I was fortunate to get a review copy of a self-published book from a new author who goes under the name P. J. Boock. He is a a Norwegian social scientist who does research on the intersections of political economy, sociology, and psychology and is currently working in public service in the US. I can’t tell you who he is – I’m sworn to secrecy – but he’s written a cracking good mystery. It’s set in Norway and there are no monstrously clever serial killers, unreliable narrators, or gory scenes of carnage visited by dedicated if troubled detectives. If I were to give it a genre label I’d call it sociological suspense with a light dusting of political philosophy. Just my kind of Scandi Noir.
Markus Jensen, a grumpy anti-social social worker who is dedicated to his clients but can’t stand small talk at the office and finds polite and meaningless chit-chat exhausting, gets an early morning call from the police. Where is Ole Jensen? (No relation – Jensen, we learn, is the most common name in Norway, so it’s fitting that a heroin addict and his social worker have a family name in common). Markus doesn’t have much time for the police, who he refers to at one point as “monopolized violence units.” He’d scuffled with them in his activist past, and though he’s now a middle-aged public servant, protecting his clients is his first priority. When he learns Ole is suspected of murdering the new and progressive Minister of Health, he’s sure the police have got it wrong. Ole may live at the periphery of society, and has sold drugs illegally to feed his habit, but he’s not violent. Marcus needs to find Ole before the police do, especially after Ole’s friend, who came to Oslo from up north with him years ago, is found dead of an overdose that Markus is sure was not self-administered. He joins forces with a deaf man who has a useful set of not-quite-legal skills and connections, a young woman who defies the addict stereotype by borrowing philosophy books from the public library, and a journalist who is sympathetic to Markus’s quest.
This is in some ways a classic “Norwegian noir” more akin to Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum series than with Karin Fossum’s psychological fables or Jo Nesbo’s baroque thrillers. The setting is the prosperous capital of the “petroleum kingdom” where two worlds live side by side. As Markus walks his dogs he reflects:
Healthy people were zooming by us in expensive exercise gear, tuning out the rest of the world as they listened to music from electronic devices strapped to their arms. At the same time, one did not have to venture far off the trail to experience the lowest elements of the nation’s food chain. Huddled under the bridges and nearby alleyways were the paltry shadows of lost souls. Unlike the segregation between rich and poor often seen in other nations, here the two realities seemed to exist side-by-side, as one living creature. A creature that couldn’t live without its own duality – to remind us that obedience and work pay off. To make sure we are reminded that we do not have a choice.
This duality exists even at the family level. Ole has a brother who is a successful doctor. He hasn’t seen Ole in over a decade, seems to have washed his hands of him, and tells Markus and the journalist “He chose, as you know, a different path than us.” When Markus asks “Us?” the doctor clarifies he means his family, but it’s clear there’s a distinct “us” and “them” in society that even divides brothers.
Nearly every Nordic crime author is said to have ancestry in Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, but I can’t think of a writer who has so much kinship with their Marxist project of depicting the failure of the welfare state, once a vision of an egalitarian society that has given way to a comfortable, conformist bourgeois existence that excludes anyone who fails to fit in. This is most clearly voiced by Markus, especially in a conversation with Mari, the addict who can hold her own in discussing dense nineteenth century political philosophy as she and Markus head north to find Ole. It’s a didactic moment, but it doesn’t stall the momentum of the story. These moments of social critique are integral to the novel as a whole, which respects the conventions of crime fiction but also subverts them. The police are not heroes. The junkies are students who didn’t graduate but continue to ask big questions that have no easy answers unlike their more prosperous neighbors. And, though Markus and his new friends, outwit the system in the end, offering readers some satisfaction that justice can be served if good people take action, we are reminded that justice is elusive. At best, Markus and his colleagues have made a small crack in the facade.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short book (under 250 pages), but be forewarned: it’s like reading the final draft of a good manuscript that hasn’t been thoroughly copy edited. If the author shares Markus’s political philosophy, and I suspect they agree on many things, he was writing to share ideas and get things off his chest rather than create a polished commercial product. Occasionally the author, writing in his second language, uses the wrong homonym, such as “seized” for “ceased” which can give the reader pause. There are also some punctuation irregularities, but if you can overlook those blips it’s a fine, fast, thought-provoking read for those who, like me, enjoy the social-commentary side of crime fiction. It appears to be part of Kindle Unlimited so is free to those of you who are Amazon Prime members. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it definitely is mine.