Book review: What My Body Remembers, by Agnete Friis

17 06 2018

Agnete Friis is a Danish writer and journalist, best known as co-author (with Lene Kaaberbøl) of the ‘Nina Borg’ crime fiction series, of which I’ve reviewed the first book, The Boy in the Suitcase, here.


What My Body Remembers (Blitz, 2015, translated by Lindy Falk van Rooyen) would appear to be Friis’ crime-novel debut as a solo author, though I gather she has previously written children’s fiction and possibly other adult novels. WMBR is marketed as crime fiction—and in that capacity it was one of the six finalists in this years Petrona Award—but it’s as much a closely-observed study of privation, institutional care, and life on the margins as it is a mystery. Central to the story is Ella, a deeply-troubled single mother whose occasional unpredictable seizures are connected to childhood trauma: at age eight, she lost her mother, Anna, to a gunshot inflicted, the investigators decided, by her father, Helgi, who was found holding the gun. Ella has never seen fit to query this history, but has sought instead to escape it through every method available to her. It’s only when it appears likely that she’s about to lose her eleven-year-old son Alex for good, to a ‘respite’ care appointment that the authorities wish to make permanent, that she’s thrown back into the past with all its secrets: she needs a safe haven, beyond the authorities’ immediate reach, and the only bolthole available is her grandmother’s abandoned house on the outskirts of the North Sea fishing / tourist village Klitmøller, close by Ella’s own childhood home. She’s hoping for solitude for herself and her son—Ella’s coping strategy is to shut the world out (through abrasiveness and evasion) and lick her wounds in private, and to turn to vodka for its temporary amnesiac properties—but those in the area have long memories and curiosity, particularly about the two-decades-old murder that played out on the local dunes, and Ella’s habit of shoplifting from the few local merchants doesn’t do her any favours in an attempt to keep a low profile. Alone of those with whom she reluctantly has contact, her paternal grandmother still believes her son Helgi to be innocent of Anna’s death—but then, she would, wouldn’t she?

Still, what if the old woman is right?

What My Body Remembers is slow to unfold: possibly too slow, although the seamy details of Ella’s circumstances, her upbringing, and her underdog refusal to stay beaten by life (even as she attempts, as far as possible, to hold it at bay with alcohol and self-seclusion) are all impressively catalogued and sketched with far greater flair than that shown by Barbara, the aging hippie-artist who insinuates herself in Ella’s return to Klitmøller and who seeks to provide a buffer between Ella and the world while also covering the walls of her guest bedroom with bad art. There’s a clarity and an emotional depth to the text which make it a rewarding read: minor-key, and more accretive than eventful, but overall a highly effective example of character-driven crime fiction.


Book review: The Night Women, by Sara Blædel

16 01 2018

Sara Blædel is a Danish crime novelist, publisher, and former journalist, best known for her ‘Louise Rick’ series of police procedurals which have enjoyed considerable popularity, for some time, in her native Denmark. Until very recently, only a minority of these have been available in English translation (the first book, Grønt støv (Green Dust), has never been released in English), and the task of the English-language reader is complicated by the different titles given to several of the books in UK versus US editions. I’ve previously reviewed Blædel’s ‘English-language debut’ (i.e., book 2 in the Louise Rick series), Blue Blood / Call Me Princess, here.


The Night Women (Aldrig mere fri, 2012, translated by Erik J Macki and Tara F Chace), previously published as Farewell to Freedom, is the fourth in the series. (It’s technically the first I’ve read, since my prior encounter with Call Me PrincessBlue Blood was as an audiobook.) Louise is called in as an investigator on the murder of an unidentified woman in Copenhagen’s red light district. There’s speculation that the victim, whose throat has been slashed, may have been a prostitute; it’s subsequently found that she’s an Eastern European woman who has indeed been working the streets, though not out of choice, following her abduction in the Czech Republic and subsequent forced relocation. When other attacks occur in the same vicinity, the police’s determination to catch those responsible becomes more intense, even as other cases deplete their available manpower. Rick and her longstanding journalist friend Camilla Lind investigate various factors around the woman’s murder, to some extent at cross purposes, and it’s only as events threaten to spiral out of control that the true motivation for the spate of attacks becomes apparent.

Blædel’s work fits solidly into the ‘nordic noir’ paradigm of socially-aware crime fiction, and is equally at home with domesticity as with brutality. There’s a strong sense here that her characters, on all sides of the law, have a life and are not merely actors for the purposes of the plot. This, obviously, is one of the requirements of a good procedural, but there is nonetheless a balancing act between maintaining intrigue, conveying topicality, and retaining a reasonable degree of realism. The Night Women does just fine on this score, and the central mystery is sufficiently layered to defy simple second-guessing. This is a well-researched and well-realised crime novel which ends with a thump.

Book review: The Arc of the Swallow, by Sissel-Jo Gazan

5 01 2018

Sissel-Jo Gazan is a Danish biologist and author, now living in Germany. She has written two crime novels featuring police officer Søren Marhauge and palaeobiologist Anna Bella Nor, the first of which, The Dinosaur Feather (which I’ve reviewed here) was named Danish Novel of the Decade.


The Arc of the Swallow (Svalens graf, 2013, translated by Charlotte Barslund) deals, as did its predecessor The Dinosaur Feather, with the suspicious death of an academic at the University of Copenhagen. This time around, the deceased is noted immunologist Kristian Storm, whose research focus upon non-specific effects of vaccines has for several years been a controversial matter. When a colleague finds Storm hanging in his office, the police are quick to assess the death as a suicide; but Marhauge, who has been promoted beyond frontline investigation into an administrative position, becomes convinced that something’s awry.

Gazan’s characters are sometimes distinctly too given to monologuing: there are some very lengthy tracks of verbal exposition, which sometimes too nakedly appear to be taking the form of necessary backstory. Against that, her characterisation is strong, and the mystery presented in Arc is both meticulously constructed (common enough, I suppose, in crime fiction) and intriguingly backgrounded by well-informed scientific speculation (distinctly less common). The story is as much told through the eyes of breast-cancer patient Marie Skov, Storm’s research student, as it is from principal investigator Søren Marhauge’s perspective, and it’s to Gazan’s credit that she makes the work and home life of both characters sufficiently detailed and compelling that there’s never a sense of disappointment in having to switch from one protagonist to the other.

The scientific content of the book bears comment. Its central thesis—that one of the widely-administered vaccines used by the WHO is effective in immunising against the infections it targets, but has undesirable side effects—would at first glance appear to echo the complaints of anti-vaxxers. However, the detail within the storyline, emphasised repeatedly, is that this is best remedied through a better vaccine. To clarify this too much would be to risk spoiling aspects of the mystery, so I’ll simply note that the book does an excellent job of carefully detailing nontrivial immunological concepts in a way that doesn’t detract from the impetus of the story. If you’re in favour of cerebrality in your fiction, it’s worth a read.

Book review: Three Dog Night, by Elsebeth Egholm

21 09 2017

Elsebeth Egholm is a Danish journalist and crime fiction writer whose work has spawned at least two Danish-language TV series. She’s arguably best known for her nine-novel sequence featuring journalist Dicte Svendsen, though only two of these novels have been translated into English. Her most recent novels feature reformed ex-convict Peter Boutrup.


Three Dog Night (Tre Hundes Nat, 2011, translated by Charlotte Barslund and Don Bartlett) is the first in Egholm’s ‘Peter Boutrup’ series and starts with the New Year’s Day discovery, at the base of the cliff near Boutrup’s home in Grenå, of his fellow former convict Ramses’s body, adorned with a bullet hole to the chest. Peter, who’s interviewed at the scene alongside his reclusive neighbour Felicia (‘Felix’) Gomez, lies to the police about his dealings with Ramses Bilal, but the police are also busy with the search for a missing New Year’s Eve reveller, Nina Bjerre, and the disappearance of the local woman initially takes precedence over the murder of an ex-con. It gradually becomes apparent, however, that there may be a connection between the two events …

Three Dog Night is a little slow to start, since Egholm gives precedence to establishing the personalities of the novel’s principal viewpoint characters: Peter, Felix, local police chief Mark Bille Hansen, and mine clearance diver Kirsten (‘Kir’) Røjel, all of them dealing, in various ways, with a backlog of substantial personal trauma upon which the unfolding sequence of crimes is unceremoniously heaped. This depth (and breadth) of characterisation, and the nuanced emotional subtext through which the novel’s events are filtered, is rather reminiscent of the writing of Swedish crime novelist Karin Alvtegen, though 3DN has rather more grit and brutality than do those of Alvtegen’s novels with which I’m familiar. I might have wished for a slightly less busy plot, all up, but the interpersonal dynamics are well-drawn, the background research seems solid, and the tension is nicely ratcheted without ever truly going into overdrive. It’s a highly promising start to what looks like an intriguing series.

Book review: Fatal Crossing, by Lone Theils

26 08 2017

Lone Theils is a Danish journalist (stationed for much of her career in London) and crime fiction writer.


Theils’ debut novel, Fatal Crossing (Pigerne fra Englandsbåden, 2015, translated by Charlotte Barslund), features her protagonist Nora Sand. Nora is a Danish weekly-magazine journalist living in London and therefore, one presumes, modelled to some degree on Theils herself. Further titles in the Nora Sand series are planned, with a second novel already released (though not yet in translation).

Fatal Crossing kicks off with Nora’s purchase, in an English seaside secondhand shop, of a weathered leather suitcase in which she subsequently discovers a number of old polaroid photos of teenage girls, including two Danish girls whom she recognises from a decades-old missing-persons case. She subsequently realises that the name scrawled on the suitcase’s liner, presumably indicating its former owner, is the alias of a notorious serial killer whose life sentence started some years after the girls’ disappearance … Intrigued, and spotting the makings of a journalistic scoop, Nora kicks off an investigation into the girls’ last known movements, the suitcase’s history, and the possible connection with serial killer William Hickley.

Fatal Crossing is a highly impressive debut: detailed, well-paced, knowledgeable (as one would expect) on the subject of journalism and the doors which are opened (or closed) to its practitioners. Nora is a very personable principal character, resourceful, quick-thinking, sometimes misled by her instincts. She does, almost inevitably, put herself in harm’s way, but it’s a danger that’s obvious only in hindsight and therefore excusable. She also gets some very good lines of dialogue: some of the situational wordplay, in conversations, is excellent, and does not seem at all to have been damaged in translation. The other characters with whom Nora interacts over the course of the novel—such as Pete, her Aussie cameraman; Andreas, her childhood friend (now, usefully, a Danish police officer on secondment to New Scotland Yard); Bjarke Helgaard, a friend of the missing girls Lisbeth and Lulu (and now a ‘publicity officer’ for a Copenhagen motorcycle gang); Jeff Spencer, a specialist with the Metropolitan Police; and the inmate Hickley himself—are varied and well-drawn; indeed, Hickley’s backstory and list of crimes is so carefully detailed that I felt it necessary to Wikipedia him just to ensure he was a fictional creation. The evident depth of background research, informing though never clogging the narrative, is one of the book’s strengths; the only point at which I tripped over this detail was in the description, in Pete’s personal backstory, of Armadale as ‘outside Melbourne’, a statement only as true as saying that Kensington is ‘outside London’.

The story has a European, rather than distinctly Scandinavian, feel to it: it’s mainly set in the UK, though with reasonably frequent diversions to Denmark. (I found myself wondering if Theils, who left journalism, and the UK, in 2016, the year after this book’s publication, felt ‘forced out’ as a result of the Brexit referendum.) It is, in many ways, tonally similar to the ‘Nina Borg’ crime series by fellow Danish authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (the first book of which, The Boy in the Suitcase, I’ve reviewed here).

Overall, this is an excellent start to what promises to be a very interesting series of mysteries.


Book review: Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel

25 07 2017

Sara Blædel is a Danish crime novelist with experience in journalism and publishing, best known for her award-winning series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Louise Rick.


Call Me Princess (Kald mig prinsesse, 2005, translated by Erik J Macki and Tara F Chace), also published in the UK as Blue Blood, is the second of Blædel’s Louise Rick novels and the first of the half-dozen which have thus far seen English translation. (It’s also the first book I’ve experienced as an audiobook, which went somewhat more straightforwardly than I’d anticipated.)


When a romantic encounter with a man met through online dating goes wrong, Susanne Hansson becomes the victim of a savage rape. DI Rick is assigned Hansson’s case, but struggles to make headway against the psychological trauma which Susanne experiences following the attack. The assailant has taken particular care to avoid leaving anything which might constitute forensic evidence, and all that Rick and her team have to go on is a very vague description of a young man whom Hansson would very much wish to forget. But when a second, similar attack occurs a few days later, with fatal consequences, it underscores the urgency of identifying and apprehending the rapist before any more women suffer at his hands.

The book’s subject matter is clearly emotionally charged, and this intensity comes through starkly in Blædel’s spare and insightful prose. There’s an admirable depth to the characterisation of the flawed but empathetic Rick, who identifies strongly with Hansson’s vulnerability following the attack, and there’s sufficient variety to the identities of the supporting cast, and sufficient exploration of the main characters’ home lives, that the book’s telling of the investigation feels credible and thorough, with a disturbing degree of gritty detail in the descriptions of sexual assault and its physical, psychological, and social aftermath. There is, almost inevitably, an aspect of needless in-harm’s-wayism in the direction Rick takes to solve the case, but this is plausibly accounted for in the minutiae of the investigation, and the book never sashays into sensationalism or overreach. It’s notable, also, that for a book first published over a decade ago, its description of the online dating environment still feels current: almost the only thing that dates it is a reference to the poor quality of images generally obtained from mobile phones.

This is a tense, moderate, and quite deeply moving police procedural, well-constructed and vividly written, and Rick is an interesting character well worth encountering again.

Book review: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Høeg

11 07 2017

Peter Høeg is an award-winning Danish author whose eight books to date, written in a variety of literary styles, have appeared across a thirty-year span.


In Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Froken Smillas Fornemelse for Sne, 1992, translated by F David), known in the US and in an associated movie production as Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the titular Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is an acerbic and gifted loner, of mixed Danish and Greenlandic heritage, who cannot determine exactly where, if anywhere, she fits within society and has therefore made a habit of excluding herself from it as much as possible. Isaiah, the young son of Smilla’s alcoholic neighbour Juliette, has been an exception, begrudgingly allowed into Smilla’s solitude, but when Isaiah falls to his death from the snow-covered rooftop of the apartment building in which they live, Smilla is spurred into action by the inadequacy of a cursory police investigation which soon determines Isaiah’s death to be a suicide. Smilla is convinced there is something much more sinister involved.

It’s difficult to reliably characterise MSFfS, which often seems to be heading in so many directions at once that it’s unsettlingly kaleidoscopic. In a plot that references (among many other things) jazz, ice-fishing, tropical parasitology, accounting practices, industrial espionage, navigation, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the correct form of artificial lighting for the photography of snow, Høeg also finds space for a steady undercurrent of black humour. Much of this is conveyed through Smilla’s voice, or her unvoiced thoughts: first-person-present-tense can be a difficult style in which to relate a tale effectively, but Smilla’s character is sufficiently well-versed in a breadth of subject matter, so strongly individual and innately rebellious that her viewpoint frequently surprises. An example from the text may illustrate this better than any analysis I might offer:

“I hate lies,” I say. “If any lying has to be done, I’ll do it myself.”
“Then you should have told him that. Instead of hugging him.”
I can’t believe my ears, but I see that I’ve heard correctly. In his eyes there is the gleam of pure, unadulterated, idiotic jealousy.
“I didn’t hug him,” I say. “I helped him into his coat. For three reasons. First, because it’s a courtesy you ought to show towards a fragile, elderly man. Second, because he presumably risked his position and pension to come here.”
“And the third?”
“Third,” I say, “because it gave me the chance to steal his wallet.”

This conveys, I hope, a sense of the book’s flavour, though it’s just one small facet of an unusually complicated tale. The prose is finely chiselled, patient, playful. I felt in a couple of places that Høeg’s set-pieces were slightly overwrought—Smilla gets away with a lot, largely on moxie, the curiosity of her opponents, and hellish good luck—but overall this is a quite beautifully rewarding book, busy with invention, full of delicate detail; a book that is best read slowly. (I started and finished several other titles in the time taken to percolate my way through MSFfS.) It’s rare, I think, to find a single book which so encapsulates a complicated protagonist that the telling is utterly complete in itself, and yet leaves so much around the margins that the world is seen to be much larger than the tale it contains—it’s a trick managed, I think, in The Summer Book, and also in Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, two books which otherwise have almost nothing in common with it or with each otherbut this is true of Smilla too, while also toeing a fine line in narrative indeterminacy. It’s one of my favourite reads of the year to date.