Book review: See You Tomorrow, by Tore Renberg

17 09 2017

Tore Renberg is a Norwegian author (and, for a short time, vocalist in a band, Lemen, which also included fellow author Karl Over Knausgård on drums) perhaps best known for his 2003 novel Mannen som elsket Yngve (translated as The Man Who Loved Yngve) which was adapted in 2011 into a well-received Norwegian-language film. Of the dozen books he’s written to date, most are probably best categorised as mainstream or literary fiction; his excursion into crime fiction (or, to be more accurate, fiction about criminals, which isn’t necessarily the same thing) is comparatively recent, and opens with the book reviewed here.


See You Tomorrow (Vi Ses i Morgen, 2013, translated by Seàn Kinsella) entangles the lives of Pål Fagerlund, divorced (and dangerously indebted) father of two; ‘Rudi’ (Rune Dingervold), petty criminal and speed addict; Sandra, a fifteen-year-old rebelling against her straitlaced Christian upbringing by falling in with shady Daniel William Moi; and a dozen other figures. In pacing and in intensity of characterisation, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s gothic-fantasy Gormenghast trilogy, though it scarcely shares the latter’s fascination with architectural grotesquerie. As with Peake’s masterwork, the action advances with almost glacial slowness (the book takes around five hundred and fifty pages to encompass three days’ quite brisk activity) and with a sequentially close focus on its several disparate characters, several of whom are drawn with an affectionately caricaturish exaggeration rather in the style of John Kennedy Toole’s blackly comic A Confederacy of Dunces. The core of the book is concerned with the plan by jobbing crook Rudi and his mentor Jan Inge (‘Jani’) to burglarise and assault the online-gambling addict Pål so as to solve, through the subsequent bogus home-insurance claim, his million-kroner debt problem; a methodology which Jani proudly commends to Pål as ‘a time-honoured classic’. Jani takes considerable pride, almost an evangelical zeal, in his team’s workmanlike criminality, but is his confidence in their professionalism justified? The drug use, the double dealing, and the attentions of the local rozzers might suggest otherwise …

There’s a lot else happening in the book besides the insurance job: Sandra’s doomed relationship with Daniel; Rudi’s girlfriend Cecilie’s worries over the paternity of the new life burgeoning in her womb; Pål’s emo daughter Tiril’s run-ins with the hopelessly gauche Shaun and his psychotic big brother Kenny; and the graunch of a hundred moving parts as everyone’s hidden agenda gets in the way of everybody else’s.

The prose shines with a kaleidoscopic immediacy that is, in places, almost painful to read, as lives end, lives begin, and life goes on. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it … and I quite like it.


Book review: Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl

28 08 2017

Kjell Ola Dahl is a Norwegian writer who, amongst other works, has written around a dozen crime novels featuring the Oslo detectives Frølich and Gunnarstranda. His work (most of which, at this point, has not seen English translation) has won the Riverton Award and has been shortlisted for the Glass Key and Martin Beck awards.


Faithless (Kvinnen i plast, 2010, translated by Don Bartlett) opens, in the small hours, with Detective Frank Frølich on stakeout outside the home of suspected underworld figure Kadir Zahid. When a woman, Veronika Undset, leaves Zahid’s residence in the early morning, Frølich decides to bring her in for questioning. Undset claims ignorance of any illegal activities in which Zahid might be involved, but a search of her handbag reveals a small quantity of cocaine concealed in an empty cigarette lighter. She’s issued a fine and released with a caution. A few days later, she’s found dead from a large number of stab wounds; her body also shows signs of postmortem exposure to boiling water, applied presumably for the removal of DNA evidence following a sexual assault. In the interval between her questioning and her death, Frølich has learnt that she’s the fiancée of his estranged friend Karl Anders Fransgård, whose alibi for the night of Undset’s death transpires to be unreliable …

Faithless is a busy, scrappy procedural with a complicated setup. (As if the Undset investigation weren’t enough, Frølich is also puzzling over the disappearance of an African summer student, last seen late one night in the company of an indie film director, while his colleague Lena is wondering just how far to push her relationship with an overly-aggressive police officer.) It’s interesting, aside from the ins and outs of the investigation per se, for its warts-and-all portrayal of the mindsets of the officers involved. I suspect it’s not the ideal introduction to the Frølich & Gunnarstranda series, since it occurs quite late in the sequence and may well rely on the reader’s prior understanding of the characters involved, but it’s deftly plotted and manages at several points to overturn the reader’s developing suspicions.

Book review: Blood Ran Cold, by Sten Ostberg

16 08 2017

Sten Ostberg is a Norwegian journalist and crime fiction writer who has written three novellas featuring retired police officer Karl Vollen.


Blood Ran Cold (2015) is the first instalment in the Karl Vollen sequence; I ‘read’ it as an audiobook, and have no way of establishing whether it has been translated from the Norwegian or written in English.

Karl’s young wife Marte is just hours away from giving birth to their child, and the couple set out from their isolated farmhouse for the half-hour drive to the hospital at Tromso. They don’t get far on the snowy track out to the road, though: their car is intercepted by a hatchet-wielding intruder who refuses to budge for their vehicle. When Karl stops the car, the assailant tries to break in, first through the front windscreen, then the back. With the car stuck in a snowfilled ditch, Karl and Marte make their way back to the house, but they’re unable to get there before they’re outmaoeuvred by the hatchet-wielder. A tense hostage scenario unfolds within the farmhouse: Marte has started to go into labour, but Ditmar, the attacker, refuses to let them go. His account, though, of what he hopes to achieve from the hostage situation keeps changing. Karl is riven by the dual imperative of finding a way to overpower the intruder and getting Marte safely to the maternity ward.

While the story does a good job of sustaining the tension, I felt the telling was a touch too mechanical: there’s a lot of emphasis on who is where when, with dialogue needing to do much of the work of character development. And the sequence of scene shifts, from the car to the house to the shed to the car to the house, threatens to feel disorganised. It’s all justifiable in terms of the manner in which the story unfolded, and the writing is clear and expressive, but it doesn’t really manage to get under the reader’s skin the way an expertly-executed piece of suspense can.

Book review: Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, by Anne Holt

27 07 2017

Anne Holt is a Norwegian crime novelist whose CV includes the former occupations of lawyer (both in private practice and in affiliation with the Oslo police department) and Justice Minister. She is best known for her ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ series of police procedurals. I’ve previously reviewed the first in that series, Blind Goddess, here.


Blessed Are Those Who Thirst (Salige er de søm Torster, 1994, translated by Anne Bruce) is the second in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, and begins with the police investigation of a sequence of unusual Saturday-night bloodlettings, with disturbing quantities of blood (but no apparent victims) found in isolated or derelict buildings around Oslo, accompanied each time by the daubing of an eight-digit number in the spilt blood. Still, without any bodies associated with the blood, the incidents might well amount to nothing more than a particularly messy case of littering. A much more tangible crime—the vicious sexual assault of a medical student, Kristine Håverstad, by an unknown assailant—soon claims DI Wilhelmsen’s attention, and she does her best to juggle both investigations. Håverstad and her father Finn both struggle to process the assault, its aftermath, and the apparent police indifference to her situation as the ‘buckets of blood’ investigation takes priority following a gruesome discovery.

There are several things to like about the Hanne Wilhelmsen series: Wilhelmsen herself is a lesbian police officer who feels compelled to keep the nature of her home life (with partner Cecilie, a doctor) hidden from her colleagues, and this gives the narrative an innate additional strand of tension. Holt also clearly has the ability to identify with the plight of the victims of crime, and to realise the various ways in which the police system can let down those whom it is supposed to protect. But there’s also a sense in which Holt’s insider knowledge of the judicial and law enforcement systems gets in the way of the story: not through excessive description of the law or of police procedures, but through a stance which suggests that all of the problems inherent in the task of policing could be resolved through the provision of sufficient additional resources, yet which downplays the occurrence of discord between overworked officers tasked with often-conflicting duties. The officers, in short, are collectively rather too nice to feel entirely credible: nobody snaps, nobody pulls rank, nobody sounds off to any significant degree, at variance with the expected behaviour for a group of people under substantial and sustained pressure. I also wish there wasn’t quite so much head-hopping: often we’re presented with multiple personal viewpoints within the same scene, where my preference would be to have just one viewpoint character per section. The language, too, feels clunky and self-conscious in places, though in these cases it’s always difficult to know whether the flaws are with the original text or with the translation.

Those grumbles aside, the investigation proceeds in an interesting fashion, without unnecessary sensationalism and with a solid thread of social commentary which remains more-or-less topical in a story now almost a quarter-century old. Hanne is an intriguing character, possibly less daring now than she was at the time of the novel’s writing, but a refreshing change from the ranks of divorced hard-drinking chain-smokers so often cast in the role of principal protagonist in this type of story. And I’m always inclined to look favourably on crime novels which manage to include a gratuitous Moomin reference: here it’s to Comet in Moominland, on page 91.

All up, Blessed adds up to a solid and inventive crime story, not always note-perfect but worthwhile nonetheless.

Book review: Bad Intentions, by Karin Fossum

19 06 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist, most widely known (in English translation, at least) for her series of novels featuring the widowed Inspector Konrad Sejer. I’ve previously reviewed other books in this series here and here.


Bad Intentions (Den onde viljen, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) is nominally the ninth in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series, but it seems only peripherally to concern itself with Sejer per se, who gets point-of-view priority in only a handful of chapters. Instead, the narrative is most closely concerned with the mindset of Philip Reilly, a drug-addicted young hospital porter and sidekick to amoral, overconfident alpha male Axel Frimann, following the drowning of Reilly’s and Frimann’s troubled friend Jon Moreno in a late-night boating accident on a small lake. Frimann decides it’s too much bother to report the accident accurately, and persuades Reilly to conspire with him on a version of events which omits any mention of the three of them in the small rowboat and instead has Moreno suicidal and intent on drowning himself. It’s an act Frimann can carry off without qualms, but Reilly has a more difficult time of it, and is wracked with a worse sense of guilt than he carried before the accident. Moreno’s girlfriend, mother, and psychiatrist all know something is wrong with the story Frimann and Reilly present, as do the police, but there seems no way of knowing what dark secret the three men had held before Jon’s death … until another body turns up.

While I would have liked to see more of Sejer in this novel, I can’t really fault Fossum for the psychological depth of Reilly’s portrayal, nor of the other principal characters in this work. Fossum’s background in institutional work and in drug-addict rehabilitation shows through in her handling of Jon Moreno’s mental-health issues, though I couldn’t help but feel that the character of Hanna Wigert, Jon’s psychiatrist, was a fairly close copy of Dr Sara Struel, the psychiatrist in Fossum’s earlier novel He Who Fears The Wolf, even down to the discussion, with Sejer, of the importance of props such as dolls and toys as a means of encouraging inpatients to open up about deep-seated anxieties they might be experiencing. In other aspects, though, Bad Intentions is a satisfyingly different story than the others of the Sejer series with which I’m familiar. And Fossum’s characterisation and subtly subversive plotting is always a strength of her work, which darkens so gently and with so little fuss that one doesn’t notice, until it’s too late, the depths to which the reader has descended …

Book review: Final Curtain, by Kjersti Scheen

31 05 2017

Kjersti Scheen is a Norwegian journalist, illustrator, and author. She has won several national literary awards for her children’s fiction. She’s also achieved some success as a crime fiction writer, with at least five novels featuring private detective (and former actor, former police officer) Margaret Moss, though only one of these appears to have seen translation into English.


Final Curtain (Teppefall, 1994, translated by Louis Muinzer) bears no apparent relation to Ngaio Marsh’s novel of the same name, though both revolve around actors, infidelity, and murder. It’s the first of the Margaret Moss novels, in which Margaret is hired by her friend Rosa to investigate the disappearance of Rosa’s sister Rakel, an actor of some acclaim, on a train journey between Oslo and Bergen. There’s no motive discernible for Rakel’s disappearance, nor anything substantial by way of clues, so Margaret simply starts out by interviewing those of her acquaintances who have also known Rakel. But it’s not until her life is threatened that Margaret realises she may indeed be onto something …

The writing is staccato and rather choppy. I’m not sure how much of this is authorial style and how much might represent infidelities in the translation: I did find it notable that several of the characters were not consistently named. Georg is occasionally George, Karlsen is sometimes Karlesen, Rosa is Rose in some circumstances, and Cecelie makes at least one appearance as Cecilia, all of which does leave one wondering how much of the rest of the text is reliable. (Of course, Scheen wouldn’t be the first author to not be sure how her characters’ names were spelt, and I must concede some uncertainty, in my mid-20s, as to the spelling of my own middle name …) But though the prose sometimes muddles through in much the same way that Margaret muddles through the process of detection, the story does have enough of a pulse to it, particularly once it hits the second half, that the reader’s interest is maintained. And Margaret is an interesting character in her own right: there are the almost-obligatory problems with alcohol, but her relationship with her teenage daughter is well-drawn, her past is plausibly cluttered, her love life is haphazard and a trifle reckless, her dependence on a car and a dwelling that are each in significant need of repair causes problems and frustrations which add, in subtle ways, to the difficulty of her case as well as, on occasion, providing opportunities for understated humour. (I’m also inclined to view favourably any detective who sports a Moomin lapel badge: Moss’s is of ‘the little chap in a pointed cap who likes to travel’.)

The cover of the edition I read makes a direct comparison between Scheen’s writing and that of fellow Norwegian crime novelist Pernille Rygg: it’s an appropriate analogy, given the quirky characterisation (and unnecessary risk-taking by amateur-sleuth protagonists) in the works of both writers, though Rygg’s Igi Heitmann is a rather more cerebral creation than Scheen’s Margaret Moss, who seems to operate almost purely on instinct (and an aptitude for the lucky break just when she needs it most).

Ultimately, the explanation for Rakel’s disappearance is sufficiently involved, sufficiently unpredictable, and sufficiently plausible to justify the novel’s length, and Moss is a sufficiently intriguing character that it would be good to see rather more of her in English translation than just this one book.

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 (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.