I’ve been reading some interesting Scandinavian crime novels over the last few months, saving my reviews for a round-up post. There’s a feeling of nordic noir going through a readjustment at the moment. Long running series are coming to an end and, of the new authors being published, there’s an emphasis on psychological thrillers over the traditional police procedural. I’m sorry to see that some of my favourite authors haven’t got a book out this year – Leif GW Persson and Hans Olav Lahlum for example.
Caroline Eriksson has only recently been translated into English. The Watcher, the first book of hers I’ve read, has a Rear Window feel to the plot. A newly separated author takes a rented apartment and obsesses over the family living opposite her, becoming convinced that the woman intends to kill her husband. As she starts to write a new book, her own life and that of the woman opposite become entwined. I read The Watcher in virtually one sitting and it made for compulsive reading. The relationships were satisfyingly complex and, despite spotting the twist fairly soon in the narrative, it was a compelling read. The translation is by Tara F Chace.
Killed is the final book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series where Juul finally uncovers the events leading up to the fire which left him scarred and which killed his young son. There’s a large cast of characters, hugely satisfying to fans of Enger’s series although which might prove difficult for someone picking this up as a standalone. Killed is, however, a poignant end to the Juul books which have proved to be intelligent and satisfying thrillers. The translation is by Kari Dickson.
Quentin Bates is a writer who spent a decade in Iceland and knows the country well. His series featuring Officer Gunnhildur is always a delight to read. Rather than relying on descriptive passages of the Icelandic landscape, his books are interesting thrillers with a political edge. In Cold Breath, Gunna is in a safe house with the high-profile guest of a prominent politician and her loyalties are torn when details of his life emerge. Bates is excellent at creating tension in a modern-day Reykjavik setting.
Gunnar Staalesen is one of my favourite Norwegian writers and Big Sister doesn’t disappoint. His private investigator, Varg Veum, is asked by a woman who reveals herself to be his half-sister, to discover the whereabouts of a relative, Emma. Veum discovers that the girl has been contact with her estranged father and an act of violence in Emma’s past may hold a clue to her disappearance. Excellently plotted and very well translated by Don Bartlett, this is up with Staalesen’s best.
I’ve had a month or so of reading non-crime novels but I’m about to attack my backlog this week. However, I haven’t been neglecting crime entirely. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to a podcast called Death in Ice Valley which I’ve found compelling.
On the 29th November, the charred body of a woman was found at the isolated Isdalen Valley in Bergen. Next to her body were Fenemal sleeping pills, empty bottles and various items of her clothing. There was no identification and the labels from her clothes had been removed. Although investigated by the police, the woman’s identity was never discovered and the autopsy concluded that the woman had died from Fenemal and carbon monoxide poisoning.
I first became aware of the case from crime writing friend, Gunnar Staalesen. Gunnar won the Petrona Award in 2017 for his book, Where Roses Never Die. His Varg Veum books are set in Bergen and I saw him talk about the case at an event. The woman’s death has recently been subject of a podcast by the BBC World Service and NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster. If you enjoy listening to high quality journalism, I can highly recommend it.
The series opens with Norwegian investigative journalist, Marit Higraff, and British BBC radio documentary maker, Neil McCarthy, giving the background to the case. There are some fascinating details: the pair of rubber boots that the woman bought in Stavanger, the seller remembering that she smelt strongly of garlic, and the suitcase discovered in an Oslo locker which contained, amongst other things, a coded note which has only partially been deciphered. This is what is already known but is fascinating not least because the images are shared in a Facebook group so you can see them for yourselves.
However, the journalists extend the investigation well beyond the original and there are some great potential insights once the woman’s jawbone is located and subjected to modern testing. The predominant theories are that either the woman was a spy, or a prostitute. She carried numerous fake passports but neither scenario fits the facts. As a spy she drew too much attention to herself and her choice of Christian lodgings mean it’s unlikely she took clients back to her rooms. Even her age remains unclear – this is a woman who appears to be without a history.
I can’t give too much else away without completely spoiling the series, and you might want to avoid the Facebook group until you’ve listened to all ten podcasts. Gunnar Staalesen makes an appearance in many of the episodes and suggests a realistic scenario toward the end of the podcasts. I’m feeling slightly bereft now the episodes have come to an end.