Thursday, April 08, 2010

If you like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...

A Scandinavian mystery, in which old records eventually reveal the solution to a crime a generation old. If you read yesterday's blog entry you'll probably think I'm talking about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Instead, I'm thinking of a novel with a different tone, but reminiscent of Larsson in many ways. This is Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell's) quiet but immensely absorbing mystery, Asta's Book. Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo put me in mind of it once again - a book that I've admired for nearly 20 years.

It's the story of Asta, a Danish immigrant settling in London in the early 20th century. Asta is lonely in her new home, and her husband Rasmus is not a great help. She begins to keep a diary, but she is an archetypally unreliable narrator, and she has one particular secret she does not share even with her journal. She also writes about a contemporary murder, and seventy years later her granddaughter comes to realise that the diaries hold the key to solving it.

Vine neatly captures Asta's loneliness:

When I went out this morning a woman asked me if there were polar bears on the streets of Copenhagen. She is one of our neighbours and she stands behind her gate waiting for people to go by so that she can catch them, and gossip. She thinks I must be savage and half-witted too because I'm not English and don't speak English well and stumble over words.
It's hardly suprising that Asta withdraws into herself, and her diary, at once direct and duplicitous, becomes a reflection of her character.

I don't write in this book every day. This is partly to keep it a secret from Hansine -- she would try to guess what I am doing and think of something grotesque, letters to a lover perhaps. Imagine it! -- and partly because it's not only a record of what I do but also of what I think. And it's about people.

Asta's Book is both thriller and character study. Vine nails Asta's voice to perfection, and marshals the complex plot with the skill of a career crime writer. Whether writing as Vine or Rendell, all of her work is worth reading -- but Asta's Book is head and shoulders above anything else she's written.
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5 comments:

Aliya Whiteley said...

Never heard of this - sounds brilliant! Will seek it out.

Tim Stretton said...

I'm always surprised the book isn't better known. In its own way it's just about perfect.

David Isaak said...

I'll check it out. But I thought Asta was the dog in "The Thin Man."

Tim Stretton said...

David, the book has a number of twists and turns - but that isn't one of them...

Aliya Whiteley said...

I found it in a charity shop today. And then realised I didn't have enough money to buy it and was late for something else, so had to leave it. Hope it's still there next week when I go back! *bites nails*

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