Winner of Petrona Award 2021!

Today the winner of the 2021 Petrona Award is announced, and it’s a first win for historical crime.

The winner of the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is:

TO COOK A BEAR (Koka Björn) by Mikael Niemi, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by MacLehose Press.

As well as a trophy, Mikael Niemi receives a pass to and a guaranteed panel at CrimeFest 2022. Mikael Niemi and Deborah Bragan-Turner will also receive a cash prize.

The judges’ statement on TO COOK A BEAR:

The judges adored TO COOK A BEAR, a historical crime novel set in northernmost Sweden in 1852, and were unanimous in our decision to select it as the Petrona Award winner for 2021. We were particularly impressed with the novel’s use of historical detail, its fascinating reimagining of a figure from history, the sense of location and atmosphere, the rumination on religion versus the natural world, and the depiction of early forensics. TO COOK A BEAR’s superb characterisation of the main protagonists Læstadius and Jussi, which is tinged with sadness yet hope, also allows the author to explore the issues of literacy and class with sensitivity and compassion. The beautiful translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner lets the novel shine for English-language readers around the world.

TO COOK A BEAR is the first historical crime novel to win the Petrona Award.

Comments from the winning author, translator and publisher:

Mikael Niemi (author):

I am very proud and happy to have received the Petrona Award and would like to thank my editor, Katharina Bielenberg, my translator Deborah Bragan-Turner, and my agency, Hedlund Literary Agency, who have made it possible for this novel to reach British readers. This happy news has brightened the growing winter darkness here in the very north of Scandinavia. I am sending my warmest thanks to all my British readers.

Deborah Bragan-Turner (translator):

I am absolutely thrilled and very honoured to receive the Petrona Award. It’s a great privilege to be in the company of such accomplished authors and translators on the shortlist. Many congratulations to you all. Thank you to MacLehose Press for your support and editorial advice, and to the panel of judges for your championing of and enthusiasm for Scandinavian fiction in translation. And of course thank you most of all, Mikael Niemi, for bringing the story of Jussi and the pastor to us in TO COOK A BEAR, an inspired novel and a joy to translate.

MacLehose Press:

We are delighted that Mikael Niemi’s novel has been recognised with the Petrona Award. TO COOK A BEAR is immersive and transporting, historical crime fiction at its best, and it has been thrilling to watch it find its readers in English. Powerfully vivid and lush in its descriptions of Sweden’s very far north, and brilliant on literacy and the power of language, it has been beautifully and imaginatively rendered in Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation. Congratulations to them both!

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous and continued support of the 2021 Petrona Award.

This is the ninth year of the Petrona Award. Previous winners of the Petrona Award are Liza Marklund for LAST WILL, translated by Neil Smith, LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER by Leif G.W. Persson, also translated by Neil Smith, THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, translated by Victoria Cribb, THE CAVEMAN by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce and LITTLE SIBERIA by Antti Tuomainen, translated by David Hackston.

My thoughts on this fascinating novel are here: To Cook A Bear

Huge congratulations to the author and the translator!

Author’s photo (c) Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Óskar Guðmundsson: The Commandments

I’m absolutely delighted to start the blog tour for The Commandments / Boðorðin penned by the Icelandic author Óskar Guðmundsson and published by Corylus Books. Let me say a couple of things first.

The contrast between two faces of Guðmundsson is incredible. I was lucky to meet him at several book festivals and was taken by his friendly charming manner, and a huge smile that never left his face. People are drawn to him. And I believe this appealing mixture of warmth, compassion and openness to the world shaped his other face as a confident writer of compelling crime fiction. The Commandments is Guðmundsson’s third book which reached a bestseller status in Iceland when published in 2019, focusing on difficult issues that do not often appear in the newspapers and therefore provoke controversy within the Church as well as in society as a whole. The compact yet powerful novel left me speechless and shaken at the disturbing story that had been hidden deep in the memories and experiences of the main characters. The absolutely masterful manner of weaving different threads into a rich tense and ultimately redeeming tale of trying to deal with guilt and forgiveness.

Secondly, under no circumstances sneak a peek at the book’s final pages. I know how tempting this can be, particularly as The Commandments has layers of truth that need to be found. Savour the challenging journey of discovery, enjoy the unravelling of emotions.     

At the heart of plot is the strong desire to shine the light on abuse that was going on for a very long time, with the awkward convenient consent of the small local community. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise given the perception of people who seem not to fit or who threaten the status quo. People who come from dysfunctional families, people who are neglected. Add to this sense of protecting own sense of security within a tightly knit neighbourhood, and list of subjects that should not be discussed. Peace of mind, conformity and all that. However, that peace turned into an illusion long ago when youngsters instead of being supported, fell prey of the people in power. 

It all starts with vanishing of a troubled teenager in 1995 who was last seen talking with a priest outside an Akureyri church. Nineteen years later it seems that Anton is just some uncomfortable ghost memory. Nobody talks.

Salka Steinsdóttir, a former police officer and a young woman re-evaluating own life in view of private trauma, returns to the north of Iceland to appease her demons. Although her parents live quite close, she is not ready to discuss very personal issues with them. As she tries to enjoy fly fishing in the stunning surroundings of a river at Laxá she meets a charismatic police officer Magnus who is also after tranquillity and big fish. Sadly, the calm is shattered as she’s called to step in and begin inquiry into the horrific murder of a local priest in nearby town of Grenivík. Soon she finds herself in the hardest investigation of her life when realising that she had pursued the victim earlier in her career. The case into abuse was shelved but dark reputation of the now dead man never left her. Then another horrendous murder comes to light: a deacon was found crucified in his home in Akureyri. At both crime scenes the murderer left a single message. Convinced that the killer is probably seeking a revenge, she has no doubts that lives of other people connected to the institution of Church are in danger. Ten Commandments should not be misinterpreted, isn’t it so? As she pursues all possible links and considers matters with her colleagues who are not keen to delve into the past, she realises that Anton’s disappearance played a much bigger role than anyone had assumed.   

The emotional impact of the earlier events cannot be overlooked, and Salka recognises how many of her new acquaintances have been drawn into the murky history for various reasons. That process of discovery leaves her doubting both the legal system and the social morals.  

Salka is a fantastically written heroine fit for the modern times, full of fire in her belly and deep desperate sadness. She demonstrates her professional skills during the investigation with determination and grit even if her decisions create conflict and make her position within the new team on shaky ground, especially as though she’s a detective inspector, here she doesn’t work in her official capacity. Her fragility and sense of justice are a potent mix that push her outside comfort zone.

Through the creation of the main characters and victims of the long-term sexual abuse Guðmundsson poses many tough questions which resonate with people. He does not judge nor explain but infuses the story with enough empathy to understand some skewed motives of the perpetrators. Distorted moral compass in the quiet North and the unspoken refusal to admit that so-called pillars of society are responsible.

Sensitive translation by Quentin Bates, renowned for his own writing as well as bringing several excellent Icelandic books to the English-reading world, is superb as it invokes every feeling, doubt and suspicion. The narration really does flow through emotional highs and lows, and the sharp, perfectly constructed prose never loses its momentum. In fact, it does grabs your attention and holds in a tight tense grip until the poignant heart-wrenching finale. With The Commandments a new thrilling star has finally shown his true colours in English. Welcome to the exciting crime fiction firmament, Óskar Guðmundsson!

Heidi Amsinck: The Long Way Home

Guilty. One word on a beggar’s cardboard sign. And now he is dead, stabbed in a wintry Copenhagen street, the second homeless victim in as many weeks. Dagbladet reporter Jensen, stumbling across the body on her way to work, calls her ex lover DI Henrik Jungersen. As, inevitably, old passions are rekindled, so are old regrets, and that is just the start of Jensen’s troubles. The front page is an open goal, but nothing feels right… When a third body turns up, it seems certain that a serial killer is on the loose. But why pick on the homeless? And is the link to an old murder case just a coincidence? With her teenage apprentice Gustav, Jensen soon finds herself putting everything on the line to discover exactly who is guilty.

That’s the premise of Heidi Amsinck‘s second book My Name is Jensen, set in snowy Copenhagen, and published by Muswell Press in August 2021. Together with Katrine Engberg and Lone Theils, Heidi will be discussing Danish Noir at the online event Murder most foul in the evening of 27th October and organised by Barnet Libraries. Tickets – Eventbrite. Here, however, you can read Heidi’s thoughts on the writing process of a novel set in her hometown yet not written in her mother tongue which I found so intriguing.

‘I’m Danish but write in English. I rarely give it much thought, but reading my Copenhagen Crime novel My Name is Jensen translated into my mother tongue by a fellow Danish author has made me reflect: how strange is this?

I was born in Copenhagen where my parents met as kids in the 1950s. I grew up in Denmark, didn’t leave the country till I’d graduated from journalism school, and wrote articles in Danish for newspapers back home for many years. However, in all the time I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve been writing in English.

Thinking about it, it must have something to do with wishing to belong in my adopted homeland. Shortly after arriving in London on a foggy winter’s night to begin a new life as a foreign correspondent, someone told me that if I wanted to master English, I should listen regularly to The Archers. I followed the advice (still do), all the while inhaling as many short stories and novels in English as I could lay my hands on.

I read eclectically but have always been a fan of the dark and mysterious: Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Daphne du Maurier, Isak Dinesen (AKA Danish author Karen Blixen who wrote in English and Danish both). In my youth I devoured the novels of Stephen King, and once in England began to work my way through the crime fiction greats: Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin and many, many more.

Yes, even all that doesn’t seem enough to explain why, when my own dark stories began to take shape with a series of Copenhagen twilight tales for BBC Radio 4, they did so in English.

As I settled in Britain, I had kids and made friends, and there is probably a part of me that wanted to use fiction as a means of showing them where I come from in a language we share. But, more than that, I’ve realised that writing in English about my home country lets me keep my distance in useful ways.

When I wrote My Name is Jensen during the first lockdown in spring 2020, distance to home wasn’t a choice. Unable to travel, I yearned for Denmark and my Danish friends and family. I found writing about my beloved Copenhagen extremely soothing.

Jensen is a Danish reporter who returns home from London after many years, something I never did, though I often imagined what it would be like. As Jensen travels through the city on the hunt for a killer, in a race against her on-off lover DI Henrik Jungersen, she notices its otherness in a way no Copenhagener would. If I’d written the novel in Danish, that might have been harder to pull off, and I would not have been so free to make things up.

It’s a long while now since I lived in Copenhagen, but in other ways, I never left. The city has a hold over my imagination like no other and is the place to which my fiction always returns. I want you to go there with me, to see its light and shade and everything in between. I guess that, by writing in my second language, I am merely choosing to take the long way home.’

My Name is Jensen –   My Name is Jensen – amazon

Will Dean’s Bad Apples: Rural Swedish Noir

Fans of Will Dean’s evocative, fiendish and compelling writing have been waiting for the latest instalment of The Tuva Moodyson Mysteries which follows Dark Pines, Red Snow and Black River, and the standalone novel The Last Thing to Burn. Ahead of the publication of Bad Apples this week on 7th October I am delighted to share Will Dean’s thoughts and musings about nature and surroundings that inspire him.

Scandinavian forest in its autumnal glory

It only takes one…

A murder: A resident of small-town Visberg is found decapitated

A festival: A grim celebration in a cultish hilltop community after the apple harvest

A race against time: As Visberg closes ranks to keep its deadly secrets, there could not be a worse time for Tuva Moodyson to arrive as deputy editor of the local newspaper.  Powerful forces are at play and no one dares speak out. But Tuva senses the story of her career, unaware that perhaps she is the story…

Here’s what Will Dean says:

I’m a reader first and foremost, and I enjoy atmospheric books: gripping stories that immerse you in particular time and place. I like to feel as if I’ve fallen into a story. Like I’m living it. I still relish that magical childhood feeling of stepping through the back of the wardrobe for the first time. Entering a new world. Stepping into fresh snow. That’s what I like to read so that’s what I try to write.

Before I begin a first draft I spend many hours inside my own head, walking around the streets of Gavrik (a fictional town in Värmland, central Sweden). I reacquaint myself with the layout of the place, the small police department, the one bar, the recycling station, the gothic liquorice factory, the hunt store, and, of course, Tuva Moodyson’s employer, the Gavrik Posten newspaper.

Gavrik (and now Visberg, its Twin Peaks-ish hilltop neighbour) feels as real to me as any town in Scandinavia. But what inspired me to dream up these places?

First, I was heavily influenced by my own surroundings. I live partly off-grid, deep within a huge Swedish elk forest. We use wood for heating and cooking and we take water from our own well. Moose regularly trample through our land (because it’s actually their land). My nearest town is about a half hour drive away (when the snow’s not too deep). On a Friday night there’s nobody out on the streets. It’s a quiet place where people tend to keep themselves to themselves. My town’s largest employer is a biscuit factory. In December the streets smell of gingerbread. In contrast, Gavrik’s streets smell intensely of aniseed; the ice-cold air is laced with it. Unlike my local factory, the Grimberg Liquorice is a place of secrets, unexplained accidents, and toxic co-dependency. The town relies on the factory for secure jobs. Generations of locals work there. And the factory relies on the town for reliable labour. The locals and the factory are locked together in a slow death spiral.

Second, I’m obsessed with small towns in general. I grew up in the East Midlands around several market towns, never inside, always on the edge looking in. I find them fascinating. Where you have one main employer, the town dynamics can become extreme. The factory or warehouse or manufacturer can be as important to local people as a school or church. The Grimberg factory in Gavrik can’t survive without the town and the town can’t survive without the factory. They live or die together. And the cocktail of myths, secrets and grudges you find in any small, cut-off community is an electrifying set-up for a story. I’m fascinated by the lives of ordinary people living in ordinary places. It is their stories that I want to tell, and a small town setting helps me to focus and go deep.

Finally, I find the nature here utterly intoxicating. Distinct seasons. True wilderness. A crime series set in Scotland or Ireland can bring a sense of isolation, but we also have bears, wolverines, lynx and wolves to contend with. Those elements (Åsa Larsson writes bears especially well), combined with extreme seasons, lend a backdrop of menace. When I imagine the beginning of a Nordic tale I sometimes visualise the opening scene of The Shining. A grand vista. One car driving along a snaking road in the wilderness, venturing further and further from safety. Add a blizzard in to the mix (as Ragnar Jónasson and Peter Høeg do to great effect) and you almost create the sense of a locked room mystery or a closed set. It’s a delicious landscape for suspense.

I’ve been here for over a decade now. Rural Sweden is home. As long as I continue to find this world (and its inhabitants) fascinating, I’ll continue to tell these stories. Each one is a real pleasure.

You can buy the latest Tuva Moodyson’s story via the links Bad Apples – and Bad Apples – Amazon or in a local bookstore.

Petrona Award 2021 shortlist

Outstanding crime fiction from Iceland, Norway and Sweden shortlisted for the 2021 Petrona Award. Six outstanding crime novels from Iceland, Norway and Sweden have been shortlisted for the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. The shortlist is announced today, Thursday 30 September.

A NECESSARY DEATH by Anne Holt, tr. Anne Bruce (Corvus; Norway)

DEATH DESERVED by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, tr. Anne Bruce (Orenda Books; Norway)

THE SECRET LIFE OF MR. ROOS by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Mantle; Sweden)

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

THE SEVEN DOORS by Agnes Ravatn, tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books; Norway)

GALLOWS ROCK by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

The winner, usually announced at the international crime fiction convention CrimeFest, will now be announced on Thursday 4 November 2021. The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia, and published in the UK in the previous calendar year.

The judges’ comments on the shortlist:

There were 28 entries for the 2021 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 17 translators and submitted by 20 publishers/imprints. There were 10 female, 16 male, one male/male pair and one male/female pair of authors.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist once again sees Norway strongly represented with three novels; Sweden with two and Iceland with one. The crime genres represented include the police procedural, historical crime, psychological crime, literary crime and thriller.

The Petrona Award judges selected the shortlist from a rich field. The six novels stand out for their writing, characterisation, plotting, and overall quality. They are original and inventive, often pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, and tackle complex subjects such as class and power, the bonds of friendship, and the failure of society to support vulnerable individuals.

Today, very aptly, is International Translation Day. We are extremely grateful to the five translators whose expertise and skill have allowed readers to access these outstanding examples of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The judges’ comments on each of the shortlisted titles:

A NECESSARY DEATH by Anne Holt, tr. Anne Bruce (Corvus; Norway)

Anne Holt, according to Jo Nesbø, is the ‘godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction’. Best known for her ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ and ‘Vik/Stubø’ series (the inspiration for TV drama Modus), she also served as Norway’s Minister for Justice in the 1990s. A Necessary Death is the second in Holt’s ‘Selma Falck’ series, whose eponymous protagonist is a high-flying lawyer brought low by her gambling addiction. The novel shows Falck resisting an attempt to kill her: on waking in a burning cabin in a remote, sub-zero wilderness, she has to figure out how to survive, while desperately trying to remember how she got there. A pacy, absorbing thriller with a gutsy, complex main character.

DEATH DESERVED by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, tr. Anne Bruce (Orenda Books; Norway)

Death Deserved marks the beginning of an exciting collaboration between two of Norway’s most successful crime authors. Thomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst are both already well known for their long-running ‘Henning Juul’ ­and ‘William Wisting’ series. Death Deserved, in which a serial killer targets well-known personalities, mines each writer’s area of expertise: the portrayal of detective Alexander Blix draws on Horst’s former career as a policeman, while Enger brings his professional knowledge of the media to the depiction of journalist Emma Ramm. The novel expertly fuses the writers’ individual styles, while showcasing their joint talent for writing credible and engaging characters, and creating a fast-paced, exciting plot.

THE SECRET LIFE OF MR. ROOS by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Mantle; Sweden)

Håkan Nesser, one of Sweden’s most popular crime writers, is internationally known for his ‘Van Veeteren’ and ‘Inspector Barbarotti’ series. The Secret Life of Mr. Roos is the third in a quintet featuring Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish policeman of Italian descent, who is a complex yet ethically grounded figure. His relatively late appearance in the novel creates space for the portrayal of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Roos, a jaded, middle-aged man who has unexpectedly won the lottery, and Anna, a young, recovering drug addict of Polish origin, who is on the run. Slow-burning literary suspense is leavened with a dry sense of humour, philosophical musings, and compassion for individuals in difficult circumstances.

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

Mikael Niemi grew up in the northernmost part of Sweden, and this forms the setting for his historical crime novel To Cook a Bear. It’s 1852: Revivalist preacher Lars Levi Læstadius and Jussi, a young Sami boy he has rescued from destitution, go on long botanical treks that hone their observational skills. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear, but Læstadius and Jussi find clues using early forensic techniques that point to a far worse killer. Niemi’s eloquent depiction of this unforgiving but beautiful landscape, and the metaphysical musings of Læstadius on art, literature and education truly set this novel apart.

THE SEVEN DOORS by Agnes Ravatn, tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books; Norway)

Agnes Ravatn’s The Seven Doors has shades of Patricia Highsmith about it: a deliciously dark psychological thriller that lifts the lid on middle-class hypocrisy. When Ingeborg, the daughter of university professor Nina and hospital consultant Mads, insists on viewing a house that her parents rent out, she unwittingly sets off a grim chain of events. Within a few days, tenant Mari Nilson has gone missing, and when Nina starts to investigate her disappearance and past life as a musician, worrying truths begin to emerge. A novel about gender, power and self-deception, expertly spiced with Freud and Bluebeard, The Seven Doors delivers an ending that lingers in the mind.

GALLOWS ROCK by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

Gallows Rock is the fourth in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Children’s House’ series, featuring child psychologist Freyja and police detective Huldar as a reluctant investigative duo. Their relationship provides readers with some lighter moments and occasional black humour, along with a frisson of mutual attraction. The novel’s intricate plot focuses on skewed morals and revenge: what begins as a ritualistic murder at an ancient execution site in the lava fields – the Gallows Rock of the title – leads to the unearthing of a case of long-term abuse, whose devastating impact is sensitively explored. The author won the 2015 Petrona Award for The Silence of the Sea.

The judges

Jackie Farrant – Crime fiction expert and creator of Raven Crime Reads; bookseller for twenty years and a Regional Commercial Manager for a major book chain in the UK.

Dr. Kat Hall – Translator and editor; Honorary Research Associate at Swansea University; international crime fiction reviewer at Mrs. Peabody Investigates.

Ewa Sherman (me!) – Translator and writer; blogger at NORDIC LIGHTHOUSE; regular contributor to Crime Review; volunteer at crime fiction festivals in Reykjavik, Bristol and Newcastle.

Award administrator
Karen Meek
– owner of the Euro Crime website; reviewer, former CWA judge for the International Dagger, and Library Assistant.

Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website

Add Cyanide to Taste by Karmen Špiljak

Kurt Wallander’s visits to his favourite cafe Fridolf’s Konditori in Ystad. Martin Beck’s meetings with his daughter Inger at the dimly lit restaurants in Stockholm. Harry Hole’s frequent trips to the old-school Restaurant Schrøder in Oslo though he does not care much for what’s on offer. Solemn Erlendur tucking into the classic Icelandic dish of boiled sheep’s head and potatoes. Salvo Montalbano enjoying delicious dinners and gorgeous sunsets on the terrace of his local eatery.

‘Food and stories aren’t that different; they nurture in different ways.’

The food examples in the crime fiction are endless, and so often allow for some breathing space when the plots become too intense and crimes are too gruesome. They also reflect protagonists’ state of mind, giving detectives and inspectors a moment of normality and distraction from a complex case, or become the quite opposite when opening a fridge represents looking at a sad lonely onion and a dry piece of cheese thus signifying the personal life’s emptiness. However, good food, or lack of it, is always present.

Karmen Špiljak, a Slovenian-Belgian writer currently living in Brazil, loves food AND crime fiction. In her carefully assembled menu of international culinary noir with some unexpected notes, food is the pièce de résistance although it does not overpower the main ideas. Themes are interesting and surprising: a cursed recipe, a suspicious cook, friends turning against each other, or a mysterious disappearing pub.

I was convinced that the number thirteen is the one that fills many people with trepidation. Superstition can be a powerful emotion. However, in Špiljak’s latest piece of creative fiction it is the fourteen that brings some truly deadly thoughts. That specific number of short stories delivers both sinister and delicious twists and reactions as the author combines passion for words and cuisine, offers food for the soul and recipes to be followed should anyone wanted to recreate the mood of the perfectly formed and narrated descriptions from the collection. What I found especially enjoyable is the lightness of touch of her writing style, and the flow of narration with which she concocts her mouth-watering noir dishes. There are cooked to perfection thrillers, ghost stories and mysteries. And even a slightly futuristic take on the pact with the Devil that feeds on people’s desire to pay with their lives for the most sensational feast. Although the food is the muse, sustenance, invitation or joy, it nevertheless can turn into the expression of deeply hidden emotions, unforgotten secrets, and become a catalyst for change or closure. 

None of the recipes proposed in the second part of the book contain or advise the use cyanide. Far from it. There’s no need to transfer anger or hurt into the readers’ reality. Yet it’s fascinating to read about a mother who had always expressed her love for the family and unspoken trauma through cooking delicious cakes, pies and biscuits. She also discovered a bitter-sweet formula for practical revenge. Which means that from now on I will think of fruit in a different way. Fruit is wonderful but can lead to a sinister demise if people are not careful. Or if a crime has been committed already. 

As the author focuses so much on various aspects of food, and how we relate to cooking, eating, enjoying, or not, a variety of easy and complicated dishes, she asks the reader what they were eating while reading Add Cyanide to Taste. Well, I was lucky to enjoy the Norwegian waffles with strawberry jam and soured cream which makes the perfect combination for this particular easy dish. The soured cream is a worthy ingredient in my kitchen but that’s another story. Not murderous. 

You can get to know Karmen Špiljak and order this collection of short stories Add Cyanide To Taste

To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol.

Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God.

When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them.

Mikael Niemi’s historical crime novel To Cook a Bear, in superb flowing translation from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner, is a masterpiece, and an absolute literary revelation for me. The author grew up near the old parsonage in Pajala where the real-life leader and keen botanist lived with wife Brita Kajsa and his family until his death in 1861. The inspiration and the proximity to the location so significant at the time, sparked Niemi’s interest and propelled his imagination to create a gripping semi-detective tale of communities turning inwards when panic and the incomprehensible happen. The meandering path from superstition and fear can quickly turn into injustice and violence, and nothing can prevent unfair treatment of those who are different or not belonging. The book becomes more than just a fascinating engaging and breath-taking search for the killer where Læstadius follows logic, calm reasoning and all scientific methods available to him while the those in power become his enemies. The main players: foundry owner, merchant, bailiff and sheriff want quick results (yes, let’s catch and kill the beastly animal!) and no ‘meddling’ in their business. To Cook a Bear takes various religious thoughts and dismantles them into both lyrical and brutal philosophical journey.   

The story is set in a distant location at Kengis in the parish of Pajala in northern Sweden, close to the Finnish border, and we follow Jussi, a wanderer, observing life from the sidelines and being an outcast narrator: Although he wants to fit in, he is fully aware of his strange fate: ‘Clothes on my back, knife in my belt, fire striker and cup, horn spoon, pouch of salt.’ His life is harsh, yet thanks to the pastor he has a chance to encounter gentler facets of nature and humanity and to learn to read and write, while trying to understand God. Faced with the difficult question ‘What are you doing to combat the world’s evil’ he’s not quite ready to come up with ideas but the process of thinking and experiencing knowledge helps him to feel some hope. Damaged by the abuse, hunger and poverty, he’s convinced (wrongly) of own unlovable character: ‘No-one looking at me breaks into a smile or feels the easy joy I have seen in others. No woman meets my eye with a grin but instead she will tense and turn away.’ Yet he is in love and prepared to sacrifice everything to help a woman of his dreams, of his physical and emotional desires which are so complex they might be derived straight from Satan. That’s the only possible interpretation… Given the chance Jussi would have become a wise educated man; alas, his story was not so happy.

‘The greatest sin people can commit is not to love their children.’

Together with the pastor he glimpsed into the possibility of improving lives of the local neighbourhoods and people whose existence was particularly tough: Sami people, Swedes and Finns, and occasional Norwegians who had ventured into the area. Jussi discovered the joy of reading, of creating sounds in own head and trying to speak eloquently: ‘If you owned books, you would never be alone.’ And the religious revival seemed like an opportunity: ‘It is an inner revolution. Instead of overthrowing those in power, the battle is within the inner tyrants. With self-righteousness, arrogance, pride, with desire for ostentation and carnal pleasures. Only when inner demons are brought down and slain, can society undergo a lasting change.’

And I will leave you with the quote that carries simplicity taken from the close bond with the nature, into the universal contemporary themes:   

‘Most people behave like reindeer. They want to walk with others, move forward in a herd. If a female grunts, the others will start to grunt too. If a male gives out a warning signal, they all run, even if they haven’t seen the danger themselves. The reindeer navigates by fear, its enemies are the wolverine, the wolf, the bear and the lynx. A human being is also afraid, created that way by our Lord. Luther’s call was to love and fear God. But we love and fear each other with the same intensity. And most of all we fear losing one another. Being alone, being separated from the protection of our herd.’

To Cook a Bear – Amazon

To Cook a Bear –

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir: Girl who questions lies

During Iceland Noir festival in November 2018 Eva Björg Ægisdóttir was one of the new authors introduced by Quentin Bates at the New Icelandic Noir panel, together with Robert Marvin, Kristján Atli Ragnarsson and Simon Cox. Apologies for the quality of my photo but it was dark and mysterious, and the shadowy atmosphere mirrored the themes perfectly.

Fast forward to 2021 and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir’s Forbidden Iceland series is in full swing, and by that I mean the first two books have been translated into English by Victoria Cribb and published by Orenda Books. Her debut The Creak on the Stairs won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, strengthening her position as brilliant and exciting new voice in the Icelandic crime fiction. The second book, Girls Who Lie, followed as a much more confident sophisticated story of murder and assumptions, perceptions and expectations within tight communities. Both novels are cleverly constructed slow-burning police procedurals which take on the concepts of truth and existence in small towns. And locations that leave traces for ever and remain in people’s bloodstream.

What Ægisdóttir does so elegantly is the subtle understated yet extremely powerful psychological analysis of the main and secondary characters, while at the same time she fills the narration with unsettling details, creating absorbing and chilling stories, reflecting some ordinary yet universal truths. Elma, the emotionally wounded core character in the novels, becomes fully alive and vividly present in the moral dilemmas of people she comes in contact with. The contrast between doggedly mundane yet tenacious police work and the superb twists which are so reluctant to come to the surface, makes a huge impression. And thus, increases the level of tension. Another element of her writing that captures the imagination and resonates with the readers is the landscape of and around Akranes on the west coast of Iceland, a place that is close enough to the big noise of the capital Reykjavik, yet distant enough for its inhabitants to feel isolated or disconnected, or hidden if they want.

Here are some photos of Akranes’ old and new lighthouses with the appropriate background of wind, rain and dark moody wintery clouds.

The Creak on the Stairs

When a body of a woman is discovered at a lighthouse in the Icelandic town of Akranes, it soon becomes clear that she’s no stranger to the area. Chief Investigating Officer Elma, who has returned to Akranes following a failed relationship, and her colleagues Sævar and Hörður, commence an uneasy investigation, which uncovers a shocking secret in the dead woman’s past that continues to reverberate in the present day. But as Elma and her team make a series of discoveries, they bring to light a host of long-hidden crimes that shake the entire community. Sifting through the rubble of the townspeople’s shattered memories, they have to dodge increasingly serious threats, and find justice… before it’s too late.

Girls Who Lie

When single mother Maríanna disappears from her home, leaving an apologetic note on the kitchen table, everyone assumes that she’s taken her own life… until her body is found on the Grábrók lava fields seven months later, clearly the victim of murder. Her neglected fifteen-year-old daughter Hekla has been placed in foster care, but is her perfect new life hiding something sinister? Fifteen years earlier, a desperate new mother lies in a maternity ward, unable to look at her own child, the start of an odd and broken relationship that leads to a shocking tragedy.

Police officer Elma and her colleagues take on the case, which becomes increasingly complex, as the number of suspects grows and new light is shed on Maríanna’s past – and the childhood of a girl who never was like the others.

Iceland Noir (Iceland Noir on twitter) crime fiction festival in Reykjavik is being planned and organised right now. Tickets are on sale, and let’s hope it can happen this year Iceland Noir 2021 – tickets

Utøya, Oslo, Norway

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks by a white supremacist in Oslo’s government district and on the island of Utøya. In the last week the Norwegian media have been full of memories, evaluations, recollections. Sadness and anger. Most of all: the desire not to have experience anything like that again. 77 people lost their lives, 69 of them were left-ish teenagers at the summer camp.

Today Oslo sparkled with sunshine and noises of everyday life; however, the national events to remember the dead and not forgotten young people have been solemn and thoughtful.

It is not my place to provide own analysis of this tragedy. Instead, I would like to republish my review (originally on Crime Review pages) of the novel which shook me, and made a huge impression on my understanding of consequences of the killing spree and reactions by ordinary people.

Scottish Cal and Norwegian Elsa left their home in Washington DC to stay for six months in Norway, with their two teenage daughters and a baby son. The change of scene brought also a devastating change to their lives: fifteen-year-old Licia vanished from a summer camp on a tranquil island where two men shot tens of youngsters. Desperate and destroyed family falls apart, doubting one another, mistrusting the police, losing faith and hope to ever survive this mental ordeal.

The Island hits you hard from the very first paragraphs. An idyllic image of a fifteen-year-old girl ‘sleeping alone on a grassy bank at the side of a glistening fjord.’ Distant voices of more girls attending International Future Female holiday camp; visions of empowering the youngsters, respect for the others and the environment. True Norwegian dream… But the tranquillity of such a serene moment becomes ruined as soon she feels shockwaves of a bomb explosion coming from a capital city nearby. Two police officers arrive at the island and round up all teenagers in one place, and start shooting. The girl realises that the men cannot be the real police, tries to warn others, and help a younger boy, tries in vain to escape from the site of the massacre. Then she vanishes.

The nation is in shock. Devastated parents of ninety-one murdered victims cannot comprehend what had happened in their safe country, ‘practical, elegant and egalitarian’ encapsulating the best Scandinavian values, as someone has pointed out half-ironically, half-desperately. A year later a trial is held of two brothers, representing Tactical Brigades of the Knights Templar.

Licia’s parents Cal and Elsa Curtis cannot move on after the massacre, delve into their missing daughter’s secrets and discover strange activities of their younger girl Vee. Their personal microcosmos shattered, doubts and suspicions of one another appear. Elsa seems to be more mysterious and aloof. Cal reaches out to charismatic Father Bror of the Patriotic Order of the Temple Knights, who had known Elsa in the past and who offers advice. Because now the couple distrust the police even if Cal and the Chief of Police form an uneasy friendship.

Ben McPherson weaves the chilling unsettling story of grief and despair into the modern take on the Norwegian reality. His detailed razor-sharp perception of differences between cultural and social aspects of different societies gives drama and depth to the vividly authentic main characters who struggle to process their trauma. Elsa, an uncompromising photographer and quintessential Nordic goddess, lives by the principle of absolute honesty in her approach to life. Cal, a Scottish satirist, remains a foreigner, an observer, slightly adrift in Norway where the family moved for a while after living in the USA for many years. As a spectator to the national tragedy he feels that his own family falls apart as a result of not knowing if Licia is dead or alive, whether she somehow managed to survived the massacre, and at the same time hearing of his little girl hailed as a hero. That last element makes him equally proud and concerned: a video footage shot by a TV crew in a helicopter shows a girl wearing a distinct dress and saving lives of other youths. But an old photo of Licia holding a gun during a shooting practice in the USA emerges and appeals to those blinded by white power.

The aftermath of the terrorist attack in July 2011 in Oslo and on Utøya echoes throughout this gripping intense novel, and occasionally makes for disconcerting reading as The Island is inspired by true events. However, the author meticulously analyses the aftershock experienced by all members of the society and the emotional consequences impacting Curtis’ family perspectives and that process of change, of attempting to rationalise their responses, of processing all contradictory feelings, is told with sensitivity and understanding. This psychological thriller is deftly penned by an author who sees even the smallest differences in the changing society, and through this prism he delivers an outstanding study in personal heartbreak.

Ben McPherson’s The Island was published by Harper Collins (hardback 2020, paperback 2021)

Fragile by Sarah Hilary

Everything she touches breaks… Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperately trying to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong. So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands. But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees he is hiding secrets of his own. But is Nell’s arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easy they can be to break…

Connections are important and valuable, and my Nordic / Scandi connections often appear in completely unexpected places… I could have searched for them in Sarah Hilary’s standalone stunning novel; however, there is no need for big explorations. What matters is that relationships and interactions, and lack of the real deep meaningful links between people, are universal. Human condition in all its shades. In Fragile Hilary created a hypnotic and claustrophobic world into which we are invited via the front door of the Starling Villas. Reluctantly we follow a runaway foster girl, or rather a young woman, Nell on the brink of discovering how her own upbringing and life experience might, or not, fit in the real world. Of course, the realism of the new life contrasts with the skewed authenticity of what she had known. Nell escaped with her best friend Joe from the home in Wales, a place run by Megan, a woman not necessarily evil and malicious, but lacking empathy and understanding. Yet we are not quite sure whether we truly are within the realistic environment of an old London house, wedged between two modern buildings, and steeped in darkness and mystery, and owned by the enigmatic Dr Robin Wilder. Or is it all imagination? The cinematic quality of the writing, the gothic atmosphere of the location hiding many mysteries and uncomfortable rules, and the growing drama of creepiness make the novel so intense and gut-wrenching. Nell wants to belong, to be loved, to forget guilt of a terrible deed done by mistake, and feeling responsible for death of a little Rosie in Megan’s care, and at the same time she is not able to consciously express her emotions. And did she cause the tragic death? Did she use her body to survive the first weeks in London, to avoid tough existence on the streets? Will she be saved? And can she save Joe?

Fragile indeed presents fragility in many forms and brings this delicate state of feelings and reactions into our attention. It balances aspects of the real-life abuse and impacts on the young people in care who are not completely aware of their own paths in life, and struggle to process experiences that they have had, while subconsciously learning what love in many guises might mean, and whom to trust. Clashes between harsh brutal truth and Nell’s inner world take this story into the Victorian spectre of the difficult social issues such as homelessness, neglect, violence. Problems that have not vanished in spite of development of modern technology and apparent advances of social care. The intensity of feelings and the lingering sense of impending doom, beautifully and sensitively written plot, and weaving delicate Japanese motives into the quiet tragedy of shame, guilt and passion are outstanding. A dark psychological thriller to be savoured, with a nod to Rebecca and to Dickensian traditions.

Here you can listen to Sarah Hilary discussing the book with Dr Noir – Dr Jacky Collins in the series of interviews The Doctor will see you now