Life after Larsson: Two new Euro-crime novels attract American readers

'Started Early, Took My Dog' by Kate Atkinson; and 'The Troubled Man: A Kurt Wallander Novel' by Henning Mankell


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The steady output of American crime novel series with hackneyed heroes and predictable plots is overloading the book shelves these days.

Readers must becoming jaded because they are turning in large numbers to inventive works from abroad for something more stimulating. I offer the "Millennium Trilogy" of Sweden's late Stieg Larsson and its enormous sales as proof.

There are plenty of other worthy choices reaching our shores as well. Here are two such candidates.


'STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG'

By Kate Atkinson, (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, $24.99)

Great Britain's Kate Atkinson is among the select few of literary novelists who are turning their talents to the crime book format.

Booker Prize winner John Banville shows the way with his Dublin-based novels written under the pen name Benjamin Black. Ms. Atkinson retains her own name for a quartet of works ostensibly about the efforts of private detective Jackson Brodie, but in truth about larger subjects.

The title of the fourth comes from a lesser-known poem by Emily Dickinson, then concludes with the often-cited "Hope Is a Thing With Feathers." Ms. Atkinson makes no excuses for her taste in the finer parts of the English-language tradition.

It's a tradition she's steeped in as well as talented in using. Her language is witty, stylish and droll with a few sharp digs aimed at contemporary society.

"He was a big guy, with a mean expression on his face, barrel-chested like a Rottweiler. Add to that the shaved head, the weight-lifting muscles and a St. George's flag tattooed on his left biceps, twinned with a half-naked woman inked into his right forearm, and, voila, the perfect English gentleman."

Enter Brodie, a half-hearted detective with a messy past that includes bad luck or bad choices with women, and the English gentleman is soon writhing in pain after Brodie decks him for abusing a little dog called "The Ambassador."

Without thinking, he rescues the dog about the same time a lonely, overweight ("survival of the fattest") Tracy, a retired cop rescues an abused girl from her prostitute mother, actually buying her to save her.

Two acts of salvation set in motion Ms. Atkinson's cleverly mapped story of kindness and cruelty toward children. They are abandoned, given away or hidden for a variety of reasons.

As Tracy points out, in another sharp Atkinson observation about life today, "The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, kids everywhere falling through the cracks. The Victorians would have recognized it. People just watched a lot more TV and found celebrities interesting, that was all that was different."

She includes an elderly "child" too, Tilly, an aging actress in the early throes of dementia trying to keep body and soul together as she loses her mind.

How the author links the feckless Brodie with the determined Tracy is a bond strong enough to carry a plot that shifts from 1975 in central England at the time the so-called "Yorkshire Ripper" was on a murder spree to contemporary times.

Brodie, with the brutal murder of his sister a landmark of his childhood, has two children of his own by different mothers and must process his love for them against his own reserve and the indifference of the mothers toward him.

Tracy wants to atone for omissions of her own dating to '75 and her empty life by raising neglected little Courtney, a charming child who carries a scruffy magic wand and several sad mementoes of her grubby life.

All are guided by one thing, Dickinson's "thing with feathers" and are left with the poet's reassurance:

I've heard it in the chillest land --
And on the strangest Sea --
Yet, never in Extremity,
It asked a crumb -- of Me.


'THE TROUBLED MAN: A KURT WALLANDER NOVEL'

By Henning Mankell, (Knopf, $26.95)

Sweden's Henning Mankell, 63, has been writing novels since 1972 and is a playwright and theater director as well, mostly in Mozambique.

Despite their shared nationality, Mr. Mankell and Mr. Larsson have little in common and his detective series about Kurt Wallander is just a part of this writer's wide-ranging interests.

Wallander is a police officer in the small town of Ystad in southern Sweden, seemingly removed from the crime and corruption of Stockholm, but if that were true in Mr. Mankell's world, there wouldn't be much to write about.

This land of ligonberries and Volvos is really a violent place, which Mr. Mankell has been showing readers in his nine previous crime novels.

The 10th is the finale for Wallander as he struggles with a failing memory in his early 60s, a prelude to Alzheimer's Disease, while investigating the disappearance of Haken von Enke, a retired Swedish naval officer and father of his daughter's partner.

But, shades of Stieg can be seen in Mr. Mankell's plot of a government cover-up involving von Enke's connections to a spy ring working for the old Soviet Union. When the man's wife turns up dead with an old piece of microfilm, the buried can of worms is pulled to the surface by the dogged detective.

Hanging over the story is an elegiac layer of regret and self-disgust as Wallander reflects on his troubled ex-wife and encounters an old mistress dying of cancer. Afflicted with diabetes and a fondness for drink, the old cop is finding gaps in his memory that leave him confused and frustrated.

The somber, resigned tone of the book weighs down the investigatory side of an era when the Soviets and their Scandinavian neighbor were encountering Cold War friction, a bit of history unknown by many Americans.

Instead of a hail of bullets, Wallander meets his end in a fog of dementia, a sad and perhaps ungenerous end for a crime fiction favorite.


Bob Hoover: bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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