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The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

piajuul-montageBy the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.

The Murder of Halland doesn’t turn those expectations of the genre completely on their head but it certainly shakes them out. This is  novel that starts with a murder. It features a detective and various suspects. It also includes a mystery about the dead man’s life.  But that’s the extent of any resemblance between your typical Nordic thriller and this short novel by the Danish author  Pia Juul. The pace is slower; the detective in charge of the case doesn’t have any of the personal flaws or family issues that so many of his literary profession seem to labour under. There isn’t any sense of urgency exhibited by the forces of law and order in fact and there is no revelatory scene at the end which draws all the threads together. One thing this novel does have in abundance is the feeling that like the dead man’s wife, we too are crawling our way towards understanding what happened and why.

The dead man’s wife is Bess, a writer who lives in a small Danish town with her second husband Halland. One morning she wakes to discover he is not in the house – she’s not particularly alarmed but shortly afterwards learns that he is lying dead in the market square not far away.  In the absence of other ideas, she becomes the prime suspect. In the course of 167 her life is opened up to examination and not just by the reader. The experience causes her to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter from her first marriage. In the process she uncovers some mysteries about Halland – why was he visiting Bess’s pregnant niece and keeping paperwork and his laptop there? Why did he agree to pay the rental for this girl’s apartment ? Why did he transfer a substantial amount of money into Bess’s bank account shortly before his death?

Bess uncovers these mysteries through a series of chance encounters with neighbours, with her ex husband who turns up announced on the doorstep and declares he wants to sleep with her  Bess moves as in a dream through these encounters. Getting drunk on aquavit and ending up at a party kissing a neighbour doesnt get her any further towards the truth. Nor does watching any of the detective programs on television:

All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.

We are no nearer an answer to making sense of all of this by the time the book ends. The mysteries are not solved, the culprit is not uncovered though there are hints as to who it might have been. But that isn’t really the point for this isn’t a novel about a crime or the hunt for a killer. It’s about bereavement and the feeling of loss and regret about failed relationships and the way that, while we can live with someone daily sharing a house with them, there are still parts of their lives that can remain a closed book.

 

This was a book that was hard to put down. The writing style was short and direct with an enigmatic overtone and a strong sense of the bewilderment that is recognisable to anyone who has suffered the bereavement of a close relative or friend and keeps asking Why…..

Footnotes

The Book: The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.

The Author: Pereine describes Pia Juul as one of Denmark’s foremost writers. Not knowing very much (if anything) about the Danish literary scene I can’t really judge if that’s true or a little bit of marketing hype. According to a website on the history of Nordic women’s writing I see that she is described as a poet, prose writer and translator. She has received several prizes for literature in Denmark. This is the first of her works to be translated into English

Why I read this: In the Chutes and Ladders challenge run by the Readers’ Room blog I ended up on a square which required me to read a debut novel. A trawl through my TBR uncovered this one – it had the added advantage I could add another country to my world literature reading list.

Other reviews: A number of other bloggers have read The Murder of Halland. Here a few I’ve come across.

Reading Matters review can be found here,

For Winstons Dad blog’s review  click here

David H’s blog’s review is here

HeavenAli reviewed the novel here 

Nordic mystery: The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardottiron

silence of the seaI don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again it feels the perfect kind of book and that nothing else will fit the need just as completely. After the rather draining experience of reading A Little Life followed by the, if not as desperately miserable, still sombre Did You Ever Have a Family, I was in urgent need of a less challenging read.

Fortunately Yrsa Sigurðardóttir was readily to hand. She’s an Icelandic writer of children’s fiction and crime-novels including a bestselling series featuring the lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. I’ve never read anything by her previously but saw her latest novel The Silence of the Sea recommended in one of the Sunday newspapers last year.

This is a locked-ship kind of mystery. It begins when a luxury yacht arrives in Reyjkavik harbour minus its three-man crew and its passengers. There are no immediately evident signs of foul play. There are no bodies either. Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is recruited by an elderly couple whose son, wife and twin granddaughters were the passengers on the yacht as it sailed from Portugal.  Of course they want to know what happened to their loved ones but they also need Thóra’s help to get custody of the small grand-daughter that had been left in their care.

Thóra, like many in Reykjavik is intrigued. What happened to everyone on board that craft? Before long she’s in pursuit of the truth. The discovery of blood stains and a few bodies spice up the action. Interspersed with her investigations are chapters that take place on board the yacht, gradually building up our knowledge of what went wrong.  Without revealing the secret I’ll just drop one hint – the plot reminded me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  

Sigurdardottir does a fine job of ratcheting up the suspense and keeping you guessing without making the storyline seem ridiculously preposterous. Ignore the promotional blob on the cover hailing Sigurdardottir as “Iceland’s answer to Steig Larrson” – The Silence of the Sea is nothing like The Girl Who …… Not only does that comparison mislead readers it does a disservice to Sigurdardottir and her accomplishment in this novel which is to write a darn good yarn without resort to lots of whistles and bells. It’s not rich in terms of character development but its not devoid of that either.  Gudmundsdóttir is an interesting character, more detective than lawyer whose personal family concerns are revealed in just enough detail to make us warm to her as an individual. The only real gap for me was that I didn’t truly get a sense of Reykjavik or of anything uniquely Iceland. Maybe that criticism is a bit unfair given that so much of the action takes place at sea – exactly where the passengers don’t know since they’ve lost all radio contact and the navigation system isn’t working. It’s just a dimension that I enjoyed when reading Henning Mankell’s Wallander series or, come to that, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. It maybe I’ll find that missing element if I read some of Sigurdardottir’s earlier novels in the Gudmundsdóttir series (scratch the ‘if’ – I know I’ll be reconnecting with her next time I’m in need of a touch of crime.)

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