Roslund and Hellström: 3 Hours

3 Hours moves effortlessly between two continents and completely different locations, the civilised Sweden and the less so Niger and Libya, but even though the perception of these countries is of contrasting morals, what really ties them together in this context is basically the harsh criminal barbaric trade in human beings.

It all starts in Stockholm. Nearing his professional journey DCI Ewert Grens receives an emergency call to a morgue whose inventory is showing one corpse too many. This impossible situation leads him to Värta Harbour, one of the largest port areas, and centre of international ferry traffic where he discovers a horrendous cargo: dead bodies of seventy-three refugees, suffocated in a container. The initial investigation directs Grens and his excellent team of main players Sven and Mariana to another mortuary where more unidentified bodies are found, and then to the complicated tunnels underneath the city. This was the route to transport the dead. The shocking discovery means that people responsible for the mass killing know the underground area well and might be within police’s reach.

Next stop is Niamey in Niger, a West African city unheard of by many people. Grens decides to search for a man he had hoped to never see again after the last escapade to Colombia. Yet now he needs to find Piet Hoffmann whose fingertip was lifted from a phone by one of the victims. The ex-convict, former-government informer and Gren’s nemesis-turned-ally is forced to infiltrate the brutal ring responsible for the container corpses; the organisation known for brutality and greed, and treating the refugees worse than animals, even worse than any cargo weight. Hoffmann really has no choice but to agree to a two-week period in order to unmask the top figures so he could return to his wife and two young sons. His family supposed to be safe in a quiet Stockholm suburb yet is also connected to the vicious operators and hence in grave danger. Two weeks become three hours, and the tension goes through every roof imaginable.

Hoffmann’s life consists mostly of being on the run ‘from a life sentence in a Swedish prison, from a death sentence from the Polish mafia, then another one from the White House, and then one more from a South American drug cartel.’ Lying became his second nature and a powerful tool to infiltrate dangerous criminal organisations, and in this particular case the corporation specialising in human smuggling of desperate African refugees to Sweden and Germany. Violence is a by-product, yet we still root for him.

Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström excel in creating intense compelling plots encompassing huge international matters and ordinary human existence, including major social issues without lecturing or judging, even if their stance is absolutely clear. Occasionally the duo leaves more questions than answers as how the moral compasses should work. And these compasses of course swing in various directions depending on personal circumstances. In 3 Hours, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, as the narration unfolds levels of connections between good and evil, the complexity of characters shines throughout and keeps you on the edge of the seat.

The novel was published by Quercus’ imprint Riverrun in August 2019 (hardback) and October 2020 (paperback).

Our man in Malmö

With a new Skåne County Police commissioner wanting to make his mark in Malmö, the Criminal Investigation Squad is under pressure when they are called in to solve the killing of a private investigator. The nature of the victim’s work throws up some obvious suspects, yet not all is what it seems. When another murder takes place, there seems to be a politically sensitive connection.
Anita Sundström, out of the force for a year after her resignation, is approached by a dying woman to track down a collection of paintings stolen from her family. The paintings were looted by the Nazis in Budapest in 1944. But needing the money, Anita takes on this seemingly impossible task. As she heads off to Hungary, she has no idea of the dangers ahead. This is the eighth mystery in the best-selling Anita Sundström crime series.

Ahead of the publication day for Mammon in Malmö on 6th June 2021, I asked its author Torquil MacLeod to share reflections about his various Swedish connections.

‘It was on a storm-tossed ferry from Newcastle in the middle of December in the year 2000 that we made our visit to Sweden. On arrival in Gothenburg, we took a very slow train down the coast and ended up at a desolate Malmö Central Station at midnight. We were virtually the only people left on the train when we were met by our elder son who had recently moved to Skåne. We drove through deserted streets and the only bright spots were the electric Christmas lights in nearly every window. It wasn’t the most promising of starts, yet it turned out to be the beginning of a great adventure. 

During that first wintry visit, I was captivated by the landscape of Skåne, the southernmost region of Sweden. For part of our sojourn, we stayed in the attractive coastal town of Ystad with a police detective who has become a firm friend and has proved a useful source of information over the years. She worked out of the station, which I discovered some years later was the home of Henning Mankell’s fictional detective, Kurt Wallander.

At the time of our visit, I was interested in writing film scripts and was working on a number of projects with a producer friend. Among the script ideas I came up with were two crime-based dramas set in southern Sweden; one specifically in Malmö. With my screenwriting career going nowhere fast, I decided to dust off an old film treatment, and it morphed into my first novel, Meet me in Malmö.    

Though the central figure, Anita Sundström, was to be a Swedish police inspector, I wanted to give British readers an outsider’s view of the country – my view. The novel was a basic introduction to Sweden, as home-grown Swedish writing – just as crime writing from any other country – assumes a certain degree of local knowledge and cultural understanding in its readers.  In my subsequent Malmö Mysteries, I have attempted to fill in some of the gaps. In doing so, I appear to have become a member of the Scandi-Brit sub-genre of Nordic crime along with Quentin Bates, Michael Ridpath and Will Dean.

I also wanted Anita to be different from many other fictional detectives. Unlike Kurt Wallander, Harry Hole, Morse, Rebus and even Jane Tennyson, she is only one of a team. She’s not running the investigations. She’s only a cog in the machine and has to work within those restrictions. She can’t be the clichéd maverick figure. It’s her role within the team that leads to tensions. 

The other main character in the story is Malmö itself. My son called it home for several years. It’s a pleasant city – particularly in the summer with all its beautiful parks. Much as I enjoyed The Bridge, I was disappointed that the producers deliberately ignored many of the city’s obvious attractions. Malmö is also a cultural melting pot with a large immigrant population. Thanks to the opening of the Öresund Bridge in 2000 linking it to Copenhagen, it has transformed itself from backwater town into cosmopolitan city. This is Anita Sundström’s beat.

I also like to weave aspects of Swedish history into the modern crime mix. In Midnight there was Lenin’s visit to Malmö on his way to Russia and its earth-shattering revolution. Menace featured the eighteenth-century orientalist, linguist and traveller, Jakob Jonas Björnstahl; while Malice covered the large number of child refugees that Sweden took in from Finland during the Second World War. Mourning dealt with the Estonia ferry disaster while my latest book, Mammon in Malmö, looks at Sweden’s contrasting roles in the last war.

My Swedish adventure may have had a rough start but the country now plays a huge role in my life. And the journey has come full circle as I have two wonderful Swedish grandchildren living in Ystad, where it all began.’ 

More information about all eight books can be found here: Torquil MacLeod – McNidder & Grace

Gunnar Staalesen’s Fallen Angels / Falne engler

I’m not going to hide my feelings for Varg Veum. I got to know his habits, good and bad points, ups and downs, and various experiences over the course of several books and films. His appeal is strongly connected to Gunnar Staalesen’s masterful writing, astute observations, huge dose of realism and authenticity, and most importantly compassion that ultimately drives the private detective. Veum that I love would not exist outside his city of Bergen, well, he might but he would have been a different person. For me, and I believe for many other readers, Veum is and symbolises Bergen. Through his eyes I can discover the changes, atmosphere, history. The town’s polished sparkling surface for the international tourists eager to see the fjords and mountains. The mundane ordinary existence and undercurrent of social issues which become too big to be fixed. Beauty and the beast of the place firmly fixed within the Bible Belt of Norway and the stunning incredible landscape of powerful and often harsh nature.

Like Staalesen, Veum’s childhood and teenage years were spent in Nordnes peninsula, part of the city close to the well-known tourist landmark UNESCO-listed Bryggen, a series of Hanseatic heritage commercial buildings, yet totally independent from the rest. In the book the area was referred as Republic of Nordnes, and influenced by the early post-war years, still bearing signs of ravages of the WWII. The close-knit communities, sexual awakenings and turf wars. Although these elements are in the past, many memories remain hidden, some are surprises waiting for the ‘right’ moment to emerge. A funeral of a former classmate might be such an event, when unexpectedly Veum joins his other friend Jacob Aasen, ex-guitarist with the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers, now a church organist. The men have not seen each other for more than twenty years. Recollections of childhood days, escapades of adolescence and difficulties of adult life are recurring themes in their conversations which culminate in Jakob asking Veum to find his estranged wife Rebecca. This is not an official job, a favour rather, as Veum realises that their relationship has been problematic over the years. Yet Jacob hopes for Rebecca’s return to the family. What makes is quite sensitive is that she was Veum’s first love. Reminiscences of life that never happened, of missed opportunities make this search both emotionally tricky and poignant.

Apart from this assignment Veum finds himself thrown into the past, through an emotive contemplative and introspective journey through photo album, memories and questions; as well as through the discovery of a horrific recent murder and what he suspects a tragedy going back years.

He feels that something terrible has happened, something that nobody will talk about yet what had consequences akin to the butterfly effect. He suspects that The Harpers’ sudden end to playing and performing in mid 70s must have been connected to a crime. He analyses lives of the band’s members. Arild Hjellestad drank himself to death, Harry Klove died in a traffic accident, and Jan Petter fell off scaffolding at work. When Veum finds in a street a body of the dead Johnny Solheim, the visibly ageing but most prolific and active member of the band, he is first arrested by the police as a suspect. When released from the police station, he begins to consider that three accidental deaths and one stabbing are all murders, part of some twisted plan. Is it revenge? Is it a game? Is it just a series of truly unfortunate incidents in the God’s fearing place?

With confident determined hand and with tenderness and understanding Staalesen steers Varg Veum through ‘childhood is a wound that never heals’ reminiscences, and brutal reality of social issues, horrific experiences of some characters, and vast ocean of his own reflections on life, comprising his parents, tricky relationship with ex-wife, and delicate connection with fifteen-year-old son Tomas. Bergen’s varied music scene and its influences feature strongly, and so does religion and perception of its rigid commandments. The background setting makes the novel alive and pulsating with grief, regret, sorrow, and the fallen misunderstood and abandoned angels. The novel set in 1986 was originally published three years later in Norway but only now is available in English. Don Bartlett, the maestro of Norwegian translation, has worked on several Staalesen’s books and I am confident that their collaboration has been enhanced over the years.

Fallen Angels is both another complex and challenging unofficial investigation by Varg Veum, tinged with sadness and loneliness, and the sensitive portrait of the location, the city and the islands that surround it. A pean to the gone-by era and the influence of the nature and landscape. I particularly enjoyed this paragraph summarising existence from that part of the country:

‘Waiting at ferry terminals is the fate of Vestlanders. No so-journs have left deeper marks in their soul than precisely this. On a wind-blown quay – where there is a hot-dog stall, which is closed, a telephone box where the cable has been yanked out and where the summer ferry timetable is displayed in winter (and vice versa) – lives are shaped. Here, they are on their way out into the world, from home, or on their way home, to weddings or funerals. Here, they accompany their sweethearts to final farewells; here, love-rivals sit in big cars, waiting to take over. Here, they set down their cases and rucksacks, their cardboard boxes of books and photographs, on their way to new life in university towns. Here, they come ashore half drunk after two weeks on the North Sea; here they come home from military service and teacher-training college; here, women arrive with children in their arms and the elderly arrive with walking sticks for their rheumatism after a visit to an urban medical centre. Here, maps are drawn of new paths while old ones are hastily erased. And everyone is waiting for the ferry which is always somewhere in the fjord. Waiting for a ferry is the Vestlander’s lot in life.’

Nordnes peninsula with its ferry terminal

My reviews of the earlier books by Gunnar Staalesen are here: We Shall Inherit the Wind (2015) (Euro Crime pages), Where Roses Never Die (2016) Wolves in the Dark (2017) and Big Sister (2018) (on the Crime Review website).

World Book Day. And Macbeth

Today, 23 April is the World Book and Copyright Day, declared by UNESCO in 1995, a celebration to promote the enjoyment of literature, books and reading, remembering links between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures. This date is symbolic in world literature as on 23 April several prominent authors, such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. In England it’s Saint George Day, and in Catalonia people give books and roses to celebrate its patron saint Sankt Jordi, and love and culture.

Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 April 2016. Krystyna Konecka talks to the Polish TV about her fascination with William Shakespeare and his incredible works

My personal links to the Bard are all about language and poetry. My mum Krystyna Konecka wrote a series of beautiful thoughtful sonnets, full of emotion and insight. I translated Ogrody Szekspira from Polish into English, and a copy of this volume of poems Shakespeare’s Gardens found its place at the Shakespeare Library in Stratford-upon-Avon. We have visited the Bard’s birthplace many times, always discovering new interesting aspects of his life and works, and the atmosphere of quite a unique place.

Here’s the fairly recent Scandinavian link to William Shakespeare in a form of a homage by the bestselling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s Macbeth you will know what to expect. If not – brace yourself for the modern retelling of the condemned life. The ongoing Hogarth project proposes to bring all of Bard’s plays as novels for 21st century readers and here we have all the vital elements: cruelty, manipulation and power games, plus darkness of soul and of setting. And above all the political ambition that goes overboard.

Just like in the original, the story is set somewhere in Scotland. The exact location is vaguer. In the country’s most corrupt, lawless and nameless town the geographical and social divisions mean that both poor and rich struggle. The long-term legacy of Kenneth, the previous chief police commissioner who destroyed democracy after running the place with absolute power, left a bleak, almost medieval feel. After his death the virtuous and honourable Duncan is appointed. This offers the hope of better living conditions, new jobs, security, and the end of competition between the local drug lords and the bikers called Norse Riders, led by shrewd Sweno, and the untouchable old man Hecate, also known as the Invisible Hand, his speciality being ‘brew’, which has the same effect as crack cocaine.

Enter thirty-three-year-old Macbeth in charge of a paramilitary SWAT unit whom the idealistic Duncan promotes to the position of the head of Organised Crime. In childhood, Macbeth was for years sexually abused in the orphanage, then addicted to speed. He was crazy, hopelessly lost and lonely until a police officer, Banquo, saved him from life on the street and became his substitute father. Now he is happy to serve the town, and in a relationship with the much older, beautiful but manipulative Lady. He still believes in love and the goodness of people, occasionally swaying into ‘sometimes cruelty is on the side of the good.’ 

The classic villainess Lady, the daughter of an unemployed alcoholic father and a depressive violent mother, was raped when she was thirteen, abandoned and without a roof over her head and had sacrificed her new-born baby to survive. Ruthless and ambitious, she eventually became the owner of the Inverness Casino, and with new opportunities for Macbeth, she demands that he kills Duncan and takes his place. Although initially reluctant, Macbeth does as he is told, convinced initially that he follows fate’s call, but in a twisted reality he’s also being used by Hecate and the three sisters. 

As the events turn more gruesome and Macbeth rules over the town with Lady by his side, his affection for stimulants and then addiction to much more potent ‘power’, the improved drug supplied by Hecate, makes him paranoid. The tragedy keeps unfolding as per the prophecy with no one being safe and with more corruption and violence. Friendships are forgotten, everyone is truly doomed. Macbeth as the chief commissioner is not the hoped-for saviour and in fact the police turn out to be another armed gang.

Inspector Macbeth is the best cop, able to clean up any mess, such as a drug bust turned into a bloodbath. He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past.

Jo Nesbø’s take on Shakespeare’s play brings a new level of despair and desolation. The creator of Harry Hole knows the classic tragedy inside out, utilising many of the original names and retaining some of the hierarchy of the characters, as well as adding a different dimension, suitable to contemporary times. It’s possible to work out that his Macbeth is set in the 1970s. The Scottishness of the atmosphere is still there, though it could easily be any drug-ridden and corrupt northern town. This is a tragedy of moral order on a grand scale, and the tragedy of individuals who have mostly been deeply damaged in childhood and through life.

The translation by Don Bartlett is excellent, especially when Nesbø introduces old-style musings, dripping with blood and menace, and some poetry. But there is also one sentence that made me laugh as it seemed very Elizabethan and infused with some humour. If you find it, you’ll be able to step back and not be distressed by the bleakness and madness of it all.

The review of Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth was originally published on Crime Review Crime Review

Silenced by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

Since February and March this year Iceland strived to remain stoic and calm as thousands of tremors and earthquakes kept running through its core, waiting for a volcanic eruption which would finally happen. The island and its inhabitants were reminded again of the powerful nature and the human inability to control it. Seismic emotional activity features in Silenced, as it continues to both hide and shake memories and painful feelings for one family whose influence spreads over to other people. Recollections of seismic proportions are not really dormant under the surface.  

Shockwaves of the physical and psychological earthquake are never forgotten by an artist Kristín Kjarr who had battled with own feelings of inadequacy and addictive personality traits. As a result of series of misplaced choices, culminating in nearly running over a child on a skateboard as she drove under the influence and into someone’s garden and through glass door into bedroom, she ended up in prison. Towards the end of serving her six-month sentence and seemingly full of artistic ideas as the pile of her drawings has proved, she committed suicide. Yet when the police detective Guðgeir Fransson was called to her cell, he got the impression that something was not quite right about her death. He kept thinking.

When it comes to fictional detectives the crime fiction genre offers an abundance of dedicated determined and intelligent people who will go to the end of the world and back to solve a crime and find a culprit. This doggedness often results in flawed personal relationships, drama, loneliness, failing to fit within the norms of socially accepted ordinary or less exciting, aka boring everyday life. Guðgeir seems to be an exception to the rule: managing to keep his personal life pretty intact. Of course, as we know from The Fox he has done something really bad and had to spend a year away from family and the police force in the eastern Iceland. And I do hope that more light will be shed on this so we could understand his reasons. However, compassion is his unspoken hallmark, and as he downsizes and moves with his wife to a new apartment, he also encounters a new neighbour. In a rare moment of vulnerable sincerity Andrea Eythórsdóttir, a social media star, asks him to look into a disappearance of her older brother Jóhannes who was last seen during the earthquake on 17 June 2000, that struck southern part of the country on its National Day. Guðgeir tries to follow the half-thought request from the young online influencer, a concept of a profession he has no idea about, and starts digging into the past, mostly for own sake as she soon changes her mind and clams up. He realises that her parents and younger brother Daði, a businessman, do not want to open the old wounds and search through events in the painful past for various reasons, including reputation of the family and business. But Guðgeir continues digging, especially as he has support of his boss and of colleague Elsa Guðrún. Bits of a heart-breaking puzzle begin to appear to form connection between Kristin and that family. Jóhannes was her domineering boyfriend who had brutally raped her in her home. She never went to the police as even her own parents discouraged her from doing so. After his disappearance when everyone was distraught, she eventually managed to get some financial support from Jóhannes family over the years but that kind of compensation never healed her. Justice was not done. Understanding the background of Kristin’s sad existence Guðgeir is alerted to the reports of a similar attack and rape of a woman in own home, and the links between the previous and the current events make him very concerned that a dangerous copycat is on the loose. The history might repeat itself in the most horrendous way.   

Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s stylistical trademark is passion: for the characters, in her writing, setting up the frames of a story and pulling different threads into the mix to create an authentic portrait of people and their relationships. She knows the Icelandic society and its nuances, has the understanding of how it functions and how social norms and attitudes have been changing over the years. That does not mean that all is perfection. Pálsdóttir is aware of the importance of reputation which so often still fails to acknowledge the need to help those who are hurt or less fortunate. In this context she casts a sharp eye on the contrast between the apparently fulfilling successful public life of Andrea, and the reality of invisible chains keepings her tightly in the family’s demands to present only the one version of convenient truth. Silenced is not just a damn good crime story, with flowing narration, engaging characters, and sensitively depicted personal trauma (I was shaken by Elsa’s experience). It also possesses richness and depth of emotions shaped by the nature and society of the small nation. Quentin Bates’ excellent smooth translation makes this novel speak volumes.   

I am delighted to kick off the #blogtour #booktour for Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s #Silenced, the second novel published by #Corylus Books. Please check the posts from the brilliant bloggers in the next weeks in April and May.

Scent by Isabel Costello

The only apparent link to Scandinavia in Isabel Costello’s brand-new second novel is a quick mention of some Lars, phenomenal in bed. But that Swedish guy doesn’t feature in the unravelling of the main character Clémentine who faces disintegration of her marriage away from such encounters. However, much more significant Nordic connection is to the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard whose words she appreciates as the best advice: ‘Life can be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. Geographic setting of Scent might not be Nordic, yet this stylish and elegant tale of the emotional turmoil and hidden desires crosses boundaries, appealing to human psyche everywhere.

We are familiar with stereotypes and images of Paris: the city of love, romance and yearnings for esoteric experiences. And some drama. These elements feature in consciousness of people who live in other parts of France as well; and contrast between what’s considered an ordinary life and the Parisian chic of various aspects continues. Young Clémentine dreamed of escape to this iconic city, of leaving her mundane unfulfilling existence: difficult teenage years, studies in Marseille, no idea who her father was, drudgery of cleaning houses during summer holidays when her bitter drinking mother broke an arm. She stepped in, worked hard and played hard, too, enjoying swimming pools of the empty properties. All the time longing to become someone else, sophisticated, and aware of own value which pushed her to embark on a perilous emotional journey. Now, though, at the age of 46 she has lost interest in creating bespoke perfumes for rich clients, lives in a fabulous apartment with her apparently successful husband. Her adult children moved out. As she reluctantly relishes some fame and exposure after a magazine article about her comes out, she employs Suzanne to help in her exquisite boutique, tries to concoct a unique fragrance for a new client, she comes to realisation that her life is not honest, that her marriage is dead, and the glossy sheen just a fiction.

Unexpected appearance of Racha shakes Clémentine to the core and disturbs her already shaky peace of mind. The visit brings memories from years back flooding in: not only of the bisexual love triangle, the exciting experiences with Ludo, a rich neighbour, and Racha, a stunning girl of Algerian origin, but of the accident that might have left Racha dead or injured. Most of all this reveals the emotional emptiness and yearning for the love and passion she had felt for Racha, and fear that now reappearance of her lover must equal revenge.

As the story crosses the boundaries of time and place, fleeting between Provence in 1992 and Paris of now, it also becomes a journey of uncomfortable discovery and exploration of Clémentine’s relationships with women. From the passionate physical intensity with Racha, through complicated angry sparrings with her mother, the superficial chats with Édouard’s female business contacts, to long conversations with Martha, her closest friend and an American. She’s aware of own imperfections as a mother: less close with own daughter Apolline who perfectly fits within the social norms, and favouring Bastien, an artistic rebellious young gay man discovering his path. The acknowledgment of deeply hidden feelings brings unsettling, embarrassing phase, and realisation of shortcomings and questions about life choices.

The author Isabel Costello’s cinematic vivid quality of writing is excellent as atmosphere of Paris in autumn and winter contrast with hot memories of verdant rich landscapes in the countryside. Scent is classy, intellectual and sensual. Process of understanding own desires is far from easy, marked by doubts and queries. In this context the location of the book suits the French existentialist crisis of identity perfectly. However, such emotions are not foreign to anyone who battles with past events and searches for new meaning. Modern take on this drama transcends the social backgrounds. As Clémentine says ‘I’ve been various degrees of unhappy for so long that it passed for normality’ so hopefully the next step she’s taking will present her own future minus lies and memories. Maybe she will embrace another Søren Kierkegaard’s thought: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived’.

Scent published by Muswell Press is out now

Smoke Screen

Påskekrim or Easter Crime is the most exciting thing about Easter customs in Norway. Of course, chocolate bunnies and very special Sunday meal are always important, but going away to hytte / cabin in the woods, by the coast or in the mountains with selection of excellent reading material tops everything. For the fans of crime fiction, mysteries, thrillers or any detective or police procedurals, films or TV series, this is a time to indulge in this particular passion. Especially as the tradition says so. A common view is that the tradition of Easter Crime is based on a very successful advertising campaign for the crime novel written by Jonathan Jerv alias two young students Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. The book was launched spectacularly in the country’s biggest newspaper Aftenposten on Saturday 24 March 1923, the day before Palm Sunday, with a seemingly real headline at the top of the first page. The words ‘The train to Bergen plundered last night’ were in fact a title, rather than a real news item. The rest is a history, or an incredible interpretation of the fact that reading during holidays can be so enjoyable. Easter does not have to be the theme though.  

Basic påskekrim kit: book, clementine, chocolate, black coffee.
Easy to modify.

In the spirit of påskekrim I would like to recommend the latest work from the Norwegian masters Thomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst who together wrote Smoke Screen / Røykteppe, a second novel in the Blix and Ramm series. It was published in February 2021 by Orenda Books so still fresh in the English-speaking sphere, and set in winter: dark, cold and bleak, just like the minds of some of its characters.

The duo behind the series are well known for their own distinctive works and appreciated by many international readers. Combining their ideas, skills and stylistical outlook on the writing process bring quite a unique set of fictional events that come to life on the pages. Those who are familiar with Henning Juul and William Wisting will recognise some themes and aspects of Enger’s and Lier Horst’s (respectively) fictional history in their common venture. This is undoubtedly a huge appeal of Smoke Screen which could be read a stand-alone as it mentions earlier experiences from Death Deserved which are brought to our attention. However, I don’t think it would do justice to the main protagonists: police officer Alexander Blix and celebrity blogger turned serious journalist Emma Ramm as their complex relation was brilliantly portrayed and explained in the first book. 

This time they happen to be at the busiest open space in Oslo on New Year’s Eve when the annual firework celebrations attract crowds of locals and tourists. But the sudden bomb explosion rocks the city. Unfortunately, Emma’s Danish boyfriend Kasper is one of the casualties. Blix pulls a severely injured survivor from the icy waters in the harbour, a woman whom police identify as Ruth-Kristine Smeplass, the mother of two-year-old Patricia who was kidnapped on her way home from kindergarten ten years earlier. The girl was never found yet just hours before the explosion a current photo of her was delivered to the prison where her father Christer Storm Isaksen serves long sentence. Circumstances of the broken family devastated by disappearance of a small girl have been grim, with anger, despair and personal issues never leaving the separated parents; the unsolved case weighing heavily on Blix. 

The investigation into the bombing takes priority, especially with terrorism being the indication for this action. Yet Blix feels that Ruth-Kristine somehow must be linked to what has happened. He gets the reluctant permission from his superiors to follow the cold trail, focusing on the mother notorious for drug taking and having a mess of a life, whilst trying to comb through details from the original search of Patricia’s kidnapper, and dealing with another death. Although he strives to keep all information confidential, Emma is able to deduct what’s happening in the police team, and follows own leads into the mother who might indeed be the key to the events. On top of that she struggles with personal tragedy, grieving for a boyfriend yet pushing herself to think as a relentless reporter. Respectful and serious relationship between Blix and Emma steers the narration and adds authenticity to the multifaceted themes, including connection to past crimes, private grief and assumptions of vague (for some) Scandinavian perfection.

Kudos to Megan Turney for superb translation of this tense, gripping and ultimately sad tale of human psyche and consequences of actions that impact on various innocent people. The authors created a faultlessly balanced police procedural with human drama at its core. Påskekrim at its best.

Citizen Detective Arne Blöm

Let’s shed some light on the origins of this truly surprising book as the translator Chris Ould, better known as the author of the crime fiction Trilogy set in the Faroe Islands, introduces us to the mysterious circumstances of this project:  

‘I first came across “Skone Og Frokorn” in Saariselkä in the mid 1990s when I purchased a copy of the original and only edition at a church sale. The slim, green-edged volume was in a poor state. The thin paper was mildewed and the glue on the spine had decayed, leaving the pages loose but – miraculously – still complete. From my subsequent research I believe the book – the first of the Citizen Detective novels – was probably published about thirty years before I acquired it, but I have been unable to pin down a more accurate date. For obvious reasons the underground press responsible for the book’s only print run was not identified and its author had adopted the common nom de résistance of O. Huldumann. The understandably clandestine nature of publishing at the time has made it impossible to establish the true identity of the author, although several possibilities have been suggested, the most prominent of which is Jan-Holger Sildquist, author of the “Surstrōming” trilogy. However, after lengthy comparisons I do not believe Sildquist’s prose style is sufficiently similar for him to be the author of “Skone Og Frokorn” or the subsequent Blöm novels’

Sounds intriguing? And confusing?

Welcome to the unidentified unnamed country where time is a relative concept and we can only try to imagine what has happened in the past to the effect that totalitarian state has nearly total control over its population. It could be somewhere in Scandinavia. It could be anywhere close to the Russian state. The titular character Citizen Detective Arne Blöm reflects on the events that had happened nearly forty years earlier:

‘Stories about the trains during the Resolution and the haste with which their passengers had been told to pack their possessions – enough for three days’, and ‘Some tricks don’t go out of style, like the door of a car which can only be opened from the outside’

However, rather than analysing history Arne Blöm navigates his way in this strange joyless utilitarian world in his position as Grade IV Detective, with twenty years in the Department under his belt. During the relentless hot summer as the heat takes over  Capital City, he is assigned to investigate, or rather to clear away things after a butcher Alexander Per Arseth is found dead in strange circumstances. Citizen Detective Blöm has a solid reputation as the city’s finest investigator: ‘I don’t think you’re the sort who walks past the truth without recognising it. That makes you a rare person in this day and age.’ But he is also an overworked and underpaid State employee, and much more concerned that his brogues need new soles. Owning just two pairs of shoes for summer and for winter, he hopes for a quick yet practical solution to the incident, but definitely not a homicide: ‘Murders, for some reasons, didn’t count towards overtime hours’. Alas, that’s not to be. Another death of Jonas Carl Brunsted needs to be checked: ‘Both men had died from seemingly natural, if catastrophic, malfunctions of the heart. Both had been naked and in places they had no reason to be. Both had seemingly been in a state of sexual arousal which – in Brunsted’s case, at least – had remained oddly undiminished for nearly a week after death.

Then one night Blöm is awakened from his bed by an agent of the shadowy Ministry of Governance and Homeland (MGH), told to pack for three days and take a train to small town of Ltyok where another body has been found. Men in grey hats representing MGH and synonymous with the authoritarian regime, follow strict rules and regulations, so Bloom realises that dead butcher’s case must be of great significance and of course travels to a small town where Olof Emil Gazmann’s life ended in the same way as two other men’s. There he encounters his wife suffering from dustblues (and you’ll need to find out what it is) and seems to be on the track to solve the mystery of the tragic deaths, provided he believes a local story of Ulf and the Ewe, and gets to grips with the understanding of essence of the meat. Yes, even if it all started with a deceased butcher, the explanation of nationally important case may lie in the rebellious attitudes of some nearly forgotten folk in a one-street town.

Arne Blöm is an interesting character trying to find some contentment in the job. His private solitary existence is only punctuated by occasional evenings of gentle fun: playing gin rummy with Finnur Arnaldursen lab worker in the mortuary, and creator of the new ‘scientific’ term: penile engorgement relating to these unusual deaths. Blöm’s unspoken hopes of finding love, especially after meeting the dead butcher’s calm, practical and clever daughter Elspet, keep him going. The alternative seems to continue ‘living alone without even a cat for Finnur to feed in his absence.’

Citizen Detective will take you on a journey into the space filled with stringent procedures and echoes of communist Orwellian state, though it also reminded me of an early books by Per Wahlöö. But among the sardonic and cynical observations of life, there is plenty of humour of a wry kind: ‘she sounded like she was wearing lipstick’. Chris Ould’s translation rediscovers a novel that’s gloriously weird, serious and funny. Citizen Detective was published in March 2021 and is available via Amazon.

The Wednesday Club

Recently I have reread Kjell Westö’s impressive insightful book that made a huge impression on me. My review was originally on Crime Review pages, and I strongly believe the English edition of The Wednesday Club, published by MacLehose Press in May 2016, deserves much more attention.

The Finnish Civil War, lasting under four months in 1918, remains one of the most emotionally charged events in history of Finland. The Swedish middle and upper classes (the Whites), inclined to support Germany, fought against the Finnish proletariat (the Reds), supported by the Russian Bolshevik regime. The events of the past have bitterly divided the country after the WWI and affect the characters in the novel.

The titular Wednesday Club was founded in the autumn of ’27 by the lawyer Claes Thune and his five friends ‘to contribute to the maintenance and exploration of political and cultural conversation in the Swedish language in the city of Helsinki’. The monthly meetings became an exclusive gentlemen’s club, an opportunity to talk and drink, enjoy fine food and debate various topics, such as hatred towards real and imagined enemies, and the unconditional love for a mythical, feminised mother country: the Finnish Maiden or the Mother Russia. Yet as the political situation in Europe escalated in 1938 a darker cloud hovered above the men, two liberals and four of the right-wing persuasion. Always eager to voice their political alliances and feeling comfortable in their knowledge and confidence that their position is safe, they are disturbed by the world’s events. Hitler’s expansion causes both anger and admiration. Mussolini is the talk of the rich classes. Attitudes towards other nations worsen, and that change is aimed at Jews, Finns and various other ethnic groups in Finland.

Claes Thune, recently divorced and feeling lost, is running his law practice without much enthusiasm, while re-evaluating his life. Always lacking courage, ‘his specialities were analysis and reflection’ in an age ‘that demanded unthinking courage from absolutely everyone’. Broad-mindedness was like oxygen to him, and the lack of it cut short his career as a diplomat at the embassies in Stockholm and Moscow. His ex-wife Gabi, now living with his best friend, also the Club’s member, had her erotic stories published which of course had upset the existing state of affairs.

Into this established status quo enters his new secretary Mrs Matilda Wiik from a working-class background. Mrs Wiik carries constant guilt that years ago she was unable to protect her younger brother Konni, a talented musician and band leader, now emotionally damaged and prone to violent outbursts. More heart-rending are the repressed memories of her time as a prisoner. But she is efficient, impeccable, reserved and cautious; and her curt precise way of speaking hides loneliness. Thune is aware of the undercurrent of strong emotions but divided by their social positions he never invites such confidences. However, a subtle respectful professional friendship develops between these two lonely people.

Then one day Mrs Wiik hears a voice that she hoped never to hear again, of her tormentor twenty years ago when she was barely seventeen, taken from the street to the starvation camp. Her ‘crimes’ were her mother’s Russian heritage and her father’s apparent communist sympathies.  Still traumatised by the repeated silent rapes, inflicted by the ‘Captain’, camp’s official, she is shaken when she encounters him at the Wednesday Club meeting at Thune’s office. The anonymous Captains is drawn to her. But this time Matilda Wiik does not want to be a powerless victim. Her absence at work sometime later starts to trouble Claes Thune.

Kjell Westö, one of the leading Swedish-language writers in Finland, is definitely in Thomas Mann’s league and I would absolutely recommend his fine thoughtful work in Neil Smith’s fabulous sensitive translation. Hägring 38, the original title of The Wednesday Club, means ‘mirage’ and as such it reflects the historical situation in Finland, the social attitudes and unrealistic dream of calm. Part historical novel, part crime mystery with elegant, measured prose, sophisticated language, and truly contemporary feel though the events are firmly based in the turbulent past, this is a book to be savoured and treasured, to be read slowly as the universal truths sink in.

(c) Author’s website

Kjell Westö is a Finnish author and journalist who writes in Swedish, best known for his epic novels set in Helsinki. He has also written short stories, poetry, essays and newspaper columns. He received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2014 for Hägring 38 which was then adapted for stage by Mikaela Hasan and Michael Baran and directed by Mikaela Hasan, and had its Finnish-language premiere at the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki in September 2017. More information about the author can be found here:

Faroese Trilogy

(c) Visit Faroe Islands

We are not that familiar with Faroes, a self-governing archipelago, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, comprising eighteen rocky, volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway. And neither is the British murder squad detective Jan Reyna, the main protagonist of Chris Ould’s Faroese Trilogy. He left the stunning but harsh terrain with his mother Lydia when he was three, first going to Denmark, then to England. He refused to speak the language, sure he would never return. We first meet him in The Blood Strand (2016): he is compelled to go back when told that his estranged old father Signar Ravnsfjall was found unconscious in a car, with a shotgun by his side. The police found traces of someone else’s blood at the scene, and then a young man’s body was washed up on an isolated beach. Reyna gets gradually pulled into the case by the local detective Hjalti Hentze with whom he finds a common language. Both men work in similar way and so their mutual respect grows as Reyna also slowly starts understanding there is something innately conservative about Faroese people with their polite respect for privacy.

Reyna is drawn back to the bleak but fascinating landscape which reflects his own mood, the black dog of depression that he tries to fight. He reluctantly wants to learn about his family, the reasons behind his mother’s flight from the Faroes, and her subsequent suicide. He needs to deal with his anger, resentment and sadness of unfinished business with Signar; meets his half-brothers, and rekindles friendship with cousin Frida. He discovers the way local people live on these magnificent, remote islands and how this heritage might have affected his personality. Mainly Reyna is trying to come to terms with his own history and decide where he belongs.

In the next book The Killing Bay (2017) a group of international activists from the Atlantic Wildlife Conservation Alliance (AWCA) arrive on the Faroe Islands to shame the locals and to stop the traditional whale hunts, called grind. The main protestors voice their opinions to the entire world. Tensions run high even before the bloody event takes place in the waters by the beach. Among the protesters the photographer Erla Siversten seems quite sensible and objective. Later it becomes clear that she understood the meaning of grind, being a Faroese herself. Hours after the violent confrontation a woman’s body was found away from the port and the actual place where the enormous mammals had been slaughtered. The victim has been viciously attacked and left exposed near the building with the freshly painted slogan ‘F… the Whales’ which could only suggest the aftermath of the protests.

As Hjalti Hentze investigates the circumstances surrounding murder of the victim who turned out to be Erla, he soon loses his trademark calm and becomes more anxious when some evidence is found in the boat shed belonging to his son-in-law. Things seem to be getting personal. Jan Reyna remains mostly in the background, preoccupied with searching for his Faroese roots, concerned that depression is taking hold of him again, as he awaits his professional fate, suspended from work.

The final book in the trilogy The Fire Pit (2018) focuses on the apparent suicide of the unsociable alcoholic Boas Justesen, and the discovery of skeleton of a young woman on a windswept hillside. Hentze suspected it was a body of a Norwegian woman reported missing forty years earlier who together with her young daughter Else vanished from a hippy colony at hamlet of Múli. It was ran by a Danish man Rasmus Matzen, on the land owned by Justen, regular visitor to the commune. The Danish hippies had wanted to establish themselves far away from the constraints of formal society. But tough living conditions, inhospitable land and weather, and suspicious locals made the survival of the colony impossible in the long term. On top of that the idealistic notions seemed to hide some repulsive behaviours.

In Denmark Jan Reyna continues a private search into his mother’s suicide in 1976. Disillusioned with his job, he takes a drastic action to plunge into painful memories of others, mostly. He discovers own history, as well as devasting effects of the abuse of young women spanning four decades, and conspiracy of murder.

The old policeman’s maxim: never pass up the chance for the toilet, a coffee or something to eat’

Hjalti Hentze

The novels are beautifully written, tense and a touch melancholic, atmospheric and full of delicate mysteries that keep you guessing about Reyna’s life and wondering at how different background and traditions shaped his character. Chris Ould has full control over the tight interesting plots and main characters who had developed throughout the entire trilogy. Especially Reyna and Hentze work brilliantly as partners and as individuals, each using own skills and professional judgment to search for the truth, and bouncing off ideas. Hetze’s down-to-earth stoicism and determination make a welcoming change from a truly depressive cop.

Each book can be read as a standalone, dealing with individual investigation. However, it would be more satisfying and thought-provoking to read them in order. Chris Ould thoroughly researched the islands’ geography and history but his vast knowledge and deep passion are pared down to use only the vital snippets of information to move the stories along. The locations, both Danish and Faroese, are vivid and tangible, bringing real authenticity to the narration and truly fascinating background.

Reviews were originally published on Crime Review pages.