Thomas Enger, Cursed (Norway)

Thomas Enger’s Cursed, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, has just been published by Orenda Books, with a rather beautiful cover that references the opening scene of the novel.

First line: Daniel Schyman knew that people would talk about this day.

Since Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’, featuring investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, various Scandi crime writers have deployed journalist sleuths to good effect. Recent examples include Liza Marklund (Annika Bengtzon), Jørn Lier Horst (Lina Wisting) … and Norwegian author Thomas Enger (Henning Juul and Nora Klemetsen).

Cursed is the fourth in the ‘Henning Juul’ series, and focuses on two complex cases: a traumatic, unresolved arson attack on Juul’s flat, and the disappearance of Nora’s old college friend Hedda Hellberg, who tells her husband that she’s going on a retreat in Italy, and promptly vanishes into thin air. And then there’s the murder of an elderly Swedish man on the first day of the hunting season, which might be related, though no one can quite figure out how.

On a narrative level, Enger manages to have his cake and eat it too. Juul’s investigation into the fire is an action-packed thriller that sees him venturing into Oslo’s murky underworld in search of information, with a particularly memorable fight-club scene. By contrast, Nora’s investigation into Hedda’s disappearance and her secret life provides a more traditional crime narrative, with Nora interviewing various members of the missing woman’s family in the course of her journalistic duties, and edging slowly towards the truth. Enger interweaves these two narrative threads with great flair: the novel is expertly plotted, with the thriller/crime elements providing stylistic variety and depth.

I particularly liked that Henning’s and Nora’s storylines are given equal weight. Both journalists are shown to be resourceful and effective investigators, and their characterisation is nuanced and believable. Once a couple, but driven apart by the fatal consequences of the fire, they are nonetheless still linked by that tragedy, and the evolution of their relationship against the backdrop of their ongoing grief is one of the novel’s key strengths.

Could readers new to the series jump in here? I’d read just one of the earlier novels prior to Cursed and managed perfectly well. But some might prefer to read the novels in order, in which case you could start with Burned (Faber & Faber).

All in all, Cursed is a very enjoyable and satisfying read. And as is so often the case with Orenda, the book is a beautiful object in its own right – gorgeous cover, high-quality paper and lovely design details. If you’re a crime lover who rejoices in the aesthetic delights of *real* books, then Orenda is most definitely for you.

Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

lavender-ladies-detective-agency-death-in-sunset-grove

This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

the-mine

Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

fossum

Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

Interview with Jørn Lier Horst to mark the publication of The Caveman

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Caveman is published today by Sandstone Press. The ninth in the Norwegian William Wisting police series, the novel begins with the discovery of a four-month-old corpse in an armchair just down the road from Wisting’s home. While both the policeman and his journalist daughter Line are troubled by their neighbour’s lonely death, they have no idea where this harmless-looking case will lead…

If you’ve not yet read any of the prize-winning Wisting series, now’s a good time to start. These novels are top-notch Norwegian/Scandi crime, which, thanks to their author’s background in policing, provide genuine insights into investigative procedure and are utterly gripping throughout. Four in the series have been translated so far: Dregs, Closed for Winter, The Hunting Dogs, and now The Caveman. I reckon you can pretty much dive in anywhere, as they all read well as standalones – and in fact the first to be published in English (Dregs) is the sixth in the original series.

To mark The Caveman‘s publication, Jørn Lier Horst kindly agreed to an interview with Mrs. Peabody. Read on for some great insights into the Wisting series, how Jørn writes his books, and the crime writers who inspire him.

Jørn Lier Horst

1. Jørn, you were a policeman for around twenty years until 2013. How have your policing experiences informed your crime writing?

JLH: I have extensive experience in various types of police work. For ten years, I was a Senior Investigating Officer, the leading investigator in serious and complex cases. That professional background is my great strength as a crime writer. Police service is an excellent vantage point for observing society, as well as an excellent starting point for writing realistic crime fiction. Sooner or later, the ineffective aspects of our society end up on the police’s plate.

As a detective, I have spent many hours close to multiple murderers, rapists and robbers, and been completely inside their heads. These experiences, the insights into why criminals do what they do, are deeply valuable to me as a writer, but have also taught me a lot about being a human. It can be difficult to understand, but in almost all people, even criminals who have committed atrocities and created despair and destruction, there is something good. I use the word ‘good’ for lack of a better one, but something human one might say. As investigator and author my interest has always been in the duality.

2. You’re good at showing the uncertainty police investigators face when solving crimes. In The Hunting Dogs, you have Chief Inspector Wisting compare his case to ‘an unfinished work of art: a landscape already in its frame, the main features in place, but the details missing. For the moment, the outline was so indistinct he could not imagine how it would look when it was complete’. How important is it to you to reflect the difficulties and complexities of policing in your work?

JLH: The classic fictional police detective is a man with major issues: he drinks too much, feels misunderstood, has strained relationships with women, but resolves the cases completely on his own, often risking his life and breaking the law. This is far from reality. What I try to show in my books is how detective work is a collective task. Several investigators contribute with their different qualifications, knowledge and abilities, but they have a continual, nagging doubt. Uncertainty that they have done the right thing, or overlooked something. I know that troubling feeling well.

3. The other investigative figure in the Wisting series is William’s daughter Line, who works as a journalist. Could you tell us a little about their investigative partnership and Line’s contribution to the crime narrative?

JLH: Those who follow the William Wisting books also become acquainted with his daughter Line, who at first worked as an apprentice in a local newspaper and now works as a crime reporter in Norway’s largest newspaper, VG (Verdens Gang). Their professional paths occasionally cross when both are dealing with the same case, but duty of confidentiality (for Wisting) and protection of sources (for Line) means they cannot talk. This creates an exciting father-daughter relationship and not only gives greater depth to Wisting’s character but also a more complete look at the crime. Line has developed into a good sparring partner for Wisting and, by now, a traditional sidekick.

The police environment has been easy for me to describe, but as Line demands more space in the books, the press environment has become more important. In my job I met many crime reporters, but I have been concerned that the presentation of their role should be as accurate as that of the police. While researching The Hunting Dogs I interviewed the VG editorial staff and so got close to some of the country’s leading crime journalists, just to get the authenticity right.

The first Wisting novel, Key Witness

4. When did you start writing and why?

JLH: I never had a youthful dream of becoming either a cop or a writer, but ended up being both. The fact is, I always loved to write, and remember as a little boy, when a radio play left a cliffhanger ending, sitting down and writing the sequel myself instead of waiting for the next episode.

I also remember starting what eventually became my debut. It was late autumn of 2001 and I was home in bed, finishing a Norwegian crime novel. I threw it against the wall and told my wife that I could do better myself. She told me I should go ahead in that case. Half an hour later I got up and made a start.

5. How much crime fiction do you read?

JLH: Probably around 25 books in a year, mostly Scandinavian writers but also police procedurals from all over the world.

6. Are there crime authors (or simply authors) who inspire you?

JLH: No favorite, but I would probably not have been the writer I am without Henning Mankell, and probably not the same cop. My first encounter was the first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, published in Norwegian in 1993. I read it at the Police Academy thinking that here was the kind of policeman I wanted be: an upright and good detective and a leader. Mankell / Wallander inspired both my careers.

7. The Caveman opens with the discovery of a corpse that has ‘been sitting dead in front of his television set for four months’, highlighting the isolated position of some individuals in society. Is it important to you that your crime novels have a social dimension?

JLH: I like to think about my novels as more than crime fiction. They reflect the reality we live in: a society that is becoming colder, tougher and more violent. William Wisting reflects on how that affects us all.

In my books the offenders are always caught, the crime is solved, but the social structures and problems that created the criminal remain. I try to draw attention to a social system that makes promises about protection and inclusion, but still fails many of its citizens. At the same time, of course, I try to tell an exciting and compelling story.

8. Your novels are set in the town of Larvik and Vestfold county on the south-west coast of Norway. What makes this area a good setting for a crime series in your view (aside from the fact that you live there…)?

JLH: The numerous Nordic small towns presented as scenes of literary murders do not provide obvious settings for crime stories. The beautiful scenery inspires picturesque, enticing descriptions of nature, but the attraction of the story lies in the contrast with the brutal violent action.

How does he do it? Not like this…

9. The plotting of your novels is expert and intricate. Do you have all aspects of the narrative worked out in advance of writing? I’m imagining some fabulous wall-charts above your desk as you work.

JLH: I have to disappoint you when it comes to the wall-chart. I travel a lot and have an electronic version on my computer. This probably sounds strange, but I actually write my books in Excel before I write in Word. I use the spreadsheet to plot and sketch the stories. Each column is a chapter, and in the cells I write keywords for the action. I have rows which track time and place and help all the little cogs in a crime novel fit into place. This analytical approach is another trait I have brought with me from investigations, but things happen during the writing process. The story goes in directions other than I had planned, and up pop new people. In this way the stories become alive.

10. A fun one to finish with! If you could have dinner with any character from literature, TV or film, who would it be and why?

JLH: Oh, let us keep a large company! If I have to choose one, it must be Inspector Maigret, since both he and Georges Simenon’s writing have had such a great influence on all subsequent crime literature. I stand tall on his and Mankell’s shoulders and owe them a big thank you – and a finer dinner.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Caveman, trans. by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press, 2015) 

Skål!

Scandinavian Crime Fiction Smorgasbord

Thanks to a tip-off from cavershamragu, I’ve spent the evening wallowing happy as a hippo in mud over at the ScandinavianBooks website.

Rubbing shoulders with Nobel Prize winners Knut Hamsun and Selga Lagerlof are a whole host of Scandinavian crime writers. Indeed, five of the six authors featured under the heading of ‘contemporary and rising authors’ turn out to be crime writers too, illustrating the extent of the Scandi crime boom (as well as the present publishing clout of writers such as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum). 

You can browse Scandinavian crime on the site by writer or by nationality (for the latter, hover over the ‘crime’ tab at the top of the homepage). As one would expect, the Swedes are well represented (Sjowall / Wahloo, Mankell, Larsson and Nesser to name just a few), but so are the Norwegians (Dahl, Egeland, Holt, Nesbo, Fossum), the Danes (Davidsen and Peter Hoeg of Miss Smilla fame) and those amazing Icelanders (Indridason, Sigurdardottir). There are also a couple of Finnish authors, Sipila and Joensuu, whom I look forward to checking out. Typically, each author entry features a biography, a review/overview of key works and links to other sites, such as the affiliated Nordic Bookblog. There’s some information on film and TV adaptations too. 

It’s a veritable treasure trove if you’re new to Scandinavian crime and want to find out what all the fuss is about. Or, perhaps like me, you might have read many of the classics, and are keen to lay your hands on some lesser-known works. Either way, this site is a highly useful resource. Tack så mycket! 

Oh, and if you’re into Viking sagas, it’s also definitely the place for you. Apologies for the naffness that follows; unable to resist.