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For Stieg Larsson fans, a new voice — and an even darker side of Sweden


It’s early to be pegging the year’s best books, but “The Wolf and the Watchman,” Niklas Natt och Dag’s stunning debut, is sure to be one of them. A longtime cultural columnist and blogger for Swedish magazines, Natt och Dag brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this feverishly dark historical thriller, first of a trilogy and published in more than 30 countries. Even readers inured to grim depictions of Sweden in the work of writers such as Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson may be taken aback by Natt och Dag’s 1793 Stockholm, a hellish place that seems mired in the Middle Ages, despite the gradual encroachment of Enlightenment ideas.

The watchman of the title, Mickel Cardell, is one of the ragtag crew employed by the city’s police force to arrest vagrants, prostitutes, orphans and others who struggle to survive in Stockholm’s cesspit streets. A veteran who lost his left arm during Sweden’s ill-fated war with Russia, Cardell works at a beer cellar, where he keeps order with a carved wooden prosthetic — a formidable weapon for dealing with truculent customers. Very early one morning, he’s awakened from a drunken stupor by two children who have found a body in a nearby lake that’s little more than an open sewer.

“The waves lap against the shore, churning up a pale yellow froth. Something rotten — a dark lump — is floating a few meters out. Cardell’s first thought is that it cannot possibly be a human being.”

But it is, or was, a human being, so horrifically mutilated that it causes the hardened Cardell to experience a panic attack. The corpse is brought to the attention of Cecil Winge, a young lawyer turned investigator who works with Stockholm’s police chief, Johan Gustaf Norlin. Set during a period of political and social unrest, with rumors of the French Revolution muttered in the alleys, corruption is rampant among the Stockholm police. In the shadows of this chaos, Norlin and Winge, two righteous men, know their days with the force are numbered, especially Winge’s. In the last stages of consumption, with only weeks to live, Winge has nothing to lose by joining forces with Cardell to uncover the identity of the unknown man, whom they name Karl Johan, and his murderer.

“So this man has had his arms and legs shorn away in turn,” Winge calmly observes to Cardell, before noting even more disturbing details.

Yet even more nightmarish are the descriptions of everyday life in a society where numbing poverty is ubiquitous. Naive farm boys who come to Stockholm fall into paralyzing debt, with dire consequences. Crowds gather to cheer an executioner, himself a condemned man so drunk it takes minutes for him to cleave his victim’s head from his body. Those soldiers who survive attack by Russian warships subsequently die of typhus by the hundreds. Female victims of sexual assault are thrown into workhouses indistinguishable from prisons, where they are tortured. Most sinister of all is the Eumenides, a secret charitable order made up of the city’s wealthiest men that supports the workhouses, which takes its name from Greek myth. The Eumenides, “the Kindly Ones,” are also the ravening Furies.

“The Wolf and the Watchman” is exceedingly grim and often grisly, but, in the elegant translation by Ebba Segerberg, it’s never lurid. Natt och Dag has spoken of his admiration for Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Like Eco’s novel, “The Wolf and the Watchman” is a cerebral, immersive page-turner whose detective is a rationalist trapped in a world ruled by superstition, fear, and men whose humanity has been debased and erased as surely as Karl Johan’s.

“What kind of wolf are you, then, Mr. Winge?” asks a man under interrogation. “A good wolf? A skilled hunter?” Winge replies, “No wolf at all, I’m afraid. What I do, I do not undertake in order to satisfy my bloodlust.”

Yet even a righteous man may fall prey to his darker impulses. Winge’s ongoing struggle to maintain a precarious balance between justice and vengeance, as well as his own life and imminent death, gives “The Wolf and the Watchman” a moral heft reminiscent of works by Graham Greene.

Natt och Dag takes some narrative risks. Divided into four parts, the book focuses on Winge and Cardell’s investigation in its first and final sections, with Winge himself growing sicker and more corpselike every day. The middle two sections jump back to the previous spring and summer: Each follows a different character whose connections to victim and killer are only gradually and chillingly revealed. It’s a strategy with an impressive payoff, as scenes that initially seemed to serve as stylistic or historical flourishes instead prove crucial to the plot, fitting together as precisely as the gears of the pocket watch Winge obsessively takes apart and puts back together.

“The Wolf and the Watchman” makes sly use of the conventions of the modern police procedural: the coolly clinical investigator and his brawling sidekick; the furtive dance between corrupt police commissioners and their politician puppet-masters; even the coffee-swilling Stockholm policemen who avidly avail themselves of the still-novel beverage. The last 50 pages provide plenty of twists to satisfy thrill-starved readers, but it’s the final haunting sentence that raises gooseflesh and leaves one reaching to turn up the light.

Elizabeth Hand’s  novel “Curious Toys” will be published this fall.


By Niklas Natt och Dag

Atria. 373 pp. $27

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‘A Man Lies Dreaming’: Imagining Hitler as a low-rent private detective


Is the world ready for a hard-boiled Hitler? “A Man Lies Dreaming,” Lavie Tidhar’s stunning alternative take on the Holocaust, audaciously imagines the 20th-century demon as a middling private detective named Wolf.

It’s November 1939, six years after Germany’s Communist Party trounced Wolf’s National Socialists in the country’s election. The disgraced and debased Wolf (his name a nod to the German meaning of Adolf) has fled to England, like many other refugees. There he has hung out a shingle in London’s seedy Soho, among the whores and corrupt coppers, and a serial killer who is seeking to frame him. One day, a beautiful young Jewish woman comes to Wolf, asking for help finding her sister.

“I looked at her face. She was nothing but trouble and I knew it and she knew I knew,” Wolf writes in a voice icy as that of any classic gumshoe. “I had no business hunting for Jews in the year of our Lord 1939. I once had faith, and a destiny, but I had lost both and I guess I’d never recovered either. All I could see was the money. I was so cold, and it was going to be a cold winter.”

Wolf’s search quickly leads him to a slaver’s den run by Hermann Göring, once a fellow leader of the National Socialists, now a wealthy pimp. But before you can say Philip Marlowe, Tidhar’s narrative abruptly shifts.

Now we’re in Auschwitz, and a man named Shomer lies dreaming the noir novel we are reading. Before his imprisonment, Shomer was a successful writer of shund, pulp fiction. His wife and two young children have been exterminated in the camp. He spends his days digging graves and his nights lost “in that murky half-world which was once his novelist’s mind.” He fights against any memory of the world that’s been destroyed, as well as that murky half-world he inhabits when he sleeps.

“Stories, stories, he is sick to death of stories! Yet they are all he has.”

Tidhar, who was born in Israel and is now based in London, lost most of his family in Auschwitz. In this novel, as in earlier ones, he uses his impressive talent to create brilliantly subversive alternate histories. His 2011 novel “Osama” features Osama Bin Laden as the renegade antihero of a popular series of novels within a novel, and his 2013 novel “The Violent Century” imagines a world where superheroes are as common as soldiers and accountants.

Numerous historical figures appear in his new book: the British fascist Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and her sister Unity (the latter as besotted with Wolf as she was with Hitler in real life), Rudolf Hess, Ian Fleming, Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh. Shomer himself is inspired by a late 19th-century writer whose pen name was Shomer.

Despite its dark subject, “Man Lies Dreaming” can be very funny, as in a scene where Wolf runs into Leni Riefenstahl, who is starring in an unlikely sequel to “The Great Gatsby.” It is also remarkably poignant. Once Mosley’s Brownshirts come into power, the diminished, Jew-hating Wolf faces a Jew’s fate — and, ironically, perhaps an insight of what it means to be a Jew. He remains reprehensible, but Wolf is not a monster: frightened by the sight of rioting refugees, “he saw himself bared, ugly in the mirror of their suffering.”

Set during the election of a demagogue who battens on the fears of an underemployed populace threatened by thousands of foreign-born refugees, “A Man Lies Dreaming” feels disturbingly prescient. Tidhar holds up a mirror not just to Wolf, but to ourselves. In doing so, he reminds us that even — especially — under the most terrible of circumstances, stories are all we have. And in the right hands, they can be a formidable weapon.

Originally published on

You’ve seen the new ‘Star Wars’ movie — should you read the book tie-in?


If you can’t get enough of the new “Star Wars” movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi is not your only hope. Use the Force — of a book.

Alan Dean Foster has dozens of novels to his credit, as well as a formidable number of media tie-in works for major franchises such as “Star Trek” and “Alien.” Foster penned the first “Star Wars” novelization (credited to George Lucas), as well as “Star Wars” expanded-universe novels. Now he has written the novelization for “The Force Awakens,” which just broke the U.S. box-office opening weekend record with $248 million in ticket sales. I loved J.J. Abrams’s movie, and Foster’s book does it proud: It’s fast-moving, atmospheric and raises goose bumps at just the right moments.

Novelizers typically don’t see the film before they write the book. They’re given a screenplay and some still photos, and they work from that. So it’s a testament to Foster’s skill and professionalism that he not only evokes entire onscreen worlds but that he also gives us glimpses of an even more vast, unseen universe that has arisen from his impressive imagination.

“Hmm! Adventure. Hmmpf! Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things,” Yoda advised Luke Skywalker. But “Star Wars” fans do. Thank the Force that Foster delivers. (The e-book was released Dec. 18; the hardback version will arrive Jan. 5.)

Snobs may dismiss such books as an attack of the clones, but for as long as humans have had media, we’ve had media tie-ins. Our ancestors no doubt provided narrative accompaniment to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Flash-forward 17,000 years to the dawn of the motion picture industry. Novelizations — books based on screenplays and illustrated with photo stills from films — became popular with such classics as “The Perils of Pauline,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Metropolis,” as well as movies now lost or forgotten. In 1918, even Jack London penned one based on a romance called “Hearts of Three.”

Since then, myriad well-known authors have adapted their work or that of others. The very long list includes H.G. Wells, Louis L’Amour, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Pearl S. Buck and —Zut alors! — Jean-Paul Sartre. Although novelizations are often regarded as a phantom menace, most of the authors just named were working writers and, I suspect, disinclined to turn down a paying gig. As Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

My introduction to novelizations came in 1995, when my agent asked whether I would be interested in adapting the screenplay for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” a flick inspired by one of my favorite films, Chris Marker’s sublime 1962 short “La Jetée.” Gilliam’s screenplay was by David and Janet Peoples; David had co-written the screenplay for “Blade Runner,” another of my favorite movies.

I am not a blockhead. I said, “Yes!”

But I had no idea how to adapt a 110-page screenplay into a 213-page novel. I had no still photos, no set designs, no information about the cast, other than that it starred Bruce Willis and a relative newcomer named Brad Pitt. So I called my friend Terry Bisson, a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer who had done novelizations for “Virtuosity” and “Johnny Mnemonic.” His advice, rendered in a thick Kentucky drawl:

“This is all you need to know: If the script says the character ‘sits in a chair,’ he doesn’t ‘sit in a chair.’ He ‘ambles thoughtfully across the thick oriental carpets that covered the wooden floor of his expansive, tastefully furnished living room, and settles slowly and with a prolonged sigh into a large, overstuffed, red-velvet armchair.’ ”

Lesson learned. After I turned in my manuscript, David and Janet Peoples called to say I had done a great job.

I had two small children to support, and I write my own “serious” fiction very slowly. But this novelization work was fast and fun, and good money for the amount of time it took. I went on to do a half-dozen tie-ins, including one based on Chris Carter’s “X-Files” movie, “Fight the Future,” and the pilot for his TV series “Millennium,” which I had to write in five days.

A few years later, Bisson provided my entry to more media work, this time in the “Star Wars” universe. He had done two “Star Wars” young adult novels starring the 10-year-old Boba Fett and wanted to know whether I would like to carry on with the series. I loved “Star Wars,” and my 10-year-old son was a huge fan. He had a Boba Fett helmet! How could I say no?

Those books were a delight to write. David Levithan, my editor at Scholastic and himself a successful Y.A. writer, introduced me to Lucasfilm’s Jonathan Rinzler. They both offered encouragement and very little in the way of restrictions. With each story, I was given a title and a character or place that had to come into play: Aurra Sing; Jabba the Hutt; Mace Windu; the planet Aargau (which existed in the “Star Wars” universe only as a name, so I got to create an entire planet’s history, ecology and culture).

Otherwise, I pretty much had free rein to create the plot, characters and young Boba’s own sensibility. Boba Fett grows up to be a bounty hunter, the nemesis of Han Solo, but as a mom, I felt I had a responsibility to show him as a resourceful, sensitive, sometimes frightened orphan who overcame his fears and even made a few friends his own age.

The best part of writing those stories was the fan mail I received from young boys, some of whom confessed to having read few other books. One shy third-grader named Evan asked whether he could do a phone interview with me for a school project. Afterward, his mother got on the phone and told me that the assignment was a report on a famous American. I was Evan’s first choice. His second? Thomas Jefferson.

Star Wars
By Alan Dean Foster
LucasBooks. 272 pp. $28

Originally posted on

In her memoir ‘M Train,’ Patti Smith opens up about her life and loves


“M Train,” by Patti Smith. (Knopf)This year marks the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith’s groundbreaking debut album, “Horses,” a sonic boom still sending aftershocks through music, literature and fashion. Her new memoir, “M Train,” is a Proustian reverie covering those four decades: a magical, mystical tour de force that begins in a tiny Greenwich Village cafe and ends as a dream requiem to the same place, encompassing an entire lost world in its 253 pages.

In her National Book Award-winning memoir “Just Kids” (2010), Smith took readers on a kaleidoscopic journey through the New York arts scene of the ’60s and ’70s that was the crucible for her poetry, drawing and, later, music. She also depicted in heart-rending detail her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most influential creative partnerships of the late 20th century.

As perceptive and beautifully written as its predecessor, “M Train,” for the most part, eschews the straightforward, linear storytelling of “Just Kids.” Rather, it is a more excursive record of a lifelong pilgrim, illustrated by Smith’s own black-and-white photographs, filled with mementos mori and personal accounts of her travels, her artistic obsessions and inspirations. Like her first memoir, this one probes a deep emotional core, as Smith writes poignantly about her marriage to the incendiary guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994 at age 45.

Smith recounts trips to Mexico; Reykjavik, Iceland; Berlin; Tokyo; London; Tangier, Morocco; and Madrid, alighting back in the Michigan home she shared with Fred, and after his death, her apartment in the East Village. The book loosely plays off its title, with 18 chapters (and a brief prologue) representing stations in her footloose life.

But don’t read “M Train” expecting revelations of rock-star excess. There are myriad hotel rooms here, but they’re temporary havens where a restless soul finds solace in the work of Jean Genet, Haruki Murakami, W.G. Sebald, J.G. Ballard, Roberto Bolaño, among many others, and also in crime series such as “The Killing” (Smith is a huge fan of detective fiction and TV and is adapting “Just Kids” for a Showtime series.)

In fact, “M Train” is a bibliophile’s trove, with striking insights into the books that ignited Smith’s imagination. Of her obsession with Murakami, she writes, “And then, fatally, I began ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.’ That was the one that did me in, setting in motion an unstoppable trajectory, like a meteor hurtling toward a barren and entirely innocent section of earth. There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine such as ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Frankenstein: a Modern Prometheus.’ And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books.”

In “M Train,” the path of Smith’s own trajectory is marked by recurring visions of a laconic cowboy, who may remind some readers of Sam Shepard, her former lover and collaborator on the play ­“Cowboy Mouth.” She also describes a series of remarkably lucid dreams and her decades-long, globe-spanning quest for the ideal cafe and the perfect cup of coffee, her drug of choice.

Sometimes, Smith comes across as a modern flaneuse, combining a ­photographer’s ­visual acuity with the boulevardier’s appreciation of the ephemeral, pointillist details that create the sprawling canvas of a peripatetic life. Other times, she is an amused participant-observer, as in her droll account of her tenure in an obscure club whose 27 mathematically and geologically inclined members are identified by their numbers (Smith is No. 23). They meet once a year to honor the memory of the German scientist Alfred Wegener, who proposed the theory of continental drift.

Mostly, however, she comes across as a lover: of literature, of art and music, of her children and late husband; of her parents and siblings, friends and mentors, many of whom have died. There’s an elegiac tone to much of “M Train.” Smith visits the garden of Schiller’s summer house, sets out to channel the final moments in Wegener’s life and lays flowers at a memorial for the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. She searches for the graves of the writers Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai, both of whom killed themselves, and then she continues her “run of suicides” with a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s tombstone. “Death by water, barbiturates, and carbon monoxide poisoning,” Smith muses; “three fingers of oblivion, outplaying everything.”In 1997, two years before his death, she visits the elderly Paul Bowles in Tangier:

“‘Paul, I have to go. I will come back to see you.’“

He opened his eyes and laid his long, lined hand upon mine. Now he is gone.”

There is also a heartbreaking account of Fred Smith’s death, followed soon after by that of her beloved brother, Todd. Shortly after, she buys a tiny bungalow in Rockaway Beach in Queens, an area that is then devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Yet despite all of these losses, there is extraordinary joy here, too. Smith’s bungalow survives the storm, and her own journey continues, illuminated by her openness to the world and her compassionate, questing spirit. “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” she writes. “Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book.”

Readers who share in Smith’s transcendent pilgrimage may find themselves reborn within the pages of this exquisite memoir.

By Patti Smith
Knopf. 253 pp. $25

Originally published on

‘The Rim of Morning’ review: Two supernatural novels by William Sloane


Halloween comes early this year for lucky readers with the reappearance of two short supernatural novels by the forgotten writer William Sloane: “To Walk the Night” and “The Edge of Running Water.” Conjoined as “The Rim of Morning,” a handsome omnibus volume released by the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, these undeservedly neglected works may at last find a permanent home alongside the cross-genre novels they anticipated: books that, in style and theme, move with ease between science fiction, noir, dark fantasy, supernatural horror and mainstream fiction.

William Sloane (1906-1974) graduated from Princeton, worked in publishing for a number of years, headed the wartime Council on Books and was the longtime managing director of Rutgers University Press. Belying his Ivy League background and slightly fusty C.V., Sloane had an interest in the occult. In the early 1930s, he wrote three plays dealing with ghosts, and in 1937 published “To Walk the Night.” Kirkus gave it a thumbs-up: “A supernatural story that is neither sensational nor lurid. . . . A good bet for those who like Poe’s work. A first novel — this man bears watching.”

He still does. Robert Bloch (of “Psycho” fame) named “To Walk the Night” one of his 10 favorite horror novels, up there with “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” Sloane’s tale blends elements of noir, gothic and science fiction in a story that resists easy classification. It opens as the narrator, Berkeley M. Jones (called Bark), navigates the winding drive to a mansion overlooking Long Island Sound. He is there to deliver terrible news to the estate’s owner, whose son Jerry, Bark’s best friend, has killed himself. Bark wants to spare Jerry’s father the details surrounding his son’s suicide, the import of which Bark himself doesn’t completely grasp.

“I must tell my story matter-of-factly, as if that shadow in the corner of my mind did not exist. That was all. I must not make him feel, as I did, that something horrible lay behind what I said.”

Much of the strength of Sloane’s narrative derives from this matter-of-fact tone. One of the novel’s most unsettling scenes takes place during a flashback to an Ivy League football game in which nothing overtly supernatural seems to occur. After the game, Bark and Jerry, drunk and exhilarated over their team’s win, pay a surprise visit to Jerry’s old astronomy professor. The author of a controversial mathematical treatise, “A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum,” Dr. LeNormand is something of a crank. “If he hadn’t been such a famous man to begin with, Jerry thought, they’d have asked him to resign from the faculty.”

What they find when they enter his observatory is something horrible indeed: The famous astronomer is dead and “burning like a torch.”

In the aftermath, the two young men are shocked to learn that the astronomer, a confirmed bachelor, had married just three months earlier. His widow, Selena, is a classic femme fatale: beautiful, icily intelligent, yet oddly detached. Bark finds her impossible to read; Jerry finds her impossible to resist. Within months, the two marry. Shortly after, they decamp to a remote cabin in the New Mexico wilderness, which is where Bark eventually tracks them down in an effort to learn the truth about who Selena really is.

With its witty dialogue, burnished glimpses of affluence and art, and eerily poignant ending, “To Walk the Night” reads remarkably like a contemporary thriller that pays homage to great noir films such as “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Laura.” But Sloane’s book appeared years before either of those movies or the books they were based on. Surely it deserves a film adaptation of its own?

“The Edge of Running Water,” published two years later, did get its own movie: “The Devil Commands,” starring Boris Karloff. Sloane’s second novel is a bit creakier than his first, slower-moving and more conventional in its setup and marred by an ending that feels rushed.

But the book’s polished style and atmospheric setting — a creepy old house overlooking the Kennebec River in coastal Maine — make up for the languid pacing. As in “To Walk the Night,” there’s a scientist at the heart of the tale: Julian Blair, an electrophysicist shattered by the untimely death of his beloved, much younger wife, Helen. Blair has retreated to the remote town of Barsham Harbor, where he summons his former student Dick Sayles, who was also in love with Helen.

Blair isn’t much in evidence — he’s holed up in a mysterious upstairs room, unavailable to all except his housekeeper, who dusts once a week. The house is also occupied by Helen’s younger sister, who bears a startling resemblance to her dead sibling. What Blair is trying to do is construct a machine that will allow him to communicate with the dead. When he shares the nature of his eldritch research with his onetime pupil, Dick’s reaction is predictable: “This is a mad project. It’s blasphemous. It’s impossible. . . . Have you stopped to think what such a thing as you are trying to do would mean, Julian?”

As one might guess, this doesn’t end well.

Like Shirley Jackson, Sloane masterfully describes the paranoia and close-mindedness of an isolated rural community when outsiders take up residence. The most striking and frightening scenes involve the sounds emitted by Blair’s creation, a sonic nightmare reminiscent of the effects in Algernon Blackwood’s classic story “The Willows.” And there’s a brilliant set piece when Blair finally reveals his machine to the horror-struck Dick, a small masterpiece of the cosmic horror invoked by the volume’s subtitle. After reading both of these elegant, disquieting novels, one can marvel that they escaped mainstream attention for so long and rejoice that they’re back in print.

By William Sloane
New York Review Books. 464 pp. Paperback, $18.95

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