Planet Mystery: Norway

December 11, 2009

It is said that the suicide rate is quite high in Arctic Circle countries, particularly in the dead (sorry, I cannot resist a bad pun) of winter, when the landscapes are consumed by darkness for twenty-plus hours each day, and cold takes up residence in the bones like an uninvited relative. Judging by the number of mysteries that originate in Norway, murder must rank quite highly on the list of winter diversions as well, right up there with skiing, sauna, and assorted indoor amusements.

For sheer originality, kudos to Norwegian author Pernille Rygg, for her protagonist Igi Heitmann, a research analyst with a transvestite husband and a precocious young daughter. Igi’s introduction takes place in The Butterfly Effect, in which she finds an unusual butterfly pendant while cleaning out the office of her recently deceased private investigator father, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver. With the pendant is the address of a woman unknown to Igi, a situation that will soon be rectified, for in a matter of hours the woman will turn up dead as well, two bullets in her brain. A connection? Ya think? The body count is just starting, though, as Igi takes on the role of reluctant detective, her investigation leading her into the mean streets of the usually sedate Norwegian capital.

Harry Hole is the unlikely name of the protagonist in a series of police procedural novels by Jo Nesbo (The Redbreast; Nemesis; The Devil’s Star). Hole shares a first name and more than a bit of literary DNA with Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, albeit with a laconic Scandinavian-ness to spice up the brew. I had the pleasure of reviewing Nemesis for BookPage, and noted: “High tension, lightning pace, a flawed but ultimately sympathetic protagonist…Nemesis has it all.” You can read the entire review at the BookPage website:

BookPage Mystery of the Month winner Karin Fossum is so good she almost makes me want to learn to read Norwegian (reportedly one of the more difficult tongues to master) so I can avoid the years-long wait for translation of her books into English. I have read all her books thus far translated, and have reviewed three of them for BookPage. The review appended below, for When the Devil Holds the Candle, dates from June, 2007:

Karin Fossum may not be a household name in the U.S., but in her native Norway, she is Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James all rolled into one. Fossum made her literary debut in 1974, at the tender age of 20, with a volume of poetry. Since then, she has published another volume of poetry, a couple of collections of short stories, a non-crime novel, and (of course) the dark and moody police procedurals set in coastal Norway. Indeed, she has gained quite a bit of popularity in the rest of the world as well: her novels have been published in 16 languages to date. Now she’s releasing her third novel in the U.S., When the Devil Holds the Candle. Like the previous two U.S. releases, Don’t Look Back and He Who Fears the Wolf, the latest features the introspective Inspector Konrad Sejer. Sejer faces a rival to be reckoned with, an amoral juvenile delinquent named Andreas. Fresh from a mugging in which a young child was killed, Andreas targets an old woman as his next victim. But Andreas does not, indeed cannot, imagine the resourcefulness of this “victim,” Irma Funder, an elderly woman with a well-developed instinct for survival. Now Andreas lies at the bottom of Funder’s cellar stairs, alive but paralyzed, at the mercy of the woman who had so recently been his prey. Early on, Sejer doesn’t connect the dots between the murder of the child and the disappearance of Andreas; there would be no reason to. As the investigation proceeds, however, the clues begin to add up in chilling fashion, raising the small hairs on the arms of Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. There are overtones of Stephen King’s Misery in When the Devil Holds the Candle, and perhaps a bit of John Fowles’ The Collector; that said, it is an impossible book to put down, a psychological thriller that will haunt you long after the final page has been turned.

So there you have it, installment one in Planet Mystery, a snapshot of the state of the art in suspense writing from around the world. Next up (cue the spinning globe, please…)…India.