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.

Norwegian Wood

Raise your axe if you ever wanted to be a Scandinavian lumberjack. Not necessarily on a grand scale like some loggers featured in crime fiction books: deafening noise, tractors, heavy duty machinery, cutting a way through a dense ancient forest. Like in Will Dean’s Black River set in Sweden. More as a small project, or a way of life, to have enough wood for the winter, enjoying the process of getting your own resources, enjoying physical tiredness and mental peace. Feeling ready for the months of freezing cold, deep snow, dark nights AND warm cosy evenings in front of the fire.

Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood in Robert Fergusson’s translation published in 2015 was a huge hit. It dealt with the practical and mythical aspects of wood. I asked Santa for a copy of the book, and yes, I received it under a Christmas tree. Since then, MacLehose Press also published two incredible novels by Mytting: The Sixteen Trees of The Somme, and The Bell in The Lake which I’m currently reading.

Some time ago I had a chance to do some woodwork AKA hard work, after three pine trees had been felled down by a professional guy, all health and safety measure in place. Splitting logs and then stacking the smaller pieces on the pallets so they could dry for the next winter as the wind flows between them. It was nothing as meditative as axe-wielding and chopping newly fallen trees. The result was maybe less impressive than beautifully stacked logs created by real masters. Yet, the growing pile of logs of various shapes but of the same length of about 30cm, seemed magnificent. And very reassuring in a strange quiet way. Now the fresh wood is covered under a layer of fresh snow.

Have a look at some photos. As I was putting big logs into the cleaving machine (I am sure there’s a proper term for it) they were shooting off in two directions. The power of the blunt blade was enormous. Luckily, no damage was done to fingers, or toes for that matter, when halves of the heavy logs kept bouncing off the machine and then falling on the ground or the trailer supporting the whole operation. I feel proud of my new skill, and thrilled to see the history in the cut wood, the patterns grown from their past, the sparkles of frost, and the memory of trapped scent of the forest. Without a doubt it has been a calming experience.

You can buy the book via the following link: Norwegian Wood –

The Inner Darkness

Years of experience in the field and unquestionable talent made Jørn Lier Horst one of the most successful crime writers in Scandinavia. He has built his writing career on consistent police procedurals, intriguing stories, well-drawn characters, and a unique Nordic feel. Intelligent and engaging plots offer realistic insight into the work of both Norwegian police and press, and small details invite readers into the contemporary Norwegian world. In his latest novel The Inner Darkness / Illvilje third of the Cold Case Quartet, Lier Horst places Chief Inspector William Wisting in a really uncomfortable position and sends him on a journey of ambiguity.

Serial killer Tom Kerr has already spent years in prison for horrendous murders of two women but suddenly he’s ready to talk, to confess to another killing and show the burial place of his third victim whose body has never been found. The site visit has been meticulously arranged by the Oslo unit led by Adrian Stiller, specialising in cold cases; dedicated yet somewhat following own agenda. On the day the man is chained and handcuffed, and dogs and policemen with guns are present. Selected people have been allowed to participate, amongst them Wisting, as this takes place in the district he’s responsible, and his daughter Line in her capacity as an investigative journalist filming the proceedings for a documentary. Unfortunately, Kerr manages to trick everyone: trip over a wire resulting in a grenade explosion injuring several policemen, and to escape. It becomes obvious that he wouldn’t have been able to do that without outside help. As his lawyer, quite a provocative Claes Thancke seems in the dark, the police focus on finding not only the prisoner who outwitted them but his accomplice as well. The aptly named the Other One was considered in earlier investigations yet never found. Yet everything point to him as this was the only way to explain how this whole embarrassing and dangerous event had happened.

Wisting gets the blame and his decisions and handling of the situation is promptly referred to the Internal Affairs, facing yet again his nemesis Terje Nordbo, and feeling both frustrated and angry but not resigned to sitting quiet at home while the massive manhunt goes on. His team continue the search, bouncing off ideas, digging through the old documents, following various connections and getting closer to find answers, and hopefully two ruthless sadists.

Line’s connection in the case goes through various ups and downs. As a civilian she is not supposed to be so involved in the investigation nor to follow her own instincts and often stumbling into dangerous situations. Yet her reporting skills, plus a nose for an interesting story makes her question all details not available during the search. This constant battle of wills between a need to know and share information to the public against duty of confidentiality adds tension not only to the plot but also to the relationship with her father and some of his team members. I wonder how their rapport will be developing further, with Wisting retiring one day (hopefully not yet!) and her own professional career precariously based on the criminal events near home. Often too close to home.

The graphic descriptions of sexual violence were difficult to digest but understandably they were used as a device to analyse the notions of good and evil. Of course, this exploration is as old as the world itself, and the crime fiction would not exist without these two opposites. In the context of the modern civilised Norwegian society, it still terrifies: ‘Evil is the inner darkness. An urge to inflict pain on other human beings.’

Strong characterisation and well-constructed story make The Inner Darkness an interesting, thoughtful and fascinating read. Anne Bruce’s translation is superb as always, as over the course of several books she became so familiar with the author’s engaging style, alert to any nuances or changes in tempo of narration.

I reviewed the previous books in the new series, The Katharina Code and The Cabin, on the pages of Crime Review.  

A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

What better phrase to use while entering the third lockdown in the UK… A song of isolation indeed. Gone are for now thoughts of travelling. Around the globe other countries introduce new restrictions. Involuntary isolation, being lonely and being alone might take on special meaning in the current situation but are not that different from what Michael J Malone portrayed in his latest novel. The emotions are raw.

Imagine three lives side by side, just moving towards the future. Nice calm Scottish neighbourhood. Silver screen star Amelie Hart’s fame follows her wherever she turns, and in spite of her unexpected disappearance from the shiny universe of film five years ago, any mention of her name can still attract rumour-hungry vultures. Yet in her quiet house she feels reasonably content. She shares home with boyfriend Dave, an ordinary guy, accountant, keen gardener, and decent neighbour, interested in keeping in touch with parents and just being at home. A man who does not care about the spotlights and gossip, or any glamour that was part of Amelie’s experience. Despite some tension between them he is just about to propose. And there’s Damaris, a bored eleven-years-old girl next door who often crosses the boundary between gardens to get some attention from Dave, talk about plants, or to play Frisbee.

And then the three lives collide in the most horrendous way when Dave gets arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. He desperately asserts his innocence but the judicial system is quickly in full swing and within hours his life is destroyed. Initial stay in prison, trial and sentencing put the end to his relationship with Amelie, and to the normal existence. Term paedophile means death by hatred. Amelie refuses to denounce him and soon needs to escape abroad to hide from the journalists who focus on her status to sell as many stories as possible. As the adults, including Dave’s parents, try to come to terms with the devastating consequences of what they anticipate are lies, another much younger victim is unable to deal with own emotions and fall-out in the family. Damaris tries to find a way to cope with experience of being the centre of attention for a very disturbing reason, and feeling isolated in the world consisting of half-truths. Her path from childhood to teenage years begs the questions on skewed parenting.

Yet again, Michael J Malone takes the contemporary issues and throws them into the wolves, or rather to the modern society that chews and spits out everything. His perception of emotional effects on each person in the story is superbly presented as he is acutely aware of various methods to manipulate the facts, and even more, of trying to discover and recognize what the truth really is, and whose version of events, of what has, or not, happened, is accurate. Trial by social media, greed, physical and psychological violence from every direction. Opinions based on superficial comments. Strong desire to punish those who commit unspeakable acts towards the others, and harshness of the legal system. All these elements provide strong background for the most human drama at its core. As the story unfolds and we learn more about reasons behind Amelie’s sudden withdrawal from the public eye, Dave’s trauma, and Damaris’ pain, we can only appreciate the craft and mastery of Malone’s writing.

Heart-wrenching A Song of Isolation is dark and brutal, perfectly structured, and unforgettable, in some sections difficult to read, yet important, with a hint of hope and totally gripping. However, it can bring some respite and hope to all of us.

A Song of Isolation, published by Orenda Book, is available via and the usual online retailers