translated by Kristian London
translated by Alex Fleming
This month, three men write about a trio of smart, capable female characters in law enforcement who have been sidelined at their jobs. One has been forced to take time off, while the other two have been tucked away in basement offices, all for reasons of varying legitimacy. But nobody keeps these women in a corner for long, whatever their issues.
So how believably do these men realize their heroines?
Tom Baragwanath, who makes his debut with Paper Cage, goes bone-deep with his portrayal of Lorraine Henry, a childless widow who works as a file clerk at the police department in Masterton, New Zealand, where sheep and the drug trade drive the economy. She has a sympathetic neighbor to share a gin or two with, but her true connection is with her bi-racial niece, Sheena, and her young son, Bradley. Sheena has had problems with addiction, and her boyfriend heads a drug gang, making the situation delicate for a white police employee such as Lorraine. She’s not too popular with Sheena’s Maori friends, either, but she’s got a thick skin.
The town is reeling from the disappearance of two children from Sheena’s neighborhood in the space of a few weeks, and when Bradley is taken next, a desperate Lorraine is encouraged to help with the investigation by a kind detective brought in from Wellington. Lorraine is 60-ish, with a bad hip and little respect from her colleagues, so it takes another outsider to appreciate her value. Together they face down a danger no one has foreseen.
Tenderness and violence are always intersecting in Paper Cage; people do bad things out of what they perceive as love. It feels as if Baragwanath has distilled a lifetime of observations into this book, and his images linger in the mind: the sad houses with flaking paint and broken gates, “that musty waft between burnt sugar and vinegar” suggesting the presence of heroin, the drug dealer’s impeccably tended vegetable garden. He also finds a deep sense of community in a traditional Maori funeral where a large group of mourners grieve as one.
Lorraine, who’s unwelcome at that funeral, is caught in the middle of a racial divide, but she’s fueled by a love of family that knows no limit. And that, along with her underestimated intelligence, is her superpower. In this haunting, finely wrought book, Baragwanath illuminates the extraordinary strength of an ordinary woman.
Tenderness and violence are always intersecting in Tom Baragwanath’s Paper Cage.
Jessica Niemi is anything but ordinary, sort of a spiritual daughter of Lisbeth Salander, the rebellious, pissed-off heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Jessica’s creator, the Finnish writer Max Seeck, has built a compelling series around her, of which this is the fourth book, and knows her well by now.
Jessica is an excellent detective with serious problems. Her inherited wealth is the result of her family’s death in a car crash, and she was traumatized by an abusive romantic relationship. Plus, she’s worked some extremely gnarly cases. None of this has been good for her precarious mental health, which reaches a breaking point when she kicks the daylights out of a man for berating her in public. The ensuing viral video convinces her boss that it’s time for her complicated top cop to get some R&R.
So the woman who could afford a suite in the Burj Al Arab goes to a guesthouse on a remote island off the coast of Finland for a month. What she doesn’t know is that it’s near an abandoned orphanage that spawned the legend of Maija, a lost little girl in a blue coat, whose ghost supposedly still haunts the place.
Among the other guests are the “birds of spring,” onetime residents of the orphanage who re-unite every year at the inn. When one of them is the victim of a suspicious drowning, Jessica’s instincts kick in, and she starts looking into the woman’s death, along with her childhood connection to Maija.
The island turns out to be the worst possible place for a troubled detective to decompress. Jessica’s sanity begins to flicker when she sees a small figure in a blue coat at the end of a dock, and it’s further disturbed by the intrusion of an oddball local cop whose behavior borders on the bizarre.
Seeck likes to play with the supernatural, which he does effectively here, combining Maija’s tragic story from 1946 with events of the present day and dialing up the spookiness as he goes along. Let’s just say the cruelty of children can be shocking, and Seeck leans right into it. If you like your Scandi noir with a splash of horror, Ghost Island is a don’t-miss destination.
The creator of Jessica Niemi, a spiritual daughter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander, is the Finnish writer Max Seeck, whose Ghost Island marks the fourth in a series.
Detective Inspector Leo (for Leonore) Asker, of the Mälmo Serious Crime Command, is not as damaged as Jessica, but she did endure a harsh upbringing at the hands of a doomsday-prepper father. She grew up to be a disciplined, no-nonsense woman whose striking eyes, one blue and one green, give her an unsettling gaze that’s helpful in her line of work.
In Swedish writer Anders de la Motte’s The Mountain King, Leo is undermined just as she’s begun work on a high-profile case in which a young woman from a wealthy family and her sometime boyfriend have disappeared. Leo has a bad feeling that’s confirmed when her boss brings in a preening, bro-ish detective inspector from Stockholm to take over from her.
This is done at the behest of a lawyer who represents the daughter’s important family, who happens to be Leo’s gorgon of a mother. Leo is not just taken off the case but banished to a crappy basement to run the “Department of Lost Souls,” where unsolved low-profile cases go to die in the hands of a group of misfits. Readers of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s terrific Department Q series and Mick Herron’s Slough House books will be familiar with this setup.
Betting on the most obvious solution, the Stockholm slickster puts all his chips on the boyfriend as the perpetrator. Leo, who’s investigating on the sly, is skeptical about this scenario. She’s looking into the fact that the couple were avid urban explorers and may have come to grief in some dangerous, abandoned location. With the help of her unconventional new colleagues and an old school friend, Leo discovers leads that escape the empty blazer and his posse upstairs.
Throughout the book the reader is privy to the perspective of the victim, as well as her captor, but the Mountain King’s true identity remains elusive. As the case grows in complexity, it also becomes more frightening due to the godforsaken places that make up his domain—claustrophobes, beware.
There’s a bit of a Silence of the Lambs homage happening here, but de la Motte has his own vision. He’s a skillful plotter with a strong sense of place and full command of the quirky details that make this story come alive.
Add to that a heroine with the same fierce determination as Lorraine Henry and Jessica Niemi and you’ve got a sterling trifecta of books by men who would never underestimate a woman with a badge.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books at AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City