Habits and comparative mysteries…

Åsa Larsson, The Blood Spilt. 2004, English translation 2007. (originally Det Blod Som Spillts).

Robert B. Parker, Sixkill. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011.

Habits can be bad, they can be good, they can be made, and of course they can be broken. Beginning this writing project, I developed good habits – disciplined reading and writing on a daily basis – BUT, as has been obvious for some weeks, I abandoned these habits as quickly. No excuses – I simply got out of the habit. I have still been reading – different types of books off the shelf – but the writing became non-existent.

Today I completed Robert Parker’s last Spenser novel (Parker died in 2010), and I am a bit in mourning all over again for a character and the author. As it happens, there have been two books published that also include Spenser, Wonderland and Lullaby, but I am uncertain as to whether I can read them.
The other day I finished Larsson’s The Blood Spilt and I am uncertain as to whether I would read other books by her, so it seemed like a good bet to combine these texts in a review.

People either love or hate the imagined Boston tough guy detective with a penchant for literature and a long-standing love affair with psychologist Susan Silverman. I am firmly settled in the former camp and have been since my dad pressed a copy of Early Autumn into my hands some 28 or 29 years ago. My dad had been an admirer of Raymond Chandler and some other detective fiction writers, but Parker was something else. Like my father, Parker and Spenser shared an interest in the Braves, being smart, and Boston in general.

When the book series was made into a television show for ABC, my dad and I were anxious but excited. The heavy use of Boston locations was one part of the show that made it enjoyable – the casting of Avery Brooks as Spenser’s sometime comrade Hawk made it intriguing. My friend Stu and I ran into Avery Brooks at Quincy Market in December 1986 (twice) – he was in character the first time and himself the second, but in both instances somewhat intimidating and full of flash if you will. We watched carefully for the episode that featured Quincy Market – it was all of a minute, but still…

Sixkill does not feature Hawk at all, other than to mention his existence and indicate that he is in Central Asia. Hawk’s lack of appearance in the book makes Susan nervous. I was sad to not see him as he is one of my favorite characters, but Parker could not have known he would die before writing another novel. What is interesting about Sixkill is that Parker appears to be setting up a new character, Zebulon Sixkill, to add another dimension to the stable of assistants and friends of Spenser. I have enjoyed Bobby Horse, Chollo, and others – Z would have been an interesting addition to see grow and connect with Hawk and the rest of the Spenser universe.

All these observations aside, this is not the best Parker novel by any means. It is, however, enjoyable enough, even if some of the storyline, dialogue, etc is a bit predictable. Parker has created a thoroughly unlikable creature in Jumbo Nelson – is he the guilty murderer or a victim or something in between? We are less than clear for much of the novel – we are clear that Nelson is reprehensible and that Spenser is doing what Spenser does. The detective works a case he has been asked to quit, rehabilitates Sixkill, and, as always, impresses with a mix of smarts, physical prowess, and loving affection for Susan.

Are Parker novels formulaic? Sure. In comparison to Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Parker’s Sixkill is a mapped out story that you can figure out elements and conclusions for a long while in advance. Larsson has created an incredibly bleak world for her protagonist Rebecka Martinssson and yet I hear from my wife and other readers that this story is not as dark and despairing as other crime novels from Scandinavia. Yikes.

The Blood Spilt won an award for the best crime writing in Sweden when originally published – the book I “read” (in this case, listened to which is unusual for me) was translated into English in 2007. As a side note, the translation must have been done with British English in mind, (perhaps Larsson had British English training?), because the text is filled with phrases like “bloody well” and “she looked smart.” At any rate, I will give Larsson a lot of credit for creating some very complex characters and a true mystery in a setting she knows well (the author lives in the region portrayed).

What I struggled with the most is Larsson’s narrative style which jumps all over the place. Characters narrate their own points of view and at times they are in the present, the past, and in solely their own minds – sometimes all at once! Dead characters haunt the living, the landscape is of vital importance, you probably need to know something about small town Swedish life and Lutheranism to understand every twist, and once in awhile a female wolf interjects herself into the story. Perhaps Larsson enjoyed The Seventh Seal enough to make her story equally enigmatic? Regardless, it is vivid and good writing and characterizations – I simply did not enjoy it as much as I do crime novels by Parker or Dennis Lehane. This is not to suggest I can’t like Swedish crime writing – I found Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman and other Martin Beck novels fascinating.

No, there is simply something I did not fully embrace in Larsson’s story – in the end, it may have been the jumpy narrative, it may have been the bleak resolution of the initial crime, and it may have been the fear I hold for Martinsson. I remain curious though – can Rebecka recover again? Perhaps I will give Larsson another chance.

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