Thomas Kennedy: Seeking Bars, Jazz, and Love in Copenhagen

Destination: Copenhagen, Denmark

Book: Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E. Kennedy (NEW in U.S. August 5, 2014)

In the fourth of the series of novels he calls the Copenhagen Quartet, Thomas Kennedy looks at the dark side of Copenhagen.  It is winter in this noir novel, and many of the scenes take place in the dark. After all, in winter, you don’t get a lot of hours of sunshine in Copenhagen.


Copenhagen Quartet
Copenhagen winter. Photo from Flickr. Click to learn more.

Each book in the quartet features a different season and a different style of writing.  For instance, Kerrigan in Copenhagen, which I reviewed here, takes place in spring and is presented as a guidebook as an aging travel writer tours the bars and clubs. It would be an oversimplification to think of it merely as a guidebook, since it is also an homage to James Joyce with its stream of consciousness autobiography of the narrator. (Happy to discover that my review is quoted on the web page for Copenhagen Quartet, linked in the first paragraph above.)

Jumping into the debate about whether it is important to know anything about the author of a book in order to fully appreciate the book, I will just say that Thomas E. Kennedy is hidden in plain sight in all of these books.

Only a dedicated jazz aficionado would go to such lengths to provide a musical score for each novel.  He obviously knows his stuff, with details of jazz musicians and their work discussed in every book.

Kennedy has Irish roots. His characters always include some ties to Ireland.

Kennedy is an American living in Copenhagen and a man fascinated with language.  So we get main characters who are working in Copenhagen as writers or translators. Characters bring a fresh eye of an outsider to the details of Danish culture. A comparison of American ways and Danish ways provides extra fascination for American readers and travelers.

In Beneath the Neon Egg: A Novel (which was called Bluett’s Blue Hours when published in Europe ten years ago) we learn that many American jazz players spent a lot of time in Copenhagen, which offers numerous jazz clubs.

CD Cover
CD Cover: A Love Supreme

The headliner for this novel is John Coltrane, whose A Love Supreme provides the  structure and symbol for a story that is basically about various kinds of love. I admit that I have not delved so deeply into literary deconstruction as to outline for you how these four movements, Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm align with the story of Beneath the Neon Egg–but I have a vague idea. (So shoot me for laziness.)

It is the appropriateness of the title “Love Supreme” that struck me.  Beneath the Neon Egg deals with every kind of love from casual sex to parental love. The motivation for finding love of whatever type seems always to be avoiding loneliness (being alone.)

Each kind of love is challenging, but the most challenging and the one that turns the book into a mystery novel of sorts has to do with Bluett’s neighbor across the hall, a man so unlucky in love that he completely falls for a Russian prostitute and believes her attentions signify real love. It is a fatal mistake.

When Thomas Kennedy told me in an e-mail that he had adopted noir as the style for this novel, I was expecting a Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, big city detective solving a crime with gorgeous broads and  deceptive business dealings in a setting of shadows.  You get some of that in Beneath the Neon Egg. But this introspective angsty story is a far cry from the typical noir detective novel.

Bluett, the translator at the heart of the story, is not a man of action. His main motivation in life is to finish five pages of translation per day. But still, Kennedy’s writing style is unbeatable for putting the reader into the mood of the story.

What then?

Another day, another five pages, another evening, another vodka, Coltrane.  Chair at the window watching the blue hour descend like mist.  McCoy Tyner’s quiet piano chords lead into Coltrane’s moody tenor, addressing the equinox.  Ought to get some skates, glide like a shadow on the blue ice, hearing music recorded neraly forty years earlier; himself a tiny lad, his parents young and good-looking.  He has “Equinox” on repeat, vodka on his tongue, the tenor enters his ears like a sweet promise, orders his mind with sound that is a credible reality.

I think I prefer the European title, Bluett’s Blue Hours for the mere sound of the words, as well as the moodiness. But on the other hand, Beneath the Neon Egg, is puzzling and intriguing–teasing the potential reader rather than laying it all out–and so is the book. And the mere mention of “neon” surfaces a mental picture of a garish light blinking against a black sky.

Spoiler Alert:  The neon egg is part of an appropriately surreal neon depiction of a chicken laying an egg that Bluett can see from his window.

And by the way, Kennedy is still up to his little tricks. He checks to see if the reader is paying attention by putting characters from the other three novels into this one. They wander through in cameo appearances at a bar or on the street. It is this kind of playfulness that makes me think of Nabokov as I read Kennedy.

Copenhagen Quartet
Copenhagen street, winter night. Photo by Cian O’Donovan from Flickr.

The traveler looking for a guide to Copenhagen, will once again have the benefit of Kennedy’s meticulous directions for navigating the city as Bluett mostly beats a path from watering hole to watering hole.

Kennedy said in an interview: “The more you know about a place, the more your life is enriched.” Obviously I agree with that, or I wouldn’t be telling you about books that will enhance your travel! However, the tourism people in Denmark might not be thrilled by the menacing air of this novel. At least you’ll learn about a part of the city that you definitely do NOT want to visit while you’re pub crawling.

I have now read all four of the novels in the Copenhagen Quartet. You can read them in any order, but the author says on his website that reading Kerrigan in Copenhagen first gives you information that helps orient you for the other three.

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Chills in Barcelona

Destination: Barcelona Spain

Book: The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill. (New June 2014)

This novel follows one I reviewed recently, Summer of Dead Toys. In fact, Summer of  Dead Toys ended with a teaser to lead you to this book. I found the teaser irresistible. Of course the books can be read in any order, but I like following the progression of a detective’s personal life as it unfolds in a series by reading the earlier ones first.

In The Good Suicides, we puzzle with Antonio Hill  over whether there can be a “good” suicide, what can drive a person to the point of suicide, and when what looks like a suicide may actually be a murder. Group dynamics play a large part in this story and so we wonder about the effect of being part of a group. And of course suspense builds as we wonder if there will be more victims. Hill, a psychologist, brings his knowledge into play not only in developing characters, but also in knowing how to interest us.

Most of this plays out in a city popular with travelers–Barcelona. As a traveler who reads, you’ll learn quite a bit about the culture of modern day Spain.

Antonio Hill changes up the main characters a bit in his second novel, The Good Suicides. Barcelona Policeman Héctor Salgado is off probation and back on the job, although ordered not to pursue the disappearance of his ex-wife, Ruth. His young partner Leire is supposed to be on maternity leave, but she is itching to get back to work, and “unofficially” picks up the investigation of Ruth’s absence. This necessitates the introduction of another female police officer, Martina Andreu.

Winter in Barcelona
Winter in Barcelona Photo by Daniel Julià Lundgren, from Flickr.

The other change I enjoyed was in climate.  If you read the review, or the book, Summer of Dead Toys, you may remember that the sultry heat of Barcelona summer established an atmosphere that added to the drama.  The Good Suicides takes place in Barcelona’s winter, and instead of seeking shade, the characters are wanting to be inside with a cup of hot coffee. The shivers are not all metaphorical.

Hill’s use of weather to establish mood and believability reminds me of the emphasis on weather in the four books of the Copenhagen Quartet by Thomas E. Kennedy.  [No wonder I'm thinking about Kennedy's work--his final book in the Copenhagen Quartet, Beneath the Neon Egg, is the subject of the next review you can read here at A Traveler's Library.]

Antonio Hill’s work is full of delightful turns of phrase that seem totally perfect–and totally unique. For instance this description of a place:

Empty apartments are like actresses in decline, thought Leire. Well kept, always awaiting the arrival of the person who gives them meaning so that they can once again become welcoming, lively spaces, they never manage to shake off a dusty, rancid air, an aspect of assumed neglect that repels rather than attracts.

Road in Spain

“Sotres Panorama” by Mick Stephenson mixpix.Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

And this one of action as detectives drive into the mountains:

Lola clung to the door handle as the car stumbled along, nervous, faster than the terrain permitted.

Ever think of your car as nervous before?

I was also impressed by the author’s thumbnail sketches of the people in this novel, even those who served only as background to the story, like this in a bar.

While they were talking, the young customer had decided to leave the virtual world and return to his true occupation, that of a tourist, and the waitress was still standing motionless behind the bar, less beautiful than she believed herself to be.

Another person–this time a main character.

She had lovely dark hair and a tense expression, but it was precisely that expression which rendered her neutral features, too correct to be beautiful, attractive.  Mar Ródenas, like her brother, belonged to the immense group of people neither handsome nor ugly. They lack intensity, Ruth always used to say…

While I truly enjoyed reading Antonio Hill’s fresh metaphors and was impressed by his skills of observation, I do have one complaint about his characters. There are so many of them, and he has not found a way to remind the reader who someone is when they re-enter the book after an absence. I frequently got lost, and had to backtrack to remind myself who I was reading about.

The structure of the novel leads to this problem, since it is arranged in sections that focus on specific characters, who generally return to play a role in the section focusing on someone else.

The plot is complex.  It starts simply enough with a woman’s body discovered on the Metro tracks–an apparent suicide.  But digging into the death, Héctor discovers that there was another suicide among workers in the company where this woman is employed as a personal assistant.  It is difficult to believe that two suicides in such a short time are a coincidence. And more people will die.

From there, he explores the dynamics of the cosmetics company, headed by a brother and sister, until he teases out the complicated relationships and the causes for suicides. And/or murders.

Meanwhile in another thread, Leire is trying to figure out what happened to the missing Ruth as the pregnant cop gets closer and closer to the time for her delivery.

The Good Suicides (a bit of a stretch for a title) impressed me as much as Hill’s first book. And guess what? Once again, the book ends with a teaser to lure you into book number three.

I am not going to repeat everything that I said about the author’s background and about Barcelona. You can look back at the review of Summer of Dead Toys for that information. I will just add that it seems to be a tradition that second books are a disappointment. That is definitely not the case with The Good Suicides.  I think readers and Antonio Hill have a long and happy relationship in front of them.

Notes: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review. My opinions, nevertheless are always my own.

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Back to Maine with Paul Doiron

A mystery set in Maine
CD: The Bone Orchard

Destination: Maine

Book: The Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron. Reviewed from McMillan audiobook read by Henry Leyva.

Maine mystery stream
Extreme low water at Barrows falls on the Piscataquis River in Monson. From Flickr. Click for more.

Good grief.  This is torture.  Summer temps are in triple digits here in southern Arizona, and I read the bio of author of Maine mystery books, Paul Doiron, “He lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine with his wife.”

Since I’ll be meandering through Maine on my way to Nova Scotia later this year, I don’t let my envy stop me from listening to The Bone Orchard.  And I am rewarded with a delightful tour through Maine as well as a ripping good story.

I am a lot more enthusiastic about the fifth book in the Mike Bowditch Maine mystery series than I was about the fourth one, Massacre Pond, that I reviewed last year.  I suggest you take a look at that review, too, because what I had to say about the reader on the audio tape (same one for both books) and about the Maine Game Warden service still applies.

What is different about The Bone Orchard is that I care a lot more about the victims. Also, because Bowditch is no longer employed by the Warden service he is able to wander around the state instead of being confined to basically one patch of woods. It was good to get a look at Portland, Augusta, the far north of Maine in Presque Islae and the settlement of Sweden, and other glimpses of the variety of the state in addition to the woods.

Setting in Maine mystery
View from cabin in Sweden Maine. Photo from Flickr. Click for more info.

On Doiron’s website you can find a map of “Mike Bowditch’s Maine”, but unfortunately it only covers the first three Maine Mystery books.  A map showing all the wanderings in The Bone Orchard would take a lot of work, but would certainly be interesting.

I complained in that last review that I did not feel the personal aspects of Mike Bowditch’s life were well integrated into the book.  The Bone Orchard structure seemed to me to make much more sense. Still the classic troubled modern man/detective in this book, he has voluntarily left the service to become a hunting and fishing guide. While he is still a bit haunted by his mother’s death from cancer and fumbling to reconcile himself with two past love interests, these personal concerns make more sense within the context of a vicious attack on the woman who has been his mentor in the Game Warden service.

Mike Bowditch’s independent nature makes it plausible that he would delve into solving a crime even though he is no longer a officer of the law.  The story is gripping and I found myself neglecting a long queue of recorded programs on my television and turn on the CD player so I could hear what happened next in this enticing Maine mystery.

As for this book’s value to travelers…..One of the downsides of reviewing audio books is that it is a lot more difficult for me to quote passages from the author. You’ll have to take my word for it, that even if you’re living in a more temperate climate than I am, you’ll be very tempted to take a road trip through Maine after you read Paul Doiron’s descriptions.

Note: MacMillan audio provided the audiobook for review, but that does not affect what I tell you about the book.  Links here to Amazon make your shopping easier and earn a few cents for A Traveler’s Library. Thanks for shopping Amazon through my links. (It costs you no more.)