be an irritating custom with English translations of Scandinavian crime. Must be a marketing decision.

In The Black Path, Martinsson is still convalescing after the traumatic events of The Blood Spilt, the second book in the series. She has moved to the country cottage she inherited from her grandmother and she agrees to take a six-month post as a special prosecutor in the area.  As in previous novels, she works closely with police inspector Anna-Maria Mella.

The main story involves the horrific murder of a woman, her body found in a fishing hut on a frozen lake. As Martinsson and Mella investigate, they find links to a six-month-old suicide and a trail that leads them to an earlier murder, through a labyrinth of corruption and bribery on the part of local mining companies, insider trading and deals with the military in Uganda.

Mauri Kallis, a self-made millionaire, and the Wattrangs, Diddi and Inna, who exert a sinister emotional hold over him, are increasingly central to the plot, and there is extensive and fascinating backstory about them as well.

There’s a rather unconvincing shoot-em-up denouement, but the rest of the novel is well-plotted and characters and relationships are satisfyingly fleshed out. It’s not the strongest of the series, but still worth reading for its clean writing and the further development of Martinsson and Mella as characters we care about. Readers who haven’t come to Åsa Larsson before can now read the four books in sequence – a treat in store.

The fifteenth in the Temperance Brennan forensic anthropologist series, Kathy Reichs’s Bones Are Forever offers the expected high level of readability and plenty of fascinating forensic detail.

A woman who has clearly just given birth signs herself out of a Montreal hospital and disappears. Brennan is called in and the police trace the woman’s address, where the corpses of three infants are found, two of them mummified. Right up Brennan’s forensic alley.

With Detective Andrew Ryan, a not-so-old flame, and Mounted Police sergeant Ollie Hasty (a previous faint flicker), Brennan goes on a search for the missing woman and presumed killer of the babies, a search complicated by the testosterone flare-ups between the two men, and by the fact that the fugitive has several aliases and personas.

The trail takes them to Yellowknife, a small diamond-mining town in the Northwest Provinces of Canada, where they find themselves in the middle of a drug war, battles over diamond rights, and the activities of suspect environmentalists. Their own lives are in danger as the insular community protects its secrets.

The plot is full of complications and twists – some of them a bit clunky and obvious – and in the end the central story isn’t quite strong enough to carry the weight of the novel, since we know from the beginning who has probably killed the babies, and the motives when finally revealed aren’t totally convincing. However, we read Reichs for the authentic and ever-compelling forensic detail and for the ongoing story of Temperance Brennan, a much more attractive and interesting character than Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta. Reichs is by far the better writer, too, thankfully free of Cornwall’s over-use of split infinitives. Brennan’s relationship with her daughter is unsentimental and believable, unlike Scarpetta’s with her teeth-grindingly irritating FBI super-hero niece, Lucy.

Karin Slaughter is another prolific series writer. There are six books in her Grant County series, featuring doctor and Medical Examiner Sara Linton, and now Criminal marks the fifth appearance of Georgia Bureau of Investigations agent Will Trent in his own series.

A Georgia Tech student goes missing and Will’s boss, GBI Deputy Director Amanda Wagner, is doing everything she can to keep him away from the case. When the body’s found, the murder has striking similarities to one of Amanda’s earliest investigations in 1975, the year Will was born. Amanda discovers the original perpetrator is out on parole, but she doesn’t tell Will.

The novel moves back and forth between these two periods and the linked cases, showing Amanda and her offsider Evelyn battling the racism and overweening sexism of the Atlanta Police Department in the 1970s and the dismissiveness of the male police towards a series of prostitute torture killings.

Will of course wangles his way into the contemporary case and secrets from his own past rise up to haunt him. He’s had a troubled life – brought up in a children’s home, dyslexic and prone to sudden malevolent visitations from his disturbed ex-wife, Angie – but there are occasions when you want to tell him to pull his socks up.

This novel also continues the story of Will’s relationship with Sara Linton, now assigned to the Atlanta ME’s office, which was begun in Undone and Broken. One of the running suspense elements of the story is whether Sara will be able to cope with Will’s secrets and with Angie’s destructiveness. Characters from different series interconnect like this in all of Slaughter’s books, and although the novels are one-offs in terms of plot, there’s greater pleasure in reading all of them and watching the characters grow and change and interrelate.

Criminal is well-written and well-plotted, and there’s a terrific unexpected sting in the tail.

Camilla Lackberg’s The Drowning, like The Black Path, is set in Sweden, in the smallish town of Fjällbacka. Lackberg’s protagonist is true-crime writer Erica Falck and, to a lesser extent, Erica’s husband, Detective Patrik Hedström. This is the sixth novel in the series.

In The Drowning, Erica’s friend and protégé Christian Thydell, whose first novel has just been published to great acclaim, seems to her to be acting very strangely. Being inquisitive by nature she soon finds out that he has been receiving anonymous letters and threats and that he is haunted by something in his past. Meanwhile her husband, Patrik, is investigating the disappearance of a man later found murdered. The two stories come together, as might be expected, and turn out to revolve around long-ago events, some of which are central to Christian’s secrecy and fear.

Interspersed with the contemporary story are italicised excerpts from the point of view of a disturbed adopted boy who has attempted to murder his baby sister.

Other people’s stories also intertwine with the main narrative – those of Christian’s schoolfriends and their families, Patrik’s colleagues in the police and Erika’s sister Anna (Erika and Anna are both pregnant and some of the best scenes in the book are between them).

In the end the novel is about the terrible secrets people would rather kill or die for than have revealed, and the devastating damage lovelessness and madness can wreak on people.

The plotting is skilful and the gradual revelation of Christian’s past is masterfully handled, even if the denouement is slightly disappointing. However, there’s a truly shocking coda that provides a real cliff-hanger for the next book in the series. Again, with these series, it is not so much the achievement of the individual book that matters as the ongoing sense of relationship and empathy we have with the recurring characters. We’re prepared to forgive one book in the series being less strong than the others on this account, and Erica’s relationships and her development as a character interest us as much as the particular crime plot and the success of the structure.

Last to Die, by Tess Gerritson, is the tenth outing for homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and Medical Examiner Maura Isles. Gerritson began as a romance writer, moved to medical thrillers and now writes these relatively hardboiled thrillers.

This one starts with two teenagers saved from terrible deaths by a mysterious woman in black, and another teenager the sole survivor of a bloody family massacre. The children were already orphans –  exactly the same thing has happened to each of them before. Their original families were all killed in the same week and the recent murders have occurred within a short span of time.

Eventually all three end up in the possibly sinister school Evensong, a haven for disturbed children and where Isles’s protégé, Julian ‘Rat’ Perkins, from a previous book, is already a boarder. Evensong is the brainchild of the mysterious millionaire Anthony Sansone, member of the Mephisto Society which believes humanity is under concerted attack from the real presence of evil in the world.

While Isles and Rizzoli try to investigate the reasons for the murders, someone infiltrates the supposedly impregnable school and begins to leave bizarre warnings around the place. Clearly the children are not yet safe.

There is a secondary story set in Rome, in the past, about the abduction of someone called simply ‘Icarus’ and this gradually provides clues to the motivation behind the attacks as interconnections emerge.

The two leading characters, Isles and Rizzoli, are strong, attractive and convincing, and following them through these ten novels has been a pleasure. I hope the Mephisto Society isn’t going to figure too heavily in future books, verging on the supernatural, or plain nutty, as it does, and detracting from the clean plotting and original ideas of the stories. I’d also like Isles to get over her infatuation with the creepy Ransone, but I guess she won’t.

The Blind Goddess is actually the first book in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series by Anne Holt, a major best-selling author in Norway. We have only had one other of the series in translation – the latest, 1222, published early this year – and the events of The Blind Goddess occur twenty years previously. I cannot convey how much this annoys me. I’m tempted to go on strike and refuse to read any more until the intervening six books are translated, but of course I’ll weaken.

In this novel a drug dealer is found battered to death in Oslo and a young Dutchman is taken into custody but refuses to talk, except to insist that the young lawyer who discovered the body, Karen Borg, should defend him. A few days later a shonky lawyer is murdered. Young Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen (in 1222 she has retired after a long career), working with police prosecutor Håkon Sand, finds links between the two crimes but she also finds herself up against a conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of power in Norway and will put her own life at risk.

The main story is interspersed with scenes of movers and shakers planning their crimes and ‘dealing with’ their problems, so that the reader always knows slightly more than the investigators, but not enough to spoil the story.

This is very much a police/legal procedural, fascinating in its detail and in the differences between the Norwegian judicial system and our own. The characters are well drawn and convincing, emotionally rounded – Hanne with her doctor lover Cecilie and Borg beginning an affair with Håkon Sand – and the plot is satisfyingly complex, although the initial murder is easily solved from the beginning. However it is the events behind the murder and the conspiracies of power and corruption underpinning Norwegian society that are the real crimes being investigated here, in the best noir tradition.

For further discussion of Scandinavian crime see my article ‘The Nordic Phenomenon’.

Åsa Larsson The Black Path, MacLehose Press, 2012, PB, 398pp, $22.99; Kathy Reichs Bones Are Forever, William Heinemann, 2012, PB, 304pp, $32.95; Karin Slaughter Criminal, Century, 2012, PB, 448pp, $32.95; Camilla Lackberg The Drowning, HarperCollins, 2012, PB, 496pp, $24.99; Tess Gerritson Last To Die, Bantam Press, 2012, PB, 336pp, $29.95; Anne Holt The Blind Goddess, Corvus, 2012, PB, 352pp, $29.99

If you would like to buy these books from Better Read Than Dead at 10% discount, click on the title links above.

If you would like to see if they are available from Newtown Library, click here.

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