Professor Jerry’s påskekrim picks
Påskekrim is upon us again, and it’s time to head for the hills and get our fills of the crime fact and fiction we have been planning to read all year.
Though I am a resident of the United States these days, I still observe “påskekrim,” and I usually start with a sentimental rereading of Gunnar Staalesen’s Where Roses Never Die (2017), easily the best of the Varg Veum series and, in fact, the best detective novel I know of besides Raymond Chandler’s classic The Long Goodbye.
Thus fortified, I’ll then turn my attention to newly published works, and that’s where I’ll stay until it’s time to return from that magical Norwegian mountain of my imagination, where the landscape outside my window is always snowy and the aquavit is always freezer-cold.
This year, the new kids on the block for me are Camilla Bruce, Vigdis Hjorth, and Sam Spicer—all Norwegian writers whose careers are burgeoning fast.
Bruce is the author of In the Garden of Spite, which is the latest fanciful treatment of Norway’s best-known monster, Belle Gunness. “Hell’s Belle,” as she came to be known, was born in Selbu, Norway, in 1859 but wound up immigrating to the United States, ending up in Chicago, where she married and had children. By this point, she had endured childhood rape and avenged it. But only in Chicago did she begin her serial-killer spree, marrying and then bumping off husbands like she was swatting flies.
Seeing how easy detection was to avoid for a single woman on her own with children, Gunness took money from one dead husband’s estate and bought a farm near LaPorte, Ind. Did she continue killing? You bet your shelved meat grinder she did. In fact, she developed quite a cottage industry, posting ads that would attract rich Norwegian men, who, if they took the bait, would be promised good Norwegian cooking and, presumably, good Norwegian sex.
Lured to Indiana, these suckers would be summarily killed, dismembered, and buried in Belle’s backyard. By the time she was done, she had dispatched at least 14 people, and some historians put the number at closer to 40. One of them may have been her own foster daughter. In fact, some would say she killed three of her children.
Camilla Bruce, a talented writer, claims the same birthplace as Gunness and, indeed, has immersed herself in her subject as only a true local might. I feel this connection strongly because the Gunness farm is about 10 minutes from where I lived when I was with Purdue University. It’s still a scary place, although, of course, Belle herself burnt the farm house down in 1908, when the generally clueless police decided that knowledge, though late-coming, is not to be denied, and went to arrest her.
Bruce lets Gunness narrate her own tale, but she also pulls in Belle’s real-life sister for a second point of view. This sort of works, although not as well as Bruce’s invention of a totally fictional love interest for Belle, James Lee, who also happens to be a talented body snatcher. He’s a hell of a good, slimy villain as well, and when apace, we learned that Belle has a taste for post-murder sex, it’s no surprise that James is her go-to main squeeze.
“You think I like the act of murder?” Belle queries James. “I know you like the act of murder,” James replies. According to him, the need to kill “ages like fine whiskey, that lust; it grows and it blooms.”
There’s a good film squirming around in here someplace. Somebody might want to see what Kathy Bates is up to these days. In the meantime, the case of Belle Gunness remains the most convincing proof of that great line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
Johanna, a successful artist, has been estranged from her mother and sister for a long time, but when she learns that her mom is residing in Oslo the lure of what might have been is just too appealing to Johanna. She stakes out her mother in the true tradition of detective fiction and proceeds to watch the front of Mom’s house. And she watches. And watches.
Not a great deal happens until the end, and there you will be in for a couple of surprises. The novel works the best during those stakeout sequences where, if you cue Bernard Herrmann’s great score for Vertigo and remember those dreamlike images of Jimmy Stewart tailing Kim Novak around San Francisco, you’re in the territory this book wants to tread.
And, of course, Hjorth relentlessly hammers the My Mother, My Self message, which is, after all, the core of the book: “When the mother fights the daughter, and the daughter fights her own fearful self, the two of them tied together by pain and rage—it becomes a matter of intimacy, not love.”
I don’t think for a moment that this woman-driven story is for females alone: I had similar issues to the ones Hjorth describes with my own late father. What impressed me the most was the author’s adept depiction of what happens when rifts that should have been settled at once persist too long: the trouble between daughter and mother started because of a painting Johanna did of Mom that she found—well—less than flattering. This part of the story works, I think, as a cautionary tale: in the words of John Lennon: “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”
Sam Spicer is a nom de plume for a woman writer who is having success with a couple of different series. Polar Bears are Black (they are, by the way: the white fur is camouflage), the debut for the “Borealis” series, introduces us to Eloise Fletcher, who is grieving over the death of her father in an outpost near the Arctic Circle.
Hmm. Kick-ass woman goes forth to avenge her dead dad. We’ve been here before. Luckily, Spicer is adept at describing the frozen perils of Longyearbyen, a real town near the very top of the world in Svalbard. The moments in which Spicer draws us in to a very palpable landscape are the best ones this book offers.
Ready to read?? Any of these novels would make for delightfully shuddery påskekrim. Dig in—and happy påskekrim!
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.