An Interview with Vidar Sundstøl

When the Norwegian author of the Minnesota Trilogy was in the U.S. as the third book was released, I was lucky enough to ask him some questions at my favorite bookstore, Once Upon a Crime, as I once did with Jussi Adler-Olsen. Here are my notes from that conversation.

Minnesota Triology

Can you tell us about yourself and your writing career? How did you come to write the Minnesota Trilogy?

The Minnesota Trilogy started because I met a woman and I liked her and she, for some reason, liked me and she turned out to be American, so I moved to the States. I found myself living in Kentucky. My wife was applying for jobs all across the country. She is a biologist . She applied for jobs with the forest service and got a job offer in the northeast corner of Minnesota on the north shore, Superior National Forest, at the Tofte ranger station. So I ended up among the Norwegian

Tofte ranger station

Tofte ranger station built in the 1930s, now used for seasonal housing. Photo courtesy of the National Forest Service.

Americans. When I came up there, it was very tempting for me as a Norwegian writer. I came across something that was both very familiar and very exotic. There were several things I recognized very well from Norway, not just names but the way of thinking, the way of speaking – or not speaking. It was on the other side of the globe, and there were the Ojibwe people and the history of the French fur traders. There were a lot of things going on, so I felt very early on that I wanted to write something substantial.

For several years I had been wanting to write a crime novel that would include more than just a plot – who killed Mr. X. I wanted to write a crime story that includes the whole community and the history of the community and the landscape, and nature, the bonds between the people and the landscape. Living on the North Shore I realized I had the perfect setting.

On the fourth of July, 2004, my wife and I drove up to Canada. We drove along the shore on highway 61 going to Thunder Bay to buy . . . I don’t know what. Prescription drugs. Canadian bacon. On the way we passed this little motel called The Whispering Pines and my wife said “doesn’t that look like the murder scene from a mystery?” Death at Whispering Pines. We started musing just for fun about who might have gotten

Lake Superior

photo of Lake Superior courtesy of fritzmb

killed there. Perhaps a Norwegian tourist who had come to visit his distant cousins and had been killed in some eccentric Norwegian-American way – poisoned by lutefisk or something, And then we started to imagine what kind of policeman might start to investigate the murder on the North Shore. We based these musings on our own experience with a male of the North Shore, so to speak, and we went on doing this every time we went on a road trip, which we did quite often because my wife had never lived in Minnesota. We explored the state and every time we ran out of something to talk about we picked up the thread and began talking about this policeman again and asked each other questions. Would he be married? Divorced? Does he have children? What does he like, does he hate, what kind of food does he eat, does he drink, does he smoke? And not least, what would his name be? That sounds like a simple thing, but it took a long time. A colleague of my wife’s had a cute little boy, four or five years old. When heard his name was Lance I thought: that’s his name – Lance Hansen.

After a year or so of talking about this shadowy character we had built a whole world around him, his relatives, his background story, his family’s immigration from Norway. I could pretty much start writing when I came back to Norway. My wife did most of the work, though I did write the books. That was my first crime story.

photo of the author courtesy of Shea Sundstøl

All three books follow “forest cop” Lance Hansen’s determination to solve two crimes – first, the murder of a Norwegian tourist, bludgeoned to death while camping on the shore of Lake Superior, and the other the possible murder of Swamper Caribou in the late 19th century. Most mysteries are self-contained. Readers have a sense of resolution by the end of a book, but this is really a trilogy. Why did you decide to tell these stories in a trilogy rather than as a single big fat mystery?

I could have written it as one big fat mystery, but then I really wanted . . . the middle book is very different. It’s very short, it’s intense, and it takes place over one or two days, and I really wanted to do that, I think the crime genre needs more than any other genre to be challenged on the narrative structure. Obviously there are some ground rules you have to follow when you write about crime, but within that framework you can do quite a lot, things that people haven’t come up with before. So it was partly that I wanted to do something a little bit different but mostly because when I started thinking about this story up on the North Shore it crystallized that way, with a very intense hunting scene in the middle of everything. I could have sold more books and made more money if I had written a more traditional trilogy. I think a lot of people thought when they opened the second book, “what on earth is this?”

Can you tell us about the titles of the three books – how did you decided on them; what do they mean?

The Land of Dreams – it was the land of dreams to immigrants, and it was the land of dreams in the sense that it was once inhabited by the Ojibwe whose culture is very much focused on the interpretation of dreams. And also when I started thinking about this, I thought I would create a very masculine policeman in a blue collar, rural environment, but I wanted to give him some kind of handicap, one that he couldn’t speak about to others. It struck me that if he couldn’t dream, he couldn’t complain to his colleagues about it. They would ridicule him. So he longs to dream again. Only the Dead (In Norwegian “the dead” in plural) I wanted to send this man through the valley of death. The middle book is the lowest point of this valley of death.  It’s also the ice-cold heart of the whole trilogy. The third book, The Ravens – I couldn’t come up with a title. We had a competition at the publisher’s and people were writing long lists of titles. At the end I just had to call it something. There are quite a few ravens in the book, and it sounds gothic.

Both murders have intimate family connections for Lance. There are some real tensions in this family – particularly between Lance and Andy – but also a kind of fierce connection and protectiveness. Can you talk a bit about these relationships and how they shape the story?

It’s kind of a Cain and Abel story. I have two brothers and I have good relationships with both of them. I don’t go hunting with them, though.

You have to remember that I’m Norwegian, so I know a lot about the law of silence, there are certain things you don’t speak about, which also goes for a lot of Norwegian Americans. That’s the bad side of the heritage. The reason I felt capable of portraying people on the North Shore – I only lived there for two years and I didn’t really speak to too many people because, well, they don’t speak much. So I sat indoors writing other books, but I had this feeling that I knew who they were intuitively, that these were my people. I know the types, I know why they don’t speak, what they aren’t saying. I could just has well have written the book about Norway, where I come from. My family has never been as burdened as this family, but here is the same dynamic of covering up things, not talking about things and then finally, one day, everything unravels because of it. That combined with a strong sense of family loyalty can make the knot very hard, very tight.

At one point in The Ravens, Lance thinks, “Deciding not say anything was always the preferred solution to every problem.” Lance has become almost a Hamlet figure. He’s obsessed and feels compelled to confront his brother with his suspicions, but he faces paralyzing dread. He’s afraid of his brother, but seems more afraid of the shame that his family will experience. What’s going on with Lance?

The thing is that it’s through this introspection that he manages to solve the case. That was something I wanted to do, write a murder mystery and portray a man in his full inner life. His life is like a shipwreck when it starts. By the end he has a chance to start anew.

The violence in these books, while not gruesome by standards of the genre, is quite shocking in part because it seems to come out of some primitive part of people who feel a strange sense of release as they bludgeon someone to bits. Can you talk a bit about writing those scenes and what you think about graphic violence in crime fiction?

When I decided to write this murder mystery I wanted to have just one murder (though there is also one in the past). That’s one too many. It’s a tragedy, and I wanted to keep the focus on what a complete tragedy it is, not just for the one who dies but for everybody who was in the magnetic field around that murder and get their lives turned upside down. I’m not going to turn it into entertainment at all. The violence in these books is just in a couple of places, but I describe the violence in the same way that I would try to describe like a . . . like a love scene (which is very difficult to write, a physical love scene. If you want to make a fool of yourself, just write a sex scene).

If you want to do it, you have to do it right and in such a way that it actually imitates real violence, that a little bit of the original real life intensity is captured instead of just painting and painting and turning it into pornography. I wanted to do the same thing with these very few scenes of violence, that it’s really what it looks like and how it feels. Something that is very typical for violence – it’s over very soon, but afterwards is so completely shocking. You have to write it in such a way that the reader doesn’t get all caught up in the graphic descriptions of blood and gore but afterwards thinks, “ugh, what is this? It feels really unpleasant.” Because it does feel unpleasant.

There’s also a sense of sympathy for that experience in that Lance hits a cat with his car and has to kill the badly injured animal, and by putting him in that position it almost humanizes that experience.

Yes, and it also says something about how stressed he is and what kind of pressure he is under. My wife didn’t like it. My wife is very fond of cats.

The setting of these books is a huge factor – both the language you use to describe the North Shore and the lake, but also the mood and the presence of the lake in the story. What drew you to the setting and how does the lake in particular figure in the trilogy?

I remember when we first went to Minnesota, driving up from Lexington Kentucky. There’s a certain point when you come over the hill to Duluth and you see the whole expanse of the lake. It was such a surprise. I guess I’m sensitive to landscape, really tuned into that frequency, so it really stuck with me. In a way it started there – not the idea of a murder mystery, but that as I writer I wanted to write something huge and substantial about it. The whole structure, the form of this trilogy – so long, so slow – I wanted the whole thing to reflect the lake, this Minnesota landscape. You can’t have a lot of guys shooting with machine guns – well, you could, but it doesn’t suit the landscape. It’s like putting on a completely wrong dress or suit. The lake plays a significant role both on the surface of the text but also when you come to the structure of the trilogy.

And the interior life of Lance, because the lake plays such a role in his imagination and his confronting the unknown or what’s missing inside of him.

It becomes sort of – I never thought of it as symbol of anything, but I was very well aware of it as something you could put anything into (literally!).

One of the family secrets that Lance uncovers is that he has some Ojibwa ancestry. That family history that he cares so much about turns out to be full of holes and mistakes. The intersection of indigenous culture and European immigrants comes up again and again. What drew you to this combination of cultures?

When I decided to write something from the North Shore, I knew that it would include the Norwegian-Swedish immigration and the local history. Then I started to read the history of the area and didn’t have to read many pages before realizing the Ojibwe people have been there all the time and are still here and it would feel wrong for the project if I took a big piece of reality and brushed it under the carpet in the Norwegian way.

Ojibwe family, 1900

Ojibwe family circa 1900, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

I started to read a lot of Ojibwe mythology and folk tales, and I since I didn’t know any Ojibwes I wondered how to open a gateway. I came up with the character of Willie Dupree, an elder who had been a postman. I modeled him after my maternal grandfather. I grew up in the countryside of Telemark (a southern Norwegian county) and my mother’s family had always been closely connected to the forest. My maternal grandfather owned some forest land and had worked in the woods. I spent evenings with him listening to stories from his days as a logger and a hunter. Sometimes he would tell a story he’d told ten times before. He had the same relationship to the forest as a fisherman has to the ocean. I realized that might also be true for an old Ojibwe. So I based him on my grandfather and gave him a different set of stories. I sure my grandfather would have loved being portrayed this way.

Did you start writing the first book while you lived in the states?

No, in Norway. I was aware that I needed a certain distance to it. Sometimes as a writer reality gets in the way of the writing, so I knew the right time would be as soon as I was back in Norway when everything was fresh in my memory but I had the Atlantic ocean between me and the actual place. That way it became about my memories more than about the actual North Shore. I think that was perhaps one of the ways the whole trilogy got a sort of dreamy air to it. The North Shore was a place I really liked, and I missed it for several years, so it’s also a labor of love, a way to process the fact that I really missed it.

I had recently been on the North Shore before reading Land of Dreams and enjoyed encountering recognizable places and people. That’s fun for people here.  

That makes me very happy. That’s probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received as a writer is to meet people who say you got all these things – not just the geography.  I met when I spoke at the American Swedish Institute I met a man who lived on the North Shore. Actually, his brother worked with my wife; it’s a little world. He said “you are the first one who has captured in words the eccentricity of the North Shore communities.” It was an enormous compliment to me and I thought that was probably the word for the trilogy – eccentric.

You had a terrific translator for this series, Tiina Nunnelly. Can you tell us a bit about the process of working with a translator? Were the books translated before the University of Minnesota press got involved?

The press got a sample translation, probably done by Tiina. When she had translated the first book I got an email from my editor at the press and he asked if I wanted to read through the whole manuscript. I’m a lazy person, so I try to find strategies to not have to work too much. I knew there was one page in the manuscript, where Lance has gone down to the lake the night after the murder. He stands there he looks at the lake, and there’s a description of the moonlight on the water and the rippling surface and how the moonlight is being broken up into many little pieces, and I knew that if she could translated that both to maintain the content but also the musicality and the flow of it . . . I think it was better, actually, than the original Norwegian!

How have Norwegian readers responded to the trilogy and has it differed from the ways Americans have responded?

It was very well received in Norway –

The Land of Dreams received the Riverton Prize, the most prestigious crime fiction prize in Norway.

So people liked them a lot but the big difference for Norwegians is that the environment is exotic. Everybody knows about Norwegian Americans. A majority of Norwegians have distant relatives here and a lot have kids who are studying here. There are a lot of bonds between the two peoples, but they found it pretty eccentric and exotic. But they really loved it. Here people feel that I am writing more about them, that’s the big difference. I must say I really enjoy talking to readers here. It’s something like I’m bringing this story about Lance home. On so many levels it means so much to me, both professionally but even more so personally, really. The only sad thing is that this is the last book, so probably the last chance I have to come here and talk to people.

What are you working on now?

I published a thriller in 2013, an archaeology thriller that takes place in Italy and Egypt, and now I’ve just finished a novel that will be out in August or September. It’s the first in a series. This time there will be a closed case in each one, but it won’t be set on the North Shore because I can’t afford to got here every time I want to check out something. So it’s set in Telemark, my home in Norway, which has a certain standing in Norwegian cultural history. It’s the heartland of everything that’s core Norwegian: the majority of Norwegian folklore and folk music and superstitions, such as the belief in little people. I’m taking that mythological dimension of Telemark, which is the mythological foundation of Norway, and making it the foundation of a mystery-crime universe.

That sounds . . . eccentric.

It is eccentric. It’s a bit like the Minnesota Trilogy in that it’s focused on the bonds between the landscape, the people who inhabit it, and the history of the landscape. In a way you can say the role that is played in the trilogy by the ghost of Swamper Caribou, the Ojibwe culture and dream interpretations, is played now by old Norwegian folk beliefs and superstitions.

Thanks to the author for letting me record this conversation and indulging my questions, to Once Upon a Crime for hosting the event (and by the way, you can support independent bookstores by buying all the mysteries you want there – they will happily mail books to you, hint, hint), and to the University of Minnesota Press and Tiina Nunnelly for bringing this award-winning work to American readers.

I have previously reviewed The Land of Dreams, Only the Dead, and The RavensYou may also be interested in a post by the author about the special landscape of the North Shore at his publisher’s blog.

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Review of The Ravens by Vidar Sundstøl

The Ravens is the conclusion of Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, following Land of Dreams and Only the Dead. Unlike many mystery series, these books really must be read together and in order, because they all concern the same crimes which are only resolved in this final volume. And for that reason, I need to include here a . . .

SPOILER ALERT!

It’s not really possible to discuss this book without inadvertently revealing some of the surprises in the previous two.

Just so you know.

You’ve been warned.

Okay, then. In The Ravens, “forest cop” Lance Hansen continues his obsessive quest to find out whether his brother Andy is responsible for the murder of a Norwegian tourist who was camping on the shore of Lake Superior. As a forest ranger, Lance has no responsibility for investigating this crime, rumored to be the first murder in Cook County, a wooded tract of land in the northeastern tip of the state, framed by Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters, and the Canadian border. Lance’s only involvement is that he discovered the body, close to Baraga’s Cross, a local historical landmark marking the place where a Catholic missionary landed in a storm on his way to minister to an Ojibwe community stricken with an epidemic.

Because the crime occurred on federal land, it is handled by the local FBI office with the help of a Norwegian detective. An Ojibwe man whose fingerprints are on the bat used to bludgeon the Norwegian to death and who can’t or won’t provide an alibi has been arrested and is awaiting trial. Blood evidence also suggests that the killer was an Indian, not a white descendant of European immigrants. But Lance, a local historian who is more comfortable in the past than in the present, has uncovered a family secret. He and his brother have Ojibwe ancestry. He also finds a second murder victim – an Ojibwe medicine man who disappeared in 1892, just as Lance’s ancestor stumbled ashore after walking across the frozen lake, delirious and half-dead. As Lance thinks to himself “his family had spent a century perfecting the art of forgetting.”

The RavensBecause he saw his brother’s truck close to the scene of the crime, and because he knows Andy is probably gay (as were the Norwegian tourists) but ashamed of his sexual identity and has a history of committing extreme violence, Lance becomes convinced his brother may be a killer. In the second book of the trilogy, that suspicion makes a hunting expedition take a threatening turn as Lance and Andy stalk one another. Layered in this narrative is the story of their ancestor, a young Norwegian immigrant who has crossed the frozen lake and who is terrified by the Indian medicine man who is trying to help him. It’s an intense and disorienting book that leaves us hanging.

In The Ravens, the hunt resumes. Lance continues the family tradition of lying by hiding out in Canada for weeks, convincing his family he is vacationing in Norway. On his return to Minnesota, he continues to lie about his activities while gathering information, particularly from Andy’s daughter, who has been dabbling in drugs and feels oppressed by her father’s protectiveness, which has become physically abusive. Lance reconnects with a woman who he loved many years ago and wonders if it’s too late to love again. He also visits his mother in a Duluth nursing home, where she’s beginning to lose her grip on reality but still seems saner than anyone else in the family. Throughout this concluding volume, Lance is suffers from the same condition as Hamlet. He feels compelled to act, but is paralyzed by introspection.

Though in some ways this final volume has more elements of a mystery than the previous two volumes, it fuses stylistic elements of both: the deep psychological conflicts within a man who seeks the truth but feels the pressures of convention, a mixing of past and present in the figure of Swamper Caribou and what Lance has learned about his murder, moments of visionary hallucinations, and inchoate tension as two brothers circle each other, full of fury and twisted family loyalty.

Throughout the three books, the landscape plays a major role, particularly the vast frozen lake that’s always there, that seems to be without boundaries, a frozen world where figures hover in the distance and large shadows move beneath the ice.

Lake Superior - Grand Marais Lighthouse in the fog

image of the Grand Marais lighthouse in the fog courtesy of Sharon Mollerus.

All in all, I found this an intriguing, poetic, and really unusual crime fiction trilogy, well worth trying. The translation is by the always reliable Tiina Nunnally, who has done a great job. If you’re in Minneapolis tomorrow evening (April 21st) you can meet the author at Once Upon a Crime at 7 pm where I’ll have a chance to interview him. I hope to report back here.

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.

Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl

Only the Dead 
by Vidar Sundstøl
Translated by Tiina Nunnally
(Minnesota Trilogy #2)
University of Minnesota Press, September 1, 2014

In this second volume of the Minnesota Trilogy, Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl continues exploring the rift between the past and the present, between European settlers and the native inhabitants of the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, and between two brothers living on the shores of Lake Superior in the present. Though I am not a series-order purist, this is truly a trilogy, not a series of mysteries with recurring characters. This story will make a great deal more sense if you’ve previously read the first volume, The Land of DreamsAnd if you haven’t, you might want to stop reading this review right now, because I can’t avoid serious spoliers for the first book. I’d turn back if I were you.

I'd turn back if I were you

Are we all right then? Ready to carry on? I did warn you.

Okay . . .

We know from the first volume that Lance Hansen, a “forest cop” who patrols Cook County, Minnesota’s national forest lands, discovered the body of a murdered Norwegian tourist. Officials from the state and a Norwegian detective take on the investigation. In parallel, Hansen comes to believe that one of his ancestors who came to Minnesota from Norway may have murdered a native man, Swamper Caribou, in 1892. Hansen is literally haunted by thLand of Dreamse past, since he keeps seeing a man who appears to be from another time. And he’s haunted, too, by his suspicion that his brother Andy may be the man who killed the Norwegian visitor. That seems impossible when the detectives make an arrest, until Hansen uncovers another family secret: DNA evidence that the murderer had Indian ancestry had ruled Andy out as a suspect. But Hansen discovers that he and Andy have Ojibwe ancestry.

The second book is quite different in tone. Though it’s short, it’s packed with a densely threatening atmosphere. The mood is obsessive, claustrophibic, and almost hallucinogenic at times. It opens as Lance and Andy are engaged in a Minnesota tradition: hunting deer. They take turns driving the deer and shooting. But it’s clear from their tense interactions that they’re really hunting each other.

As the men track through the dense woods, we learn what happened in 1892 from the point of view of a young Norwegian immigrant as he crosses the frozen lake, hallucinating as he fights off hypotermia, frightened bOnly the Deady the world he’s in and its savage inhabitants, determined to get his own piece of the new world. His story is interwoven with the hunt, each narrative growing more intense, more disturbing, less connected to what we think of as reality with each turning page. The natural world itself is transformed as an ices storm descends on the North Shore, making the woods beside the vast frozen lake a labyrinthine and disorienting forest of ice. It’s in this weird, frozen world where the past and present touch, where the hunter becomes the hunted, where things are stripped down to their elemental essence.

This is not a comfortable book. Though it doesn’t take gruesomeness to the heights that the average serial killer thriller aspires to, the violence in it is far more real and much more disturbing. And because the story is so disorienting and unresolved, it doesn’t provide the usual resolution that readers expect from the genre, that at least justice is served in the end. Perhaps that will come in the third book, but I wouldn’t count on it.

At one point in the book, as Lance is following his brother into the woods, he thinks to himself:

. . . were the rules still valid after what had happened? Was it even possible to talk about things like rules anymore? Lance had broken the most important rule of all, which said that specific subjects were not to be discussed. Not under any circumstances. The world he knew was a world that was held together by keeping silent about certain things. These things were not clearly defined, but everybody who lived in the same world as Lance recognized them at once whenever they cropped up. As long as no one broke the rule, this world would continue to exist. It had already endured for a very long time.

Though this book is short, it’s packed with strangeness, The rule of silence, once broken, lets all kinds of weird things bubble up. I’m very curious to find out what will happen in the third book of the trilogy.

 

 

a belated roundup of reviews and news

It’s been quite a busy semester and a long time since I’ve updated this blog. There has been no shortage of reviews and news in the interim . . .

UrbanIndianWoman is a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction and at her blog, Indian Feminist 101, she sometimes muses on its feminist aspects. (This is something I’m also very interested in, so yay!) She has recently shared her thoughts on Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson and also posted a round up of women detectives asking “Is it the densely dark atmosphere and snowy landscape and morose environment? Is it the fact that since in reality there is so little crime there that the Scandinavians’ imagination is more fertile when it comes to fictionalising it? Is it their innate sense of justice and fairness that finds voice in crime fiction?” Whatever it is, she likes it.

Reading is a popular pursuit in all of the Scandinavian countries, but according to the BBC, writing may be more popular per capita in Iceland, which has a thriving book culture for its small population of roughly 300,000. One in ten Icelanders will publish a book, according to the story, and the biggest genre at the moment is crime fiction. Sales double those in other Scandinavian countries, which also have healthy sales. What is particularly insteresting to me is that Arnaldur Indridason had virtually no company when he began to write crime stories not too long ago. He told me that his series tapped a thirst for crime fiction which had barely been published in Icelandic and with an Icelandic setting, though mysteries in English were popular among Icelanders. Takk fyrir, Arnaldur, for your books and others coming from your small island.

Euro Crime’s Laura Root reviews Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams. I abosolutely concur with her conclusion that some readers who expect resolution may be disappointed – but others (including Laura and me) will simply want to read the rest of the trilogy. 

Glenn Harper also reviews The Land of Dreams at International Noir Fiction, finding it repetetive at times (but not in an aggravating way) and, like me, is interested in what comes next in the trilogy.

Kerrie in Paradise reviews Derek Miller’s Norwegian by Night which takes an American to Norway. She gives it high marks and suggests it would make a cracking film. It was the winner of the CWA new blood dagger this year, so she isn’t alone in thinking it’s a good read.

At Petrona Remembered, Jose Ignacio Escribano features Gunnar Staalesen’s Cold Hearts, He recommends it highly and wishes the author was better known. Do you have a mystery you enjoyed and would like to share? Why not submit it to the site? It’s a celebration of Maxine Clarke aka Petrona, who loved a good mystery and is much missed.

At Crime Scraps, Norman reviews Liza Marklund’s The Long Shadow, warning readers that it’s important to read Lifetime first. This entry in the Annika Bengtson series takes her to the Costa del Sol and is not, in Norm’s estimation, the best of the bunch. I’m afraid I find her taste in men deeply irritating! Flawed heroines are right up my alley, unless they have a soft spot for controlling idiots. Is “stupid” a flaw? If so, not the kind I like.

One of Sarah’s Crimepieces is Anne Holt’s Death of the Demon. She found it a bit disappointing compared to other books in the series, with a not-terribly-gripping or complex plot. (I’ve just finished it myself and found it more of an issue-driven book than a real mystery, featuring a troubled child who we get to know a lot about but not to understand.

She felt more positive about Jo Nesbo’s Police, which is a “huge” book with complexity to spare. There is a plot strand she found annoying – and (having just read it myself) I was annoyed, too.

Marilyn Stasio at the New York Times says its nervewracking and disturbing and you really ought to read the previous book in the series, Phantom, first. She applauds Nesbo for taking Harry off stage and letting other characters have a chance to shine.

At Novel Heights, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s ghost story, I Remember You, gets middling marks for characters (who tend to get into scrapes more often than they should) but top marks for tension – and for its clever resolution.

There you will also find a recent review of Quentin Bates’s Iceland-set mystery, Frozen Out (apa Frozen Assets) which has a lot going on but a terrific lead character. (I’ve just started reading the third in the series and am enjoying spending time with Gunna Gisladottir.)

Barry Forshaw reviews several mysteries, including Arnadludr Indridason’s Strange Shores and Arne Dahl’s Bad Blood.  He thinks Erlendur’s return is well handled, but reports that it’s the final book in the series, which makes me sad. Arne Dahl, he says “writes crime fiction of genuine authority with a sinewy, uncompromising structure.” To be honest, I’m not sure what it means, but I think it’s a compliment.

Karen Meek, the heroic mastermind behind Euro Crime, reviews Karin Fossum’s I Can See in the Dark. It’s not in the Sejer series, but rather is a psychological crime novel rather in the mode of Fossum’s recent work. Not one of her favorites.

She also reports the intriguing news that a UK publisher has acquired a new novel by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen. I enjoyed The Healer quite a bit.

Another Norwegian author is also due to appear in English, according to Crimficreader’s blog. Tom Johansen’s Blood on Snow is due in 2014 and will be followed by a sequel. Both will no doubt have an instant following, given that Tom Johansen is a pseudonym for the very busy and popular Jo Nesbo.

p/review of The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Later this month, the Univesity of Minnesota press will release the first volume in the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl, a Norwegian author who spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Land of Dreams will be followed by Only the Dead (2014) and The Raven (2015). After reading the first, I’m impatient to read the rest.

As the novel opens, Lance Hansen, a forest ranger who patrols the national forest that occupies so much of Cook County, a vast wedge of land stretching between the lake and the Canadian border, is on his way to speak with campers who have illegally pitched a tent near the lake not far from Baraga’s Cross. This is the kind of work he does – enforcing rules, preventing people from dumping garbage on public land, organizing search parties when vacationers got lost, occasionally encountering illegal logging or hidden meth labs. Nothing too dramatic. But this morning will be different.

He parked his service vehicle at the end of the road and got out. It was 7:28. In front of him stretched Lake Superior. There was nothing to see but light and water and sky – no opposite shore on which to fix his eyes, just the illusory meeting of sky and the surface of the water far off in the distance.

Baraga's Crossphoto of Baraga’s Cross courtesy of Jeffachen.

As he heads down the path toward the granite marker that marks the spot where a European missonary once erected a wooden cross after surviving a stormy crossing in 1846, he finds a shoe and a handprint marking where someone fell. Then, as he gets closer to the cross, he sees a bare leg sticking out. A naked man is sitting against the cross, covered in blood and muttering something inaudible. The intonation seems familiar and Hansen realizes he’s speaking Norwegian. Only one word is audible: kjærlighet. Love.

Hansen finds another man not far away, bludgeoned to death. Soon the county’s sheriff arrives. Homicide isn’t a crime they’ve handled much. In fact, there hadn’t been a murder in Cook County in the 25 years he’s been its sheriff. Because the crime occured on federal land, an FBI agent is summoned fom the St. Paul field office, and he is soon joined by a Norwegian detective. Hansen’s involvement in the investigation is over – though there is one thing he’s holding back. He’d seen a familiar truck near the cross, one belonging to his brother Andy, who he understand less than his immigrant ancestors, whose history is stored in binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves in Hansen’s home office.

As the unofficial county historian, Hansen feels more comfortable in the past, and as the FBI agent and his Norwegian colleague try to discover whether a tourist killed his companion or whether someone else was responsible, Hansen becomes fascinated by old news accounts of a body found near the same place in 1892, It could have been the body of an Ojibwe medicine man named Swamper Caribou who’d gone missing earlier, a disappearance that may be connected to an old family story about a fifteen-year-old boy crossing the lake on a winter night – and possibly to Hansen’s dream of walking under the frozen surface of Lake Superior.

The Land of Dreams, beautifully translated by Tiinna Nunnally, is an evocative novel that draws together past and present, the lives of immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the North Shore, American dreams and suppressed violence hidden behind calm exteriors and polite silences. In some ways this sounds like Karin Fossum’s explorations of the squirmy things living under the rocks of peaceful small towns in Norway, but in tone and style it’s far closer to Johan Theorin’s Öland quartet, which combines an atmospheric natural setting with psychologically probing portraits and a very light touch of the supernatural.

I’m not surprised that it was awarded the Riverton Prize. It’s a very good book.  I admit that I particularly enjoyed a setting that is familiar to me – just a few weeks ago we traveled to the places where the story is set. Even if you haven’t been to the North Shore, this book will provide you with an interesting journey. The only problem is that you’ll want to return as soon as possible, as there is obviously more to the story.

If you are in the Twin Cities, be sure to stop by Once Upon a Crime, where the author will be speaking on October 17th at 7pm. If you can’t make it, Pat and Gary will save you a signed copy. If you can go, be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet and a heavier bookshelf. It’s a great store full of temptation. But you know you need more books.

ouac