It was a great pleasure to discover Anders Roslund’s crime story among the summer novelties of 21st Century Publishers (orig. 21. Század Kiadó). So far, I have read all three of his books that have been published in this country, and all three were outstanding experience to me. The author has had a hard ride in Hungary so far, but with this fourth publishing, the time may turn to the good and he may reach a safe haven.
In our country, Roslund’s novels have already been appearing in a third publisher’s offer. This highly successful crime story, which came out last year, is the first volume of a three-piece series.
Roslund knows how to write a breathtaking, fantastic story.
It is a special point of interest that he worked with fellow authors up until this one. This is his first independent crime story. It is a combination of the Nordic crime genre with stunning characters and the political thriller. The subject is important and timely nowadays. In all respects, the crime is brilliant and complex. What started out as a birthday party ends dramatically … with a jump, the story continues from here a good ten years later. The location is the same apartment. The criminal inspector Ewert Grens is assigned to the case, as it was him who investigated the previous murder back then as well.
Behind this mysterious burglary, however, a dark past knocks. Our inspector gets this old new case only half a year before his much anticipated retirement. What lie behind are political interests, the Albanian Mafia and the arms trade. Through bloody tragedies, market monopoly leads to a staggering and unexpected solution. Nordic crime stories are never just crime stories, this one is not a typical story, either – it tackles important issues and social problems.
I would rather not ponder details for fear of a spoiler. It is a true psychological thriller leading through the fate of a five-year-old girl, who is the only survivor (and witness) of a slaughter. This life-changing childhood event is the basis for everything. Beside power, witness protection and an evil case of vengeance stand in the background, and a great many tiny details can only be fully understood at the end of the story.
Grens now fears that someone is intent on silencing the only witness. A race against time is beginning, for even the inspector is unaware of the fate of the little girl of the original crime. Meanwhile, someone in the city’s criminal underworld is executing weapons smugglers, and has placed former police informant Piet Hoffman’s family in grave danger. The secret agent Piet Hoffmann may be familiar to our readers from the thriller Three Seconds. The seemingly separate events are slow to unfold but, naturally, they are related. The action is unpredictable, sufficiently elaborate, I can guarantee that.
The unfolding horror does not spare the characters. As I was progressing through the story, my head kept spinning to find out where we were, what was going to happen, the events swept me away. The combination of facts and fiction works optimally. I suppose this has turned out to be a real “guy’s thriller”. What is happening in Albania and Stockholm has a dreadful background. The award-winning journalist portrays organized crime, the intertwining of politics, and provides an exciting insight into that world with enormous power.
He has carried out thorough research: the background is accurate and thoughtful. He is also a master of creating suspense, which increases from page to page. Dramatic turns, his broken, agitated, brief sentences also enhance the effect. The pieces of the family puzzle will only let you see the whole picture at the end. Roslund is very skilful at depicting internal machinations and waving misleading threads into the fabric of the crime story. It’s not just a breathtaking story – it’s also a heartrending one. He is now showing a completely new side of his to his readers.
All in all, it is a masterly dark thriller of organized crime and revenge where, in addition to trust and loyalty, recovery from grieving is also involved.
The Ten commandments of writing scenes. The first and second commandments:
1. Respect the law of cause and effect.
If, in a film, the camera zooms in on something, you can be quite sure that it will be of importance in the story later on. If it turns out that the director highlighted that particular object, person or scene without a reason, we will be at our wit’s end at the end of the film and will feel misled.
Writing books is based on a similar concept. We must not present a situation intimating that in the future an event will possibly take place without that event happening later. If you create a cause, you will also need a consequence or effect. As Newton’s law states, every action of force is followed by a reaction of equal strength. If, for example, we state in our novel that Kate has a relationship with Peter, the reader will expect some consequence. If the reader does not receive that consequence, we have actually broken up our “contract” with the reader.
2. Create real motivation.
In a novel, the characters do not function in a vacuum. They don’t do anything suddenly in ways the writer hasn’t indicated. Someone only steals chocolate in a shop if he is very much dependent on chocolate but has no money to buy any – or he’s a kleptomaniac. People don’t take risks; they are not motivated to carry out an action just like that, as a joke, without a reason. No banker would open a safe to give all the money in the bank to a robber for no reason. Only if he has enough motivation. In this case, his motivation is that he wants to survive the robbery. His own life is quite enough motivation.
An unwed teen mother locked away from the world. A mystery to be solved. When Ivy Jenkins falls pregnant, she is sent in disgrace to St Margaret’s, a dark, cruel brooding house for unmarried mothers, to hide her shame from the eyes of the world. Her baby is adopted against her will and she will never be able to get over it.
Cut to our days. Samantha Harper is a journalist, at the limit of exhaustion, desperate for a break. When she stumbles on a letter from the past, however, the contents deeply move her. She is reading the lines written by a teen mother, who is begging her lover to save her before it is too late.
Sam is pulled into exploring the tragic story and discovers a spate of unexplained deaths surrounding the woman and her child. With St Margaret’s set for demolition, Sam has only hours to piece together a sixty-year-old mystery before the truth is lost forever. And what is more, the unfathomable paths of truth lie disturbingly close to home…
I liked the subject of the novel, especially because this poignant series of actions is built on more than a few realistic situations. The subtle story-line effected in changes of time and approach is good, and the style mostly reads well too. But I can’t put up with the stylistic slip-ups. At several places, the rhythm of time horizons or sequences keeps staggering, and, in several situations, out-of-place dialogues in first-name informality have odd effects on the reader. Overall, a promising first book, which gave me pleasant hours of one-time reading.
The four stumbling blocks of concluding a novel:
1. The dead end
I once read a manuscript where the protagonist visits a deserted island in Thailand with his friends, after lying to his parents that he has taken up work in Germany. The novel is full of surprises and excitement, and we can bite our nails when drug smugglers, who would not shrink even from murder, begin pursuing our hero, or when the party is plunged into the nightlife of Bangkok. However, the writer delays completion from there on, the action slows down, and the author finally tries to close the novel with the protagonist making up another lie to his parents, now heading to Hawaii.
Here the reader sighs painfully, for he expected some moral, some change of character developed by the writer. The first pitfall, therefore, is when the hero does not grow or change in character, does not learn something important. In such a case, devise a new ending or write a new story.
2. Rushed conclusion
Has it ever happened to you as a reader that you have sweated along, kept being excited by a long novel, and then the writer put an end to the book in two short pages? You were left there, thinking just about this, ‘Was that all, then?’ ‘Is it all over now, nothing else?’
This is an outstanding case of criminalising fiction, a mental swindle against the reader. But why would a writer do such a thing? There could be various reasons, but I think the main one is that the writer wants to get over with the novel and finish it. Believe me, when we have reached the end of a 400-500-page book, as writers, we are often tempted by the quiet whisper, ‘Finish it quickly and forget about it.’ But why should we spoil a delicious cake by simply blowing a little whipped cream over it and lying, after the lots of complicated baker’s steps, ‘Done’? The end of the novel must be handled with the same care as the rest. Indeed! In fact, this is a particularly sensitive part of our writing, because the reader will certainly remember it, be it good or bad.
3. Random coincidences
Have you ever been driving on a mountain road where there was nothing to meet from the other direction for miles but then, suddenly, five cars appeared behind each other? Similarly, when, in a novel, not only one but several things suddenly appear, one after the other, so that the writer could support or justify the action. Life is full of coincidences but, believe me, in our novel, such cases will feel clumsy, even unrealistic. In the event of a problem in our novel, we cannot offer an immediate, instant solution from the neighbourhood. If our hero has been struggling with depression for a long time, he can’t suddenly realise that his neighbour is a nationally renowned psychologist who he can just walk over to, and he will solve his problem in no time.
4. A secret escape route
A characteristic element of stories is a surprising, unexpected event that suddenly entirely solves a complication that have hitherto been thought insoluble. Generally, divine intervention.
In ancient Greek drama, the plot often became so hopeless that only a miracle or divine intervention could solve it. For instance, a divinity came, or rather descended, onto the stage for the sake of effect. The actor playing a god did not simply walk in but descended onto the stage with the help of a large crane or other structure among the actors. So the god got on the stage from the machine, or rather with the help of the machine and solved the situation.
Children can use this kind of deus ex machina for many years to tell their stories. For example, Eve was attacked by a wolf in the forest, she was pursued for a long time, but then she woke up and realised that it was only a dream. The lesson, therefore, is simple: Never force the reader to be taken in by a cheap little story about a sudden, striking and absolute redeemer, a hero.
The art of conclusion
Lots of beginner writers manage somehow to struggle their ways to the end of their novels, through countless sleepless nights and downing hundreds of litres of coffee only to find they can’t provide a conclusion to the work. They hang around the end, set out to finally finish it several times, or just pass the end of it.
There are countless ways of ending a novel. It could have a sad, a mystical, a comic or even a tragic conclusion. The most important thing worth remembering is that the writer has actually signed a contract with the reader at the beginning of the novel. He has promised something, laid down a basic principle, or just asked a question governing the whole novel to which the reader is expecting an answer. As we have promised the reader something, it is our duty to keep it at the end of our novel.
1. If we have promised a mystery, we should conclude the story with a solution.
2. If we have promised sin, let us sooth the reader with reparation.
3. If we have promised confusion, conclude it with understanding.
4. If we have promised torture, we should provide relief at the end.
5. If we have promised a funny story, we should conclude with the punchline.
6. If we promise a love story, the purpose should be the development of a relationship.
So it makes no difference whether a story comes to a sad or cheerful conclusion – what matters is that the outcome of the story is consistent with what we promised at the beginning of the novel.
One warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, Nick and Amy Dunne are preparing for their fifth wedding anniversary. After the romantic breakfast, the clever and fabulously beautiful wife of the good-looking Nick disappears. Nick is under increasing pressure from the police, the media and the parents, who blindly adore their daughter.
For some reason, Nick keeps telling lies and behaving in odd ways: he strangely keeps obfuscating things, and he is clearly embittered – but is he really a murderer? Amy’s diary and Nick’s rendition gives an insight into a world of claustrophobic, depressing relationship that started out fine but which gradually deteriorated. The only question is, if it was not Nick who made her disappear, then where and why the beautiful wife disappeared. And what is hidden in the box wrapped in tinfoil in the back of the wardrobe?
“… an ingenious and viperish thriller… Even as Gone Girl grows truly twisted and wild, it says smart things about how tenuous power relations are between men and women, and how often couples are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.” (Entertainment Weekly)
For fans of the crime genre, Gone Girl is almost mandatory reading, and is referred to by blurbs of countless criminal novels as the flagship of the wily, cunning modern American thriller literature deploying ever more repulsive characters.
Anyone expecting a series of brutal, bloody murders will be disappointed. The point here is psychological warfare, the sharp insight into the inner dynamics of a marriage, showing the shifts in the feelings of the wife and husband over time. At first, it is heavenly bliss, for there is no more perfect being on earth than our companion. Then it could dimly start dawning on us that even our best other half might have a tiny little flaw or two.
Eventually, the pink mist may disperse, illusions shatter and reality breaks into the idyllic romance with a merciless grin. Can a relationship be rebuilt now, from a state of disillusionment, standing with two feet on the ground, or are we to begin scheming on the destruction of each other’s lives, nicely and slowly and considerately? Then let the thriller begin!
In spite of all Gillian Flynn’s professionalism and ability to manipulate the reader, Amy and Nick’s story, interspersed with changing angles and incredible personality changes, begins to wind about like an endless monster, though perhaps moulding it into a tighter and more to-the-point form would have been better suited to maintaining tension.
In fact, the author keeps balancing on the edge between two genres, and the detailed psychological background does not really benefit the crime story while the marital tragedy, despite the well-depicted conflicts and pitfalls of the relationship, of the suppressions and projections, feels, to my taste, a bit arbitrary and soulless, driven to extremes, and tastes like cellular Hollywood.
What is it that makes it brilliant, and still commercial?
Gillian Flynn, this crafty star author with an innocent smile, employs the type of narrative with alternating angles and varying time horizons in an exemplary way. With this technique, the unsuspecting readers are lured into the false illusion that here they should identify with the idealized doormat-wife role of Diary Amy, and there they should accommodate the calculating, sick, solitary, psychopathic soul of Naughty Amy. The point of view of the bumbling, spoiled, egotistic, vain and stupid husband, Nick, is only the icing on the cake, even if it is the one where most of the transformations of individuality can be found. In a word, the execution is amazing.
Very well-presented provincial atmosphere, with its petty, gossipy, scheming, malevolently manipulative background, a hotbed of intimate, partnership mess and trouble, which can, even in the best family, grow into a drama or, God forbid, a tragedy.
The building into the story of the investigation embedded in this manipulative environment, of the role of provincial cops and the media, of the impressionability of justice is also perfectly matched, the proportions are good, the plot development is smart. But it is not the tension of the strands of crime that carries the book; rather, it is clearly the side of the psychology of the partnership, wherein Gillian admirably fits the psycho strand of Astounding Amy’s paranoid character.
One could go on singing praises about the perfection of the technical implementation, but for me it is too Americanised, and the whole package is about 100-150 pages overwritten in size. I strongly recommend reading it to those who love the morbid socio-sociological conditions of modern America, who like dissecting psychological questions, even though, somewhat deceptively, concealed in the disguise of a thriller.