Book review: Burned, by Thomas Enger

27 05 2017

Thomas Enger is a Norwegian crime writer, composer, and former journalist. His crime fiction, featuring journalist Henning Juul, has been nominated for the Petrona and eDunnit awards.

Burned

Burned (Skinndød, 2010, translated by Charlotte Barslund) opens with the discovery of a particularly grisly and ritualistic murder on Ekeberg Common: a young woman, Henriette Hagerup, a film student, is found half-buried in an otherwise-empty white tent. All indications are that she has been stoned to death. When her boyfriend, immigrant Mahmoud Marhoni, flees from the police, he automatically becomes prime suspect for the murder, with suspicion substantially strengthened by evidence of Henriette’s infidelity that subsequently comes to light. But journalist Henning Juul, newly returned to work after two years recuperating from the house fire that killed his young son Jonas, and partnered on the story with another journo he’s going to find it exceptionally difficult to get along with) believes there’s more to the crime than the simple honour killing the police are painting it as. So he digs deeper …

Enger’s writing is smart and insightful, with a good line in immediacy and the naturally unhurried development of tension. The characterisation is good and the backstory is searing. The author gets under his psychically- and physically-scarred protagonist’s skin: it becomes natural to see things as Juul does. We accept from the outset, even if we don’t immediately understand, his need to replace the batteries every single night on the eight smoke alarms in his apartment, his incapacity to light a match. And the setting—Juul works for the (fictional) online news startup 123news—feels up-to-the-minute, with its click-driven editorial direction, its hothouse management and open-plan workspaces, and its continual push to produce more content even as staff are being retrenched. The characteristic social commentary of Scandinavian crime fiction fits naturally alongside this setting. Against the many attractive features of the text, it feels almost petty to cavil, though I did find myself incompletely convinced by the ultimate accounting for the principal murder (I didn’t feel the case was properly made for demonstrating that the murderer was motivated for such a hands-on, brutal, and protracted method of execution), and I did also wish, on occasion, that the author would use a few more speech attributions: there were patches of dialogue, some as long as a complete page, where it was incredibly difficult to determine which character was speaking which lines. Those things said, it remains a highly impressive debut.

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