In cold blood

Sunday Times, 5 January 2014

Murder in frozen landscapes and an early Harry Hole novle make for chilling reading in Joan Smith round-up

Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels have appeared in English out of chronological order. British readers are still catching up with the earlier books starring the dyspeptic Norwegian detective and Cockroaches (Harvill Secker £18.99), translated by Don Bartlett, brings the series up to date. Actually the second novel in the sequence, its publication means that all ten Hole novels are now available in this country.

Set in Bangkok, the novel was written 15 years ago and isn’t as fluent as the later books. Hole displays the characteristics of a sulky teenage, while the plot – the Norwegian ambassador has been found dead in a cheap hotel used by prostitutes – seems to belong to an earlier era, when the sexual exploitation of women was taken less seriously. But the novel shows Nesbo developing as a writer and fills in gaps in Hole’s biography.

Asa Larsson is a Swedish author whose international reputation is growing fast. Born in the mining town of Kiruna, north of the Arctic circle, she writes lyrically about a sparsely-populated region of the country. Her novel Until Thy Wrath Be Past was judged best Swedish crime novel of 2012 and shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. The Second Deadly Sin (MacLehose Press £18.99), translated by Laurie Thompson, opens dramatically with a hunt for a hungry bear which has seized and eaten a famer’s dog.

The bear’s stomach contents produce a gruesome surprise, in the shape of the remains of an elderly man. A few months later, his daughter is murdered in a nearby village. A local prosecutor, Rebecka Martinsson, begins to suspect that someone is targeting the entire family but she is taken off the case. Martinsson embarks on an unofficial investigation in a terrific novel about greed, isolation and the deep human need for companionship.

Another frozen landscape dominates The Beast in the Red Forest (Faber 12.99), the latest in Sam Eastland’s series of novels set under Stalin’s dictatorship. In the forests of Ukraine, the Red Army is fighting Hitler’s troops and local partisans. In the Kremlin, Stalin has been told that the charred body of the renowned detective, Inspector Pekkala, has been found at the site of an ambush. Refusing to believe the detective is dead, Stalin sends Pekkala’s assistant to find out what really happened.

Major Kirov arrives just in time for a secret meeting between a Red Army officer and partisan leaders, which ends in a bloodbath. Eastland writes deftly about one of the most confusing battlefields of the Second World War, and conditions so harsh they have turned human beings into feral beasts. Kirov’s mission to find Pekkala exposes an assassination plot – and the disastrous consequences for an American family taken in by Soviet propaganda.

Entry Island (Quercus £16.99) is Peter May’s first novel after his successful Lewis trilogy. A Canadian detective, Sime Mackenzie, is sent to investigate a murder on an island 850 miles from Montreal. The murder inquiry is interwoven with excerpts from a diary kept by Mackenzie’s Scottish ancestor, describing the brutal Highland clearances. It’s a brave attempt to bring a dark period of Scottish history to life, but May uses clumsy devices to link it with the modern crime investigation.

Long Way Home (Harvill Secker £14.99) is an accomplished first novel by Eva Dolan. A man believed to be a migrant worker burns to death in a garden shed, and the crime lands on the desk of the Peterborough Hate Crime Unit. Two of its officers, DI Zigic and DS Ferreira, come from immigrant backgrounds themselves and are already conscious of tensions between migrant agricultural workers and the local population. The modern scourge of people-trafficking is brilliantly described in this smart and compassionate novel.

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