From Belle Gunness to Tarjei Vesaas to today’s classrooms

Crime Corner brought to you by Jerry Holt

While education and crime are not necessarily linked, they have fit together nicely for mystery readers from any number of nations over the years—and they continue to do so. Indeed, Inspector Morse solved numerous crimes—usually murder—committed by one academic against, very often, another—all set against an Oxford background. And in the United States world weary detectives like Lew Archer and Robert B. Parker often find themselves searching for clues on college campuses as far-flung as UCLA and Boston University.

And in Norway? Caught in the intrigues of a Karin Fossum novel featuring Inspector Sejer or a Gunnar Staalesen Varg Veum installment, young people, often students, play important roles. Indeed, sometimes a look outside the traditional world of thrillers can produce noir gems that go by other names.

ice palace

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas is available from Penguin Modern Classics.

The much celebrated novel The Ice Palace (1963), by the late Tarjei Vesaas, has a noir level that one wouldn’t except for such a “literary” work. It involves two 11-year-old friends, Unn and Siss, who form a bond that relates to a certain natural phenomenon near where they go to school—an ice palace formed by a frozen waterfall.

Unn, a stranger to Siss’ small town, will return to the ice palace without Siss—and then summarily disappear. Here is the book’s noir twist: Is Unn dead? Has she somehow transmogrified to another place, perhaps somewhere deep inside the icy walls of this structure that nature has so randomly produced? The community engages—especially the school that Unn and Siss attend—and a nonstop, seemingly endless search ensues. The way the classroom community of students goes after the mysterious disappearance is laudable: the students are not giving up, even when it becomes clear that they won’t be getting much help from Unn’s friend Siss, who has drawn within herself, only willing to refer to a “promise” that was made between her and Unn. This reticence on Siss’ part is frustrating: her classmates really do seem to want to help.

Film buffs may associate this plotline with the 1961 Italian movie L’Avventura, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The world of this film is adult, but the hook is the same: a decadent group of party-goers are visiting a windswept and lonely island when the most vivacious of them, the lovely Anna, goes missing. The body of the film is about the unsuccessful hunt for Anna and its effect upon her fellow revelers.

I would not be surprised if The Ice Palace author Vesaas did not acknowledge a debt to Antonioni—the concepts are so similar. Yes, Antonioni is dealing with the upper class and Vesaas with the lower middle class, but the theme of what we collectively owe to those who have left us behind is overriding.

On another level, The Ice Palace also works as an allegory about the rocky road to maturity. A harbinger of the coming of adulthood, after all, is awareness of death—and this little book is all about that. Early in the book, we get to follow Unn for a while as she walks home in frozen darkness, and in a key scene we see her trudging alone toward the ice palace with the sure sense that someone—something—is following along beside her:

“… She was in the hands of whatever it was at the sides of the road…. It possesses neither form nor name, but whoever passes here knows when it comes out and follows after and sends shudders like rippling streams down (the) back.”

Harold Schechter’s Hell’s Princess is a definitive biography of Belle Gunness, available on Amazon.

That something—or those somethings— are of course every terror of the adult world that threatens us when we are children: they manifest themselves in shadows that lie by the side of the dark road or under the bed or somewhere in that attic mirror where the ghostly image disappears as soon as it makes itself known.  And their true terror is that they are not childhood fantasies—they represent things to come that are very real: the pain of living, the certainty of death. In other words, the world of noir—thus wrote Alexander Pope. That would certainly be true of the infamous real-life serial killer Belle Gunness, whose hardscrabble—and murderous—life started in rural Norway at the end of the 19th century and wound up on a farm she had managed to buy (with the proceeds of her first kill) in LaPorte, Ind., at the beginning of the 20th century.

Gunness had enough schooling to read and write, and as an immigrant she began to post a series of ads that were meant to attract “good Norwegian men” to join her. Gunness of course would attract these men to her farm and then murder them: the 30-plus graves that litter the LaPorte farm are testament to this. Along the bloodstained way, Gunness was also collecting children—and yes—she would also murder at least one of those.

Maybe she should have joined the LaPorte PTA or done anything to keep her mind off the next hit. But she preferred to camp on her farm and write her advertisements, a perfectly bloated black widow. Gunness does achieve a certain grisly success these days because today she is known as the first correspondence killer, long before the internet has made such crimes commonplace. And she made herself personally interesting enough to become the subject of many books, several films both documentary and creative—not to mention television, song, and endless cyberspace mentions.

Victoria Kielland’s Her Men came out in Norway in 2021 and is now in English translation. As if to underscore the vitality of Belle (some think she burned the farm as the police were closing in and somehow managed to disappear in the smoke, never to be seen again), Camilla Bruce also published In the Garden of Spite last year, also a novel about Gunness. Bruce made Gunness almost sexy; Kielland opts for hallucinatory, which she may well have been. In any case, Gunness is not going away any time soon. In fact, this story of an uneducated woman who became a serial killer is being taught in school on both sides of the Atlantic these days. Chalk another one up for La Bella.

Also see: The notorious Belle Gunness—she dunnit! in the April 1, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American, and The Ice Palace in the June 29, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.