Review of Unrest by Jesper Stein

translated by David Young, Mirror Books, 2018

The first novel in a five-volume police procedural series, Unrest, was published originally in 2012 to acclaim in Denmark. Now available in English, it’s an atmospheric mystery that combines a complex homicide investigation with the vivid backdrop of a major riot in the multi-ethnic Nørrebro district.

1912624044-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Axel Steen is called in to begin investigating a homicide in his own neighborhood. A body has been found in a tranquil cemetery on a night when there’s another pitched battle between police and autonomists (a Marxist-flavored form of anarchism). A squat in Nørrebro, the Youth House, had become a center of political resistance. When the police shut it down, it has caused nights of rioting. (The novel is set in 2007 and while the murder is fictional, the vivid setting draws on real events.)

At first glance, it seems the murder may be the result of police violence. The dead man is wearing an autonomist’s balaclava and shows signs of being beaten badly. Two police officers who had been dispatched to guard the cemetery are being suspiciously evasive about a crime that must have occurred right under their noses. But the victim is older than most of the anti-capitalist youth activists and he has a double-headed eagle tattoo – the symbol of Albania. From the cemetery, Axel spots a camera on a balcony that may have filmed the murder, but before he can recover it, someone has spirited it away. That’s the start of a complex story that involves deported immigrants, a drug gang, a left-wing journalist with an ax to grind, Danish security services, and civil unrest.

In some ways, Axel Steen is a familiar figure. He’s addicted to work, has an independent streak that puts him in conflict with his bosses, and has a completely dysfunctional home life. His divorce has been bitter, though he still carries a torch for his ex that tends to erupt into flaming arguments. He adores his five-year-old daughter but has trouble making time for her, taking her with him to the morgue because he can’t organize child care or let go of a work commitment. He has a heart condition that worries him, but he neglects his health. His most original characteristic is the contradictory position he occupies in Copenhagen.

The setting is wonderfully rendered. Nørrebro is a vivid mix of counter-cultural bohemianism and 21st century Europe, being the most ethnically diverse part of Copenhagen as well as the site of a historic cemetery where Danish luminaries, including Søren Kirkegaard, Hans Christen Anderson, and Niels Bohr, are buried. A journalist tells Steen with amusement that he is the only cop who lives there, yet he seems to feel at home in a place where the walls are tagged with “fuck the police.” He’s a cop’s cop in some ways – he still bears a grudge about a 1993 riot in the same neighborhood when he was a young officer – but when fellow officers disparage the residents he defends them, despising their bigotry. He’s a fitting representation of contemporary Denmark, a febrile mix of contradictions. He’s also willing to go the distance to solve a crime, even if it turns out truth and love and incompatible. Our last glimpse of our protagonist is a bit noir, a bit touching, and gives something of the flavor of the book:

He came out onto Frederikssundsvej and cycled under the overhead
railway line into Nørrebrogade, along with a procession of shiny cars with white wedding pennants and a newlywed couple in the front of an open sports car. The bride’s teeth were shining in the night in competition with her jewellery. Young men were hanging out of the car windows, singing and waving big red and white flags with the green Lebanese cedar in the middle, horns were honking and the drivers swerving from side to side across two lanes. Axel got off his bike at the church opposite his flat and stood watching the wedding procession until the sound of the horns and shouts could no longer be heard, the flashing brake lights disappeared, the cars disappeared, and only the night remained.

Jesper Stein is a journalist, critic, and novelist. The next book in the five-book series is titled Blackbird. The television rights have been acquired by the producers of The Bridge.

Two Mini-Reviews

I’m well behind on my Scandi crime reading, and even further behind on reading. Maybe I’m suffering from a bit of a reading slump; a lot of books just haven’t hit the spot for me lately, so I’m guessing it’s more me than the books. Regardless, here are thoughts on a couple of books I read recently.

1912374072-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_The Ice Swimmer by Kjell Ola Dahl, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Orenda, October 2018.

This is the sixth English translation from a police procedural series set in Oslo. For those who’ve followed the series, the ensemble of characters and their relationships is likely familiar. The lead protagonist this time is Lena Stigersand, who’s tidying up the probably accidental death of man who toppled into the harbor. A few too many drinks, a brutally cold night . . . but something’s going on, because a politician is furious when Lena asks her about the dinner she had with the victim, and the higher ups want her to back off. Meanwhile, a drug-addicted woman has died in a train tunnel, evidently a suicide that . . . isn’t. It turns out she was pursued into the tunnel, and she likely knew something about how the man ended up in the harbor. Along with putting together the case, there are some dynamics among the detectives that factor into the story, and Lena herself has quite a lot going on in her personal life.

I found the book a bit of a plod, though that was probably my mood, not the book – Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. I was also (unreasonably?) irritated with Lena for being attracted to and quickly involved with a journalist who seemed to be obviously in it for himself. It seemed immature and he was not portrayed as being so clearly attractive that I was persuaded a cop would fall for him so easily. The final pages, that explain the title, seemed different in tone and a bit tacked-on, but that’s just me being grumpy.

1250171032-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, October 2018.

My grumpiness continued! I actually enjoyed most of The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson. It introduces a new series, and apparently is a trilogy told in reverse order. In this first book, we meet Hulda Hermannsdóttir, a 64-year-old detective in Reykjavik who is suddenly told she’s retiring. Time to use up her vacation and put her feet up. That’s not at all what she wants to do. She lives in a barren apartment and has no friends or family – nor does she have good relationships with her fellow detectives. The good news is she’s a fine detective who won’t go out without a fight. She picks up a cold case – a Russian woman who disappeared from an asylum shelter – and has only a few days to solve it, even though nobody else has the slightest interest in the case.

The title is apt. It’s a really dark story – not because the case is especially gruesome or twisted (though we do get some of the story from the perspective of a Russian woman who faces danger in a snowy, remote, bitterly cold place) but because there’s nothing much redeeming in Hulda’s life. Gradually we come to learn the family tragedy hinted at throughout the story was particularly awful, so no wonder there’s so little light in Hulda’s life, but if it weren’t for her detecting, she’d be pretty dour company. The ending is a shocker – and though I can’t say much without a spoiler, I actually hated it, partly because I had just read another book with a similar ending. (I should probably add that the reviews I’ve seen think the ending is stunning. For me, not in a good way.) Hopefully it was just a chance thing, reading two books back to back that had a similar twist at the end, but if this is a trend I’m going to be really grumpy.

The next books in the trilogy step back by the decade – to a case when Hulda was in her fifties (The Island), then one in her forties (The Mist). You can read more about this trilogy in an article in The Reykjavik Grapevine.  

Some Mini-Reviews

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, but here are a few books I’ve read that, while not knock-your-socks-off amazing, ticked at least many of the boxes.

1501174789-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Anne Holt In Dust and Ashes (Scribner, 2018)

This is the tenth and final volume in the Hanne Willhelmsen series. As usual, she puts her prickly wheelchair-bound detective into a tricky plot, or rather two of them: a suicide that might actually be a murder, and a murder that perhaps wasn’t. The death that police believe to have been a suicide is that of a right-wing extremist celebrity who has been hounded by the media. Hanne thinks the psychology is all wrong for that particular woman to have taken her own life, and she wants her eccentric police detective sidekick Henrik Holme to look into it. (Perhaps it was me, but I found this part of the story confusing and not terribly engaging.) Meanwhile, another retired detective has given Henrik a case: he thinks he put an innocent man in prison for murdering his wife years ago. They had grown estranged after their small daughter ran into the street and was struck by a car and killed during a moment when her father was distracted. In the meanwhile, in a disturbing and powerful plot line that man, now out of prison, has grown obsessed with the driver’s granddaughter and begins to plan an action that seems to have wandered out of one of Karin Fossum’s moral psycho-dramas. You find yourself saying “oh no, no, don’t do that” quite often. To be perfectly honest, I’ve grown a little tired of Hanne and her irritable brilliance, but I’ve enjoyed other books by Anne Holt and look forward to whatever else she writes.

a93f92d59b42178596b4d7a7167444341587343Gunnar Staalesen Big Sister (Orenda Books, 2018)

There are things I like a lot about Varg Veum, Staalesen’s long-running PI hero. He’s somewhat modeled on the American hardboiled tradition – a tarnished hero who goes down mean streets, cracking wise – but he’s also Norwegian, so instead of being a former cop, he’s a former social worker. That said, I’ve never totally clicked with this series, and I’m not sure why. This was as enjoyable an entry as any I’ve read. Varg has a client who wants him to take on a missing persons case. But it turns out she, herself, is a bit of a missing person – a half-sister he never knew he had. The missing girl is her god-daughter, and she has vanished after moving to the big city. She had previously sought out her estranged father, who turns out to be a piece of work as Varg retraces her steps. There’s a biker gang and an act of violence to be uncovered from the past, a murder or two, and another family surprise for Varg before it’s all over.

0451491793-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alex Dahl The Boy at the Door (Berkley 2018)

Set in Norway, and quite Nordic Noir in feeling, this novel is not a translation but is by an American born in Oslo and educated in the UK who lives, at least some of the time, in the picturesque town of Sandefjord, the setting of the novel. Told in the first person in more than one voice, it’s an intensely psychological story that reminds me a bit of reading Quicksand–one of the narrators is wealthy, entitled, and terribly annoying. “Here in Sandefjord we have everything” she tells us early on. “Or, rather, we don’t–and that’s my point exactly. We don’t have any of the undesirable components that make life so unpalatable in many other places: pollution, poverty, property crises, excessive crime, immigration issues–I could go on.” When she goes to pick a daughter up at the town’s swimming pool, the attendant asks her to run a little boy home. His mother has apparently forgotten to pick him up and they’re closing. She crossly agrees, but the place he points her to is no place for a child. It’s an abandoned house deep in the woods and seems to have been used by squatters. Rather than go to the trouble of taking him to the authorities, she takes him home for the night and plans to drop him off at school the next day; let school deal with it. But that dodge doesn’t work out, and when social services has trouble finding a foster home for him, her soft-hearted but mostly absent husband volunteers to take him in. Some of the story is told from the perspective of the boy himself, and some from a drug-addicted prostitute whose letters and journal explain how he ended up in Sandefjord, all leading into the past of the smug, self-centered woman who has wrapped privilege around her like a blanket to keep out the past. It’s well-written and compelling if a bit melodramatic, but the author has real writing chops to make such an unpleasant character ring true and at times even a little bit sympathetic.


Dead Girls

I’m not sure what to make of this interesting “long read,” an excerpt from a book titled Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. This essay is a mix of critical examination of the Martin Beck series and the Millennium Trilogy and memoir. I believe I have an allergy to the memoir genre, since it always makes me uncomfortable to read an author’s intimate take on their living 51mfywhdcnlfamily members, even if they’re okay with it – I feel trapped in a place where I’m overhearing a conversation I shouldn’t among people who are not fully clothed, but if I come out of my hiding place, “excuse me, sorry,” they’ll all stare after me and know that I know and I’ll feel terrible. Though in fact, it’s a public performance. They give me a sly wink, asking me to stay.  Oh dear. It’s probably why I also can’t stand most true crime – voyeurism when I’d rather feel safely involved in fiction, where I can be comfortable with the characters; they draw me in, but they aren’t implicating me in their lives in the same way.  Maybe it’s just that I’m a very private person. Maybe it’s just that it feels manipulative.

That said, this question of why there are so many dead girls in crime fiction really interests me, and her questioning of the ways dead women are treated in Roseanna and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is uncomfortably thoughtful, so it’s a book I want to read and argue with and learn from. I just wish it didn’t come in a memoir sandwich, but that’s my own problem. Here’s a quote from the essay/excerpt:

Many people have noted the marketing brilliance of changing the title of Larsson’s Men Who Hate Women for the English translation, shifting the focus from creepy men to always more salable “girls.” Men Who Hate Women could be another alternate title for my book, and I have chosen, maybe hypocritically, to sell it on girls instead. In the end, the careers of Larsson and Sjöwall and Wahlöö turn out to be Dead Man stories, where men leave their wives and collaborators to deal with their absence for decades. This female survival is probably the truer story and, I think Larsson, Sjöwall, and Wahlöö would agree, a better one, but it doesn’t have the same addictive glamour that comes with a Dead Girl. In Roseanna, one of Beck’s colleagues mentions a movie that the suspect they’re trailing goes to see. “It has a wonderful ending,” he says. “Everyone dies except the girl.”

. . . And the Winner Is . . .

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is this year’s Petrona Award winner. Congrats to both author and translator!

1590518578-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_This is a bit bittersweet just now in the United States as the subject of school shootings is a bit too raw. Another one just happened after students began a powerful movement to end school shootings.

Of course, these don’t happen with anything like the US frequency in other countries, so the dynamics are different and the focus here is on the backstory – what would lead a privileged girl to become involved in committing violence and what kind of relationships might become warped in the upper reaches of Swedish society and the tightly-wound world of adolescence? Here’s what the judges – all of them well-read and passionate about the genre – had to say about their choice.

In a strong year for entries to the Petrona Award, the judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings and the motives behind them. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events. Gripping and thought-provoking, Quicksand is an outstanding Scandinavian crime novel and the highly worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award.

I admit I found it a challenging book to read, but the voice of the narrator – a naive, irritating, obnoxious, and troubled child whose decisions have landed her on trial for murder – was well-rendered. I can only imagine it was a challenge to translate, keeping that voice as conflicted and immature as it is. If ever a reader thought Sweden is a democratic socialist paradise of equality and healthy relationships, this is quite the antidote.


Petrona Award – The Shortlist

16708355988_8cb3b9dd5b_oIn memory of Maxine Clarke, a brilliant science editor and crime fiction fan par excellence, the Petrona Award is an annual sorting and sifting of the year’s new crime fiction publications from the Nordic countries in English translation. Here’s what the (extraordinarily qualified) judges have concluded about Scancinavian crime fiction in 2017.



Six outstanding crime novels from Denmark, Finland and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2018 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today.

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 19 May during the annual international crime fiction convention CrimeFest, held in Bristol on 17-20 May 2018. The winning author and the translator of the winning title will both receive a cash prize, and the winning author will receive a full pass to and a guaranteed panel at CrimeFest 2019.

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia, and published in the UK in the previous calendar year.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his continued generous support of the Petrona Award.

The judges’ comments on the shortlist:

There were 61 entries for the 2018 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 33 translators and submitted by 31 publishers/imprints. There were 27 female and 33 male authors, and one brother-sister writing duo.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist sees Sweden strongly represented with four novels; Denmark and Finland each have one. The crime genres represented include a police procedural, a courtroom drama, a comic crime novel and three crime novels/thrillers with a strong psychological dimension.

As ever, the Petrona Award judges faced a difficult but enjoyable decision-making process when they met to draw up the shortlist. The six novels selected by the judges stand out for the quality of their writing, their characterisation and their plotting. They are original and inventive, and shine a light on highly complex subjects such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, school shootings, and life on the margins of society. A key theme that emerged across all of the shortlisted works was that of family: the physical and psychological challenges of parenting; the pressures exerted by family traditions or expectations; sibling rivalries; inter­generational tensions and bonds; family loyalty… and betrayal.

We are extremely grateful to the translators whose expertise and skill allows readers to access these gems of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The judges’ comments on each of the shortlisted titles:

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr. Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

Her ‘Nina Borg’ novels, co-written with Lene Kaaberbøl, have a dedicated following, but this first solo outing by Danish author Agnete Friis is a singular achievement in every sense. Ella Nygaard was a child when her mother was killed by her father. Did the seven-year-old witness the crime? She can’t remember, but her body does, manifesting physical symptoms that may double as clues. Ella’s complex character is superbly realised – traumatised yet tough, she struggles to keep her son Alex out of care while dealing with the fallout from her past.

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

In this compelling and timely novel, eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is on trial for her part in a school shooting which saw her boyfriend, best friend, teacher and other classmates killed. We follow the events leading up to the murders and the trial through Maja’s eyes, including her reaction to her legal team’s defence. Lawyer-turned-writer Malin Persson Giolito successfully pulls the reader into the story, but provides no easy answers to the motives behind the killings. Gripping and thought-provoking, the novel offers an insightful analysis of family and class dynamics.

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

Henning Mankell’s final novel sees the return of Fredrik Welin from 2010’s Italian Shoes. Living in splendid isolation on an island in a Swedish archipelago, Welin wakes up one night to find his house on fire and soon finds himself suspected of arson by the authorities. While there’s a crime at the heart of this novel, the story also addresses universal themes of loss, fragile family ties, difficult friendships, ageing and mortality. The occasionally bleak outlook is tempered by an acceptance of the vulnerability of human relationships and by the natural beauty of the novel’s coastal setting.

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

Many readers are familiar with the ‘Van Veeteren’ detective stories of Håkan Nesser, but his second series, featuring Swedish-Italian Detective Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, is only now beginning to be translated. An engaging figure who navigates his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a witty dialogue with God, Barbarotti is asked to investigate the disappearance of two members of the Hermansson family following a birthday celebration. The novel’s multiple narrative perspectives and unhurried exploration of family dynamics make for a highly satisfying read.

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

Karolina Ramqvist’s novella focuses on an often marginalised figure: the wife left stranded by her gangster husband when things go wrong. Karin’s wealthy, high-flying life is over. All that’s left are a once grand house, financial difficulties, government agencies closing in, and a baby she never wanted to have. This raw and compelling portrait of a woman at rock bottom uses the sometimes brutal physical realities of motherhood to depict a life out of control, and persuasively communicates Karin’s despair and her faltering attempts to reclaim her life.

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The grim starting point of Antti Tuomainen’s novel – a man finding out that he has been systematically poisoned and his death is just a matter of time – develops into an assured crime caper brimming with wry black humour. Finnish mushroom exporter Jaakko Kaunismaa quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects, and sets about investigating his own murder with admirable pluck and determination. The novel’s heroes and anti-heroes are engagingly imperfect, and Jaakko’s first-person narration is stylishly pulled off.

The judges are:

Barry Forshaw – Writer and journalist specialising in crime fiction and film; author of multiple books including HISTORICAL NOIR, NORDIC NOIR, DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE, EURO NOIR, DETECTIVE: CRIME UNCOVERED and the first biography of Stieg Larsson.

Dr. Kat Hall – Editor of CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI for University of Wales Press; translator and editor; Honorary Research Associate at Swansea University; international crime fiction reviewer/blogger at MRS. PEABODY INVESTIGATES.

Sarah Ward – Crime novelist, author of IN BITTER CHILL, A DEADLY THAW and A PATIENT FURY (Faber and Faber), and crime fiction reviewer at CRIMEPIECES.

Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website.

I clearly have much catching up to do, having only read one of these books, Agnete Friis’ WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS – which I admired and enjoyed. I admit I tried to read QUICKSAND but though I admired it, I couldn’t enjoy it. (So many school shootings here, so much inequality warping young lives, I just . . . couldn’t carry on though I read so many positive reviews.)  Oddly enough both books have female protagonists who are hard to like in many ways, but I was more willing to spend time with Friis’ hardluck heroine than with a teen who miserably has every advantage.  Interesting that the three books by women on this list all have something to do with defining where they belong in a life defined largely by economic realities out of their control. And given I enjoyed ITALIAN SHOES, have wondered what Nesser was doing with a character who isn’t Van Veeteren, and Antti Tuomainen’s first novel, with its vision of a near future that still haunts me, I should probably get cracking.


Bloody Easter

They extend winter, invented modern crime fiction, and celebrate Easter by reading about murder. Who? The Norwegians, of course.

By Glenn Folkvord

This article, originally published in The Norwegian-American, is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, who retains the copyright. Tusen takk!

påskekrim (reading crime fiction at Easter)

Påskekrim (photo by Tormod Ulsberg)

One would think that after a long, dark and bitter winter, Norwegians would welcome spring, sun and the promise of summer. That is probably true for the cold challenged, but many Norwegians choose to extend the winter by spending the Easter holiday in their mountain log cabins, armed with mutton, eggs and chocolate wafers. However, one more ingredient is needed to really get into the spirit. To some it is the highlight of the holiday. Murder. Preferably many of them, safely experienced between two book covers. Between shoveling snow or skiing on it, Easter means Norwegians wallow in crime fiction. In Norway you can’t avoid it that one week of the year. TV bursts with high profile British mystery shows. On radio, NRK has produced radio plays. Your newspaper’s weekend supplement has probably commissioned a crime short story and interviewed an expert on why Norwegians read Easter crime fiction, or “påskekrim”. Want milk? Not without spotting the crime cartoon on the cartons. And then there was that bakery that asked its Facebook followers to find out who had stolen their cupcakes. A fictional cupcake kidnapping case, because what is Easter without crime everywhere the word can be typed? The classic media for Easter crime is soft cover paperbacks, a practical format with their small size and weight, suitable for backpacks and suitcases. You can buy them at gas stations and local convenience stores on your way to your holiday destination. More than half the population travel somewhere during the Easter week. All subgenres of crime and thrillers are being read, but classic whodunnits and slow paced “cozy crime” are the traditional choices. You don’t even have to cave in to the publishers’ suggestions, as nobody flinches if you bring a stack of old dog eared flea market finds.

The reading of crime fiction during Easter is believed to be a tradition unique to Norway. Unlike many other popular traditions, establishing this one was a planned, happy accident. The seed of the Easter crime phenomenon can be attributed to a specific day in history, because it was a book publisher’s marketing ploy that started it all.

Aftenposten ad, 1923

Ad in the newspaper Aftenposten

On March 24, 1923 (the day before Palm Sunday), the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten printed the headline “The train to Bergen was robbed last night” across the font page. The news spread like a free money rumor. In reality, there was no headline. What Aftenposten had printed was an ad for a novel of the same name, but few picked up on the small disclaimer printed next to it. “Bergenstoget plyndret i nat” was written by Jonathan Jerv, or Jonathan Wolverine, an alias for two students, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. Both born in Bergen on Norway’s west coast. Grieg went on to be one of Norway’s most prominent authors in the 1920s and 30s, while Lie would become a major figure in publishing. However, it is widely regarded that it was the publisher Gyldendal’s director Harald Grieg, Nordahl’s brother, who was responsible for making the book a best seller. 15 years before Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio drama caused panic because of its simulated news, Harald Grieg achieved the same effect by employing the method known today as clickbait. When word got out that the robbery only took place in a book, readers rushed to the book stores.


Harald Grieg did probably not intend to create a specific and lasting tradition. Granted, he wanted to sell books, but even though he realized that selling light literature in March and April was a way to branch out for an industry that usually released their books in the fall, reading detective fiction in stead of going to church is thought to have fastened its roots because of the specifics of the Norwegian Easter. The most far fetched theories, as mentioned by Norway’s crime fiction expert Nils Nordberg, stretch back to pre-Christian times. Blood sacrifice was made by our Viking ancestors roughly around the time when Easter would fall centuries later. The plan was to secure crops and keep the gods happy. Maybe traces of this remain in Norwegian genes in the form of fascination for stories about violence? The metaphorical sacrificial lamb and the scapegoat are indeed always included. Easter itself has a dark back story. When God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn sons of the ancient Egyptians, blood smeared on houses saved Israelite families. Later, the criminal case, punishment and death of a religious rebel, Jesus of Nazareth, gave Easter additional meaning. Unfortunately, had these theories held water, Easter crime should have been a thing in many countries, which it is not.

The most probable explanation is much less complex, but still about a form of death; killing time. Also according to Nils Nordberg, this makes the most sense because Norway’s Easter holiday is the longest in the world. Norwegians leave their jobs for up to 10 days, with 5 of them being compulsory days off. One in four Norwegians spend their Easter in a mountain or coast cabin, where daily life is associated with simple pleasures and unwinding. After skiing, murder mysteries are perfect brain fodder next to the log fire. Paperbacks wear down but as they are cheap, they can be left in the library for the next guest, or for that winter when you are snowed in and can’t get out. Even for those who stay at home, murder, a wool blanket and a cup of hot cocoa is all it takes for a carefree day. Combine that with how Scandinavian crime literature tends to comment on social issues and topics readers can identify with, and the recipe for Easter escapism that is both easy to process and relevant is set.

Reading crime fiction has been a pastime for Norwegians since long before the current Nord Noir trend. In a country so safe – or boring? – that people seek danger in the form of words, Jo Nesbø, Jørn Lier Horst and Anne Holt are just the latest generation of thrill providers. Sven Elvestad (1884 – 1934), also known as Stein Riverton, was the first Norwegian crime author celebrity, having created the Christiania (now Oslo) detective Knut Gribb in a series of murder-free stories in 1908. Even before that, Maurits Hansen (1794 – 1842) published the novel “The Murder of Machine Builder Roolfsen” in 1839, predating the book that is thought to have created the modern murder mystery, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, by two years. The habit of reading about invented illegalities is thus older than Easter crime, but thanks to Harald Grieg’s clever marketing 95 years ago, Easter opened up as the high season. Norwegian crime authors do not face unemployment. Last year, in the two weeks before Easter, crime novels made up 55% of all fiction sold in bookstores, three times more than crime’s portion of Christmas book sales. British, French and German authors can’t get their heads around this when they talk to their Norwegian colleagues. The Norwegian Easter seems to remain crimson red for the foreseeable future.

Glenn Folkvord, (c) March 2018

country house in Norway

Country house in Norway (Photo by myszysz at Flickr)

What to Watch

A friend pointed out this article by Winston Cook-Wilson in Spin on Nordic crime fiction television dramas. Of course availability varies based on where you are and if you subscribe to what (to me, at any rate) is a dizzying array of streaming services. Cook-Wilson offers several tempting options and also comments on the influence Scandinavian crime fiction has had on Scandinavian television – and on television dramas elsewhere.

The Scandinavian sensibility has come to influence crime fiction, television, and film, all over the world thanks to the international popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series (home to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), the hardnosed airport thrillers of Jo Nesbø, and other franchises. In the past ten years, crime procedurals have adopted a bleaker, prestige-ified bent befitting wider trends in dramatic scripted television and tailor-made for desperate, red-eyed consumption.

I spend more time reading than watching, but I see some tempting binge-worthy shows on his list . . .

Review of A Crack in the Facade

book coverI 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.


Missing Bernadette

book and candle

I’ve neglected this blog for a while, being tied up with this and that and having my fondness of crime fiction challenged by a variety of things happening in the world. I’ve neglected my old reading community, too, partly because the group founded by Maxine Clark used a social media platform that was gobbled up by Facebook around the time that Google discontinued Reader and I never quite got back into the habit of reading blogs in their natural state. What really keeps it all together isn’t the technology, it’s the people, and after the shock of losing Maxine, I feel very much the same discovering my friend Bernadette has died.

I say “my friend” though we never met. Mostly I knew her through her book reviews, which were incisive and voluminous and always a way that I could find new books to read because we had similar tastes and a similar outlook on the world. She promoted Australian women writers and Aussie crime fiction, helped us Remember Petrona, and was a kind and frequent commenter on other blogger’s posts, including mine when I was blogging more regularly. I can’t recall exactly how I learned she was gone. I just remember it being a horrid shock, an impossibility. How could it be? I never imagined the world being a place that was without her. For some reason when you don’t really know someone in person, when you know them only online, you forget they have lives like everyone else, and things can happen that no one is prepared for. How awful for her family, and for her in-real-life friends. She must be dreadfully missed.

It has popped into my mind more times than I can count in the past couple of weeks, this combination of sadness and shock. I’d been reading her reviews now and then but hadn’t been commenting; haven’t been blogging about books much, and haven’t kept up sharing reading experiences with the community she was part of. I feel as if I’ve let a good friend slip out of my life without saying goodbye. I’m sad about that, but I’m also inspired by her generosity, and I hope to post more regularly here to talk about books. I’ll never be as good a reviewer as she was, nor will I be as energetic and kind as she was at sharing reading experiences, good and bad. But I’ll try to be a better member of the international reading community she helped to build.

Kerrie, whose own blog is Mysteries in Paradise knew Bernadette both online and in person. She compiled posts about her, as has Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot. I’m belatedly adding my own. We’ll miss you, Bernadette.

photo courtesy of Stefano Bussolon