Norwegian Noir with Jerry Holt
Jo Nesbø’s Oslo Detective Harry Hole has endeared himself enough to an international reading public to sell 50 million books at last count. The weary Harry, disillusioned, disfigured, and often drunk, first appeared in 1997’s The Bat (Flaggermusmannen), and he’s been going strong ever since. Along the way, Nesbø has given us a few standalone crime novels as well, the latest being The Kingdom (Kongeriket, 2020). At 550 pages, it’s a big book—and the story is big, too: we follow the Opgård family through their history to date: the father was a farmer who, along with his wife, staked out a patch on a very lonely mountain in rural Norway and proceeded to hardscrabble on it as the couple reared two sons—Roy, the elder, the stay-at-home type and younger brother Carl, who is a born wanderer.
For the first third of the book, we get essentially a family saga—one fraught with problems, since Dad sexually abuses younger son Carl. Mom is no help here, and the farm is too remote to attract some local savior for Carl, so older brother Roy steps into that role. Does he ever. We soon find ourselves in the murderous territory Nesbø is known for, as Roy, who by age 18 has become a mechanic, rigs the family automobile so that Dad, who won’t stop his abuse, goes roaring over the edge of the mountain road and into a deep ravine. Mom is by his side, and just like that the brothers are on their own and soon enough masters of their domain. Or at least Roy is. Carl goes off to university in the United States. A formal education is hardly his priority, though: When he arrives back home, he has big plans to build a hotel on the family land—and he’s brought his own architect: Shannon, a stunning young woman who Carl has taken as his bride.
Despite those messy parental murders, the brothers Opgård have managed to live normal lives (Roy now runs a gas station), until a snooping sheriff comes to investigate those. By the novel’s midpoint, Nesbø, ever the skillful storyteller, has cast enough plot lines to let us know that more violence will follow—and odds are that it is going to set brother against brother: Roy has managed to fall in love with his brother’s wife, Shannon, and—uh oh—she turns out to be equally hot for him. Don’t plan on doing something else after you hit the last 200 pages: there’s a rip-roaring ending in store for you that makes The Kingdom completely live up to the moniker “page turner.”
There are ancillary pleasures to The Kingdom for those who love Norwegian culture and history. Nesbø drops in plenty of tidbits of that sort along the way. You may well have lived this long without knowing that the Gentoo penguin claims its nest by crapping in it, but Nesbø covers that along with pretty much the entire oeuvre of musician J.J. Cale and some good background on Italian sonnets—Well, as I said: it’s a big book. And in between matricide, patricide, and sheriffcide Nesbø takes the trouble to carve real characters with reasons for their actions. The Kingdom is an absorbing and consistently riveting read.
Kjell Ola Dahl writes under the name K.O. Dahl, and since 1993, he has been chronicling the cases of Oslo police detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich, a somewhat mismatched pair, whose approach to crime solving is to plod through shoe leather and stick to task. But that doesn’t mean these novels—there are eight of them now—are lackluster: on the contrary they are tightly paced, and the revelations are always one jump ahead of the reader. In Lethal Investments (Dødens Investeringer, 1993), the pair investigates the murder of Reidun Rosendahl, a young professional woman, whose death may well be tied to the software company she worked for, a company that, our detectives soon realize, has plenty of secrets. Initial interest centers on Rose’s boyfriend, until he also is found murdered, and at that point, Gunnarstranda and Frølich start to think they are up against a killer who, unless they can stop him, plans to keep on killing.
Lethal Investments provides some interesting insights into Norway’s industrial scene, and the novel’s mystery sustains itself until the end, but ultimately it is the detectives who carry the story. Gunnarstranda, diminuitive, widowed, and very much alone except for Frølich, is a chain smoker with a fated sense that serves his detecting well. Frølich, gregarious, flashy and physically large, has a girlfriend named Eva-Britt, who has a head for detection herself. The tension between the two detectives is reminiscent of Beck and Gunvald in the classic Swedish series penned by Sjöwall and Wahloo. About half of this series has been translated into English and the translator is the durable Don Bartlett—always good news.
Scotland’s Ian Rankin refers to himself as a North Sea Writer, and that is the label I would use for Ann Cleeves as well. The pen of the prolific Cleeves has spawned several series characters, the most visible of which are detectives Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez. Vera’s stomping ground is the fictional Northern England city of Northumberland, but Perez calls the very real and very windswept Shetland home. Both series have become popular television offerings. Of the two, “Vera,” with its 90-minute format and its charismatic lead performance by Brenda Blethyn is the more engrossing to me, but both have taken solid print sources and made them wonderfully cinematic. If you have not met these characters in their literary forms, the novels Harbour Street (2016) and White Nights (2010) are good places to start.
Harbour Street finds Vera at Christmastime, wondering how she is going to get through the loneliest time of the year for her. With the exception of her police work, her life is a numbing routine.
A solitary existence in the house of her dead father; weight and general health problems, and a dangerous fondness for the bottle haunt this physically large and socially clumsy woman. She is devoted to her police staff, especially to the young family man Joe Ashworth, who she considers a foster son. But Joe after all has a wife and child and that’s where he’ll be at Christmas. In fact, all her colleagues are fanning out for the holiday, and thus Vera, though she would never admit it, is almost happy when an elderly woman known as a do-gooder is murdered on the Metro just days before Christmas. A strange bonus: Joe and his young daughter were riding on that train—in the very same car. In fact, it was Joe’s daughter Jessie who found the body.
So, Christmas brings work after all, and the real joy of this series is watching Vera get down to it. Before she can start to put pictures and pins in the office Murder Board, though, another woman—this one whose repute could not be more ill—is also killed, and sleigh bells turn into slay bells for Harbour Street, the community where the central action of the novel takes place. How do these two murders tie in? Or do they? What does a decades-old fire that was likely arson—a fire in a neighborhood where “nothing in this place has changed for thirty years”—have to do with the current carnage?
Through the falling snow Vera trudges on even as Christmas Eve approaches. Will our ungainly, solitary, near-alcoholic sleuth untangle this deadly web before Boxing Day? Bet on Vera.
White Nights is the second book in Cleeves’s “Shetland” series, in which we follow Jimmy Perez, a native of these far-flung isles who has returned to police work here after the death of his wife. Though a native, Perez has Spanish ancestry and his darker coloring pegs him as an outsider—a characteristic that can work to his advantage in police work. This story is set in summer, and the novel’s titles refers to the time in deep summer when a suffused light stays in the sky all night. Locals say it can be disorienting—and, as it turns out here, it can also be a perfect setting for murder.
A visitor to this windswept place has suddenly appeared at a gallery showing, where he proceeds to burst out weeping and plunge to the floor, apropos of nothing. Later he will be found hanged from a rafter in a barn, a murder victim to all appearances. What has happened here and who is to blame? Jimmy will share this case with DCI Roy Taylor from Liverpool, who has no love for Perez and what Taylor considers his plodding, folksy methods. And then Jimmy has Fran Hunter to worry about: he is in the first throes of love with her, a condition he does not handle well.
White Nights is a well-plotted, smart mystery that pays off in increments: the more we care about the characters, the more we realize that the stormy, unpredictable weather of Shetland is a perfect metaphor for the inner lives of these island people. This is also the series that is closest to Norway, both geographically and emotionally. Remember that it wasn’t so long ago that there was a regular ferry that ran between these deeply bonded locales.
This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.