This taut Swedish thriller introduces us to a cast of some of the most evil characters one could wish for. We have all kinds of villains -- doped up, thuggish villains, suave businessmen villains, greedy villains, sexually perverted and half mad villains, corrupt villains, cold-hearted villains, very very creepy villains -- and also a few charming villains whose charm hides their villainy. Only the sweet nurse Sophie Brinkmann and her teenage son Albert and their burnt-out protector Jens are not villains and by the end of the book one is no longer sure about Sophie.
Sophie is the fulcrum around which this book turns. A nurse in a suburban Stockholm hospital, she meets Hector Guzman, recovering from a broken leg, result of a gangland intimidation operation. Hector seems intelligent and sympathetic and also sees something in Sophie, an essential innocence and goodness that is attractive. Sophie makes the worst mistake of her life becoming entangled in Hector's sprawling business affairs which include smuggling drugs from South America. A rival crime syndicate in Germany wants to take over Guzman's business and Sophie soon finds herself at the center of an international gang war.
Guzman is under surveillance by a rogue division of the Swedish police headed by the creepiest villain in the entire book, the smooth but psychotic Gunilla. Gunilla has collected a bunch of low-life loser cops around her including Lars, a doped-up pervert who soon becomes obsessed with Sophie. This police unit has no compunction about breaking the law, killing witnesses, torturing, extorting and basically running wild.
There are other plot strands as well and it all boils up into an enjoyable soup that kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the 450-odd pages. Unfortunately the author, who shows great assurance and mastery of his plot and characters, kind of loses control in the closing chapter when everything dissolves in a blood-letting of enormous -- and over-the-top -- dimensions. Bodies strew the stage, piling up one atop another, in the style of Act V of Hamlet. It's a little too much which is a pity because this is a pretty good thriller for 80 percent of its length.
This first novel by a Swedish screenwriter is fast, furious, complicated, and good. Its cast of characters is long. There is one unexpected turn in the plot after another, and the characters, though sometimes stereotypes, are well delineated -they come across as persons. Not always appealing persons --more of them that not are criminals, or if not technically criminal, then bullying, probably corrupt cops.
Sophie, on whom most of this chaos falls, is an attractive widow, mother of a fifteen-year-old, and a nurse. She meets a patient at her hospital -Hector Guzman--and finds she likes him more than she's sure she should at first. After all, he is a patient. He's there with a broken leg -a hit and run accident. When he gets out of the hospital, he starts wooing her. He's a very appealing man, and she's lonely, and the face he presents to her is all good at first. Then, almost through the cracks of their relationship, and her encounters with his family and associates, a different picture emerges. As it should, because Hector, together with his father, is head of a crime ring. Hector's gang is at war with another gang. And the war is heating up rapidly.
Sophie is smart and morally upright but given the fix she's gotten herself entangled in, she's got no choice but to go with the flow. No matter how she looks at it, she's in the middle. Hector and his Spaniards are on the one side. A ferocious German-Russian mob is facing off against them. And there are the cops, who are trying to nail Hector and are led by Gunilla, a fiercely careerist cop who will do anything, literally anything -even up to sanctioning the framing of Sophie's son for a `rape' charge--if it will force pressure Sophie to cooperate in her investigation.
Lastly there's Lars, a wild card on the police force, who is sliding into drug addiction and has a thing about Sophie. He's supposed to shadow her but he sneaks into her house at night so he can stare at her sleeping and he takes a pair of her panties with him one time when he's rummaging through her house while she's gone.
The prose throughout is crisp and unsentimental, propelling the narrative along. There is very black humor in some of the descriptive passages, like this one describing Lars drugging up in his bathroom after a nighttime foray to spy on Sophie:
"He went into the bathroom, and loaded up with a perfect combination consisting of a powerful dose of morphine, up the a**, a cocktail of benzo for his stomach, and Lyrica to swim through his nervous system. He was calm, cool, and clear. He leaned closer to his reflection, the coating on his teeth looked like recently shed snakeskin."
Now that's funny. But it's creepy too, and `creepy' is as good an adjective as you can get for Lars, visibly disintegrating, emotionally and mentally, by this point in the story. I like the sly way Soderberg slips in humor: the effect is to distance the reader from the violence but still let him (or her) see it take place. It works, and so does the novel.
"The Andalucian Friend" is the debut novel, a mystery/thriller, from Alexander Soderberg, a Swedish television screenwriter, who presumably is the latest author to take a shot at the crown of Scandinavian mystery-writers, an honorific left vacant since the untimely passing of Stieg Larsson, writer of The Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire & The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (a 3-in-1 ebook pack).
The novel is set largely in Stockholm, capital of Sweden. Sophie Brinkmann--nurse, widow, single mother--meets Hector Guzman, a patient of hers. Her life is uneventful, and she likes it that way. But she likes her patient's quiet charm and easy smile and the way he welcomes her into his family. She quickly learns, though, that his smooth façade masks something much more sinister. For Guzman is the head of a powerful international criminal family that reaches from Europe to South America, and is into both drugs and weapons. And the Guzman family interests are under attack by a ruthless German syndicate that will stop at nothing. A special branch of the Stockholm police, consisting of a deeply disturbed, "instable" detective, a hitman or two, and a couple of wily detectives, is also interested in the Guzman family business.
Soderberg does well with giving us Stockholm, its seasons, geography, byways, roadways and folkways. And his plot isn't bad once it starts ticking. But this may be the slowest mystery/thriller I have ever struggled through. The first 300 pages of this near 450 page book are taken up with dry narrative, and an extremely large cast of international characters, all, of course, with names difficult for English-speaking people. Nor is a chart of characters in front of the book much help, not when you consider that few people, not even me, and I'm retired, can read 300 pages at a sitting. Every time I returned to reading this book - and I would much rather not have returned to reading this book--I had to reorient myself with all these characters. Never did get them all straight. And needless to say, not a single onstage murder/corpse in these first 300 pages. When I am known among my friends for demanding a corpse or two in the first 10-15 pages of any mystery if I'm going to continue contentedly reading it.
At page 300, 2/3 through the book, the plot does suddenly take off, and becomes exciting, even. It delivers quite a few corpses, double-crosses, and enough blood and gore to satisfy most bloodthirsty fans of Scandinavian mysteries, if they are willing to read through 300 dull pages to get to the action. Personally, I've been a fan of Scandinavian mysteries since the old Per Wahloo/Maj Sjowall The Laughing Policeman days, and I've never had to read through 300 pages to get to the fun.
on April 15, 2013
This book has it all: gangsters, good cops, bad cops, good cops that are really bad cops, killers, international intrigue, drugs, Swedish introspection, extreme violence, and in the middle of all of it, a beautiful widowed nurse and her adolescent son just trying to get by. There's a lot here and you do need to pay close attention to keep all the names and plot lines straight, but if you do you'll be rewarded with a fast-paced crime novel that reads like a script for a Swedish Tarantino flick.
The story was pretty believable, but the plot was fairly complicated and, even though the individual chapters sped along, made the book seem a bit longer than necessary. It's a promising start, though, for Alexander Soderberg and I look forward to the continuation of his trilogy.
This is a book that I enjoyed well enough while reading it, but not something I'll give much thought to now that I'm done, and it's unlikely I'd want to read it again. It's an international thriller, set mostly in Sweden and it involves two warring underworld crime rings and a seemingly innocent woman who becomes a focal point in their battles for control of pockets of the underworld. There are smooth operators, a cop who loses control of himself, other cops who will use any vicious means necessary to reach their goals in their sting operations, lots of suspense, some brutality, romantic/sexual subplots . . . Each time I read from the book I enjoyed it ok, but I can't say that when I wasn't reading it, I thirsted to take in the next chunk. Some of the characters seem believable enough, but none of them really came full to life for me. I didn't really care much about any of them. The plot elements kept me somewhat interested, but not too deeply. I think this story could be turned into an interesting thriller film, and won't be surprised if it gets made into one. As a book, I would say it's good but not great.
I reckon that there'll be countless comparisons to THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATOO and its sequels, and that's kinda unfortunate. Soderbergh keeps the plot debeloping at a steadier pace without getting involved in the backstory. The characters are thoroughly unlikeable and yet you'll be cheering for one side at times. The pace culminates with a body strewn finale that will remind you of the last time you watched Hamlet. All in all, Soderbergh is a welcome addition to the stable of Nordic authors. Read it and enjoy. Four stars because it does go over the top at the end.
Jens Vall is an arms dealer in Stockholm. While trying to deliver a shipment of weapons, he's thrust into the middle of a turf war between two organizations of drug dealers. One is headed by Ralph Hanke and the other by Hector Guzman. While Hector is in hospitalized, he forms a bond with a nurse, Sophie Brinkmann, and invites her on a date. Gunilla Strandberg, who runs a unit of misfit police officers, notable only for their loyalty to her, is after Hector and wants to use Sophie to spy on him. The police use threats and blackmail to make Sophie and others cooperate with their investigation. In fact, it's difficult to find a difference between the police and the criminals. If anything, the police are more brutal. Readers who are looking for a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys should give this novel a pass.
In addition to the crime family showdown and the arms delivery gone wrong, the plot of The Andalucian Friend features a blackmail scheme involving a midlevel manager at Ericsson. The plot never crosses the line from complex to confusing, but with so many characters entering and leaving the story, concentration is required to keep it all straight. Sophie remains the novel's focus, a strong, relatively innocent widow trapped in a nightmare.
The plot is interesting but the characters make the story worth reading. They are authentic, filled with contradictions, nagging doubts and hidden emotions. Sophie comes from a background of family discord. (As you might expect in a Scandanavian novel, the family members view Sophie's sister, Jane, with suspicion because she's happy.) Sophie is transformed by her experiences with Hector and the police but, at the same time, remains grounded in her relationship with her son. Gunilla is ambitious, ruthless, and as much a criminal as the thugs she pursues. Hector, on the other hand, is capable of gentleness and sensitivity, at least in his interaction with Sophie. One of the officers Gunilla recruits, Lars Vinge, a man with some serious pharmaceutical issues, is unhappy with the limited role Gunilla has given him and decides to do something about it. If there's anyone in the novel worth cheering for other than Sophie, it's Lars, despite his problems, which include an unhealthy obsession with Sophie. Unlike the other police officers, Lars has a conscience. His motives are never purely altruistic, but he's not evil, as are the novel's most thuggish characters.
The Andalucian Friend blends action (and blood) with intrigue and suspense. It moves at a steady pace, not so quickly as to short-change character development, but not so leisurely that the reader's attention wanders. Alexander Söderberg doesn't invite the reader to make a deep emotional investment in any of his characters; readers who have that desire will probably find the novel unappealing. Some might also be displeased with the novel's ending -- it leaves lives unsettled -- but I thought it was satisfying. It isn't exactly a happy ending, but the unexpected karmic twists are true to the story that precedes it.
As the first novel in a trilogy, I have to expect the next story to go in a different direction, since not every key character introduced in this one will be available to make a repeat appearance. I look forward to seeing what Söderberg does with the next installment.
on March 12, 2013
The Andalucian Friend is heralded as being the next best thing to come out of Sweden and it is being compared to the global phenomenon The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson. I for one don't see how they are similar besides the location of each title being in Sweden. With that being said, I move on to my review of The Andalucian Friend.
The Andalucian Friend begins with Sophie Brinkmann meeting a man named Hector Guzman in the hospital she is a nurse for. They begin a relationship outside of that hospital and this is where the trouble starts. Sophie is not anyone special. She is simply a widowed nurse who is taking care of her teenage son Alberto yet she is a main focal point for almost everyone in the novel. The cops want her to inform on Hector who is a boss in an international crime ring. It doesn't take long for things to spiral out of control for Sophie and her quiet life.
Enter many characters and then some more characters and you have Soderbergs latest novel. There are so many characters that I used notes to separate them from each other. Besides them all being primarily gangsters or rogue cops, there isn't much else in the way of describing them or their backgrounds until farther down the line in the book. Thankfully Soderberg at least provides a character list that at least helps to maintain their country of origin and who's side they are possibly on in what turns out to be a huge turf battle amongst rival organizations.
Although I didn't find many redeeming qualities about many of the characters, I still found myself taking sides. Besides Sophie the whole lot are mainly comprised of people who are murderers, arms dealers, insane cops, and crime lords. Not the norms who are worthy of any sympathy. The beat cop that is introduced in this novel has a lock on insanely deranged people. I will not forget his drug addiction or his weird obsession with the novel's heroine. He is crazy with a capital C.
Ultimately, The Andalucian Friend is a well-written quick read. It's not what I would generally think of as a thriller but it does have the element of suspense in the background. The many storylines are what kept me very invested in this novel. I was interested in finding out which one of these greedy, guilt-ridden, sociopaths were going to escape with the money and power. The ending did not let me down and I was actually pretty happy with it. I look forward to reading the next book in this series. Hopefully it goes a little deeper into the psyche of the characters remaining after this initial battle.
on April 11, 2013
I admit, I was a bit taken aback to see the cast of characters page in the beginning... Usually books that need those, or maps, are far too convoluted... But I found this book quite entertaining even if I did have to flip back to that page dozens of times. I wouldn't compare this to Jo Nesbo, I thought the writing was better, and the plot more believable than Nesbos tend to be. I will agree with a reviewer who said that the characters don't make you care about them. The book would have been more enjoyable if I had been more than lukewarm to the protagonists. I'm hoping that aspect gets better in the next of the trilogy.
If you are a fan of Henning Mankell or Jo Nesbo, the Andalucian Friend will seem very familiar to you. Unfortunately, the familiarity is only skin deep. While Mankell and to a lesser extent Nesbo can create characters that are deep and flawed, like Wallander and Hole, Soderberg creates a lot of characters that no one can care about, flawed or not. And, as if to make up for the fact that there are no characters worth our time, he floods the book with a lot of characters, and proceeds to kill them off.
The book is more convoluted than it needs to be, and spends a significant amount of time with what are eventually ancillary characters. It feels like one of those movies where all your favorite action heroes all star in one big blockbuster - there are a lot of people doing big and dangerous things, but the story gets lost, and there are few characters or themes to care about.
Soderberg has clearly read his fellow Scandinavian authors, including Stieg Larsson. As if borrowing from the thriller and action plots of Mankell and Nesbo aren't enough, he is creating a "trilogy" based on his main protagonists - a mom who fell in love with a Spanish drug kingpin and her long time friend Jens who is also a drug runner. Very similar to the "Girl with the Dragon tatto" books.
On the whole, I'd recommend sticking with the more well known and well received authors in this genre. If there is a trilogy, it will be interesting to see if Soderberg can add more to his characters and give us more to care about in the upcoming novels.