Crime Corner

Påskekrim picksCrime Corner

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

The season is upon us—the påskekrim season, that is—and what better time to premiere a new column about Norwegian Noir—that dark and bloody ground, whose soil has brought forth great and enduring writers from Gunnar Staalesen to Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø and so many others? Thus, if you are in the process of making sure you have enough reading material to last you through one of Norway’s favorite times of the year, here are four seductively shuddery selections for you.

The HeartkeeperThe Heartkeeper 

by Alex Dahl

If you love standalone thrillers and haven’t yet been introduced to Alex Dahl, it’s high time!  After her remarkable debut novel Boy at the Door, Dahl, who possesses a Norwegian-American background, has been the writer to watch. 

And her sophomore offering, The Heartkeeper, confirms that promise and more. An upscale Oslo couple, Alison Miller-Juul and her husband have lost their child, Amalie, in a tragic accident, and Alison is having a hard time moving on. 

When she discovers that her daughter’s heart has been used to save the life of another little girl, Kaia, she fixates—and before long the external suburban calm of the book’s setting is seething with some pretty scary stuff. 

To what extent, Alison wonders, could the living child embody the dead one? And as Alison comes to believe this premise—she also comes to wonder whether Kaia is somehow not rightfully hers? 

The little girl’s birth mother, Iselin, is Alison’s access, and Alison is willing to carry out a bizarre ruse to get that access—one that could end in more tragedy.  

While The Heartkeeper never falters as a page-turning thrill ride, its even greater strength is its deft probing of the dark relationship between these two women—Alison older, more accomplished, and clearly quite disturbed—and Iselin, younger, frightened, and desperate to protect her child—a child who, even to Iselin, seems—not quite right.

Twisty, scary, and deeply human, The Heartkeeper is not to be missed, just as Alex Dahl is definitely a writer whose time has come.

The Whisperer The Whisperer

by Karin Fossum

Every reader who has delved into Scandinavian Noir knows the name Karin Fossum—Norway’s reigning queen of crime fiction.

And, of course, readers are familiar with her compassionate police detective Konrad Sejer. Part Maigret, part Wallander, and part your favorite uncle, Sejer solves his cases quietly and methodically. In fact, his method is not unlike Fossum’s prose—direct, plainspoken—but filled with unexpected depth. 

Fossum’s sentences move so smoothly that it is all too easy to read her novels quickly, but that is a mistake: her stories build literally to the last sentence of the book—and count on it:  she’s ahead of you every step of the way.  

The Whisperer, the 18th entry in the Sejer series, is a fine example of the Fossum delivery: essentially a two-person story (it could easily be done as a stage play).

Sejer has a woman in custody for murder, who initially elicits nothing but sympathy: Ragna Riegel is closer to the end of her life than the beginning. She’s a creature of habit living a lonely existence—maimed by a bad operation that has left a scar on her throat and ruined her vocal chords—thus the book’s title. She has a grown son in Berlin, but he’s in prison. Ragna is as alone as alone can get … until somebody starts sending her threatening letters. How do these circumstances lead this woman to a jail cell?  

Her shocking story, made even more shocking as it is disclosed in Fossum’s deceptively matter-of-fact style, will unnerve you—even as it urges a common humanity with a woman many might consider “the least of us.”  

Burned Burned

by Thomas Enger

Thomas Enger is another Norwegian author who you might find more than cabin-worthy for påskekrim. This Oslo-based former reporter has done standalone crime fiction, and co-written with the also formidable Jorn Lier Horst. But it is Enger’s series featuring journalist Henning Juul that stays with this reviewer. 

The initial entry, published in 2011 and named Burned, has spawned five more volumes, but this is a series with enough backstory that you’ll want to start at the beginning. 

Henning Juul is as broken a protagonist as you will find: physically disfigured with scars he got when his home burned, Juul carries some real mental baggage as well: he lost a young son in that fire. Now divorced and stuck deep in his own guilt, a guilt that he tries to assuage through throwing himself into his investigative reporting work. 

Burned takes him deep into a culture very different from his own: he is trying to unravel the case of a beautiful college student, found stoned to death and buried to her neck. One of her hands has also been severed. The student has a Pakistani boyfriend, which brings up the possibility of a ritual honor killing. But why? As Juul follows leads through the girl’s family and circle of acquaintances, the murder becomes far more complex than anything he had imagined. 

Be warned: this series is bleak. But it is also honest—and you’ll find yourself developing a lot of sympathy for the wounded yet very resourceful Henning Juul, whose personal despair never breaks him. 

In fact, the great joy of the series is watching Juul grow slowly strong at his broken places. Location is always a character in and of itself in Noir, and Enger makes the most of the compelling background that Oslo, a city he knows well, provides. When it comes to this series, we are betting you can’t read just one.

A Song for the Dark Times A song for dark times

by Ian Rankin

It’s about 500 airplane miles from Norway to the North Coast of Scotland, where a lot of the action of Ian Rankin’s new novel takes place. It’s named A Song for the Dark Times and, while not Norwegian, it certainly has that feel—as Rankin’s John Rebus novels often do. Rebus is a popular character in Norway—and always a good bet for påskekrim reading. 

Twenty-three installments in, the cranky detective has unwillingly retired from active duty and is battling COPD, brought on by all those years of ciggies. He isn’t supposed to be drinking, either—but he’s Rebus, and he gets a lot of his case-cracking information in bars. 

What? He’s still working??  You bet—and this time close to home. He’s far north from Edinburgh, investigating the highly suspicious death of his daughter Samantha’s live-in boyfriend—a death that Samantha herself just might have had a hand in. 

When Rebus sputters into town in his beat-up Saab, the locals get antsy—as well they should:  it seems the dead boyfriend was investigating the history of a World War II internment camp there—one that hold some pretty gothic secrets. 

Meanwhile back in Edinburgh, series regulars Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox have their hands full with Rebus’ old nemesis the crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty, who may or may not be responsible for the murder of a Saudi student with a dodgy night life. 

Will all roads meet?  Of course they will.  And who has the most adorable dog?  Is it Rebus’ Brillo, or Inspector Sejer’s Frank Robert?  Well it’s a toss-up—just as it’s a toss-up which of these excellent mysteries to read first. The good part is—You really can’t go wrong.

This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2021, 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.