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.

The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl

Well, this is embarrassing. I’ve really let things go around here. You’d think I turned into a hermit. Well, in keeping with that notion, here’s my review of Danish author Thomas Rydahl’s first  novel, reposted from Reviewing the Evidence.

1780748894THE HERMIT
by Thomas Rydahl and KE Semmel, trans.
Oneworld, November 2016
469 pages
$21.99
ISBN: 1780748894

Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, skimming through recent translations, may be thinking it’s nothing but clones of Mankell and Läckberg, a too-familiar choice between gritty social problem procedurals or convoluted crimes committed on scenic islands – yawn. Thomas Rydahl has written something different.

First, there’s no snow. THE HERMIT is set on one of the lesser-visited of the Canary Islands. That’s not entirely original; Mari Jungstedt has set a new series there, too, among the large Swedish expatriate community. But Rydahl’s protagonist is not your typical detective. Erhard Jorgenson lives in a shack with two goats for company, drives a rattletrap cab, and lives on next to nothing. He’s no longer connected to his native Denmark, where he left behind an estranged family and one of his fingers. (How exactly he lost that finger is a tease from the opening pages – but not particularly relevant to the plot, like so very much in this book.) There are police, but they are not dogged investigators so much as public servants sensitively tuned to the need for tourism and quickly-closed cases. And there isn’t any CSI wizardry. Not only does our hero lack access to forensic labs, he doesn’t know how to use a cell phone or a computer. He has left the world behind, apart from picking up fares when he feels like it, tuning pianos occasionally, and drinking with a happy-go-lucky couple.

Three things go wrong early on. First, Erhard comes on a fatal car accident where a pack of wild dogs is making a meal of the dead driver. Then a car is found on a beach, which has in it the body of an abandoned infant in a cardboard box, nestled in torn-up Danish newspapers. Finally, Erhard loses his drinking pals when the man disappears and the woman lapses into a coma after a savage beating.

Erhard’s response to these events is as peculiar as he is. He takes a finger from the man killed in the accident to replace his missing one. He thinks the police are covering something up about the dead infant, so he kidnaps the prostitute who is their prime suspect and holds her in chains to compel her to tell him the truth. And when he realizes his friend is gone and his wife is unconscious . . . well, explaining how he handles that conundrum would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, this is an unusual book with an eccentric hero who wants very badly to know how that child ended up abandoned and, through a combination of persistence and intelligence, manages to untangle a complicated story.

This novel suffers from the acute global shortage of red pencils in the publishing world. Hundreds of pages relate Erhard’s shambolic daily life in detail, and the dialogue would be less exasperating to read if it were in quotation marks instead of being signaled with a literary dash, Cormac McCarthy-style. That said, readers who stick with it are likely to find themselves caught up in Erhard’s offbeat world view and in his quest to discover how that car and its tragic cargo ended up on a remote beach. S.E. Semmel’s translation of the first debut novel to win Scandinavia’s top award for crime fiction is excellent. Whether its enormous popularity in Denmark will travel is yet to be seen, but it certainly adds something new to the Nordic noir palette and is, in its weird way, compelling.

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.

 

review roundup

At Crime Scraps, Norm reviews Liza Marklund’s latest Annika Bengtzon thriller, Borderline which involves international intrigue and a hostage situation. Does it make me a bad person to be pleased that Annika’s annoying ex is a hostage? It sounds very good (and not just because Thomas is in trouble.)

At Petrona Remembered, there’s a fascinating email exchange/converation between Neil Smith and Liza Marklund about The Long Shadow and its translation and possible reception by English readers. Fascinating! And it ends on a cliffhanger . . .

The Guardian credits the popularity of Scandinavian crime for a boom in translated fiction in the UK.

Crime Fiction Lover provides a lovely tribute and overview of the Martin Beck Series written by Jeremy McGraw

At Crime Review, Tracy Johnson reviews Aren Dahl’s To the Top of the Mountain, who feels the humanity of the characters adds to their appeal.

At Reviewing the Evidence, Yvonne Klein unpacks the multiple plot strands and global locations for Jussi Alder-Olsen’s latest entry in the Carl Mørckseries, The Marco Effect, making it sound very well worth reading.

She makes a reference to an interview with the author in the Huffington Post, which is also worth a read. The author mentions that in addition to a Danish film version of the first in the series, there’s talk of a U.S. television adaptation of the characters, possibly s Hmm…

Ms. Wordopolis reviews an earlier book in Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, Voices. She finds it’s not the best in the bunch, but it’s still a favorite series. “It’s a reminder to me to spend less time on new releases and catch up on older books.” I’m so glad you feel that way!

Ms. Wordopolis also thinks the second volume of the Minnesota Trilogy, Vidar Sundstol’s Only the Dead, is a much tighter, very different sort of book from the first. I agree with her that it will be interesting to see what the third and final volume is like.

Laura Root also reviews the book at Euro Crime, finding it both unexpected and gripping. (Ditto.)

Staci Alesi (“the Book Bitch”) also reviews that book for Booklist and says though it is short – almost a novella – it’s dark, beautifully written, and suspenseful.

Jose Ignacio Esrcribano reviews (in two languages!) Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, which finishes the Erlunder series (chronologically, at least). He enjoyed it very much, as did I.

At International Noir Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Jo Nesbo’s Police, in which Harry Hole is off stage for a good bit of the action, and speculates whether the end is really the end – or not.

Sarah Ward reviews Black Noise by Pekka Hiltunen at Crimepieces and wonders whether it qualifies as Scaninavian crime, given it’s set in London. She finds it has a promising story about social media that unfortunately goes awry, becoming quite implausible. She hopes for better next time.

She also reviews Elsebeth Egholm’s Three Dog Night, a Danish novel about a recently-released convict who moves to a remote community only to meet a prison mate who is, unfortunately, dead. She says it has a well-constructed plot with a good ending though some of the characters in the fraying community can be hard to keep straight. She’s looking forward to the sequel, coming out in the UK soon.

Karen Meek reports on hearing two Danish authors interviewed by Peter Guttridge – Elsebeth Eghholm, Lene Kaaberbol, at the Manchester Literature Festival. Lots of insight into the authors and being translated, here.

Mrs. Peabody investigates a French thriller set in Norway, Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow, likening it to M. J.McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series set in the Canadian artic. It’s a “cracking debut” that illuminates nomadic Sami culture in a world with borders.  It sounds like a strong nominee for the Petrona Award. Mrs. P. links to an interesting  interview with the author.

Gary Jacobson reviews Karin Fossum’s I Can See in the Dark and finds it creepy, chilling, and effective at portraying the inner life of a very unpleasant man who is guilty of many crimes except for the one he’s accused of.

At Euro Crime, Lynn Harvey reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the fourth in the Finland-set series, but the first she read.  She says it stands on its own, but she’s ready to go back and read the rest. She concludes, “if you love the mystery of character as much as the mystery of crime – set in a wintry Scandinavian landscape – then I think you will savour [it] as much as I did.

review roundup and a new version of Macbeth

Ms. Wordopolis reviews the first book in Mari Jungstedt’s Anders Knutas and Johan Berg series, Unseen, finding the series characters and their stories more interesting than the fairly predictable serial killer storyline. All in all, she reckons it’s time to read something other than police procedurals.

Previously, she reviewed the latest in the Carl Mørck Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance, which left her with mixed feelings: “I feel strange saying that the book was written well or that I was interested in the ongoing storylines of Mørck and Assad when the main plot was so horrible to women,” she writes, Like the first novel in the series (The Keeper of Lost Causes, also published under the title Mercy), the plot focuses on people who hate women. How that focus is handled (and for what purpose) is one of the biggest open questions in this genre, in my opinion.

She was also not entirely satisfied by Helene Tursten’s The Fire Dance, but for different reasons. She felt there just wasn’t much in the story to grab her interest and hold it, concluding it was a so-so entry in a series that promises more.

The Indian Feminist, who has written about Scandinavian women detectives in the past, was likewise disappointed in the latest English translation in the Irene Huss series, The Fire Dance,  which she found slow paced and uninvolving.

The Fire DanceNancy O. had a different reading experience with this book, as she explains at The Crime Segments. She counts Tursten’s series as one she deeply enjoys, and a Scandinavian author who stays on her to-be-read list as others disappoint and drop off. Her verdict: “for those who enjoy solid police procedurals with a personal twist.” She still counts The Torso as her favorite in the series, being “edgy and solid.” This entry, while a solid police procedural, has a bit less edge.

Meanwhile, in paradise, Kerrie enjoyed reading the previous book in the series, The Golden Calf, which she felt had a nice balance of action, the personal lives of the series characters, and police procedure. She sums up the series as “basically police procedurals, planted in a modern world, with plenty of human interest.”

Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Leif G. W. Persson’s tome, Free Falling as if in a Dream, part of a series drawn from the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. Though it’s very long, he says it’s “gripping all the way through, as well as comic in some sections, through the ironic and simultaneously arrogant and self-deprecating voice of Johannson and the appearance of the ridiculous detective in many of the author’s books, Evert Bäckstrom.” However, he doesn’t hold out much hope for the US television adaptation that’s out next year. In his review, he looks at how this novel and Magdalen Nabb’s The Monster of Florence handle actual unsolved crimes, finding that both propose in their fiction plausible and disturbing solutions.

He also reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, and has a great description of its trajectory: “meditative rather than propulsive in terms of its pacing.” He considers the non-linear, poetic approach a plus, but knows it’s not for everyone: “For me, the moody pace works, but it could be frustrating for some readers.” This story brings the series’ Turku detective, who is looking into the murder of an unidentified woman, together with Helsinki investigators looking into a series of murders, with several narrative threads that, in the end, are knitted together.

Traveling to yet another Nordic country, Harper reviews Quentin Bates’s Chilled to the Bone, the latest in a series focusing on an Icelandic investigator, Gunna Gisladottir, and it in his opinion the best in the series. Among its virtues, “lots of ethical and literary ambiguity, a plot that moves rapidly along, and a cast of interesting characters.” Though he considers it less dark than Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, it’s both grim and entertaining.

At Euro Crime, Rich Westwood reviews Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, advising those looking for a new Scandinavian crime series to give it a try. The main plot, about man who endured horrific bullying as a child and the various violent ways in which his former schoolmates are being murdered, seems less compelling to him than a subplot about one of the police team who believes she’s been drugged and raped after a casual encounter and is determined to find justice. Westwood thinks the admixture of personal stories of the investigating officers will remind readers of Camilla Lackberg, mixing violent murder and cozy scenes of domestic life.

Also at Euro Crime, Michelle Peckham praises Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, the eleventh novel in the Erlendur series. We and Erlendur finally grapple with the detective’s Strange Shorespersonal quest to understand how he survived being lost in a storm that killed his brother. He approaches this quest by investigating another event, the disappearance of a young woman he learned about as a child. He probes the secrets and memories of those still alive who can help him put the pieces together. She calls the book powerful, emotional, and a beautiful exploration of how trauma can shape a life.

Amanda Gillies also uses the term “beautiful” for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, a novel that makes her fall in love with its prickly 82-year-old protagonist. Though it had a slow start for her, she pronounces the story about an American Jew haunted by his wartime experiences and his son’s death in Vietnam who sometimes is confused but manages to evade villains to save a small boy, “quite simply brilliant.” 

Mrs Peabody investigates some dystopian crime fiction, including Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which she finds “a gripping and quietly powerful read” which interrogates (as dystopias do) how people find meaning in situations where social structures have broken down and disaster is impending – in this case a poet searching for his missing wife, a journalist who has been writing about a Finnish eco-warrior who is taking violent action as climate change changes everything. Like Bernadette, she finds it a curiously uplifting read.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (also published as Calling Out for You), in which a naive Norwegian man impuslively travels to India to find a bride. When she arrives in Norway, she disappears. And Fossum’s quiet menace does the rest. As Jose Ignacio observes, “she is able to develop a particular atmosphere that can become frightening, using only elements taken from our daily lives.” Here, in this small Norwegian town, the well-meaning and wholly wholesome Scandinavians seem all too comfortable seeking silence when the subject of race enters the picture – and Fossum is not willing to leave us content with the knowledge that justice, in the end, will be done.

At the Independent, Barry Forshaw reviews Hans Koppel’s You’re Mine Now, which once again You're Mine Nowfeatures a man who hates women, though this time the woman confronted by a stalker is in a better position to fight back than in his previous novel (which Forshaw puts in a nutshell: “ritual sexual debasement and torture visited upon the luckless heroine, kept captive in a house where she could still see her distraught, unknowing family,” Yes, that’s wny I didn’t read it.) Koppel is apparently very good at ratcheting up tension, not so good at giving us any reason why we shouldn’t just give up on the human race altogether.

Keishon is avid about reading Asa Larsson’s mysteries, but found The Second Deadly Sin disappointing in the end. There are various timeframes and one becomes a bit of a slog. Office politics among the main characters is about as appealing as . . . well, office politics. And the pacing overall, she felt, was off in an over-long novel. She recommends her other books, though.

Norm, at Crime Scraps, reviews Mari Jungstedt’s The Double Silence, a new entry in the Anders Knutas series set on Visby Island. In addition to a crime, the story involves the lives of its ongoing cast of characters. While Norm recommends this series, he felt this story jumped too often from one point of view to another and often left him mystified in ways the author likely didn’t intend.

And now for something completely different, The Wall Street Journal reports that Jo Nebso has been signed on (along with other authors) to write prose versions of Shakespeare’s plays running up the bard’s 400th birthday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he will be taking on Macbeth and, in an interview, ponders whether he’ll make him a man vying for the position of police chief in a throughly corrupt city in the 1970s. That cauldron the weird sisters are stirring? It just might be brewing some kick-ass meth. The story is likely to keep relationships and themes but perhaps not much else. I must say I’m particularly intrigued about what Margaret Atwood might do with The Tempest. 

weird sisters and cauldron

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to be in northern California on February 2, Janet Rudolph invites you to join her and fellow fans for a lecture on Swedish crime fiction by my fellow Minnesotan, Jim Kaplan. He’s very wise to be somewhere other than in the Polar Vortex that keeps on turning the upper Midwest into an arctic knockoff.

p/review of Death of a Nightingale

I’ve added the P because this book won’t be on the market until November, but having read an advanced copy, I wanted to make sure that those who will be interested have this release on their radar. So here’s a preview-review.

DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
By Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Soho, November 2013

The prickly, principled, and not-very-personable nurse, Nina Borg, who featured in The Boy in the Suitcase and Invisible Murder appears again in a story that not only crosses borders (as Death of a Nightingalethe previous stories in this excellent Danish series did) but time periods. The authors have carried off this difficult task with brio. How two writers can put together the many pieces of such a tricky narrative suggests they’re very good at plotting and at the finer-grained finishing work of sanding and smoothing the edges so that they are imperceptible. They respect their readers enough to assume we can play a part in putting the pieces together, too.

Nina Borg has a penchant to put her patients’ welfare above her family’s needs, partly because she’s strongly and rather irritatingly principled but largely because she is emotionally unable to allow herself to connect with her husband and children; she inevitably lets them down so that they will reject her and she won’t have to confront her own vulnerability. As this story opens, she’s living apart from her family but seeking a bit of human company with a co-worker who is as messed up as she is.

But wait a moment: it actually starts with the transcript of an audio file. Someone is interviewing an elderly woman about something that happened in the past, something painful. She’s irritated by his eagerness to probe into the pain, but decides to tell it as a fairy tale, a grim and dark tale about jealousy, vengeance, and violence visited on entire generations of a family. It’s a fairy tale, she says, from Stalin land. This scene is brief, but is the first bit of a strand that threads its way through the novel.

There is another short scene before we get to Nina. A woman named Natasha is being taken by kind and boring Danish policeman to a building where eventually her fate will be decided and she will most likely be sent back to Ukraine, but not just yet. As she climbs out of the police car she overhears two men speaking her language and, with little warning and a lot of cunning, manages to attack her police escort and make a run for it.

Natasha’s daughter is staying at the Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross camp for asylum seekers and detainees awaiting deportation. She has been separated from her mother, who had put up with abuse from a Danish fiance until he made moves on her daughter, at which point she stuck him with a knife and landed herself in prison and her daughter in official limbo.Nattergalens død

Natasha wants her daughter with a visceral, mother-tigerish passion, but so does someone else, someone willing to do violence to the girl. Nina finds herself, once again, responsible for a child whose safety is imperiled and who cannot count on the state’s protection because her status as a non-citizen leaves cracks for her to slip through.

Another story unfolds in parallel to Natasha’s desperate efforts to be reunited with her daughter. It’s a disturbing, difficult story about a painful part of history we’d rather forget or measure out in safely dispassionate numbers: six million, maybe seven. Or perhaps that’s an exaggeration, maybe only 2.5 million or 3.3.

In this story, we don’t know about millions, we only know a few of these people, Ukrainians who have little to eat, who are instructed to shun those who have fallen afoul of Stalin’s rules and have been declared “former human beings,” a designation that renders them insignificant as they starve to death in their midst, outcasts for political reasons.

It would be so much easier if we were allowed to take a wide-angle view where people become small, mere specks in a set of numbers. We see it from the perspective of a girl who has known no other way of life, whose sister is a true believer, whose father gets caught up in the brutal machinery of power, whose family is torn apart while facing starvation. At times the story seems from centuries ago, or from one of the grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, where suffering is epic and retribution unabashedly brutal. There’s something folkloric, yet inescapably horrifying about these 20th century  experiences that force us to acknowledge on a human scale the suffering of some of the millions of Ukrainians who were condemned to starvation because of ideology.

In modern Denmark, an asthmatic child, a principled if neurotic nurse, a single-minded mother, a compromised Ukrainian journalist, a Danish law enforcement officer, and an old woman who posesses mythic properties all play out their roles in a conflict that has it origins in the human costs paid by two sisters during a cruel and epic tragedy that played out not so long ago and not so far away.

Kaaberbøl and Friis have taken as their series subject the ways that conflicts in European history reverberate in the present as the borders are erased and redrawn. They introduce us to people who experience prejudice, poverty, and desperation in a modern European state where people expect comfort and safety and are weary of being hospitable to strangers who bring trouble with them.

For all the painful reality this novel explores, it does so in a way that doesn’t lecture and doesn’t forget that stories matter. How can I put this? It seems wrong to say it’s entertaining or a pleasure to read, because it will make you sad and angry and ache with sympathy. Yet it’s a story that you will care about and the plot will propel you forward.

Perhaps the most accurate words for it are “thrilling” and “unforgettable.”  It’s a very good book.

recently reviewed . . .

It has been ages since I tallied up some of the new reviews appearing here and there. While I am too full of beginning-of-term tasks to do a full round-up, here are some recent ones.

Cold Hearts coverAt irresistible Targets, Michael Carlson reviews Gunnar Staalensen’s Cold Hearts, finding Varg Veum more like Ross Macdonald’s hero Lew Archer than Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The theme of the book has to do with Norwegian social institutions being ill-suited to addressing serious crime and the chilliness of many Norwegian’s inner souls.

He also reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, which sounds like a tour de force as Erlendur returns as protagonist. He comments that while many works of Scandinavian crime fiction concern the shift from a general social sense of responsibility to individualism, opening a gap through which crime can slip through, there is also a long tradition of exploring an individual “battling alone in a dark and cold world.” Which is a tradition our traditionalist Erlendur honors regularly.

At Euro Crime, Lynn Harvey does a brilliant job reviewing Savage Spring, the fourth book in Mons Kallentoft’s seasonally-themed police procedurals featuring the troubled Malin Fors. She finds it a compelling book, though the Alice-Sebold-like inclusion of the voices of the dead is something that might not suit every reader. (This time, it’s two children who have been killed in an explosion.) Fractured family relationships are examined keenly. As Harvy puts it, “like debris from the explosion in the square,fragments of parent/child relationships are examined throughout the book . . . [which] turn it from a police procedural into a much deeper story which is precisely what drew me to read Scandinavian crime fiction in the first place.”

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading wonders if she’s read too much crime fiction – or if Jussi Adler-Olsen is seeing just how far he can push cliches and readers’ patience with his latest, Redeption (apa A Conspiracy of Faith). Too much action, drama, and shallow psychological trauma; too many coincidences, too many pages! Though she enjoyed the first in the series, she may be giving this one up.

At International Noir Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews two books that take on the increasingly porous borders between Scandinavian nations and greater Europe. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis look at the present-day legacy of the painful history of Ukraine in a tightly-plotted, tense, and dark mystery, Death of a Nightingale. Less successful in his estimation is Strange Bird by Anna Johnsson, a newly-translated entry in the Maria Wern series which concerns an epidemic of bird flu that has entered Sweden via Belarus.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Finnish author Pekka Hiltunen’s Cold Courage, a pschologicalcold courage cover thriller set in London, the first in a series. Though a fairly compelling read, he found aspects of the plot (which concerns sexual violence, human trafficking, and the rise of far-right political parties) far-fetched and had some reservations about ethical issues addressed in the conclusion,

And at Crimepieces, Sarah reviews German author Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the latest in his Finnish-based series which she admires very much, calling it “a slow but reflective series” that may not be for everyone, but is from her perspective among the best in the genre.  She certainly makes me want to give it a try.

Looking forward to . . .

Fire DanceI just got the Soho fall catalog in the mail and two books are ones of particular interest to anyone who reads Scandinavian crime. The sixth book in the Irene Huss series, The Fire Dance, will be published in January 2014. It involves Huss in the investigation of the arson murder of a young dancer who, it turns out, had been involved in an earlier homicide case, when Huss was just starting out. The description ends with the intriguing question: “can a child be responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an adult?”

The other forthcoming book, due out in November, is the third book in the Nina Borg series from Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, Death of a Nightingale. In this novel, Nina Borg (the prickly Red Cross nurse with a social conscience and a death of a nightingaletalent for torpedoing her domestic life) wonders if a Ukrainian immigrant who has escaped the police who want to interrogate her in connection with her abusive Danish fiance’s murder could possibly be a killer – a question that grows urgent when the woman’s young daughter is abducted. The answer to that puzzle has its roots in the terrible famine in 1930s Ukraine. I remember the authors speaking about this book and the research it involved when they were in Minnesota last fall.

 

I’m looking forward to both books.

An Interview with Jussi Adler-Olsen

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There was a great turn-out for Jussi Adler-Olsen’s stop at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis this weekend. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and he graciously allowed me to record it all. What follows is a more or less accurate transcript.

You’ve written a lot of books, including two books on Groucho Marx, an encyclopedia of cartoons, and three thrillers, one about two British pilots who landed behind enemy lines in World War II Germany, one about a Dutch character who goes to Indonesia –

Yes, made in 2000, one year before nine-eleven, and the subject was about an airplane falling into a high tower and distributing anthrax letters. [expressions of awe and astonishment from the audience]

And you wrote one about an American president –

Yes, this one – it could be today it was published. It’s very controversial.

So you have a crystal ball. And now you have started the Department Q books. What led you start writing a police procedural series set in Denmark?

Ah, many things. First of all, a Danish film producer called me and asked me if I wrote the best books in Denmark, and I said “certainly, yes, I do.” [audience laughter] He said “I would like you to do the follow-ups to the old Sjowall and Wahloo series. He asked me to do the follow-ups to them because he hated to work with Swedish people, and I understood him so perfectly. [more audience laughter] So I came to this company and he said to me, “I would like you to do police stories.” And I said “I’m not interested. I hope you would make grand thrillers with, you know, supertankers being smashed in the open sea . . . you can’t afford what I’m doing.”  “Well, but I can see you are interested” – but I wasn’t. He didn’t know the difference between a crime story and a thriller. You do, of course. Crime stories, solving a crime and that’s – pfah! – but a thriller, trying to prevent a crime from happening – that’s another thing, then you are turning the pages quicker. I like the old stories, old stories, real stories, the bible: did Abraham kill Isaac? The Red Sea, did he cross it? So these are the real stories, like Victor Hugo and The Count of Monte Cristo – we want to know the end. In Denmark, you have to work with specific regions and specific types of crimes, and I said no. I wanted to be free. I’d had great success with the first three novels, bestsellers all over Europe, so why should I?

Anyway, I wondered “could you do this? Could you be free and still do this? So I invented a police officer who didn’t care, pardon my French, a shit about being fired. So he’s doing whatever he likes, and there’s the story. He sits in the cellar being lazy, smokes cigarettes, everything I would like to do. But I don’t allow him to do that very long because there’s another guy, Assad – well, I guess I answered your question.

Yes. So it took that to get you to stay home in Denmark.

It’s true, because the reviewers, everyone was so annoyed that nothing happened in Denmark and no Danish characters at all in my books. I wanted to go to America. I started film in university and wanted to make a Hollywood movie with Daniel Day Lewis and Ralph Fiennes in the two parts of the pilots [in his first thriller], I wanted that – but in Hollywood, with CinemaScope, you know, everything. It didn’t happen, but it will, I know it will.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Department Q books in film, too.

They are going to be. The first one will come out in the autumn, [Here we had some top-secret off-the-record discussion of other film possibilities. My lips are sealed.]

Your father worked as a psychiatrist and you and your sisters lived in hospitals around Denmark.

Yes. That’s why . . . [audience laughter]

So how did that influence your career as a writer?

Well . . . in 1955 I was five years old. There psychopharmica [pharmacological treatments for mental illness] hadn’t entered the world. So you could strap down people, you could give them shock treatment and stuff like that. It dropped them totally down, but they couldn’t come back to reality. So therefore they were in cages. In the summertime, the women here, the men over there – screaming and spitting at us. And my father said “you must realize, those people were like you, once.” And that made a big impression on me. I learned a lot about empathy for weird and odd people. You should see my friends, for instance. They are very odd. I had a shop like this with comics – you can imagine. My friends are like you! [audience laughter]

In 1956 we moved to another hospital and there they had psychopharmica. We had a very nice patient there. He wasn’t that nice, actually, because he killed his wife. My father said, to undramatize it, “you know, they fought like dog and cat. He was a dog, and he won in the end.” He wasn’t insane before, but he became insane after the murder, Having psychopharmica after ten years in the hospital, he came sort of back to normal. This person was called “Mørck .” Do you know what “mørck ” means in Danish? Dark. This is a coincidence, but I learned a lot from him because in him I could see good and evil very well combined, and I see that, in fact, in every person. So I learned empathy, i learned every aspect of human beings.

My best friend . . . he was very tall. A very strong man who had killed a man with one blow. I was impressed by that. He was my body guard in one of the hospitals. I was five or six and I could walk around like this [he holds his arm up, as if holding the hand of a giant] and no one would interfere. I learned a lot. I learned to be afraid of authority. I wasn’t afraid of the patients, but the doctors – they were scary. The ones with rubber stuff and pills and could press the button and not all of them in the fifties had empathy at all. My father, he had it, and I learned a lot from him.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Department Q series? There are three now in English. Are there more to come?

Yes, I am writing number six now,  This started as an experiment. First of all, could I find a way to do what he wanted, this producer, without working together with him. (I never saw him again, actually). Then I thought, maybe I should do the longest story ever made in the world, 5,000 pages. I know people here would say “oh, Raymond Chandler, he wrote that many books,” but we’re talking about one story with one plot line for each main character, being well combined and stretched – and we’re not talking about being divorced or having children, Real stories. Those were the first I made, the stories of Carl Mørck, Assad and Rose. Every book is one chapter, every book is part of the dramatic curve, and this one, number three, it’s a little up; the next one is a little down.

You know the first one, that’s a platform, right? Therefore the case must be very simple: the woman in the cage. Number two, there you can show the borderlines of how violent you can be, It must be number two. If you’re going to write [he’s confiding in the audience, now], number two must be the violent one. No splatter – no, no.  Number six is hard, because the stories are coming to an end. Number seven, you have the story of Rose. Rose is two-dimensional, we are not in her head, so we have to wait for number seven, and eight is Assad. [Much audience commotion: “we have to wait until number eight?!”] Oh, you know what’s going to happen! And then number nine, it’s the story of Carl, and then number ten is fireworks. [From the audience: “Are they all going to live through it?”] Shhh! Are you someone who reads the ending first? Okay, I’m not going to tell, and I’m the only person in the world who knows, so if I’m doing a Stieg Larsson . . . [he shrugs; audience laughter] We have the storylines put in a safe in Denmark and I’ve already appointed my successor if something should happen to me, like being shot here in Minneapolis or something.

Also sometimes known as “muderapolis” . . . 

Murderapolis? Oh, it’s only the tenth murder, I think. We can do much better in Denmark.

There’s a lot of Scandinavian heritage here, so –

And they’re the ones killing each other, yeah? You know, this is Viking blood [pointing to himself]; this is a Dane. The Swedes? Phht. The Norwegians? [shakes his head] It’s us! We own all the stuff there. And that’s why we’re such good storytellers. Because we have nothing to do. And that’s the same for Wallander, you know, and Jo Nesbo and all. We had nothing to do, it’s simple. The Vikings, they’re good at murders, they killed people just to keep warm.

Some really terrible things happen to people in your books. When I started the first one I thought, Oh my god, where are we going with this? A woman in captivity, and it’s a very long book – but they’re also very funny.

We are funny in Denmark. That’s the difference between Swedes and Danes. The Swedes, they are so formal on the outside. I am a very big success in Europe, most of all in Germany. And I thought “Germans, that’s a problem.” Because how can you enter that formal society, with Herr Professor and Zie and Doktor, even if they were acquainted for many, many years. But I found out that inside they were like Danes in disguise. That’s not the same with Swedes. You read Henning Mankell, that’s funny?  And the Norwegians, they’re just crazy. Jo Nesbo – nice guy, but crazy. No, he’s sweet.

Hakan Nesser –

He’s Swedish.

I know, but he’s funny.

No. [there is absolutely no room for debate in his voice.] I met him again at Frankfurt last autumn. We had always been sitting down. This time he rose to embrace me. And he rose and rose and rose . . . He’s like [indicates a giant size].

This mix of humor and darkness, how do you combine them? How do you keep it from being violence as entertainment? Is there a way to balance that?

Yes, there’s a way to balance everything. I am a former publisher. I was a publisher at the biggest publishing company in Scandinavia, and I’ve been everything in this business, even a bookseller and a printer, an editor and a publisher. Do you know what I know? Readers. They are wiser than most authors think. They are much cleverer and you have been reading much more than the authors. So you have to respect that you want specific stuff to happen in specific places, but not too much of it. The first mantra of mine is what I call “the missing voice.” If you see a painting, most of them are lousy to be frank, but if you melt into it, then there’s a missing voice. If you listen to music – I love classical music. If you listen to Beethoven, my  god, after two hours you are tired. It’s good, but overproduced. Every line in the composition is there. But Mozart, he took two or three voices out, and he knew which. Those are the voices you hum, and you can listen to him for hours and hours. In stories, in literature, that’s you. That means to treat the fantasy of the reader, to treat certain elements, like being scared, sorrow, laughing, The first goal of an author should be to respect the readers.

I write in a system you all know. WordPerfect 5.1. [audience laughter] It’s quite old. I know every other system, but WordPerfect 5.1, you don’t have to move the mouse, so therefore you don’t lose your concentration, just write, write, write, and ten hours – that’s it. Blue screen and white letters, you can do that forever. In Word, you write and after ten minute it looks marvelous. “This is a book I made, fantastic!” I know mine is shit. I meet with other authors to read from our work, and I can’t be hurt because know mine is shit, but they are hurt because they don’t know theirs is, too. The difference between me and them is that I am changing, changing, changing and they are not. Then I convert it to Word, and suddenly I see it in another way. I throw a lot over the shoulder. The third time I convert it to PDF, and it looks like a book. And I try to imagine you, the reader, lying in bed (because you are) and you are reading, and after five minutes your head is falling down, and I put in such a short sentence you can read it and then you can take one more half page and . . .  you’re doing it again and again. Sometimes its very necessary to use humor and sometimes you just must be scared. I can so clearly see what is necessary when I’m reading it in PDF.

Carl Mørck: why did you choose that person for a hero? He sits around, he puts his feet on the table, he doesn’t want to do any work.

No. He’s totally free to do nothing.

So, he’s liberated?

He’s liberated. He’s liberated from the standards of the police story, right? I didn’t know of cold cases when I wrote this. Later on, I found out there are 2, 450 series about cold cases. I didn’t know, actually. I never read thrillers and crime stories anymore. I haven’t done that for ten years, so I know nothing. I’m just scared of being influenced. I want to feel original. We are making a main character and a sidekick. Do you know who’s Watson and Sherlock Holmes here? [audience laughter] Because they don’t know. Assad is very skilled and has a lot of secrets, and Carl does as well, so the interaction between them can be quite a lot, but it’s not enough. After a few books, every couple like that, they become stereotypical. So therefore I had to place secrets so that they can use different parts of their personalities to be different to each other. But I knew this wasn’t enough. We needed something totally chaotic – and that’s Rose. Rose is pure anarchy. With those three persons, it’s endless, the possibility of interactions between them, and that’s what I wanted. So – and Carl, of course, is a combination  of this insane person and this fantastic writer – me, called Carl Waldemar Jussi Adler- Olsen, this is my real name – very short and clear. The part  of me in Carl is, of course, very obvious. He’s humorous, nice . . . no. [laughter]. He came from William H. Gaines. Do you remember him? Mad magazine? The owner himself? He was a very dear friend of mine, because I published every magazine in Scandinavia including Mad magazine and he said once – well, he said many things. He said once, “do you want to have a really nice and lucky life? Please buy 400 pairs of socks that are the same. Then you don’t have to look for the one that’s missing.” He said to me, “Jussi, please remember ‘the shadow knows.'” It was made by Sergio Aragonas and it was a little comic strip at the side of the pages and [he acts out] “Oh, Barbara, how nice to see you” but the shadow knows [he acts out a crazed attack]. And this Carl. He’s so frank, It’s not very practical for the boss, but he doesn’t care. That’s me. Do you know how I invented Assad, by the way?

No,  I was going to ask.

I knew him, but I knew there was something missing. Who is he, actually, I can give you a tip. If you really want to know a person, have a single sentence that tells everything about him.  I have this sentence from an American translator. His name is Steve Schein. He lives in Denmark and has been there many years. He doesn’t translate my books, but he helps with the translations. I said to him “Steve, I have missed you. I think of you all the time.” And he said (in his San Francisco accent) “What a coincidence. I also am always thinking of me.” [laughter] So, take this sentence and think of Assad. He doesn’t think so much of himself, but he’s quite unexpected. And then Steve said another thing that characterizes Assad quite well. I said “How are you, Steve?” and he said “Actually, I’m quite fine. But that will pass, I’m sure.”

Assad is a very cheerful person, he’s always eager to please –

He makes Carl think he’s eager to please.

Ah. He’s a hard worker, and he’s always cooking odd-smelling food. And he’s from the Middle East –

Maybe.

He’s not Danish born.

Who knows?

He’s a man of mystery.

That’s true.

But he doesn’t appear that way. He seems very, he’s always so pleasant, cooking some food or “I made some tea; here, have some.” But every now and then he comes up with something amazingly intelligent.

He’s not dumb.

No, he isn’t, but in some ways he’s a stereotypical immigrant figure who’s Danish isn’t terribly good, who makes funny mistakes, who drives badly. How do Danes respond to this character as an immigrant? 

They love him completely. They took him so much to heart. Also, the immigrants. “Oh, I’m so much like Assad.” This year in Frankfurt [the international book fair] two tall Egyptians surrounded me like a sandwich. I was a little hesitant about that because being published in Muslim countries can sometimes be a little bit problematic when one of your main characters is named Hafez el Assad. [pause, followed by audience laughter] I said “you know, you don’t know why he’s called that, and you will learn later on, but if you must, you can call him something else in Egypt. And they said “oh, we already have reflected about that, and we’ve decided we are going to call him Mubarak.” I didn’t answer. I escaped.

A lot of people have immigrated to the Scandinavian countries, and there are tensions – 

We have a problem. It’s not like in the United States where anyone can come but they must take care of themselves. In Denmark  we have a health care system – I am playing 68 percent in tax myself – please clap – and that means anyone comes to our country and we will help them in any way. If they are unemployed they will get support and if they are sick, we will get them well again. It’s very, very expensive. Nowadays, I feel so fantastically happy about the immigration because suddenly Denmark is a little more colorful than it used to be. We are the Latinos of Scandinavia in Denmark. We are the ones who can tap dance and do the flamenco. We perhaps didn’t need the color, but . . .

There is a big gap in Denmark now, politically, disagreements. People are shouting over this gap, and I realize – and this is why I use humor so often. You know how when you are discussing with your family and suddenly your finger is raised, right? Then they don’t listen anymore. So I don’t point fingers. I tried to make a little bridge across this gap of laughter. And it worked. Now we can discuss it a little better.

Should we read a bit from your new book?

[Here I read the first paragraphs in English. “This is very close to Fifty Shades, isn’t it?” he joked before picking up the Danish version. “Now you are going to hear a very old language. Lots of words in English are Danish.  It’s a German language, or so they say. I’m very popular in Germany, but I try to explain, “listen here, this is the original German.” He thumped his book. “To prove it to you, it’s without grammar. No grammar in this language at all.”  He began to read, then paused. “Listen to those nice vowels. I’m sorry for you that you don’t have them anymore.” He came to a recognizable word in the passage: “shit!” and added, “a good Danish word.” He asked if anyone in the audience was Danish and had a short conversation with a woman in Danish before saying “then I have to take a little care.” He added, “It’s very important to know that you can be more scary in other languages. If you take the first sentence of the first book . . .” He recited it in Danish. “Now in Norwegian.” He read it again, emphasizing the rising and falling pitch characteristic of Norwegian. “It doesn’t work! But in German . . . ” He recited it, playing up the sinister sibilants. “Now you know why I’m a great success in Germany.”]

A Conspiracy of Faith involves people with fundamentalist religious beliefs, involved in sects and very deeply involved in religion, and I’ve noticed that quite a few writers from Scandinavia have an interest in fundamentalist religion such as Asa Larsson, Anne Holt, Camilla Lackberg’s Preacher; one of the killers in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bible-thumping serial killer. Yet my sense is that Scandinavian countries on the whole are fairly secular societies compared to the United States. Why did you decide to bring religion into this book? 

It’s not. It’s about misuse of power and it is only by coincidence it is this setting, In my opinion, people can believe in what they want. If they aren’t proselytizing me, please do. No, this is about misuse of power. And a funny thing about this, it could have been Microsoft, for instance, Apple. Whatever company we are talking about, having power. Because if you have power in a sect or in a company, then you can use the power in the company itself or in the outside world. But what’s interesting in my book, this guy is using the power of the company against itself. That’s like judo, right? That was what I wanted to describe. Most of the sects in the story doesn’t exist, and I’m so sad I used the term “Jehovah’s Witnesses” because I have no problem with them, no problem. So that was a mistake of mine. I admit it. They should have been “the Jehovah’s Funny Guys” or something like that, something different anyway. The Mother Church in this book, it’s actually the Father Church in Denmark – clever choice, you couldn’t recognize that, eh? So I’m not aiming at that specific stuff.

It’s more someone who knows that culture being able to get inside it to do mischief. 

Yes, that’s a theme.

Scandinavian crime fiction, which I gather you have not read – 

No. Not recently.

It’s usually thought of as being gloomy, with glum detectives . . . 

That’s Henning Mankell.

Okay, that’s Swedes. But also serious about social issues. 

Well, we have social issues. Compared to many other countries, we have some. Political and social topics being blended with very fine dialogue and humor we learned from Sjowall and Wahloo. They taught us in the seventies that this combination is usable, very, very fantastic. The fifth book I wrote, it’s called The Marco Effect, the reviewers said “well, it’s gorgeous, this book, but it’s actually Oliver Twist, with Fagin and everyone. This is down the line of literature, what you’re doing, combining The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, he has to know what happened and who’s following him and so forth. It’s the same stuff. Real literature, that’s what you’re reading, not the kind like Hemingway – oh, sorry, sorry! I didn’t say that.

But in a way, this makes sense because what you are saying is that these are the big nineteenth century novels –

Yes, classical novels being converted into WordPerfect 5.1.

Some people have said the social novel of the nineteenth century has become the crime novel of the twentieth century. 

Yes, it’s so true.

So you can do this entertaining engagement with social questions. 

The fantastic thing about a thriller is that you can write about everything. You can do whatever you like, and therefore I prefer it. John Irving is a favorite writer of mine. He wrote The Cider House Rules. It’s a good thriller, yeah? Who raped whom and what is going to happen in the end? Even Forrest Gump, that’s a thriller. [audience laughter]

You were involved in publishing before you started the writing part of your career. Why do you suppose the British and the American titles are so totally different? 

Like always, the British and the American publishers think they are much wiser than the other. The Keeper of Lost Causes – the original title was The Woman in the Cage. It’s a boring title, they said quite openly. Thank you.

And the British title is Mercy. 

Yes, what a swell title. I found more than twenty books with the title Mercy, ten movies, and a lot of lyrics. Did they listen at Penguin? No. They want to have one word titles in Britain these days, and in Germany. Here in America you just want to have literary titles. How can you remember after ten books what is what? The second book in Danish is called The Pheasant Killers.  And what is that? It’s a symbol of the ruling class – killing for fun. Number three – yes, I know there’s a novel called A Message in a Bottle, but mine was called A Message in a Bottle from P. That’s better. But it’s called A Conspiracy of Faith. I think they are good titles, anyway, though I can’t remember what’s what.

I was wondering, since you have this publishing background, what do you think about the current state of publishing, what the future holds? 

Oh, it’s so problematic. I am fighting so much for what it takes to survive a few decades more. I’m fighting mostly for the bookshops in Denmark and Germany. In Denmark, we don’t have fixed prices. That means everyone can compete on prices, and the supermarkets, they love people to come in and buy my books. Even though they lose money on them, they love people to come in, and that means in the end that bookshops in Denmark will disappear. I have fought hard for fixed prices, and I think I am going to lose the battle. Then there’s the e-books. I don’t mind the e-books, it’s okay, but it’s a little problematic for the booksellers to sell e-books and if it hadn’t been for the booksellers, I wouldn’t be here today. My first book, The Alphabet House, the first edition sold 1,800 copies. That’s very good in Danish, but it’s not very good for survival. They hand sold it, mouth by mouth, slowly, and suddenly there was an audience there that I could live from. So we need the booksellers very much. Walking around, I signed a lot of books lately. Barnes and Nobles, they are totally empty. Not here in Minneapolis, but in the other cities. No one. “Oh, you are coming here for signing. Take two copies of this and one of that. That’s all we have.” And I understand they can’t have stock. I fear very much for the chains. It’s good for you, my dear Gary [points to Gary Shulze, who with Pat Frovarp owns Once Upon a Crime], but it’s not good for small authors. I can’t live without reading the small authors. I’m not reading crime and thrillers, but I’m reading a lot of absurd literature, and there is a lot of absurd literature in the world.

And then the publishing houses. They are a little arrogant. They believe that they can survive without the booksellers. But we can survive, we bestselling authors, without the publishers. J. K. Rowling, she did it. She took away a lot of sales from the publisher who helped her up. I’m never deserting the ones who helped me up and I’m fighting very heavily for that, so I’m trying in the different unions in Denmark to let them speak a little better to each other and to find solutions with consensus, and that means totally new solutions. Fixed prices for a period of time. And I tried even to say that there must be a gap between the printed book and the e-book, three or four months, to keep a little space for the booksellers of the printed books. It was in Germany I tried that. I’m selling 1.3 million of each book in Germany and 300,000 e-books, so I took a chance, and within three days I had many, many emails saying “you are disloyal to your readers and we hate you for that. We don’t want to read you anymore. We are not waiting. That’s discrimination.” And they are right, it is discrimination. And then they phoned me from the publishing house to say the book had been scanned and there were 400,000 downloads within four days, so I had to say “okay, I understand the message.” So now it’s like it was before. It’s very, very difficult. But then you are there, you lovely people who buy the books and pass the word.

[A question from the audience: “How do you feel about the people who get the book from the library and then tell everyone to get it?”] 

I love them. Libraries, that’s a blessing. So if we have the libraries, that’s all right.

The interview was followed by some excellent questions from the audience, stories from Alder-Olsen about growing up on hospital grounds and being able to peer through the basement windows with his friend Erling to watch autopsies, his father sending them out to look for a missing patient who was suicidal and his friend finding him by walking into the dangling feet of the hanged man. (“That’s my daddy!”)  In response to a question, Adler-Olsen said that it was a good idea to start the series with the first book, but after that it didn’t matter – until book four. Though it was clear from the questions that many members of the audience were well up on the stories and had filled in some of the gaps about Assad’s background, Adler-Olsen closed by indicating that he has things up his sleeve that will slowly be revealed. His final word on that subject was “Hah!”

All in all, it was a delightful evening with an author who is entertaining and funny and sometimes a bit serious – just like his books.

jussi and me