Hazel McHaffie

crime

Lost in Translation

One of the bonuses of this time out due to Covid-19 has been reading books quite outside my usual milieu, and taking the time to appreciate different skills and talents. This week it’s the amazing skill of translators.

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian writer and his work has been translated into English by Don Bartlett, a freelance translator who lives in Norfolk. And boy, the result is so impressive I just had to consume two Nesbo novels consecutively – meaty tomes though they be. 

Both feature Harry Hole – a detective inspector in the Crime Squad in Oslo, loner, obsessive, recovering alcoholic, always seemingly a whisker away from being thrown out of the police force.

The Redeemer  is full of subtle moral and religious analogies and paradoxes, which I found intriguing. The plot is tortuous, the unravelling complex and detailed. Picture the scene. Shortly before Christmas, the Salvation Army, resplendent in their distinctive uniforms, are playing traditional music outside in one of Oslo’s most famous streets. Without warning, a man in a black raincoat and black woollen hat with a red neckerchief, takes aim at short range and kills one of the players with a single bullet through the head, before vanishing from sight. But it’s the wrong target. And thus begins a trail of devastation and horror.

The assassin – given the name The little redeemer – is cold, ruthless, fearless and driven. As writers, we’re always told to utilise all the senses in writing, so I was particularly taken by one particular characteristic of this man. His mother had told him that ‘the human brain can reproduce detailed images of everything you have seen or heard, but not even the most basic smell.’  He has grown up, since, unusually alert to smells. ‘His nostrils flared and drew in the faint smell of damp cement, human perspiration, hot metal, eau de cologne, tobacco, sodden wool and bile, a smell they never managed to wash out of the train seats, or to ventilate.’
He had learned to shut out noises – screams and artillery – but not smells, and he was acutely aware of this feature in the hospital where he was a teenage errand boy. One smell above all others haunted him – the smell of burnt flesh and blood from the operating theatre. It was ‘like nothing else’. Can’t you just feel the elements assembling that will drive this budding killer to hunt down and take life?

And it’s this amazing facility with language in a translated work which caught my attention. Nesbo’s background is as a singer/songwriter, and I wonder if this contributed to his ear for the lyrical in language. It’s not just the choice of words, but he uses uniquely clever and ingenious transitions between sections, beautiful linkages which serve to add to the intrigue. A couple of examples to illustrate … At the end of one section the detective presses his thumb against a cold metal button; at the beginning of the next section a different person altogether takes his finger off the button, puts down his heavy bags and gazes up at the block of flats above him. Then later, one of the Salvation Army officers says, ‘You’re lying.‘ The next section begins with the detective saying, ‘No I’m afraid I’m not’, but in answer to a completely different conversation. Brilliant. I loved it!

In The Snowman, a young boy wakes to find his mother has vanished, but her favourite pink scarf – the one he’d given her for Christmas – has been wrapped around the neck of a snowman in the garden. By the time Inspector Harry Hole arrives, everything is starting to drip and sigh in the thaw, and the snowman has ‘a slight list and poor future prospects‘. When a second woman goes missing, Hole fears he has a serial killer operating on his patch. And this conviction is strengthened when one of his colleagues traces back a whole series of women who have mysteriously disappeared. What kind of monster emerges on the day of the first snowfall, creates snowmen, and abducts women – married women with children? The Snowman. But who is he … or she?

It’s a devilishly plotted tale, with false trails, deception and suspects aplenty. Just when you think we’re about to see the monster unmasked, another set of wet slushy footprints lead off at a tangent. In this one, the plotting is the main attraction, but again the language in places is lyrical. How about this for the police inspector’s job?: he stared ‘into others’ faces to find their pain, the Achilles heels, their nightmares, motives and reasons for self-deception, listening to their fatiguing lies and trying to find a meaning in what he did: imprisoning people who were already imprisoned inside themselves. Prisons of hatred and self-contempt he recognised all too well.’

Brutal murders and serial killers aren’t my usual bag, but this is one author and one translator who have inspired my admiration. And I was taken by surprise by an unexpected phenomenon: both feature medical syndromes and inherited diseases … Now, I’m listening, even if the detail isn’t strictly accurate in one place! It’s close enough for purpose, and I never was a reader on the hunt for mistakes or anachronisms; I have too much respect for the hard work that goes into writing a book or a drama to nit pick.

Psychiatrically disturbed personalities unnerve me somewhat too: and as one such character says in The Snowman: ‘My psychiatrist says I’m just a few notches more extreme than most people’. Just what I was always afraid of!

Jo Nesbo’s novels are published in 48 languages. That’s a lot of translators. I salute them all.

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Amazing talent

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festivals, I’m feeling overawed by the enormous breadth of talent I’ve been exposed to lately. So it seems appropriate to home in on another aspect of human endeavour currently impressing me greatly: the skill that goes into creating a well-crafted thriller. I could select any of the books I’ve just read but I’ll take the last one – which happens to be the meatiest!

The WinnerWhen I first selected The Winner by David Baldacci off my shelves I confess I was very inclined to return it rapidly. 565 pages … hmmm! And the layout is strangely off-putting. How glad I am that my conscience made me resist that temptation and give the book a fair crack of the whip. Almost 600 pages it might be but not one of them is surplus to requirement. Not for a second did I lose interest or skim a page. Coffees went cold, meals were late, bedtime extended way past a sensible hour. The pace, the tension, never slacken – totally gripping throughout. Why?

Dense textWell, let’s look at why.

  1. The protagonists are believable and well-rounded, their true characters emerging gradually as the story unravels. And they are multi-faceted, with strengths and weaknesses, attributes and flaws, appeal and unlikeable traits. So, LuAnn Tyler is a dirt-poor young woman shacked up in a down-at-heel trailer with an unskilled, unemployed drunk, Duane Harvey, who unbeknownst to her is dabbling in drugs. They have a baby daughter, Lisa, whom LuAnn adores and would give her life for. She’s a brilliant mother. She’s also very beautiful. Jackson on the other hand is a cunning manipulator with a brilliant mind, no scruples and no moral code. He is a master of disguise who has the power to infiltrate any world he chooses, and such is his reach that we start to suspect every new character and startle at every sudden appearance, fearing his malevolent influence.
  2. The motives of the main characters are mixed, complex and intriguing; nothing stereotypical here. So, for example, LuAnn’s conscience baulks at being involved in anything illegal but when she finds the father of her child dying and she herself has hit – probably fatally – Duane’s murderer, she realises she’s in a hopeless situation: if she does the right thing she’ll be clapped in jail and her baby girl will be taken away from her. For Lisa’s sake she must accept Jackson’s dubious offer. And even when she becomes enormously wealthy, her conscience dictates she must pay back to society in some way. But when the final challenge comes she’s not averse to capitalising on the proceeds of crime.
  3. We’re rightly wary of Jackson from the outset, but Baldacci ratchets up the tension by continually, incrementally, broadening the range of the man’s evil. We learn more and more about his modus operandi until we are fascinated by his ingenuity, fearfully anticipating his next devious move, and seeing him behind every shadow. Even though we actually learn his true identity on page 481, there is still no end to the depths to which he will sink to protect himself and his schemes, and we live in a state of high alert dreading what’s to come.
  4. On the other hand, the novel appeals to our better nature too. Flawed though LuAnn undoubtedly is, we want to see her win through in the end. She engenders sympathy and devotion in the people she meets: Charlie leaves behind his shady past and becomes her staunchest ally; Matthew Riggs forsakes his anonymity and quiet life to protect her. And LuAnn’s trust once gained becomes a precious commodity. We too care about her welfare.
  5. The plotting is so assured and clever that the improbable seems believable. The depiction of national security issues, the detail of each disguise, each manouevre, each scheme, each flight from retribution as the characters fight for supremacy or justice, keep the reader riveted and the pages simply fly by.
  6. The pace never flags. No saggy middle, no anticlimax, here.
  7. The story line is far-reaching and challenging, involving matters of international security, government shenanigans, personal crusades. Your imagination goes into over-drive wondering, what if …?

I could go on, but enough for now. Baldacci inhabits his characters brilliantly. He inspires a horrifying blend of reactions – unexpected empathy, dread, subtle identification, revulsion. And we have to ask ourselves, in LuAnn’s situation, what would I have done? Would I have her devotion, her courage, her determination? Would my priorities have been hers? Would I commit a crime for the greater good of those I love? Charlie and Matthew are convinced anyone would have done exactly what she did; now I know LuAnn, I have to ask again: Would I?

What I DO know is I’d love to be able to write with Baldacci’s assurance and cleverness. He totally deserves the lavish praise of the critics.

Praise for Baldacci

PS. I found one tiny flaw: a mistake in the name on p524! One of the hazards of using the same initial for two main characters I suspect. It surprised me though, given the stature of the author and its professional production and the number of eyes that must have checked this book.

 

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