by Sharon Tucker
Perhaps your summer reading, like mine, involves pulling the venetian blinds mostly closed against the afternoon sun, getting the AC just right and then settling back with a good book, a glass of iced tea and finally settling in to read, going where your author takes you.
With William Trevor’s Death in Summer, Lillian Stewart Carl’s The Murder Hole, and Mons Kallentoft’s Summer Death readers will respectively find themselves in the county of Essex, England, Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands and in Linkoping, Sweden. These mysteries, set in summer, offer a getaway to a strange, dreamlike look at country life and three deaths in the northeast of England, followed by yet another search for Nessie. Accompanied this time by murder at Loch Ness amid the midges and stifling heat. As Linkoping swelters, a Swedish policewoman you may not have met avails herself of tequila and other pleasures to come to terms with family issues and a series of escalating crimes against young women. The setting of all three novels has a way of making intense summer weather almost palpable as well as exploring how the season affects the worlds of the novels.
Death in Summer is quite the literary mystery. Although author William Trevor’s writing style has been called dreamlike or impressionistic, it strikes me as more in the manner of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness told from multiple viewpoints (or in multiple streams) that spring up as the narrative progresses.
The novel’s protagonist, Thaddeus Davenant, has long lived in genteel poverty as his country house grew evermore shabby with the passing years until he married a kind and wealthy young woman who soon presented him not only with a way to salvage his estate, but with a child to inherit. All too quickly, circumstances evolve that necessitate the employment of a nanny for their child and a 21st century Jane Eyre soon presents herself for the position.
It would be incorrect to assume the novel is romantic – quite the contrary. As the plot unwinds, readers who thought they were in the English countryside of more than a century ago, suddenly find modern references that explain earlier incongruities.
Incongruities also abound in Lilian Stewart Carl’s The Murder Hole but these have more to do with lover’s gang agley, ghostly activity intruding on the pair and a search for the Loch Ness monster than a question of writing style.
Carl’s 2nd novel featuring journalist Jean Fairbairn and DCI Alasdair Cameron begins with Fairbairn’s assignment to cover high tech entrepreneur Roger Dempsey’s Loch Ness expedition as well as interviewing the local environmental activist, Iris MacKintosh, who stands against the expedition and the pillage of the environment that Dempsey represents. Intriguingly, MacKintosh also happens to be the daughter of deceased Ambrose MacKintosh, former avid disciple of the infamous black magician Aleister Crowley. One school of thought credits MacKintosh with having conjured Nessie from another dimension – he certainly is responsible for the first “sightings” of the creature and the consequent tourist industry that followed. When the bombing of his boat attempts to scuttle Dempsey’s expedition, MacKintosh is the logical suspect in the disappearance and suspected murder of an expedition member aboard the boat at the time. Fairbairn and Cameron again become a team to unravel the tangle of accusations and evidence, despite the emotional tangle in which they find themselves.
As Summer Death begins, Mons Kallentoft’s detective, Malin Fors, is not in a good place. The provincial Swedish town of Linkoping, where she lives and polices is the midst of a killing heat wave that has sent most residents to vacation in cooler climates. It has also engendered wildfires that constantly mantle the town’s atmosphere with smoke. Her teenage daughter and ex-husband are on vacation in Bali, leaving Fors to try to stay cool by swimming, indulging in what could be called a cold love affair and frequently drinking cold beer and tequila shots late into the evening.
Fors, we find, is a capital police detective, but feels less successful in human interactions. Horrible as it is, a series of crimes come along to shake Fors out of her bleak spiral when a teenage girl is found naked, drugged and sexually assaulted in a public park at the same time another girl is reported missing. The connections between these two crimes and others to come are tenuous at best, since those involved are not forthcoming with what they know. The stakes are upped when Fors herself becomes the killer’s audience.
Some readers have complained of author Kallentoft’s bleak prose in translation, but having read Scandinavian authors Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Camilla Lackberg, I must disagree. The spare prose strikes me as composing the lines that make the author’s stark portrait of Fors all the more immediate. The sparseness of the writing emphasizes the purple hellishness of the crimes that face Fors and her department and the contrast works for me.
Choosing any of these three mysteries just might distract you from the summer heat so many of us are now experiencing. Whether you choose to visit Essex, Loch Ness, or south-central Sweden, prepare to encounter someone else’s problems which, as we know are far easier to solve than our own.
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