Saturday, January 18, 2014

Seeing in the Dark: Distinctive Voices in Nordic Noir

Readers of Phantom likely concluded that Jo Nesbo decided to end the high octane series with its brilliant but flawed detective, Harry Hole, given its grim ending. After all, the author revealed that “Harry will not have eternal life, that he will not rise from the dead.” But with the publication of Police (Random House, 2013), the tenth Harry Hole novel, Nesbo seems to have changed his mind - or has he? At the outset, the maverick Hole is not present unless he is that closely-guarded patient in a coma. To follow what transpires in this densely-plotted and disturbing thriller, the reader must read the previous novel first: the plots, characters and themes that coursed through that book are present in Police. For almost half of this intricately-plotted story, without Harry’s leadership, an elite and covert group of specialists are secretly working to put the pieces together and catch a serial killer who lures a police detective on the anniversary to the scene of the very crime the officer investigated but failed to solve. There, the unsuspecting officer is gruesomely dispatched in a manner similar to that of the victim of the unsolved crime. Removing Harry from the action may be a risk but it allows Nesbo to furnish incisive character studies of the ensemble players who have always languished in his shadow – secondary figures like Beate Lonn, the brilliant head of forensics, who has the uncanny ability to never forget a face, and Stale Aune, the mild-mannered psychologist who misses the adrenaline rush of helping hunt down Harry’s monstrous criminals.

When Harry does finally make an appearance, he is teaching at the police academy in Oslo a course on – what else – serial killers. He seems to have his alcoholism in check though Nesbo burdens him with problems, including a false accusation of rape by an unstable female student. He is reluctantly drawn back into the team as a result of circumstances, which I will not reveal here. Again, as in previous novels, the lives of the woman whom Harry wishes to marry and her son, who was almost destroyed in Phantom, are put a risk. Writing with élan and whip-smart tension, Nesbo cleverly plants a number of red herrings that initially entice Harry, the team and the reader. Harry, however, who puts intuition before a prima facie credibility, is able to identify the perpetrator. Strap on your safety belt as we are propelled forward to an explosive conclusion, one that leaves the reader wondering what happened. Nesbo is smart enough to recognize that the reader needs more clarity and he is given some in the final chapter, although I am not sure the explanation made complete sense. Beneath the grisly murders and his brilliance in crafting a complex but never convoluting mystery, Nesbo is raising important issues like police culpability and justice. When the latter is not pursued vigorously, it can encourage personal vengeance. A cynical and opportunist police chief, who is more interested in advancing his career and looking good than in pursuing justice, contributes to the heinous crimes that are committed. Nesbo is a narrative wizard who always remains in control of his material yet for all the thrills and chills that he produces, he wants the reader to think as well as to feel.

author Karin Fossum
For those who want less blood splattering pulverizations and a focus on character studies, albeit infused with an air of menace, Nesbo’s fellow Norwegian, Karin Fossum, may be a better bet. Unlike the verbal pyrotechnics that characterize the writing of Nesbo, the prose of Fossum, who was originally a poet, is precise but understated and deceptively simple. Having worked in mental institutions and hospitals, she populates her novels with the socially marginalized and the psychically damaged. As a result, she is more interested in exploring the psychological causes of crime and its aftermath because a crime has multiple victims that include not only the palpable grief of the victim’s families but the torment of the killers and their families who are forever branded. Her books readily incorporate social issues of class inequality, misogyny and immigration. Readers may be dismayed by her tendency not to have a neat and tidy ending. Sometimes as in The Indian Bride (2007), a disturbing tale that tackles intermarriage between a Norwegian man and an Asian woman who is murdered, not all the killers are caught and there are unresolved questions at the end. Fossum answers her critics by saying that if life is anything, it is uncertain.

Fossum does write police procedurals that feature the mild-mannered but insatiably curious Inspector Konrad Sejer but he is not a typical Scandinavian detective figure. Don’t expect a brooding misanthrope with failed relationships and dysfunctional family issues. He still mourns the death of his long-deceased wife. He spends time off with his daughter and her adopted son from Somalia, but never stops thinking about his case. The chief weapon in Sejer’s pursuit of the truth is a belief in justice, deep compassion, and a driving need to understand the criminal mind. But he is not the primary focus of the author’s attention. Fossum is more interested in the people Sejer encounters in his investigation. For example in The Water’s Edge (2007), a young couple’s walk in the woods is interrupted when they spot the dead body of a young boy. In most novels, they would disappear from the novel after they called the police unless they were regarded as suspects. Instead, Fossum stays with the couple and charts the unravelling of their marriage as each has distinctively different reactions to their discovery. The boy awakens in her a renewed need to have children of their own while he becomes increasingly fascinated, taking pictures, showing them to neighbours and generally revels in his role as a witness. Needless to say, the novel is much more than this couple as Fossum explores pedophilia and peer treatment of an obese child. Or consider Bad Intentions (2009) wherein the death of two young men in separate but related cases may not have been a crime in themselves but it is the consequences arising out of their deaths when other young men who were with them failed to do the right thing by informing the police immediately. Fossum is superb in exploring the dark trajectories of the guilt that two of them harbour and the intimidating charisma of the third young man, who has no conscience. Yet throughout her novels, she infuses her characters with a humanity that renders them understandable if not sympathetic.

This quality may be most evident (and test the reader’s capacity for empathy) in her recent standalone novel, I Can See in the Dark (Harvill Secker, 2013), in which Fossum takes us into the mind of a sociopathic personality. Riktor, who narrates this disturbing tale, works in a nursing home and is a self-confessed loner, preferring his own company to that of others (although he wants a relationship with a woman since he’s never had one). In his mind, people think he’s a polite, quiet, normal man who goes about his job and life without fuss. When he’s not working, he often spends time in a nearby park, watching others and pointing out to the reader their not-so-normal aspects (in his eyes), such as Arnfinn, who’s a drunk whom he briefly befriends and Miranda, who’s disabled. While Riktor constructs this image for others, he lets the reader in on the more disturbing aspects of his personality. He likes to torment the nursing home patients: he pinches, pokes (verbally and physically), hides or swaps medication, and even withholds food from his helpless victims. He watches a man die, but does not raise the alarm or tell anyone what he witnessed. And he kills a man, violently and coldly, before burying him in his garden. It is at this point that Fossum subverts the reader’s expectations. When a policeman walks into his house without knocking, Riktor is annoyed even though he might anticipate to be at least questioned about the missing man. However, he does not expect to be arrested and eventually convicted of a crime he did not commit.

The reader may be torn believing that Riktor deserves his punishment even for a crime he did not commit. What may reinforce this feeling is that he shows no empathy or remorse, suffers grandiose thinking, he’s manipulative and cunning, and uses his “personality disorder” to escape responsibility. Fossum does not even provide him with a backstory that might explain why he developed his deeply-disturbed character structure. And yet Fossum never turns him into a monster. While in prison, he develops some trust in a jail guard, and a great affection for the jail cook, whom he’s assigned to help, at least temporarily. From that relationship, he creates another version of a future that’s built, clearly to the reader, on more delusions and hopes rooted in his vast loneliness and his social blindness. Among her many skills is Fossum’s ability not only to portray with great precision a man incapable of empathy or compassion, but also to create a degree of pity for how lost he is in the world, how uncomprehending of regular life. The question implied in the title is whether the reader has the capacity or the patience to see into his dark world.

A totally different crime writer in Sweden is the exceedingly popular, Camilla Lackberg, who outsells such native stalwarts as Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. It is not hard to understand why. She knows how to write a compulsive page turner populated with characters the reader can identify with or despise. She has found a winning formula by exploring family secrets that sometimes go back generations. Set in the small fishing village of Fjallbacka on the west coast of Sweden, the novels’ chief protagonists are a husband and wife, the police officer Patrik Hedstrom and the crime writer Erica Falck. What I think Lackberg does very well is convey the stresses of a young couple from their pregnancy through to being parents of an infant and young child. She suffers from post-partum depression and supports her sister and young children who have been damaged by a violent and abusive husband, while he contends with sleeplessness and poor fellow officers as he attempts to solve crimes.

She is also very good at linking a past story line, particularly in The Stone Cutter (2008), with a mystery set in the present that is primarily concerned with solving the murder of a young girl. Each major chapter that follows several story lines alternates with a short chapter that begins in 1923. We meet a beautiful nineteen-year-old Agnes Stjernkvist whose budding sociopathic tendencies are almost immediately on display for the reader. Agnes learns early on how to manipulate men, starting with her doting and prosperous father and soon afterward with one of his workers, the stone cutter of the title, with whom she initiates a casual fling until she becomes pregnant whereby her world crashes. Everything that follows – some transgressions are indeed awful – into the present including the murder of a child, is a result of that pregnancy. Lackberg keeps us reading because we are trying to figure out how these past chapters fit with the mystery in the present, and it is not until near the end that we are able to make the connections – and admire the author’s cleverness. It is her tightly focused past story that is the most compelling part of her novel.

I am, however, troubled by some features of her writing. Although Patrik is no Harry Hole or Konrad Sejer, he is a competent and sometimes intuitive officer who is surrounded for the most part by incompetent colleagues, or in the case of his superior, Superintendent Mellberg, an astonishingly lazy chief who is bereft of any ideas that can advance an investigation and yet wants to claim credit for any positive results. Lackberg’s portrayal of him is one-dimensional; he is a stick figure who possesses not an iota of self-awareness. As a result, it is hard to muster any sympathy for him in The Gallows Bird (2009), when he is financially rooked by a gold digger whom he fancies is in love with him. He is almost a caricature of a human being. There is also a melodramatic quality about some of her villains. Unlike those in Fossum, and even in Nesbo, Lackberg makes no attempt to offer any gray zone or complexity that might render her villains understandable. Agnes in The Stone Cutter is a monster without any redeeming qualities, and her de facto adopted daughter, Mary, is equally villainous although she learned her murderous craft from a master incapable of loving another human being. Moreover, it seems a tad unrealistic that the characters in the present are not interested in excavating the history that we have been reading. When the perpetrator is apprehended and refuses to say anything about motivation, would not a curious police officer want to investigate that person’s past? One final caveat: Lackberg burdens her novels with too many characters and story lines, some of which could be expunged without diluting her narrative power.

                        authors Agneti Friis and Lene Kaaberbol
We finally turn to a two Danish women, Agneti Friis and Lene Kaaberbol, already accomplished writers – the former the author of children’s books and the latter the author of fantasy tales – before they teamed up to produce the Nina Borg mystery series. Starting with The Boy in the Suitcase (2011), followed up by Invisible Murder (2012) and most recently The Death of a Nightingale (Soho Crime, 2013), these gripping thrillers address the desperation of people, especially vulnerable women and children, who are part of the westward diaspora of Eastern Bloc refugees from Lithuania, Hungary and the Ukraine in the wake of Soviet Communism's collapse. Denmark is a magnet for these people because of its geographical location and because it is a liberal democracy. Nina is a Red Cross nurse who also volunteers for a group known as the Network which helps refugees and other outliers for whom normal services do not provide even basic assistance. She is an adrenalin junkie who feels only in control and competent when she is saving someone from danger. Her boundless sympathy for the dispossessed, born of childhood trauma, puts a burden on her marriage and her children; she neglects her husband and children because she is attending to maltreated refugees and illegal immigrants. When that work puts her daughter’s life in danger in Invisible Murder, her husband leaves her taking their two children with him. The Boy in the Suitcase tackles the problem of human trafficking when members of the ultra- rich display no qualms about exploiting the poorest of the poor in Eastern Europe, in this case, a refugee from a dysfunctional family in Lithuania. When a three-year old is forcibly wrenched from his anguished mother, he eventually arrives in Copenhagen drugged but alive in a suitcase. Nina generously obliges a long ago friend, picks up the suitcase at a local train station and to her shock notes that the contents were not the anticipated drugs or money. Rather than going to the police, she puts her life at risk, particularly after she finds her friend dead in her cabin, by trying to find out who the boy is and what language he is speaking.

Invisible Murder explores the plight of the Hungarian Roma. When what appears to be a virulent form of stomach virus that is sweeping through a Roma community living in an abandoned garage, Nina sets out to assist the sick children even though she has promised her husband to curtail such activities because they interfere with her caring for their two children. In parallel threads, we meet Sándor, a half-Roma law student from Hungary who learns the hard way that other people won’t let him forget his Roma heritage. When his younger half-brother attempts to involve him in a scheme without his knowledge, which would include flogging a dangerous machine to a domestic terrorist in Denmark, Sándor’s newly constructed life falls apart. A third storyline involves an elderly ex-building inspector who is worried that his much younger wife will fritter away all the money he leaves her. These threads eventually converge when the agents for this sale that include a Finnish psychopath, imperil the lives of Nina, her kidnapped daughter and Sándor. This novel reveals the blatant bigotry of Hungarians toward the Roma and the fear of a Danish native who will resort to desperate measures to curtail the number of immigrants living in Denmark.

Death of a Nightingale is an elaborately plotted page-turner that flits from today's liberal-minded Denmark to some nasty characters from the Ukraine, and the starvation and repression in Soviet Ukraine during the 1930s. The primary plot involves a Ukrainian refugee named Natasha Doroshenko and her young daughter, Katerina. While waiting for a determination on her immigration status, Natasha became engaged to Michael, a Danish man. It developed that Michael was abusive, a situation that Natasha suffered in silence until she caught him sexually assaulting Katerina. Natasha was arrested and charged with attempted murder, with Katerina being kept at a children’s camp near the prison. Transported to the Danish police headquarters for questioning, Natasha sees two Ukrainian policemen apparently waiting for her and makes a daring escape. Shortly after, Michael is found tortured and murdered. The cops think she's gone back and finished the job. Natasha’s first husband was killed in a similar fashion in Kiev some years before, and she was a prime suspect in his death as well.

While Natasha is on the run, Nina takes on the self-imposed job of taking care of Katerina, which acquires a new and deadly importance when a daring attack is made on the children’s camp in an unsuccessful attempt to abduct Katerina. The Danish police are certain that Natasha was behind it, even though Nina, who thwarted the kidnapping, insists that the attacker was a male. She is convinced that Natasha is not a killer. Nina removes Katerina to an impromptu safe house while Natasha searches desperately for them, and the Danish and Ukrainian police look for Natasha, each with their own agenda. The contemporary story is intertwined with the seemingly unrelated but riveting tale of two sisters set in 1934 and 1935 when the Ukraine was under the boot heel of Stalin’s regime which manufactured a deadly famine, persecuted so-called kulaks and turned them into “former persons.” That story focuses on two young sisters, Oxana and Olga. Oxana, the older of the two, has learned how to speak Bolshevik becoming a loyal child apparatchik, a state of affairs that recalls the Soviet myth of a young boy, Pavlik Morozov (that can be read on a recent blog in the primary mystery revolves around Natasha and her connection to two deaths in the Ukraine and in Denmark, the secondary puzzle concerns how events that had taken place almost eighty years beforehand in a hard-scrabble village in Ukraine could be related to what is occurring in present-day Copenhagen. Eventually the stories from the grim past and troubled present collide and the results will be surprising to most readers. For anyone seeking a mystery that features an empathetic but flawed protagonist and exposes social injustices arising out of the collusion between Eastern and Western Europe, the Nina Borg series is essential reading.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please

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