Sunday, September 4, 2011

Immersed in Scandinavia

From my window in the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya in St. Petersburg, the Gulf of Finland looked like a serene blue lake. But standing at the water's edge I recalled some of the harrowing scenes in Stieg Larrson's Millennium trilogy - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: crimes involving human trafficking and drug deals carried out among characters in Tallinn, Estonia, across from St. Petersburg on other side of the Gulf of Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden, to the west across the Baltic Sea.

Having never paid much attention to the history, politics or daily lives of Swedish citizens, Larrson's books were eye-openers. Acts of violence and corruption in high places are certainly not unusual plots for mystery writers, but when the setting is somewhere unfamiliar to the reader a new dimension is added.

There are several rewards when I combine my interests in travel and books. One, of course, is learning about a particular place or region. Second is the new direction that leads me to other books of that time or place. Or, the reward might be discovering a new genre.

Stieg Larrson led me to Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom who combined their talents to write Three Seconds. Roslund is a journalist and Hellstrom is an ex-criminal. It's Hellstrom's knowledge of criminal life and the inside of a prison that adds much of the tension to this exciting novel. The novel won the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2009, the same award previously won by Stieg Larrson and Henning Mankell. Three Seconds extends the plot's geographic boundary to Warsaw where members of the Polish mafia run a drug cartel.

Next I found myself among Norwegian criminals. Jo Nesbo is receiving a lot of press lately for his new thriller The Snowman. Since it features Detective Harry Hole, I decided to read The Redbreast where Hole makes his first appearance. This is an intricate and well-written mystery that originates in 1944 when Norwegian soldiers turn their backs on their homeland and fight instead for Germany on the Russian front. Although the Neo-Nazi movement plays a role in the novel, it is the mystery behind five traitors that forces the story forward to the present day.

I've learned that mysteries and thrillers, though never high on my reading list, can be extremely satisfying if they're well-written, have interesting characters and a suspenseful plot. Though I don't think I'll travel back to the time of Agatha Christie, I will be on the alert for more good thrillers, especially if they're set in a place that's new to me.