Books

The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson

Kjell Eriksson shows us that when a genre novel tries to develop ideas above and beyond its confines without mastering the basics of the genre first, a real mess ensues.


The Demon of Dakar

Publisher: Minotaur Books
Format: Paperback
Price: $13.95
Author: Kjell Eriksson
Translator: Ebba Segerberg
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: 2009-06
Amazon

The Scandinavian crime phenomenon shows no sign of coming to a halt. With Stieg Larssen’s pulpy airport food selling huge amounts worldwide and seemingly every week a new crime novel with snow on the cover appearing, this strange trend is bound to entertain the fans and irritate the bemused for a long time to come. Kjell Eriksson is a relative newcomer and The Demon of Dakar is his third novel to be translated from the Swedish. Worryingly, snow does feature on the cover and the novel is the third in a series of mysteries featuring the detective, Ann Lindell. One may expect a labyrinthine mystery and a troubled policeperson hot on the trail of a ruthless killer, but the structure is not your typical fare and Eriksson makes efforts to establish a fresh take on crime, one that examines the effects on everyday people more than the mystery and violence of the acts.

The story starts off promising. We follow the grinding, single-parent life of Eva as she struggles to find work, and eventually lands a job at the Dakar restaurant in Uppsala. The revenge fantasies of the deprived Mexican, Manuel, who has one dead brother and another one in prison because of drug trafficking, and the aimless sexual frustration of Johnny also converge in the restaurant, and an interesting dynamic arises between a group of outsiders as they try to make a better life for themselves. All of them are touched, to varying degrees, by the wave of drugs tearing through Uppsala, mostly unaware that their boss and villain of the piece, Slobodan, is a major player in the criminal underworld. There emerges a ripe opportunity to analyse the different reactions to the drug trade as well as the various conceptions of what it is to be foreign and the desire to belong. Unfortunately, Eriksson soon loses grip on such a wide scope, and the novel begins to fall apart.

The most immediate problem is the writing style. If you’ve read any Scandinavian crime fiction before you know not to expect the most beautiful prose, but where one can ignore the odd duff sentence in, say, a Henning Mankell novel because of the pared-down nature of the prose and swiftness of the story, here it is more than just simply the odd clunker like “the large lorry” or “the brown police station”. Eriksson makes a point of slowing the pace in order to linger on descriptions and moods, but the stodginess of the writing and the characters’ general lack of depth mean that all we can see is the uninspiring language, such as this humourously over-the-top chunk of insight: “He wanted, and did not want, to sink to the bottom and from thence spread his inhuman venom, spiked with self-disgust and an increasing animosity, to the people around him who still appeared to nurture hope.” It’s always awkward with translated novels to know where the fault really lies, but I can say that, no matter whose fault, this English translation has some of the poorest writing I’ve seen in any translated novel.

Eriksson even manages to make the exchanges of dialogue languorous and sticky, so that by the halfway point the basic exercise of moving my eyes across the page felt like I was reading the thing underwater. Laughable pearls of wisdom, such as “The devil only knows how long one has to live. One could kick the bucket at any moment” did little to raise my beaten spirit.

If the quality of the language is of no concern to the average reader looking for a knockabout thriller, then the quality of the plot must be. Once again, Eriksson takes things slowly in this area, attempting to gently unwind the plot while examining the hopes, fears, and desires of the characters. This simply makes for a dull novel. As there is no real mystery (we mostly know who did what and for what purpose) there needs to be something else to drive the story forward. Perhaps a genuinely threatening villain or a race against time would be enough to add a bit of tension. But Eriksson forgoes these techniques and instead tries to hinge everything on character development and slow-burning emotional impact. He chooses to do this by devoting equal time to half a dozen characters, which only fractures the narrative and leaves us feeling disconnected from the story, while also inflating the novel far past a reasonable length (a common problem with modern crime fiction).

You may have noticed that I have barely mentioned the lead detective, and that’s because there really is nothing to mention. Detective Ann Lindell is no Wallander, in fact she is probably the blandest character in the novel, which is actually a little perverse considering Eriksson’s idea to base a series of novels around her investigations. Lindell is not unlikeable, just amazingly forgettable.

This really is bad crime fiction. I feel reluctant to demolish it entirely because the author clearly does have a heart, and there are some warm moments of family bonding (particularly between Eva and her kids, and Manuel and his brothers) that ring true and are well-intentioned. But when a genre novel tries to develop ideas above and beyond its confines without mastering the basics of the genre first, a real mess ensues. So yes, it does feel different to a lot of other police procedurals and detective stories, but it is by no means better off for it.

3

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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