Today’s the day to remember the troops who have fallen in battle while serving in America’s armed services. Two classic war novels come to mind on Memorial Day, each set in a different era, both rooted in autobiography and written by authors who were legends in their own ways. Ultimately, both stories deliver the same message in drastically different ways: There is nothing good about war.
In “A Farewell to Arms” by Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway, expatriate American Frederic Henry is a member of the ambulance corps in the Italian army during World War I. He is wounded in battle and, recovering in a hospital, falls in love with his English nurse. Many complications and near-death dramas follow the couple on their ill-fated journey. This is one of the most realistic, romantic and heartbreaking war novels in literature. The book was adapted into two notable films, one starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes (1932), the other with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones (1957).
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Joseph Helller’s dark comedy “Catch-22,” set in World War II and “starring” U.S. Army Air Force bombardier Capt. John Yossarian, but told through various points of view. It was ranked No. 7 on the list of the 20th century’s best novels by the Modern Library publishing house. The 1970 movie starred Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam and Richard Benjamin.
The story is set at an air base on a Mediterranean island, and epitomizes the frustration suffered by men at war when they’re at the mercy of an absurdist military bureaucracy. Here’s one description: “If Yossarian makes any attempt to excuse himself from the perilous missions he’s assigned, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule: A man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane (because he is concerned for his welfare) and therefore ineligible to be relieved.” The phrase has long been part of the national lexicon.
Shine a light on Nordic noir
Nordic noir is a crime-thriller subgenre that, like its Scandinavian settings, can be dark and moody. Characteristically, the novels often are weighted in police procedure, have complex plots and are written in straightforward (some would say tedious) language that propels characters who are quirky, to say the least. Many are typically published a year or two or three in other countries before they appear in the United States, under the imprints of domestic publishers.
One of the most commercially popular Nordic noir sets was the “Millennium Series” by the late journalist Stieg Larsson – “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2005), “The Girl Who Played With Fire” (2006) and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest” (2007). They were immediate (and controversial) international best sellers, moving a combined 80 million copies globally. Last year, Swedish writer David Lagercrantz got permission from Larsson’s estate to write a sequel, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” which published in August. The Sony movie is in production.
Moving on are other Nordic noir authors, led by Jo Nesbo and his excellent 10-title Harry Hole series, featuring an investigator with the Oslo Crime Squad. Outside of that are his two stand-alones about evil yet sympathetic killers who betray their crime-czar bosses and flee the consequences – or try to. “Blood on Snow” finds the somewhat slow-witted “fixer” Olav with the assignment of murdering his boss’s wife, but instead he falls in love with her (Vintage Crime, $14, 192 pages). In “Midnight Sun,” Jon is on the run from a drug lord, and his survival depends on a widowed mother and her son in a remote village (Knopf, $24, 288 pages).
Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis are collaborators on the four-title “Nina Borg” series, in which the title character – a Danish Red Cross nurse and “compulsive do-gooder” – personifies the idiom, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Her latest is “The Considerate Killer” (Soho Crime, $28, 320 pages). After returning from a “healing vacation” with her husband to a resort in the Philippines, Nina is attacked by an unknown assailant and hospitalized, then receives a series of “sinister messages.” For survival, she must return to Manila and confront “three young men with a dangerous friendship.”
“The Silence of the Sea” by Yrsa Sigurdardotti is the sixth in her “Thora Gudmundsdottir” series, and was named best Scandinavian crime novel of the year in 2015 (Minotaur, $26, 336 pages). Attorney-investigator Thora is brought into the case of a “cursed” yacht that careens into port and smashes into a pier. That’s because the family and crew that were on board have vanished. Wait a minute – is that the ghostly image of a girl Thora sees at the end of a passageway on the yacht? And whose body has washed ashore?