A boot, a hat, a lost dog, a red herring…
Travelling via books is one of life’s pleasures. Discovering new places is inspirational. Reading about locations that you might have visited is even more exciting. I was attracted by a brief write-up on the cover of Marit Reiersgaard’s The Girl with no Heart / Jenta uten hjerte, published originally in 2014 by Gyldendal, and nominated for the prestigious Riverton Prize, a literary award given annually to the best Norwegian crime story. I was interested in both the premise of the novel and the references to Tranby, a small town located east of Oslo. I am aware of the area yet I was not familiar with the Obelisk and its origins but now had a chance to find out more. Here in the novel the monument features both as a crime scene and a symbol of past and modern morality, touching on the conscience of people who have lived with various secrets in their lives, and made choices according to what influenced them most or had power over their emotions.
The story begins with two separate crimes happening in close distance one winter morning. A body of a fifteen-year-old murdered Idunn Olsen has been found in the snow near the large obelisk outside the quarry in Lier. Idunn was returning from a party where something has gone wrong as police received calls from people complaining about disturbances. Afterwards the young people who had attended the party were strangely reluctant to answer any questions and as the interviews brought little useful information the search for the killer does not seem to progress much. Close by another death was reported, of an elderly woman who was discovered in a house burned to the ground. There might have been connection between two crimes due to an unexpected appearance of a local man Agnar Eriksen who had spent time in prison for an attempted murder of his mother but now on his way to freedom.
Relationship between the main detectives Verner Jacobsen and Bitte Røed evolves as the story progresses, and it is fascinating to watch how they both deal with personal and family issues, and even the ‘office politics’. Nuanced and delicately balancing on the line of attraction and respect for each other, their rapport shines light on insights into wounded souls. Verner’s anxiety after having just lost his only son Victor to cancer has huge impact on his professional approach to interviewing a young suspect Fredrik Paulsen, and then Marte Skage, a girl deeply traumatised by continuous bullying. Not only Verner is affected by the recent events but also feels troubled by not really knowing Victor properly. A theft of a hearse with the coffin on the day of the funeral shifted his personal grief into the realms of challenging police work. On the other hand, Bitte’s different attitude and a fledgling romance with Marte’s father Kristian, a journalist and a second person of interest, places her in a difficult and ultimately dangerous situation.
With genuine compassion the author deals with disturbing subjects of long-lasting effects of bullying and of abuse with sensitivity and understanding, not shying from some upsetting aspects which give enough context to internal turmoil experienced by those mostly affected. Cruelty seems to know no bounds, especially when it is hidden under the surface of politeness, ordinary activities, or fear of being exposed. Desperate acts of self-harm remain concealed beneath and trigger emotional blackmail. Close connections within the small community add interest and drama to the portrayal of various people who know or are aware of one another, and so the shocking finale would no doubt disturb many moral compasses.
Paul Norlen’s translation suits the flow of the initial measured tempo and reflections on the widely understood meaning of life, until the pressure of the investigation grows and intensified emotions are getting closer to exploding. Reiersgaard’s elegant confident style comes across very well, with some phrases describing the mood instantly: ‘He knew that he had winter in his face and heavy bags under his eyes.’
The landscape plays an important role and Reiersgaard expertly maintains tension by describing the neighbourhood that she knows so well. The town of Tranby or the police station in nearby Drammen does not feature strongly in the Norwegian crime fiction that has been translated into English. Karin Fossum’s series about Inspector Konrad Sejer is set in the neighbourhoods around Oslo and in Drammen though I do not think that name is explicitly mentioned. As Marit Reiersgaard puts this place firmly on the map of crime-worthy locations in the contemporary literature, I would strongly recommend that you get to know the girl with no heart here and the other girls that become a focus of intriguing mysteries.