It is a wonder that Max Seeck is able to bring all the layers of this mysterious puzzle into one cohesive piece. As I read, I couldn’t imagine how Jessica Niemi’s life as a police detective could relate to the life she briefly lived in Venice as a young woman: in the arms of Colombano, a handsome and skilled violinist whose dark intentions combined with his amorous ways.
Several women who resemble her, with dark hair and a beautiful face, are slowly being discovered as murdered. The first is the wife of a famous author, who is found dressed in a black evening gown sitting at the dining room table with high-heeled shoes placed by her bare feet. Worst of all, perhaps, is the hideous grin which transforms her face into a macabre mask even in death.
At first, the police department assumes someone is re-enacting all the murders which have occurred in the author’s best selling novels. Indeed, it appears that they follow the descriptions of women being crushed to death, or drowning in icy water. But when strange words in Latin (Malleus Maleficarum) are found transcribed in the snow on a roof, and men with horns appear to Jessica as shadowy creatures in the night, it becomes clear that much more is going on than what had been merely described in the author’s best sellers.
The tension is ever building and suspenseful. Never once could I predict quite where the plot was going, nor did I feel manipulated in its execution. Perhaps most compelling of all is the character Seeck created in his lead detective; she is a heroine who lives in a studio apartment never wishing her colleagues to be aware of the wealth she has, as evidenced within the connecting apartment next door. It is a wealth she inherited at her parents’ demise and has come to terms with as the novel completes.
The Witch Hunterby Max Seeck is published today. You may listen to an excerpt of the opening pages by clicking below:
Max Seeck devotes his time to writing professionally. An avid reader of Nordic noir for personal pleasure, he listens to film scores as he writes. His accolades include the Finnish Whodunit Society’s Debut Thriller of the Year Award 2016. Max Seeck has a background in sales and marketing and loves to promote his works, and is fluent in English and German.
The minute I began reading, I was immersed in the small town of Butangen, Norway, hundreds of years ago. I read of the conjoined twins whose father, Eirik Hekne, had the Sister Bells cast in their honor. The bells were forged of bronze and silver, for Eirik threw into the melting pot not only all of his silver cutlery, but two fistfuls of silver coins. Was he being wasteful? Perhaps not, as the bells were cast from his fortune, but also in grief and longing.
Few Felt that silver was better spent on church bells than on barns, yet they took it as a reminder that hardship was easier to bear than sorrow. (p. 124)
I read that Norwegian nights are “coal-black in the winter, filling even the stoutest heart with fear.” I read of the stave church, built of wood in the 1100’s, embellished with the heads of dragons. The door of the one in Butangen was once surrounded by a carved serpent and decorated with Nordic symbols. It is in such a church that Kai Schweigaard has come to pastor, that lovely Astrid Hekne visits with elderly Klara Mytting. It is in such a church that Klara dies in the bitter cold at the edge of her pew, against a wall, during one service. Her death causes Kai to wonder how his parishioners’ needs can be better met by the church.
The painter Johan Christian Dahl, made a professor in Dresden, aroused interest in Germany over Norway’s culture, especially the stave churches. The churches were dismantled in Norway where they were no longer wanted, and rebuilt in Germany, thus preserving their historic value. Each beam, each stave, each plank of the medieval church must be carefully recorded so that it could be accurately rebuilt in its new home.
And so, a young German artist named Gerard Schonauer is sent to Butangen to draw the church, to fulfill the architectural plans that have been set before him. But, he was not sent to fall in love with Astrid. And certainly not to leave the bells in their native village in Norway instead of being taken to a new, unfamiliar home in Germany.
The bells seem to have a mystical power of their own, almost personifying the sisters for whom they were named. They have an uncanny way of ringing unexpectedly, or falling suddenly; they seem to know where danger lurks.
He (Astrid’s grandfather) started to talk about the powers of the Sister Bells. “They do nay ring for pretty things. They donae ring to warn of forest bandits or a little earthslide. They ring when folk mun wake up and choose wisely. Or to warn of a disaster as they did in 1814.” (p. 124)
While it might be easy, in theory, to take down a church, the German officials do not understand the power of the Sister Bells any more than they understand the church was originally a house of worship containing far more than wooden staves made from the tallest pines of the forest.
I can’t do this, Gerard said to himself. Nobody can. If the church is taken down it’ll never be made whole again. There’s more here than I can ever understand. The most important thing of all, an inner essence, will disappear when we demolish it.
But another anxiety gripped him too. An anxiety that had started when, on that first day, he had heard the church bells. Now he got the distinct feeling that they disliked him They were somewhere above him, where they lived, free in the air, in fragile balance. (p. 129)
Creating bells that are as real as any character may seem an extraordinary thing to write about. But, they took on a presence that stood for something. More than being merely powerful bells of bronze and silver, the Sister Bells stood for tradition. For superstitions. For two sisters, their father, and the bond made in a small Norwegian village between a young woman and the two men who loved her. It is an atmospheric book, of powerful proportions, that fully transported me to Norway in the nineteenth century. I cannot stop thinking about what I have read, pondering the history, the religion, and the sacrifices made within these pages.
Lars Mytting, Norway’s bestselling novelist, is the author of Norwegian Wood. His books, which have sold over 1 million copies in 19 languages, have won the Norwegian Bookseller Prize and have been shortlisted for the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Prize, among others. The Bell in the Lake has been sold in 12 countries and was a #1 bestseller in Norway.
What the hell had he done, he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a nouveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizable fortune. (p.97)
I am only a little more than one third of the way through this novel, but I can’t stop thinking about Julian English throwing his drink into Harry Reilly’s face one evening at the club. He threw it so hard that the ice left black marks on Harry’s face…but also on Julian’s social acceptance.
My mother has said to me that life “spins on a hair”, meaning that the slightest choice, or action, can alter the whole course of one’s existence. It seems that Julian’s life will be inexorably altered with this event which occurred early in the novel.
Was it unplanned? He was thinking about how much he would like to throw his drink at Harry one minute, and we dwell in this fantasy with him until the next thing we know, he has really done it.
Is Julian unwilling to let Harry have attention by telling the stories that he does, pausing in just the right places and looking over his shoulder before hitting the punch line?
Is it that Harry is an Irish Catholic, and Julian harbors a resentment or prejudice against such a heritage? Or, maybe he’s jealous that Harry is the man with money to whom everyone seems to owe a little…
I am curious about all these reasons, not to mention the path of destruction that Julian seems to be taking. He is only thirty, and yet he has a wife. A home. Supportive parents. A business selling Cadillacs. And he has recently opened his wife’s Christmas present to him: a leather pigskin box with his initials stamped on them in gold ink. Not J. E., but J. McH. E. as he likes. Now he has a place to put his studs, and I find myself questioning him, while at the same time longing to experience how people really lived in the late 1930s. John O’Hara has a way of making it seem simple and risqué at the same time.
“S. is gorgeous, a masterpiece of verisimilitude. . . . The book’s spiritual cousin is A.S. Byatt’s Possession. . . . The brilliance of S. is less in its showy exterior than the intimate and ingeniously visual way it shows how others’ words become pathways to our lives and relationships.” —Washington Post—–
A drenched man in a dark overcoat wanders the streets, unable to remember who he is or where he came from. He enters a tavern, speaks with a woman who has an olive complexion, and is suddenly grabbed from behind, thrown over a strong man’s shoulder, and taken aboard a ship.
Such horrors lurk there, from holes punctured around the men’s mouths so that they can be sewn together with thread to “hearing muted expressions of pain from all about the ship.” (p. 57)
Who is this man? He learns his name is S., while the reader wonders if this could be the author V. M. Straka, who wrote The Ship of Theseus, as well as other “novels that toppled governments, shamed ruthless industrialists, and foresaw the horrifying sweep of totalitarianism that has been a particular plague in these last few decades.” (p. v)
The Ship of Theseus, the novel within this novel, was written in 1949, and it is this text that I read first. Then, I went back to the beginning to read all the annotations that had been handwritten in its margins. Annotations, and dialogue, from two students: Eric, who is studying Straka, and Jen who found Eric’s book containing all his notes.
“Did you write in the book?” my husband asked when he saw me reading it.
“No,” I told him, “it’s part of the presentation.”
“That would drive me crazy!” he exclaimed, and for some people that would perhaps be true. But, I am enchanted by the parallel stories, and the ephemera tucked within its pages, all interwoven to reveal mysteries beyond my imagination.
S. is not a book for those who prefer technology, or e-readers; it is a book lover’s dream.
The events of the early days of blogging, circa 2006 when I began, still bring joy to my heart. I have always participated in Carl’s R.I.P. Challenges, even to the extent where I purchased Poppets which he brought to our attention through his blog posts.
And now we are ready for R.I.P. XV which begins September 1 through October 31, 2020. Use #RIPXV, or @PerilReaders, should you wish to include social media with your posts.
”All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” ~Matthew 4:9 (NIV)
On World Book Day, Amazon gives free books in translation for one’s kindle. (Mark April 23, 2021 on your calendar should you wish to enjoy such pleasures, for they are worthy titles.) All This I Will Give To You, by Dolores Redondo, has been languishing in my queue for such a time as this: Spanish Lit Month and Women in Translation Month. Not only that, it won the Planeta Prize in 2016.
This thrilling novel is intricately woven and beautifully constructed. It follows the labyrinthine path of Manuel who is suddenly woken in the night with the news that his husband has died in a car crash. And when Manuel drives to Alvaro’s family estate for the funeral, he decides to stay to discover what, exactly, was the cause of his husband’s death. The more he searches, the more intrigue he uncovers, for Alvaro’s family bears many hidden secrets.
The waxy, white petals of a gardenia, discovered tucked away in pockets and drawers…the exuberant innocence of Samuel, a four year old boy…the malicious hatred of the Raven, the matriarch of the family estate which has now been left to Manuel, all combine with the help of a policeman and old friend to reveal the truth.
This was a fascinating novel, one I just completed just last night. I leave you with the trailer from the author’s site, as perhaps it will picque your interest even more.
I have had a difficult time reading this month, and sadly, finishing books for Spanish Lit Month. I began Cathedral of The Sea which, as you can see from the blurb about the author at the end of this post, sounded fabulous. Fourteenth century? Several literary prizes? It held every promise.
However, I abandoned this hefty novel halfway through. After slogging through well over 300 pages, many of which were interesting, the overall effect was too much of a soap opera. There were dramatics from the characters which seemed contrived, and I would have much rather known more about the cathedral itself than their imagined lives.
So, with The Cave being Portuguese rather than Spanish, and Cathedral of The Sea being boring, I tried another book: A Million Drops by Victor Del Arbol. It too, lies abandoned halfway through, although it is an international best seller which was named a Best Book of The Year by The Washington Post, Seattle Times and Crime Reads. Perhaps I will pick it up after I finish All This I Will Give to You, written by Dolores Redondo which won the Pleneta Prize in 2016. Such are my efforts for Spanish Lit Month, the later also qualifying for Women In Translation Month.
A lawyer and a writer, Falcones’s first book, La catedral del mar (Cathedral of the Sea), was published in 2006, when he was nearly 50. This historic novel is set in 14th-century Barcelona, when the Catalan empire was at its greatest. Cathedral of the Sea won Falcones several international awards, including the Spanish Qué Leer award, the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio award, and the French Fulbert de Chartres award. His second novel, La mano de Fátima (The Hand of Fatima), which is set during the Moorish era, received the American-Italian Roma Prize for best foreign literature. Since 2013, he has released three books. (From culturetrip.com)
Tom, of Wuthering Expectations, has been posting about John O’Hara here. When he mentioned Appointment in Samarra, I immediately wanted to read it with him in September. And, as Tom points out, Samarra in September has nice alliteration.
Here is more about the 240 page novel from Penguin:
One of Time’s All-Time 100 Best Novels
The writer whom Fran Lebowitz called “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald” makes his Penguin Classics debut with this beautiful deluxe edition of his best-loved book.
One of the great novels of small-town American life, Appointment in Samarra is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.
Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.
Do consider joining us for Samarra in September! I am sure we will read and post throughout the month as we feel led, and even write one or two tweets using #SamarraInSeptember.
I love walking through Herrick Lake Forest Perserve. My mother and I have walked there several times a week ever since the pandemic of COVID-19 began. We are refreshed by the beauty of the trees and the path beckoning us forward. We are restored by the oxygen coming to our faces which can be mask free in the good outdoors.
Yesterday I asked the Morton Arboretum, another place of great beauty, why it is that they insist on timed-entry passes when even public parks have been open for weeks. Well, I didn’t exactly I ask. I suggested that they eliminate their timed-entry passes (which must be reserved daily) on Instagram, and I got this reply from some random Instagrammer:
I loved the timed-entry. Seriously, everyone should be doing that! The virus is NOT under control. You must get your news from Fox.
I have been laughing at the last line ever since I read it. Please, take offense at my suggestion and accuse me of a certain political persuasion when all I want to do is walk amongst the trees.
People are in such great distress emotionally, and I don’t mean to minimize their pain. I know someone very dear to me who is just coming through a tremendous battle with depression that kept him down for several weeks. But, we don’t have to accept the enemy’s darkness! Remember what Jesus said:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. -John 10:10 (ESV)
Let us choose an abundant life filled with hope rather than fear. Or, judgement. Or, discouragement. And might I suggest taking a walk in the forest, as well?
Here is a fact: by recalling an incident, you corrupt it. If you want to maintain its pristine and virgin state, just let it sit, don’t disturb it. I’ve been playing that game for a while and it’s time to blow away the cobwebs and look at the truth, even if it isn’t pretty.
Shadow Garden reminded me of Rebecca’s Manderley. The atmosphere was shrouded in mystery, in darkness, and secrets such that the reader doesn’t know whom to trust…is Donna, the wife of Edward, reliable? She has been, after all, brought to Shadow Garden as a convalescent. Her husband has left her under the housekeeper’s care, and every time Donna asks, “Has Penelope called?” she is told, “No. Not today.”
Penelope, called Penny, or Pea when she was very small, is Edward and Donna’s daughter. She has caused untold traumas for her family through behavior she is either unwilling, or unable, to control and soon their perfect world has spun out of control. Even the skills of a surgeon, which is Edward’s profession, are unable to stitch together the image of perfection which all three of them succeed in ripping apart.
I was caught up in the relentless suspense of this domestic thriller, eager to find out exactly why Donna was at Shadow Garden and if she would ever escape. The plot unfolded seamlessly, without tricky manipulations which authors of this genre so frequently use to create artificial suspense. One is left feeling both sympathy and horror for the family that suffered enormous pain due to their impossible expectations and grave misunderstandings.
Shadow Garden was published on July 21, 2020. My thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read and review it here.