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 t 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)

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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

Review of The Devil’s Wedding Ring by Vidar Sundstøl

Reposted from Reviewing the Evidence with permission

1517902800-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_THE DEVIL’S WEDDING RING
by Vidar Sundstøl and Tiina Nunnally, trans.
University of Minnesota Press, September 2017
271 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1517902800

Max Fjellanger left Norway and his job as a police officer in a small town in Telemark to become a private investigator in Florida. When he gets word that the man who had been his partner has died, he flies home for the funeral, intending a short visit. But there’s something strange about the man’s death. Why did he go back to the town where they had worked to fill his pockets with stones and throw himself into a lake? Max is also haunted by a memory: the sheriff he reported to refused to let him use an eager tracker dog when they were looking for a missing man – a man who was never found. Before long, he’s postponing his trip back to the States to put his memory to rest.

Tirill Vesterli is a university librarian who reads Swedish crime novels in her spare time after putting her little boy to bed. She finds herself intrigued by unsolved crimes, including the case of a young graduate student who disappeared on Midsummer Eve. Tirill has a theory that the student’s research about an ancient statue in a medieval stave church is the key to her fate, but when she took it to the police they laughed at her. Undaunted, she raises her theory with Max and, since the man Max and his partner had searched for had also been researching the church, they decide to delve deeper.

Sundstøl is known to American readers as the author of the Minnesota Trilogy, set on the north shore of Lake Superior. The first book in the trilogy, LAND OF DREAMS, won the Riverton Prize, Norway’s highest honor for crime fiction. This story is a more modest affair. As in the trilogy, Sundstøl is inspired by landscapes and history. In this case, the stave church and its ancient statue is a well-known historical site in southern Norway, and the story imagines the possibility that ancient rituals involving the statue have been preserved and are still practised in secret in parallel with a tamer re-enactment that is performed for tourists.

Though the ending is overly cinematic, the two detectives are well-drawn and engaging companions on this eerie journey into small-town Norway and into its darker past.

Reading Round-Up

Diction, a translation service based in Copenhagen has created an infographic showing the ten most translated Danish authors. Hans Christian Andersen tops the list. A bit further down, crime fiction fans will see a a familiar name . . .

The 10 most translated Danish writersI imagine we may someday see other crime fiction authors making the grade. (Jussi Adler-Olsen? Sara Blaedel?) I wonder who where Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö or Henning Mankel or even Camilla Läckberg might appear on a similar Swedish list – or Arnaldur Indriðason for Icelandic translations.

And now onto a variety of reviews appearing in recent months . . .

Becky who reads a lot of books and is part Finnish enjoyed The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto and hopes more books in this series will be turned into audio books. In 15cd4ef0649476b597339476e67444341587343particular she found the protagonist to be a “great character.” (I read it, too, and quite a lot of the story sticks with me as the Serbian woman who now works as a police detective in Finland goes home, has her purse stolen, and gets into a lot of trouble as she insists on finding out more than the local police want to know about the Roma people they despise and the refugees who aren’t wanted. It makes for an interesting commentary on Finnish culture, too, as the protagonist contrasts her Finnish assumptions with her homeland’s.)

Cathy at Kittling Books thought the prologue to Karo Hämäläinen’s Cruel is the Night was fantastic. Alas, the rest of the book did not appeal to her, given what she found were unlikable characters and a glacial pace. She hopes you might feel differently (though I admit, I didn’t care for it either).

She had similar issues with Agnete Friis’s What My Body Remembers – a slow pace and a character who doesn’t endear herself to the reader. (I quite liked the book, but Cathy had encountered one too many unlikable protagonists in a row.)

Margaret Cannon, who reviews mysteries for the Toronto Globe & Mail, had feelings closer to mine about Agnete Friis’s novel. “This is an excellent character study of a woman in extreme crisis,” she concludes.

At Euro Crime, reviewer Lynn Harvey introduces us to the first crime novel by a Danish journalist with a British connection – Fatal Crossing by Lone Theils. She deems it “an accomplished and exciting crime novel” that kept her up all night. Raven also gives the book a thumbs-up review, writing “With an intriguingly dark, well-plotted investigation, and the shadow of a notorious serial killer looming large within Sand’s quest for the truth, there were enough twists and tension to keep me reading.”

1910633275-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Raven has also read the latest by Kjell Ola Dahl, Faithless, and deems it “flawlessly plotted, with a beautifully nuanced translation” and urges us all to pick it up immediately.

Carrying on with her Scandinavian reading selections, she finds Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark quite stunning if darker than the previous books in this long-running series.

Staalesen’s Where Roses Never Die was the recipient of the 2017 Petrona Award, and Bernadette at Reactions to Reading says it’s well-deserved, even if PI sleuths in the American hard-boiled tradition aren’t generally her favorite. “Everything else about the book was terrific . . . Staalesen does a great job of peeling away the layers of secrecy that might easily build up in any group of people and result in an impossible to predict disaster.” Kerrie who reads mysteries in paradise (which is located not far from where Bernadette shares her reading reactions) also gives it a strong review. Obviously I must catch up on this series.

Bernadette found herself “completely hooked” by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s standalone, Why 151a6891f27803e596732566e67444341587343Did You Lie, in which the author subtly builds suspense as three seemingly separate plot strands develop toward connections.

There’s lots of suggestion and doubt and misdirection too so that even the savviest of crime fiction readers will not be able to predict everything that happens . . . The psychological thriller label is used too often but in the case of WHY DID THEY LIE? it is apt. It is unsettling rather than bump-in-the-night scary but that’s just what I like.

This book is going right on my TBR list just as I’m reminded that Bernadette is one of the best reviewers on the planet.

Of course, it helps that our tastes align so well. She had very much the same reaction as mine to Samuel Bjork’s I’m Travelling Alone” which to her “seemed as if it had been penned by someone more familiar with a “10 tips for great thriller writing” checklist than actual crime fiction of the kind I like.” The difference is that she had the stamina to actually finish it, whereas I bailed early.

But no worries – I now have a list of several books to add to my TBR, and hope you discover some, too.

 

What My Body Remembers by Agnete Friis

161695602x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Reposted with permission from Reviewing the Evidence

Many thrillers are focused on the future: something terrible is about to happen; someone has to stop it. The clock is ticking, and the fuse is growing shorter, minute by minute. Then there are stories that are focused on something terrible that happened in the past, an event that left the potential for violence hidden below the surface like a land mine. You know it’s there, somewhere, and every step you take could trigger the detonator and set it off. That’s the animating tension in the first adult novel by Agnete Friis, who previously co-authored the Nina Borg series with Lene Kaaberbøl.

Ella Nygaard is an unlikely heroine. She’s wary and cynical about the social system that provides her a place to live and counseling for her debilitating anxiety attacks, but strips her of her dignity and threatens, always, to take the one thing from her that matters: her son, Alex. She knows Denmark’s social system all too well, having been a ward of the state since she was seven years old. That was the year her father murdered her mother somewhere in the dunes on the wild north coast of Jutland. She was never able to reconstruct what happened, not in the days following the murder when police tried to coax an eyewitness account from a traumatized child, not now–but she feels it in her body, tension and tingling in her fingers, followed by a full-blown storm that knocks her off her feet. After one of those attacks, she is hospitalized and learns, on her release, that her son has been placed with foster parents in the countryside. She coaxes a neighbor to drive her to their farm, and then to help her and her son escape north, to the neglected seaside house her paternal grandmother has left her. It’s her only refuge, but it’s also the place where the knowledge of what happened when her father killed her mother lies buried.

We approach that moment from two directions: from flashback chapters about her father’s affair with a bewitching woman, and about her mother, who left a millennial religious sect to marry for love but can’t escape the deeply embedded belief that she is damned. In the present, Ella has met a childhood friend and acquired a strange acquaintance – an eccentric woman artist who is losing her home and moves in with Ella and her son, a temporary visitor who can’t be dislodged. The three of them create a strange sort of family haunted by a sense that something is deeply wrong.

Friis has stretched her neck out with a prickly protagonist who has resigned herself to life on welfare, always struggling to get by without money, often focused on getting a packet of smokes or a bottle of vodka. She loves her son fiercely, but does things that puts their future at risk–and puts her one step closer to triggering that buried memory. Though veteran mystery readers may not be entirely surprised by the denouement of this complex and multi-layered mystery, they may well be caught off guard by a character who stubbornly does everything she can to be unlovable, yet somehow becomes an enormously sympathetic guide to the experience of lives lived on the fringes of society.