Review of Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

Crystal Nights - Danish cover

I got to know Dorte through her blog many years ago, first as a reviewer and then as an author. I only recently discovered that she not only writes cozy mysteries, she also writes the harder-edged ones that are my personal preference. So I was both happy and a little nervous when she offered me a review copy of Crystal Nights, a psychological suspense novel crossed with a police procedural set in rural Denmark. I needn’t have worried. I enjoyed reading it very much (and very quickly) and am only embarrassed that it has taken me many weeks to write a review.

The book opens with a passage from a familiar Hans Christen Andersen story, The Snow Queen, recounting the ending in which slivers of a broken mirror fly around the world and enter peoples’ eyes and hearts, spreading evil everywhere. I always found Andersen’s stories extremely creepy when I was a child, so I braced myself.

The next section, set in 1938, is a brief but gripping account of a Jewish woman packing up a few belongings and living in hiding in 1938 with her husband and small children, learning about krystallnacht and wondering what people are capable of. The last we see of them is traveling to what should be a safer place, but isn’t, with her little boy desperately ill and her husband too paranoid to seek help.  Crystal Nights - English cover

The main part of our story begins in 1967 in Kallum, a small Danish town where schoolboys are learning about the Night of Broken Glass and their impatient teacher isn’t willing to entertain questions about what happened to the Jews who managed to escape Nazi Germany. One of the boys would rather be learning about John Glenn and the space program. Another hasn’t even bothered to go to school. He’s too busy climbing trees and peering into neighbor’s attics. When that adventurous boy doesn’t show up for days, his friends begin to wonder, and eventually the police are called in. They are frustrated by the boy’s mother, who takes a lackadaisical approach to parenting and insists the boy is with his father, a long-distance trucker. The police are not entirely satisfied, and neither is the boy’s best friend, Niels, who knows that his friend left behind an encoded message. As it happens, this isn’t the only odd thing that has happened in Kallum in recent years, and for a few chapters we go back in time to a strange road accident in 1963 and the drowning death of another boy. It’s not until the end that we know how these pieces fit together – and how they relate to the Snow Queen’s shattered mirror. As one character remarks, “It is ever so simple to hide from the truth . . . you only have to walk through life with your eyes closed.”

Dorte’s translation of her Danish work (which won an award in Denmark) is very well done. I only once or twice noted a word choice that seemed a trifle awkward. She has a nice way with description – for example, “her busy fingers picked at the knitted cardigan like nimble mice gathering material for their nests.” I am a lazy reader, so the section that took us back to 1963 confused me for a while, but I was eager to find out what the link was between the opening pages and the small Danish community where an adventurous boy disappears. Altogether, it’s an enjoyable story with a slightly Gothic psychological twistiness to it.

The book is set in a region of Denmark that the author knows well. She has created a photo companion for the book to supply local color and background.


The Petrona Award

. . .  for 2015 has gone to Silence of the SeaYrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea. A particularly wonderful aspect of this year’s award is that it was presented by Maj Sjöwall, who attended CrimeFest this year and was interviewed quite brilliantly by all accounts by Lee Child. I appreciate the Twitter stream that kept me apprised of all things CrimeFest, particularly tweets from @Mrs_Pea68 and @eurocrime.

In many ways this is like the triple crown for me. I’ve enjoyed Yrsa’s books for years, I’m (like most folks) a fan of the Martin Beck series and grateful to Maj Sjöwall for co-authoring it, and the award is named for a friend who was also an insightful critic who built a lot of community around reading mysteries and sharing our thoughts online. She is missed, but the award is a brilliant way of remembering her.

Thanks to the judges, the authors, the translators, the publishers, and the folks who put on CrimeFest. Wish I could be there.

An Interview with Vidar Sundstøl

When the Norwegian author of the Minnesota Trilogy was in the U.S. as the third book was released, I was lucky enough to ask him some questions at my favorite bookstore, Once Upon a Crime, as I once did with Jussi Adler-Olsen. Here are my notes from that conversation.

Minnesota Triology

Can you tell us about yourself and your writing career? How did you come to write the Minnesota Trilogy?

The Minnesota Trilogy started because I met a woman and I liked her and she, for some reason, liked me and she turned out to be American, so I moved to the States. I found myself living in Kentucky. My wife was applying for jobs all across the country. She is a biologist . She applied for jobs with the forest service and got a job offer in the northeast corner of Minnesota on the north shore, Superior National Forest, at the Tofte ranger station. So I ended up among the Norwegian

Tofte ranger station

Tofte ranger station built in the 1930s, now used for seasonal housing. Photo courtesy of the National Forest Service.

Americans. When I came up there, it was very tempting for me as a Norwegian writer. I came across something that was both very familiar and very exotic. There were several things I recognized very well from Norway, not just names but the way of thinking, the way of speaking – or not speaking. It was on the other side of the globe, and there were the Ojibwe people and the history of the French fur traders. There were a lot of things going on, so I felt very early on that I wanted to write something substantial.

For several years I had been wanting to write a crime novel that would include more than just a plot – who killed Mr. X. I wanted to write a crime story that includes the whole community and the history of the community and the landscape, and nature, the bonds between the people and the landscape. Living on the North Shore I realized I had the perfect setting.

On the fourth of July, 2004, my wife and I drove up to Canada. We drove along the shore on highway 61 going to Thunder Bay to buy . . . I don’t know what. Prescription drugs. Canadian bacon. On the way we passed this little motel called The Whispering Pines and my wife said “doesn’t that look like the murder scene from a mystery?” Death at Whispering Pines. We started musing just for fun about who might have gotten

Lake Superior

photo of Lake Superior courtesy of fritzmb

killed there. Perhaps a Norwegian tourist who had come to visit his distant cousins and had been killed in some eccentric Norwegian-American way – poisoned by lutefisk or something, And then we started to imagine what kind of policeman might start to investigate the murder on the North Shore. We based these musings on our own experience with a male of the North Shore, so to speak, and we went on doing this every time we went on a road trip, which we did quite often because my wife had never lived in Minnesota. We explored the state and every time we ran out of something to talk about we picked up the thread and began talking about this policeman again and asked each other questions. Would he be married? Divorced? Does he have children? What does he like, does he hate, what kind of food does he eat, does he drink, does he smoke? And not least, what would his name be? That sounds like a simple thing, but it took a long time. A colleague of my wife’s had a cute little boy, four or five years old. When heard his name was Lance I thought: that’s his name – Lance Hansen.

After a year or so of talking about this shadowy character we had built a whole world around him, his relatives, his background story, his family’s immigration from Norway. I could pretty much start writing when I came back to Norway. My wife did most of the work, though I did write the books. That was my first crime story.

photo of the author courtesy of Shea Sundstøl

All three books follow “forest cop” Lance Hansen’s determination to solve two crimes – first, the murder of a Norwegian tourist, bludgeoned to death while camping on the shore of Lake Superior, and the other the possible murder of Swamper Caribou in the late 19th century. Most mysteries are self-contained. Readers have a sense of resolution by the end of a book, but this is really a trilogy. Why did you decide to tell these stories in a trilogy rather than as a single big fat mystery?

I could have written it as one big fat mystery, but then I really wanted . . . the middle book is very different. It’s very short, it’s intense, and it takes place over one or two days, and I really wanted to do that, I think the crime genre needs more than any other genre to be challenged on the narrative structure. Obviously there are some ground rules you have to follow when you write about crime, but within that framework you can do quite a lot, things that people haven’t come up with before. So it was partly that I wanted to do something a little bit different but mostly because when I started thinking about this story up on the North Shore it crystallized that way, with a very intense hunting scene in the middle of everything. I could have sold more books and made more money if I had written a more traditional trilogy. I think a lot of people thought when they opened the second book, “what on earth is this?”

Can you tell us about the titles of the three books – how did you decided on them; what do they mean?

The Land of Dreams – it was the land of dreams to immigrants, and it was the land of dreams in the sense that it was once inhabited by the Ojibwe whose culture is very much focused on the interpretation of dreams. And also when I started thinking about this, I thought I would create a very masculine policeman in a blue collar, rural environment, but I wanted to give him some kind of handicap, one that he couldn’t speak about to others. It struck me that if he couldn’t dream, he couldn’t complain to his colleagues about it. They would ridicule him. So he longs to dream again. Only the Dead (In Norwegian “the dead” in plural) I wanted to send this man through the valley of death. The middle book is the lowest point of this valley of death.  It’s also the ice-cold heart of the whole trilogy. The third book, The Ravens – I couldn’t come up with a title. We had a competition at the publisher’s and people were writing long lists of titles. At the end I just had to call it something. There are quite a few ravens in the book, and it sounds gothic.

Both murders have intimate family connections for Lance. There are some real tensions in this family – particularly between Lance and Andy – but also a kind of fierce connection and protectiveness. Can you talk a bit about these relationships and how they shape the story?

It’s kind of a Cain and Abel story. I have two brothers and I have good relationships with both of them. I don’t go hunting with them, though.

You have to remember that I’m Norwegian, so I know a lot about the law of silence, there are certain things you don’t speak about, which also goes for a lot of Norwegian Americans. That’s the bad side of the heritage. The reason I felt capable of portraying people on the North Shore – I only lived there for two years and I didn’t really speak to too many people because, well, they don’t speak much. So I sat indoors writing other books, but I had this feeling that I knew who they were intuitively, that these were my people. I know the types, I know why they don’t speak, what they aren’t saying. I could just has well have written the book about Norway, where I come from. My family has never been as burdened as this family, but here is the same dynamic of covering up things, not talking about things and then finally, one day, everything unravels because of it. That combined with a strong sense of family loyalty can make the knot very hard, very tight.

At one point in The Ravens, Lance thinks, “Deciding not say anything was always the preferred solution to every problem.” Lance has become almost a Hamlet figure. He’s obsessed and feels compelled to confront his brother with his suspicions, but he faces paralyzing dread. He’s afraid of his brother, but seems more afraid of the shame that his family will experience. What’s going on with Lance?

The thing is that it’s through this introspection that he manages to solve the case. That was something I wanted to do, write a murder mystery and portray a man in his full inner life. His life is like a shipwreck when it starts. By the end he has a chance to start anew.

The violence in these books, while not gruesome by standards of the genre, is quite shocking in part because it seems to come out of some primitive part of people who feel a strange sense of release as they bludgeon someone to bits. Can you talk a bit about writing those scenes and what you think about graphic violence in crime fiction?

When I decided to write this murder mystery I wanted to have just one murder (though there is also one in the past). That’s one too many. It’s a tragedy, and I wanted to keep the focus on what a complete tragedy it is, not just for the one who dies but for everybody who was in the magnetic field around that murder and get their lives turned upside down. I’m not going to turn it into entertainment at all. The violence in these books is just in a couple of places, but I describe the violence in the same way that I would try to describe like a . . . like a love scene (which is very difficult to write, a physical love scene. If you want to make a fool of yourself, just write a sex scene).

If you want to do it, you have to do it right and in such a way that it actually imitates real violence, that a little bit of the original real life intensity is captured instead of just painting and painting and turning it into pornography. I wanted to do the same thing with these very few scenes of violence, that it’s really what it looks like and how it feels. Something that is very typical for violence – it’s over very soon, but afterwards is so completely shocking. You have to write it in such a way that the reader doesn’t get all caught up in the graphic descriptions of blood and gore but afterwards thinks, “ugh, what is this? It feels really unpleasant.” Because it does feel unpleasant.

There’s also a sense of sympathy for that experience in that Lance hits a cat with his car and has to kill the badly injured animal, and by putting him in that position it almost humanizes that experience.

Yes, and it also says something about how stressed he is and what kind of pressure he is under. My wife didn’t like it. My wife is very fond of cats.

The setting of these books is a huge factor – both the language you use to describe the North Shore and the lake, but also the mood and the presence of the lake in the story. What drew you to the setting and how does the lake in particular figure in the trilogy?

I remember when we first went to Minnesota, driving up from Lexington Kentucky. There’s a certain point when you come over the hill to Duluth and you see the whole expanse of the lake. It was such a surprise. I guess I’m sensitive to landscape, really tuned into that frequency, so it really stuck with me. In a way it started there – not the idea of a murder mystery, but that as I writer I wanted to write something huge and substantial about it. The whole structure, the form of this trilogy – so long, so slow – I wanted the whole thing to reflect the lake, this Minnesota landscape. You can’t have a lot of guys shooting with machine guns – well, you could, but it doesn’t suit the landscape. It’s like putting on a completely wrong dress or suit. The lake plays a significant role both on the surface of the text but also when you come to the structure of the trilogy.

And the interior life of Lance, because the lake plays such a role in his imagination and his confronting the unknown or what’s missing inside of him.

It becomes sort of – I never thought of it as symbol of anything, but I was very well aware of it as something you could put anything into (literally!).

One of the family secrets that Lance uncovers is that he has some Ojibwa ancestry. That family history that he cares so much about turns out to be full of holes and mistakes. The intersection of indigenous culture and European immigrants comes up again and again. What drew you to this combination of cultures?

When I decided to write something from the North Shore, I knew that it would include the Norwegian-Swedish immigration and the local history. Then I started to read the history of the area and didn’t have to read many pages before realizing the Ojibwe people have been there all the time and are still here and it would feel wrong for the project if I took a big piece of reality and brushed it under the carpet in the Norwegian way.

Ojibwe family, 1900

Ojibwe family circa 1900, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

I started to read a lot of Ojibwe mythology and folk tales, and I since I didn’t know any Ojibwes I wondered how to open a gateway. I came up with the character of Willie Dupree, an elder who had been a postman. I modeled him after my maternal grandfather. I grew up in the countryside of Telemark (a southern Norwegian county) and my mother’s family had always been closely connected to the forest. My maternal grandfather owned some forest land and had worked in the woods. I spent evenings with him listening to stories from his days as a logger and a hunter. Sometimes he would tell a story he’d told ten times before. He had the same relationship to the forest as a fisherman has to the ocean. I realized that might also be true for an old Ojibwe. So I based him on my grandfather and gave him a different set of stories. I sure my grandfather would have loved being portrayed this way.

Did you start writing the first book while you lived in the states?

No, in Norway. I was aware that I needed a certain distance to it. Sometimes as a writer reality gets in the way of the writing, so I knew the right time would be as soon as I was back in Norway when everything was fresh in my memory but I had the Atlantic ocean between me and the actual place. That way it became about my memories more than about the actual North Shore. I think that was perhaps one of the ways the whole trilogy got a sort of dreamy air to it. The North Shore was a place I really liked, and I missed it for several years, so it’s also a labor of love, a way to process the fact that I really missed it.

I had recently been on the North Shore before reading Land of Dreams and enjoyed encountering recognizable places and people. That’s fun for people here.  

That makes me very happy. That’s probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received as a writer is to meet people who say you got all these things – not just the geography.  I met when I spoke at the American Swedish Institute I met a man who lived on the North Shore. Actually, his brother worked with my wife; it’s a little world. He said “you are the first one who has captured in words the eccentricity of the North Shore communities.” It was an enormous compliment to me and I thought that was probably the word for the trilogy – eccentric.

You had a terrific translator for this series, Tiina Nunnelly. Can you tell us a bit about the process of working with a translator? Were the books translated before the University of Minnesota press got involved?

The press got a sample translation, probably done by Tiina. When she had translated the first book I got an email from my editor at the press and he asked if I wanted to read through the whole manuscript. I’m a lazy person, so I try to find strategies to not have to work too much. I knew there was one page in the manuscript, where Lance has gone down to the lake the night after the murder. He stands there he looks at the lake, and there’s a description of the moonlight on the water and the rippling surface and how the moonlight is being broken up into many little pieces, and I knew that if she could translated that both to maintain the content but also the musicality and the flow of it . . . I think it was better, actually, than the original Norwegian!

How have Norwegian readers responded to the trilogy and has it differed from the ways Americans have responded?

It was very well received in Norway –

The Land of Dreams received the Riverton Prize, the most prestigious crime fiction prize in Norway.

So people liked them a lot but the big difference for Norwegians is that the environment is exotic. Everybody knows about Norwegian Americans. A majority of Norwegians have distant relatives here and a lot have kids who are studying here. There are a lot of bonds between the two peoples, but they found it pretty eccentric and exotic. But they really loved it. Here people feel that I am writing more about them, that’s the big difference. I must say I really enjoy talking to readers here. It’s something like I’m bringing this story about Lance home. On so many levels it means so much to me, both professionally but even more so personally, really. The only sad thing is that this is the last book, so probably the last chance I have to come here and talk to people.

What are you working on now?

I published a thriller in 2013, an archaeology thriller that takes place in Italy and Egypt, and now I’ve just finished a novel that will be out in August or September. It’s the first in a series. This time there will be a closed case in each one, but it won’t be set on the North Shore because I can’t afford to got here every time I want to check out something. So it’s set in Telemark, my home in Norway, which has a certain standing in Norwegian cultural history. It’s the heartland of everything that’s core Norwegian: the majority of Norwegian folklore and folk music and superstitions, such as the belief in little people. I’m taking that mythological dimension of Telemark, which is the mythological foundation of Norway, and making it the foundation of a mystery-crime universe.

That sounds . . . eccentric.

It is eccentric. It’s a bit like the Minnesota Trilogy in that it’s focused on the bonds between the landscape, the people who inhabit it, and the history of the landscape. In a way you can say the role that is played in the trilogy by the ghost of Swamper Caribou, the Ojibwe culture and dream interpretations, is played now by old Norwegian folk beliefs and superstitions.

Thanks to the author for letting me record this conversation and indulging my questions, to Once Upon a Crime for hosting the event (and by the way, you can support independent bookstores by buying all the mysteries you want there – they will happily mail books to you, hint, hint), and to the University of Minnesota Press and Tiina Nunnelly for bringing this award-winning work to American readers.

I have previously reviewed The Land of Dreams, Only the Dead, and The RavensYou may also be interested in a post by the author about the special landscape of the North Shore at his publisher’s blog.

Review of The Ravens by Vidar Sundstøl

The Ravens is the conclusion of Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, following Land of Dreams and Only the Dead. Unlike many mystery series, these books really must be read together and in order, because they all concern the same crimes which are only resolved in this final volume. And for that reason, I need to include here a . . .


It’s not really possible to discuss this book without inadvertently revealing some of the surprises in the previous two.

Just so you know.

You’ve been warned.

Okay, then. In The Ravens, “forest cop” Lance Hansen continues his obsessive quest to find out whether his brother Andy is responsible for the murder of a Norwegian tourist who was camping on the shore of Lake Superior. As a forest ranger, Lance has no responsibility for investigating this crime, rumored to be the first murder in Cook County, a wooded tract of land in the northeastern tip of the state, framed by Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters, and the Canadian border. Lance’s only involvement is that he discovered the body, close to Baraga’s Cross, a local historical landmark marking the place where a Catholic missionary landed in a storm on his way to minister to an Ojibwe community stricken with an epidemic.

Because the crime occurred on federal land, it is handled by the local FBI office with the help of a Norwegian detective. An Ojibwe man whose fingerprints are on the bat used to bludgeon the Norwegian to death and who can’t or won’t provide an alibi has been arrested and is awaiting trial. Blood evidence also suggests that the killer was an Indian, not a white descendant of European immigrants. But Lance, a local historian who is more comfortable in the past than in the present, has uncovered a family secret. He and his brother have Ojibwe ancestry. He also finds a second murder victim – an Ojibwe medicine man who disappeared in 1892, just as Lance’s ancestor stumbled ashore after walking across the frozen lake, delirious and half-dead. As Lance thinks to himself “his family had spent a century perfecting the art of forgetting.”

The RavensBecause he saw his brother’s truck close to the scene of the crime, and because he knows Andy is probably gay (as were the Norwegian tourists) but ashamed of his sexual identity and has a history of committing extreme violence, Lance becomes convinced his brother may be a killer. In the second book of the trilogy, that suspicion makes a hunting expedition take a threatening turn as Lance and Andy stalk one another. Layered in this narrative is the story of their ancestor, a young Norwegian immigrant who has crossed the frozen lake and who is terrified by the Indian medicine man who is trying to help him. It’s an intense and disorienting book that leaves us hanging.

In The Ravens, the hunt resumes. Lance continues the family tradition of lying by hiding out in Canada for weeks, convincing his family he is vacationing in Norway. On his return to Minnesota, he continues to lie about his activities while gathering information, particularly from Andy’s daughter, who has been dabbling in drugs and feels oppressed by her father’s protectiveness, which has become physically abusive. Lance reconnects with a woman who he loved many years ago and wonders if it’s too late to love again. He also visits his mother in a Duluth nursing home, where she’s beginning to lose her grip on reality but still seems saner than anyone else in the family. Throughout this concluding volume, Lance is suffers from the same condition as Hamlet. He feels compelled to act, but is paralyzed by introspection.

Though in some ways this final volume has more elements of a mystery than the previous two volumes, it fuses stylistic elements of both: the deep psychological conflicts within a man who seeks the truth but feels the pressures of convention, a mixing of past and present in the figure of Swamper Caribou and what Lance has learned about his murder, moments of visionary hallucinations, and inchoate tension as two brothers circle each other, full of fury and twisted family loyalty.

Throughout the three books, the landscape plays a major role, particularly the vast frozen lake that’s always there, that seems to be without boundaries, a frozen world where figures hover in the distance and large shadows move beneath the ice.

Lake Superior - Grand Marais Lighthouse in the fog

image of the Grand Marais lighthouse in the fog courtesy of Sharon Mollerus.

All in all, I found this an intriguing, poetic, and really unusual crime fiction trilogy, well worth trying. The translation is by the always reliable Tiina Nunnally, who has done a great job. If you’re in Minneapolis tomorrow evening (April 21st) you can meet the author at Once Upon a Crime at 7 pm where I’ll have a chance to interview him. I hope to report back here.

new issue of Mystery Readers Journal on Scandi Crime Fiction

Yay! Mystery Readers Journal has a second special issue on Scandinavian Mysteries out. Check out that tempting table of contents.

Thanks to the kind permission of Janet Rudolph, who moonlights as a perpetual motion machine, I am reprinting an essay I contributed  (also posted at Janet’s Mystery Fanfare blog).

Reparations: World War II in Scandinavian Fiction

Many readers’ perceptions of Scandinavia as a peaceful, socially-progressive region have been shaped by childhood history lessons. Sweden was neutral during World War II. Norwegians bravely resisted German occupation. Finland fought for its independence both from the Soviets and the Nazis. Danes followed their king’s example and wore yellow stars of David to show solidarity with Danish Jews. In fact, these stories are at best half-truths, patriotic narratives that helped Scandinavian countries recover their dignity as they established strong post-war societies.

The reality was messier. Sweden’s iron ore supported German munitions factories and enriched Swedes. Thousands of Norwegians fought for Germany on the Eastern Front. Finland maintained a democratically-elected government throughout the war, but was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union, which had attacked Finland and seized territory. Danes took heroic efforts to help Danish Jews escape deportation to German camps, but neither Jews nor gentiles wore the yellow star in Denmark.

Crime writers have been drawn to debunking these patriotic myths while interrogating national identities, an urgent issue as immigration increased following the end of the Cold War. Neo-Nazi nationalist movements developed strength in the 1990s. Extremist nationalism showed its most horrific face when a white supremacist systematically murdered 77 Norwegians, most of them children, in July 2011. These perturbations have led writers to probe their nations’ historic relationships with Nazism.

Kerstin Bergman writes, in her excellent critical survey, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir that many Swedish writers have undertaken this task, but their historical reckoning only goes so far.  Nazi sympathizers in fiction are never viewed as truly Swedish but rather as aberrations that need to be acknowledged and rejected. InHenning Mankell’s Return of the Dancing Master, a colleague of Kurt Wallander on sick leave investigates a case that reveals an extensive Nazi network hidden beneath the placid Swedish surface. Yet the reader doesn’t conclude that Swedish culture accommodates hateful beliefs; rather, the message is that racism is something foreign that needs to be diagnosed and rooted out, just like the detective’s potentially silencing illness – cancer of the tongue.

Stieg Larsson, who mashed together practically every popular culture trope in his crowd-pleasing Millennium Trilogy, was a left-wing journalist who exposed the doings of the neo-Nazi movement and was the subject of death threats as a result. It’s not surprising that he added to the general misogyny and warped sexual appetites of his wealthy industrialist antagonists in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a Nazi past.

More recently, Camilla Läckberg addressed the legacy of the war in The Hidden Child. Läckberg’s highly traditional and romantic series features extraordinary murders committed on a picturesque island. The murderers motives are often traced to bad parenting. Läckberg’s happily married protagonists uphold traditional family values and gender roles as they solve crimes. Though The Hidden Child addresses Sweden’s involvement in World War II, it’s sugar-coated. Decent Swedes secretly supported the Norwegian resistance while only horrid people took the side of the Germans. The mystery revolves around a diary and a Nazi medal that one of the series protagonists finds among her mother’s effects which may unlock the mystery of why she was so unloving. The story layers the present investigation and the past, depicting the war experience as if Sweden was an occupied country that bravely resisted the Nazis, not a neutral state that took in Jewish refugees while it provided significant and profitable material support to Germany. Though it’s an effective page-turner that attempts to depict the lasting trauma of war, it paints a rosy picture of Swedish patriotism in wartime.

Åsa Larsson creates a more complex story in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which also has a layered chronology. In the present, police in northern Sweden are investigating the death of two divers who were searching for a plane that went down in a lake during the war. A dysfunctional family, ruled by an odious old man and his greedy wife had made their wealth during the war when ore mined in the north was shipped to Germany. In this case, the motivations of the Swedes who worked with Germans are more thoroughly explored and the extent of the country’s involvement with the German war machine is exposed, but those involved are depicted as greedy and monstrous outliers who don’t reflect Swedish values.

Perhaps the most intriguing exploration of a Scandinavian nation’s denial of the past is found in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, which also has extensive passages set in the past following the fate of a group of Norwegians who fought the Soviets alongside the Germans during the occupation. After being wounded, one of them ends up in Austria where he falls in love with a nurse and schemes to smuggle her to safety as the world around them burns. In the present, the police are wondering if neo-Nazis will disrupt the celebration of Norwegian Independence day. Detective Harry Hole tries to connect the purchase of an illegal long-range rifle with a series of murders and discovers that the killer they seek likely fought on the Eastern Front, is an excellent sharpshooter, and quite possibly is suffering from multiple personality disorder.

At one point in the novel, a reporter asking a public official about Norway’s occupation likens it the Austrian Anschluss, a notion that the official strongly denies and finds completely puzzling. Yet throughout the novel, the patriotic notion that Norwegians generally supported the resistance is put to the test. In the world of the novel, many Norwegians joined with the Nazis and took their punishment when the war ended. Most were content to support the Nazis until it was clear they were losing the war, at which point, when it was a safe bet, they denounced the occupiers. In this analysis, the rise of neo-Nazism is not simply an aberrant response to immigration but an outgrowth of suppressed history. Eventually the killer does turn out to be two people in one body: a flamboyant Eastern Front sharpshooter coexisting with an elderly man who convinced others he had been a loyal member of the resistance. Nesbø suggests the nation itself is suffering from a split personality – a public persona that is peaceful and tolerant concealing a national identity that is too close to Nazism for comfort.

This historical reexamination of race and identity is extending into new areas. Two recent Danish novels, The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen and The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel take a fresh look at punitive ways the Danish state treated women who were deemed defective and locked away, justifying their treatment with eugenic theories as recently as the 1970s. The Nina Borg series by Leena Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis tackles the difficulties immigrants encounter in contemporary Denmark. Arne Dahl and Jens Lapidus have written ground-breaking series that explore the entanglement of Swedish society with a globalized Europe. Scandinavian writers who have challenged the accepted narrative of the wartime past have contributed to this work by exposing the historic roots of a contemporary challenge: redefining Scandinavian national identities in a multicultural world.

review of Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Here’s another review reposted from the long-running review site, Reviewing the Evidence, a good place to find over 10,000 reviews of books that in some cases might otherwise get overlooked. Thanks to them for allowing me to repost this one here.

by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and Philip Roughton, trans.
Minotaur Books, February 2015
328 pages

For such a small country, Iceland has an unusually high rate of crime – though only in fiction. In the fifth book featuring lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttor, quite a lot is going on. A young man with Down Syndrome is locked up in an institution for

Someone to Watch Over Me coverthe criminally insane after being convicted of setting fire to his assisted living home, killing five people. His mother is convinced he couldn’t have done it. So is a creepy and deeply disturbed man named Jósteinn, who hires Thóra to reopen the investigation for reasons she doesn’t entirely trust. But times are dire after the great financial crash and Thóra reluctantly takes the case.

But that’s not all! A young mother living at home with a toddler believes her house is haunted. A radio talk-show host is getting strange threatening calls on-air, a hit-and-run incident that killed a young girl has gone unsolved, and one of the survivors of the arson attack has experienced a trauma she can’t explain because she suffers from locked-in syndrome. Add to that, Thóra’s home life has grown complicated when her parents are forced to move in (to a house already crowded with her two children, her son’s girlfriend, and an unexpected grandchild). Her pleasant but unemployed German boyfriend Matthew might grow weary of life in post-crash Iceland and decide to return home.

There’s more than enough plot in this story and, while the author does a good job drawing memorable characters, there are a lot of them to keep track of. Bit by bit, Thóra gathers together the pieces of an extremely complicated puzzle. The author, fond of ghost stories (and her standalone novel, I REMEMBER YOU, is an excellent one) adds a bit more than a touch of the supernatural to this tale, but most of the plot revolves around the motivations of the assisted-living home staff, the experiences of the residents and their families, and Thóra’s growing conviction that her Down Syndrome client is truly innocent, all with the economic ruin of the small nation as backdrop.

Though the author throws too many puzzle pieces on the table, patient readers who enjoy a complex plot may well enjoy helping an appealing protagonist work through them, connecting bits together, looking for the piece that will fill that oddly-shaped hole, watching the whole picture emerge.

a few bits and bobs for the ScandiFan

Thanks to Urbanomic’s Yarnwork podcast series there’s a really wonderful in-deph interview with Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen, whose Varg Veum series is a long-running and much-beloved private detective series that gives the American PI tradition a Nordic twist. Though there were not a lot of private eyes at work in Norway when the series started in the 1970s, this character was able to solve the kinds of crimes that fit Norwegian society from then to the present, winning a pasionate audience. It’s delightful to hear from the author and also to hear him read from his books. Brilliant.

Jørn Lier Horst is joining the group blog, Murder is Everywhere, where he will join a number of writers who take us to various interesting parts of the world.

Novelist and reviewer Sarah Ward of Crimepieces compiles a good list of Scandinavian crime novels in translation for W.H. Smith booksellers.

Another novelist and reviewer, Margot Kinberg, takes a spotlight to Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, giving it a thorough and thoughtful analysis.

In other not-really-news, I’m still very slowly updating my site. So happy that there are people who are more on top of new things like Karen Meek of Euro Crime and the dynamic duo, Lucinda Suber and Stan Ulrich, who are behind the Stop You’re Killing Me Site. I don’t know what avid readers would do without you and other Internet-based forms of perpetual motion.

perpetual motion machine

Norman Rockwell Popular Science image courtesy of Wikipedia.