The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl, translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally

The Land of Dreams can be classified as Nordic Crime.  On the surface it is the story of an elaborate murder in a small Minnesota town. Minnesota is known for having a large Skandinavian-American community. Norwegian characters are involved. The book explores the dark side of human nature.  But, if it is Nordic Crime, it is atypical of the genre. Put aside the fact that the story is set in America.  The plot is only tangentially interested in solving the mystery or describing the minutiae of the investigation.  Writing in the third person Vidar Sundstøl focuses on two men – the American officer who found the body and the Norwegian detective who is sent to represent his country in the investigation.  Their interactions and impressions, both on and off the case, overshadow the mystery.

Lance Hansen is a police officer for the U.S. Forest Service with a predilection for local history. While investigating a routine call – illegal campers – he makes a gruesome discovery. Two Norwegian canoeists: one dead. The other huddled, bloody and naked, at the base of a large stone cross.  When a fellow officer comments that this is the first murder committed in Cook County history Hansen becomes curious.  What he learns impacts his relationship to the past and has repercussions in the present.

Because the murder takes place within the borders of Lake Superior National Park the FBI is brought in to head the investigation. Hansen is indisputably the novel’s protagonist, but Sundstøl chooses to spend much of the book following Eirik Nyland, a detective sent from Norway to partner with the FBI.  Nyland is obviously a stand-in for the author (who lived for 2 years in Minnesota).

The locals identify themselves as Norwegian- and Swedish-Americans, but most are several generations removed and have never visited their “homelands”.  Nyland’s observations are surreal and funny, without being cruel.  A tenderness comes through, one that makes me believe that Sundstøl enjoyed his time in America.  In one passage a local police officer working on the investigation, Sparky Redmeyer, invites Nyland and the American FBI agents to the local Fourth of July celebration.  The American agents are obviously not impressed.  After they leave Nyland learns that Redmeyer gave up spending the day with his family in order to show the men around.  Nyland tells him “I think it’s great…. I’ve never been to a Fourth of July celebration before.  It’s something I’ll remember all my life.  I’m grateful you took the trouble to bring us out here today.”

“Oh, that’s okay.  It was no trouble,” said Redmeyer.  His face suddenly radiated genuine joy.  “Really no trouble at all.  Just ordinary hospitality.”

Nyland turned around, pretending to study the people at the neighboring tables as he smiled.  It was impossible not to smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d encountered such a sincere response from an adult.  And someone he didn’t even know very well.  It made him happy.  At the same time, it struck him that Sparky Redmeyer would not have made a very good investigator.  That job required being able to play a covert game with people, as well as the ability to expose the double-dealing and hidden agendas of others.  An investigator constantly had to listen for what people were not saying.

Later that day the two men will run into Lance Hansen.  They separate, agreeing to meet again later. The author then follows Hansen who walks along the shore of the lake and has an eerie encounter.

A man was kneeling in the back of the canoe. He was using a short, old-fashioned oar, which also looked new and beautiful. The man wore a dark jacket nd a big round hat. His clothes looked old and tattered. He was paddling with slow, steady strokes,  making the canoe glide lightly and quickly through the water.

Lance had an urge to call out to the man.  It wasn’t unusual to shout and wave to somebody in a boat. And this was a very special kind of boat.He was just about to raise his hand when the man stopped paddling and turned to look toward Lance standing on the breakwater. His face was filthy, in a shin sort of way, as if he’d spent a long time sitting in front of a bonfire. And now Lance recognized him.  This was the man he’d seen walking along Highway 61 the day he drove to Two Harbors to visit Andy and Tammy….

Lance thought his jacket looked like he’d found it in the attic of a house that had been unoccupied since before World War II.  Discovered in the attic and then put to use, without giving it so much as a good brushing. At one time it had apparently been black, maybe a suit jacket, but now it was so worn it seemed almost gray. And then there was the man’s hat with the wide, round brim that drooped a bit, as if it had been in the water for a long time and lost some of its original shape. The man in the canoe was truly a pitiful sight. And yet Lance felt nailed to the spot by the man’s eyes. Because he wasn’t merely looking at Lance, he had fixed his eyes on him. Lance felt his legs turn heavy and stiff while his heart hammered unpleasantly. He didn’t know what there was about this man – all he knew was that he’d never experienced this feeling before. Never. To feel someone looking at him this way. A man like this.

Most events, including the initial discovery of the body, are written in this kind of even-handed prose style.  The graphic violence and gratuitous sadism that I’ve come to associate with Nordic Crime is (thankfully) absent from The Land of Dreams.  Furthermore, Sundstol’s writing is devoid of emotional bias.  The reader never ascends dramatic peaks or falls into valleys.  None of the characters descend into archtypes.  Nyland, while kind, views his hosts with the attitude of a scientist peering at amoebas through a microscope.  Hansen, while both decent and honorable, sometimes displays a small-mindedness that fits a little too neatly into the small town/Red State stereotype.  The story drifts amiably along in this way until the end, with little to no fanfare.  Everything – the characters, all the descriptions and dialogue – feels normal.  Almost mundane. Even Tiina Nunnally’s translation; which rings somewhat awkward and overly formal to American ears. The combined effect is charming.

The Land of Dreams is an unusual interpretation of what, in the beginning, appears to be a fairly typical murder-mystery.  There are allusions to a ghost story. Pages are spent on the history of the town, the immigrant families who settled the area and the Native Americans who were there first.  The central mystery – the murder of the Norwegian tourist – feels more like a red herring than a central plot point.  In that way it reminded me quite a bit of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.  The stories are very different, of course.  But the authors both use murder as the jumping off point to explore family dynamics and the secrets that can tear families apart.


The Land of Dreams is Book 1 of Sundstøl’s  award-winning Minnesota Trilogy.  There is a lot of material in this first book, much of it left unresolved, any piece of which could be spun into a novel all its own.   After doing a little research online I found a link to a description of Book 2: Only the Dead (contains spoilers for The Land of Dreams!).  And at the blog Mystery Fanfare there is a great guest post by Vidar Sundstøl.  Only the Dead is due out in 2014.

Publisher:  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8166 8940 8

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido (translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead)

The Corpse Reader (another historical whodunnit in the same vein as The Hangman’s Daughter series) is published through Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s international/translation imprint.  I bought it because it was advertised on my Kindle as the “Daily Deal”.  Not so much for the low price – though I am surprised to admit that did play a small part – but mainly because it caught my eye as being something I’d actually enjoy reading (unlike say, Wedding Cakes and Big Mistakes which is currently polluting the screen of my device.  Porn would be less embarrassing). 

The hero of The Corpse Reader is Cí , a character based on Song Cí, the real life historical figure considered to be the father of forensic science.  He lived during the Tsong Dynasty (1206).  And so like The Mistress of the Art of Death series (do you see a pattern developing here?) by Ariana Franklin we have a Sherlock Holmes figure who pre-dates Doyles Sherlock and at the same time draws on the popular historic novel genre.  What gives The Corpse Reader an edge is that the author not only spent years researching the period, he also seems to have at knack for the tone/style of Chinese authors. When I compare The Corpse Reader to my (admittedly limited) experience with reading Chinese literature there are some cultural idiosyncracies that Garrido gets right.  The extreme deference to male authority figures, uncomfortable sexual relationships, the cut-throat political machinations of the Tsong Emperors Court.  And bad luck.  Chinese protagonists experience an inordinate amount of bad luck.  If it wasnt for bad luck, as the saying goes, theyd have no luck at all.

Cí shuddered at the sight of the City of Death.  In Wang’s view, to dock there was to engage in a dangerous game of chance.  The place was infested with outlaws, fugitives, traffickers, cardsharps – all of them ready to bleed dry any foreigner.  But as the barge approached, the wharf area, swathed in mist, looked abandoned, and the crews of the hundreds of docked boats were nowhere to be seen.  Even the water lapping against the boats’ sides seemed particularly gloomy.

“Be on your guard,” whispered Wang.

They glided toward the primary dock and began to see people running between the warehouses.  Cí looked down just as a dead body, surrounded by a bloody spew, floated past.  Other bodies floated nearby.

“The plague!” cried Ze.

Wang nodded, and Third and Peach Blossom came and huddled next to Cí.  He tried to discern the shore, but the mist was too thick.

“We’ll go downstream,” Wang said.  “You,” he added, addressing Peach Blossom, “grab a pole and help.”

Instead of doing as she was told, Peach Blossom grabbed Third and made to throw her into the water.  Third struggled hard and began to cry.  The prostitute’s face had become a wicked mask.

“The money!” she shouted.  “Give me the money or I swear I’ll throw her in!”

Cí is a lightning rod for bad luck.  But like a lightning rod all his bad luck and misfortune deflects onto those around him.  After tragedy strikes his family and forces him to become of fugitive from the law Ci journeys to the capital determined to find a way to resume his studies at University.  A series of misadventures occur  Eventually our young hero finds himself, and his extraordinary powers of observation, at the service of the Emperor.  He is commanded to solve a  series of murders connected to the Court .  In a situation he cannot win, surrounded by people he dare not trust, Cis struggles to attain his dreams.  You struggle with him.  Which makes The Corpse Reader hard to put down.  

Im providing only the barest of outlines because Antonio Garrido has crafted a plot that challenges and surprises.  One that deserves to be read spoiler free.  And the translator, Thomas Bunstead, was partly responsible for one of my favorite books of 2012:  The Polish Boxer.   The Corpse Reader is an entirely different kind of book, story and setting.  Bunstead seems to view that as a chance to show his versatility, and I’ve no doubt that the tone/style I tried to describe earlier can be in part attributed to his skills as a translator.

Engaging characters, a mystery that keeps you guessing, a translated crime novel from somewhere other than Sweden  – The Corpse Reader is something different to add to your Summer Reading List.  Available for a limited time on the Kindle for $3.99.*

Publisher:  Amazon Crossing, Las Vegas (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 8436 4

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*Disclaimer:  I’m not being paid by Amazon.  I just think that’s funny.

From Away by David Carkeet (Advance Review Copy)

From Away is a different kind of mystery novel. It opens with Denny Braintree on his way back from assignment for the Fearless Modeler, the model train magazine he writes for.   He crashes his rental car into a highway median and ends up stranded overnight in Montpelier, Vermont.   Locals mistake him for Homer Dumpling – the hometown favorite who’d abruptly left without a word 3 years earlier.  Denny, being Denny, immediately decides he likes being Homer.  Mostly because everyone likes Homer (a new experience for Denny, who nobody seems to like).  Partly because the next morning Denny Braintree becomes the chief suspect in a murder investigation.  From Away contains multiple mysteries – there’s the murder, discovering what happened to the real Homer and the biggest mystery of all… what is the deal with Denny?

David Carkeet has created a 330-pound hero who isn’t even trying to be sympathetic.  Within the first chapter it’s apparent that not only is Denny obnoxious, he knows it.  He’s obnoxious by choice – to get a reaction and to make life more interesting.   This self-awareness disarms you and redeems him.  It also adds a certain amount of comedic value to the situations Denny finds himself in.

The trooper looked him up and down.  “Were you wearing a seatbelt?”

“You’re asking me that because of my size, aren’t you?  Driving while chubby – is that a crime?”

The trooper stood up straight.  He turned and looked down the highway in one direction, then in the other.  He came back to Denny, this time squatting at the open door instead of leaning in.   “EMS is on the way.  They’ll check you out.”

“I’ve got a plane to catch.”

The trooper bounced lightly on his haunches, up and down, as if exercising.  Denny could never do that.  “I don’t think you’re going to make that plane.”

“Fine.  But I want to get going.”

The trooper stopped bouncing.  “Are you refusing medical treatment?”

Denny liked the sound of that.  “Yes.  I’m refusing medical treatment.  Does that make me an asshole?”

“No, sir.” The trooper paused.  He paused quite a while.  And then he said, “That doesn’t make you an asshole.”

Denny had to hand it to him.  The pause had been good, of professional caliber, really.  He looked from the trooper to the men in the front seat.  Without moving or making a sound, they were chuckling.  The amusement was contained, effectively sealed from view, but there could be no mistake.  The Yankees were  laughing at him.

This isn’t a book about character evolution.  The Denny you encounter in the beginning isn’t all that different from the one you’ll leave at the end.  He doesn’t get any nicer – as he says himself:  he likes the way he is and doesn’t get why other people don’t.  What changes is the readers’ perceptions.  As the story gains momentum you’ll start to understand Denny and come to see who he is reflected in the people around him.   You’ll want him to succeed – to get out of the mess he’s put himself in, to make friends, to keep up the facade of being Homer.  There’s a stark honesty in how Carkeet has written his hero.  Like Ignatius J. Reilley (A Confederacy of Dunces) or the Binewski children (Geek Love) or Tom Robbins entire bibliography of characters, Denny is an odd egg not without certain charms.  He may be a bit weird, but he’s no hypocrite.  He just sees the world from the outside looking in, which is the same way he explores his model train layouts. The more we learn about Denny and Homer and the people of Montpelier, the easier it is to appreciate Denny’s unique perspective.

From Away contains quite a bit of physical comedy.  The kind more common in films than books.  Carkeet manages to translate it nicely into print, resulting in some hilarious scenes.  He’s created a large supporting cast of characters as goofy as Denny and a plot that is rock solid.  He’s got great comedic timing.  What’s best, though, is how much of From Away is unexpected.  It you read a lot of mysteries, you already understand what a rare thing that is.  David Carkeet is an author with a big, bold voice telling a story with surprising subtlety.  His clues are to be found in the small details – not in conspicuously placed plot points.   From Away is a mystery that stands out from the crowd, that will make you laugh and repeatedly catch you by surprise.  It may take a little while to warm up to Denny, but once you do there’s no going back.

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 304 0

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