Hostage by Kristina Ohlsson: A Review

I recently reviewed this book for Reviewing the Evidence. Lots of fun, but it’s not something to read on a plane.

HOSTAGE
by Kristina Ohlsson and Marlaine Delargy (trans)
Emily Bestler Books, November 2015
400 pages
$16.00
ISBN: 1476734038

Kristina Ohlsson has published three police procedurals featuring academic consultant Fredrika Bergman and a team of Stockholm detectives led by Alex Recht. Her fourth novel is a departure, as she draws on her professional experience as a counter-terrorism officer for Europe’s Organization for Security and Cooperation.

Hours after a spate of false-alarm bomb threats in Stockholm, a note is found on a jumbo1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_ jet carrying 400 passengers bound for New York. There’s a bomb aboard, and the plane will be blown up if it lands without two demands being met. Sweden must reverse a decision to deport an Algerian asylum-seeker and the US must shut down Tennyson Cottage. Swedish officials aren’t sure what Tennyson Cottage is, and once they find out that it’s an American secret detention facility in Afghanistan, they can’t see any connection between it and the man Säpo (Sweden’s national security service) has just declared a threat to Sweden.

Fredrika Bergman, who has left the police and gone to work for the Justice department, is called in to help uncover whoever is behind the bomb threat along with Säpo’s Eden Lundell, a flamboyant legendary agent, and Fredrika’s former boss Alex Recht, fresh from dealing with four simultaneous bomb threats that were false alarms. They have only a matter of hours to determine whether there really is a bomb aboard the plane.

This is an admirably intelligent thriller that ticks down the hours as both Swedish and American authorities scramble to uncover who is behind the threat and what the best course of action may be. Though neither government will negotiate with terrorists, Fredrika has serious qualms about the case against asylum seeker Zakaria Khelifi. American officials refuse to share any information about their detention facility, making it difficult to see how the two demands are connected and what the motive is. Meanwhile, the pilot is stubbornly insisting that the only way to keep his passengers and crew safe is to do what the note instructs. He will fly the plane until the demands are met – or the fuel runs out.

Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht are certain that the solution is to be found in the connection between the secret American detention facility and their possibly innocent asylum seeker. Säpo’s Eden Lundell battles the Americans’ insistence on avoiding another terrorist attack, whatever the cost, while trying to figure out why the pilot is so intent on following the instructions in the note found on board. The airliner’s crew is trying to keep the passengers from knowing too much. On both sides of the Atlantic, too many people in different agencies are withholding information from one another and time is running short.

Ohlsson uses this nail-biting premise to investigate the gray areas between security and freedom, between a society governed by democratic laws and one that demands safety at all cost. Published in Swedish in 2012, two years after a suicide bombing in Stockholm shook the nation, the novel succeeds both as a brisk thriller and as a timely exploration of European and American approaches to national security in an uncertain world.

Noir in the North (Atlantic)

This just in from the Crime Studies Network . . .  sounds like a cracking good conference.

We have had an exciting range and number of submission for Noir in the North (16-17 Nov 2016) and are extending the deadline to ensure that mid-term malaise hasn’t held back anyone from submitting.  Please note the revised deadline of 10th December 2015 to noirinthenorth@gmail.com.  The event will run in conjunction with the Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival, and the conference is delighted to confirm our keynote speakers – Mary Evans (LSE), Bruce Robbins (Columbia), Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Val McDermid.

Come join us in the land of the midnight sun for crime, the northern lights, and hot springs at a conference in the cosmopolitan and friendly city of Reykjavik.

Please circulate widely to colleagues and networks –

Many thanks

The Conference Organisers

Noir in the North

16-17 November 2016

University of Iceland

The Killing, Wallander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Nordic Noir has been a dominant part of global detective fiction, film and television in the past two decades. But what are the parameters of this genre, both historically and geographically? What is noirish and what is northern about Nordic Noir? This conference invites proposals which either investigate the specifics of noir in a particular text or which interrogate more broadly the notion of Nordic Noir.

Can Nordic Noir be used to identify, for example, some aspects of the work of other Nordic authors, such as Halldór Laxness, Isak Dinesen or Vilhem Moberg? What is the relationship between earlier Scandinavian crime fiction, such as that by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and Nordic Noir? How does work like the Shetland novels by Ann Cleeves fit within the parameters of Nordic Noir?  What part has translation played in the history and global circulation of Nordic Noir?

More broadly, the conference will address the following questions: How does Nordic Noir challenge the traditional critical histories of noir? What new genealogies of noir can complicate the Anglo-American dominance of noir? Are there geographical limitations to noir and how does it function transnationally? Where does the north begin for noir? What are the peripheral boundaries in the East and West? Does noir complicate traditional literary histories modeled on geographical boundaries? What specific images of the north are associated with Nordic Noir? How do sex and gender operate in Nordic Noir? What is Nordic noir’s relationship with particular national pasts, identities, or collective and cultural memory? What connections are there be, for example, between Nordic Noir and Continental existentialism, European Romanticisms, or fin-de-siècle literatures?

This major international conference will consolidate work to date on Nordic Noir and seek to deepen our understanding of the genre, both in relation to traditional histories, but also in drawing on new theoretical and geographical understandings.

The Crime Studies Network, in collaboration with the Centre for Studies in Memory and Literature at the University of Iceland and with the University of Newcastle, will host Noir in the North in Reykjavik in November 2016. This conference is held in conjunction with the Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival (17-19 November).

Individual proposals for 20-minute papers/3 x 20 minute paper panels are invited.  We welcome proposals on novels, films, television series, graphic novels and other forms.  Send a short title, a 250-word proposal, and a 100-word biographical note to noirinthenorth@gmail.com by 10 December 2015. Applicants will be notified of acceptance by 15 January 2016.

Keynote Speakers

Val McDermid

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Bruce Robbins (Columbia University)

Mary Evans (London School of Economics)

Conference Organisers

Stacy Gillis (University of Newcastle)

Gunnþórunn Guðmundsdóttir (University of Iceland)

A Mixed Bag of Mini-Reviews

Time to blow the dust off and post something here. I’ve been under the weather (hello, endocrine system! I didn’t even know you were there). I’ve been reading a lot – just not up for writing reviews. Rather than try and catch up with full-scale reviews while relieving ARC-guilt, I’ll simply share some quick impressions of some of the books I’ve read. It won’t do them justice, but otherwise I’ll never catch up. I’m putting a * by the ones I enjoyed the most and warning you that there’s a rant ahead.

Dark BranchesDark Branches by Nik Frobenius
This Norwegian novel of psychological suspense is narrated by a writer who has stretched himself to write an autobiographical novel that exposes aspects of his past that previously he’d kept hidden. As soon as the publicity for the new book begins, he gets a newspaper clipping in the mail, unsigned, about the school fire that inspired his novel. Then his daughter’s doll is mutilated and a strange voice on the phone tells his wife the author is having an affair. Things don’t improve from there. The story is moody and dark; the narrator is not a sympathetic character, which makes it even darker, as the past he’s used for material comes back to haunt him. This nicely produced Sandstone Press book was translated by Frank Stewart.

*Open Grave by Kjell Eriksson
This claustrophobic character study may not be the best choice for readers who like action and puzzle-solving, but if you take the time to savor it, it’s very good. An elderly man living in a prestigious neighborhood has just received news that he’s going to receive the Nobel Prize for medicine. We soon learn that he may not actually deserve it, and in any case he’s a mean, demanding, self-important tyrant of his own home. The demands he puts on his loyal elderly housekeeper, the third woman in her family to work for this wealthy family, is reaching the end of her tether. In some ways this is an inside-out mystery. The series detective, Ann Lindell, appears late in the book, and so does the crime. What’s fascinating is to watch this highly traditional household slowly unravel. Translated by Paul Norlen.

The Intruder by Hȧkan Östlund
Though Swedish crime fiction is typically associated with social criticism, there’s quite a lot of it that situates fairly outlandish crimes arising out of family secrets or tortured relationships in picturesque tourist destinations. Sometimes they’re very good – Johann Theorin has written some cracking stories. But often they’re not particularly realistic or insightful and the setting feels very far from contemporary Sweden, a kind of golden age Sweden with home-grown monsters to slay. This second book in a series set in Gotland (after The Viper) involves a family living on an isolated island off Gotland that begins receiving threatening anonymous letters. The investigation exposes a marriage that isn’t ideal. I couldn’t find much to recommend this novel and it relies on breaking faith with the reader in a way that I can’t describe without a spoiler, but it’s been on every “rules for mysteries” list since S. S. Van Dine. I don’t blame the translator, Paul Norlen. He did his job perfectly well.

The Drowning by Camilla Läckberg
As much as I was underwhelmed by the previous book in this list, I actively detested this one. Family secrets and a horrible crime on a scenic island populated by Swedes who lack the diversity and complexity of contemporary Sweden – we’re in the heart of don’t-pay-attention-to-social-issues Swedish crime, which is enormously popular. Every irritating gimmick this author uses is turned on full blast. The backstory told to readers at length, but not known to police. Nearly every terrible thing a human being might do can be traced to bad mothers. Highly traditional gender roles between an earnest copper and his I-just-can’t-help-myself amateur sleuth wife, who has traded post-natal depression for being pregnant with twins. I know, next time let’s go for triplets! The amateur female lead withholds information from her cop husband, both of them withhold information from the reader, and a solution to the mystery is ripped from a 1970s soap opera. For dessert, may we offer you a completely manipulative cliffhanger that has nothing to do with what went before but is a teaser for buying the next book? It may come as no surprise that I won’t be reading any more in this hot mess of a series. To be fair, millions of readers worldwide love this The Treacherous Netstuff. I just found this overlong book (476 pages) had everything I don’t like about this series on display and nothing that I could praise other than the better-than-it-deserves translation by the talented Tiina Nunnally.

*The Treacherous Net by Helene Tursten
Now we’re back on solid ground. This latest in a reliable police procedural series combines a realistically grounded and competent female detective, Irene Huss, working on realistically sordid crimes in Sweden’s second-largest city, Göteborg. In this entry, a young girl who appears to have been lured into the sex trade through internet-based grooming has been murdered, and this murder is the tip of the iceberg. As if that’s not enough to keep the homicide detectives busy, a mummified body is uncovered as a building is being demolished. The two investigations are nicely laid out and we catch up on what’s going on in Irene’s life at home and in the workplace. I enjoy the low-key way this series addresses social issues without too much drama and a non-angsty, non-alcoholic protagonist who resolutely believes that things can be put right by good people doing their jobs well. If Swedish crime has a crowd of gloomy detectives in one corner and a bunch of unlikely crimes in picturesque settings in the other, Tursten plants her flag in the middle: in a place where most of us live. Translator Marlaine Delargy does justice to this author’s straightforward prose style.

*The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
A family in a small Norwegian community experiences a tragedy when their toddler son wonders out of house when his mother’s back is turned and drowns in a nearby pond. As usual, Inspector Sejer investigates the incident with his quiet combination of compassion and penetrating skepticism. For someone who usually finds out that terrible things lurk under Norwegians’ smiling exteriors, he is both relentlessly just and deeply kind. In this case, the question is whether a parent may have wished the boy, who has Down Syndrome, out of their lives. This book doesn’t have the strong ironic fabulism of many of the recent books in this series and it has more of a focus on the often gnomic detective’s feelings than usual, both of which struck me as good things. Fine translation by Kari Dickson.

The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen
I’ve enjoyed earlier books in this series, even though the plots involve rather implausibly complicated ways to commit crimes, but this one didn’t hold together at all. A policeman on the island of Bornholm, obsessed by a cold case, uses his retirement party as a stage for his suicide. The familiar Department Q team go to the remote island to solve the case, but the story never comes alive and nobody seems too interested in the girl who is found hanging most implausibly in a tree. There’s over 500 pages of it, too. I don’t see a translator on this advanced reader copy, but I don’t envy him or her the job.

The Girl and the Bomb**The Girl and the Bomb by Jari Järvelä
This book was a great find, and I had never heard of this author until he asked if I would care to read an advanced copy. I’m so glad he did. Though Amazon Crossing is producing a lot of translations, they don’t always get a lot of attention. In this case, the book certainly deserves it. The chapters alternate the point of view of a young black woman who feels alienated in the small port city of Kotka, Finland. Her best mate, a gifted street artist with whom she scales heights and spray-paints (aka bombs) the ugly parts of the city, is killed when a group of security guards go after them both. Metro (the somewhat feral girl of the title and a great character) decides to go after the guard who she thinks is responsible. His point of view is provided in the other chapters, and he’s the least guilty of the guards, the one most disturbed by what happened. As time goes on and Metro finds ways to call out the injustice, the small flicker of remorse and shame he feels is replace by resentment and anger. It’s both a psychological study of a man whose moral fiber is disintegrating and a character sketch of an artistically talented but marginalized teen who feels she owes it to her friend to seek justice her own way. The ending is great. It looks as if there will be a trilogy about Metro, if my Google-foo is working, and a film is being made of this one. I’ll be looking for them. Kristian London can take a bow for her his translation.

Three days ago Amazon announced they’ll be spending $10 million on translations in this imprint over the next five years. Heartening news for those of us who want more.

 

 

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 . . .

SPOILER ALERT!

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.