Wednesday 20 December 2023

Ten Years of the Petrona: THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce

The final post on the first ten Petrona Award winners, is a review by current Petrona Judge, Ewa Sherman, of the 2019 Petrona Award winner THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce and published by Michael Joseph in 2018. 

NB. Jørn Lier Horst (author), Anne Bruce (translator) and Neil Smith (translator) are the only people to have won the Petrona Award twice (so far).

Katharina Haugen went missing twenty-four years ago, leaving behind her heartbroken husband Martin, a mysterious string of numbers written on a piece of paper, and a methodically packed suitcase. Since then on 9 October each year Chief Inspector William Wisting looks though the files of this unsolved case and analyses all the evidence again, and then a day later visits her husband. What has started as a way to try to comfort and understand the grieving man has turned into a reluctant friendship, as together Wisting and Martin reminisce about Katharina and ponder life questions in general. 

This time on the anniversary of this miserable event, however, Martin is missing, too, and though Wisting feels uneasy and concerned, he has to prepare to investigate another missing person’s case, that of a 17-year-old girl who disappeared as she left a party one night. Nadia Krogh, daughter of a local multi-millionaire businessman, was abducted by unknown perpetrators who demanded a huge ransom. The money was delivered to the arranged place but never collected, and initially her boyfriend became the main suspect, and was promptly charged by the police. This happened in 1987, two years before Katharina’s case.

Now, modern forensic methods have helped to establish that Martin Haugen’s fingerprints were present on the ransom letter, made of cut-out words from a newspaper. To help with the new search, the ambitious insomniac Adrian Stiller from the Cold Cases Group at Kripos in Oslo arrives at Larvik police station to push all possible buttons and establish that Martin was responsible for Nadia’s disappearance. 

Stiller wants Wisting to work secretly and elicit a confession from Martin during a weekend fishing trip, and also asks Line, Wisting’s daughter, to write a series of press articles and to work on podcasts to jog the memory of anyone who might have remembered the teenager’s case and to come forward, and at the same time to set a trap for his suspect. As discreet monitoring is put in place, both father and daughter begin separately to follow Stiller’s plan.

In THE KATHARINA CODE, translated beautifully by Anne Bruce, Jørn Lier Horst puts his main character in a very uncomfortable situation as working undercover is alien to Wisting and has affected his self-esteem: in all his years in the police, he has endeavoured to be honest, direct and combative in encounters with both colleagues and criminals. Hence it is very interesting to follow the process and get to know another side of Wisting as he keeps some information secret from his journalist daughter and at the same time strives to influence Martin and get a confession while assuming a normal friendly demeanour. 

The tension increases as both men spend more time together, while fishing and cooking in an isolated cabin in the woods, and their means of external communication begin to fail. The relationship, quite formal yet coloured by years of memories and slowly built trust, unravels and leads to a shocking finale.

The novel does not focus on the fireworks and excitement of a current urgent investigation but instead develops slowly to explore the past, guilt and how someone ordinary might cross the line and then harbour painful secrets. It’s a good, solid mystery about blame and circumstances.

Ewa Sherman Nordic Lighthouse

Sunday 17 December 2023

Ten Years of the Petrona: TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner

The ninth post on the first ten Petrona Award winners, is a review by current Petrona Judge, Jackie Farrant, of the 2021 Petrona Award winner TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by MacLehose Press in 2020.

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…

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi is an utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel. Using the real life figure, the Revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Læstadius as the central character, adds an authenticity and deeper level of interest to the book, and being unfamiliar with this highly intelligent, progressive and insightful man, there is a real frisson of Niemi linking the past with the present here. To try and encapsulate in a review the many themes of the philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and the razor sharp historical detail that Niemi so confidently and brilliantly entwines in this book won’t be easy, as this is a novel quite unlike any other that I have encountered of late.

On a very basic level, this book is a murder mystery with a small community filled with fear and suspicion as a murderer walks amongst them, preying on defenceless young women in a series of attacks driven by violent rage. As such, even with such a seemingly simple premise, Niemi constructs a chilling and compelling mystery, as the suspicion amongst the local people is attributed by turn to a possible bear attack, to a wandering miscreant, and then far more dangerously into the perpetrator being from the community itself. Reading this from a contemporary viewpoint, I was struck by how little the human race has moved on in terms of accepting peoples’ differences, as the community quickly turns on Jussi, the young Sami boy that Læstadius has taken into his tutelage. This fear of the unknown and the different runs like a vein throughout the book, as even Læstadius himself, with his Revivalist preaching and fervent followers puts him at odds with the men of influence in the town, who value wealth and gaiety over religion and abstinence. Consequently, there are many trials and pitfalls for Læstadius and Jussi, who intent on identifying the perpetrator find themselves in an increasingly perilous position.

What I was increasingly struck by was the progressiveness and intuitive thinking of Læstadius, harnessing clues and applying practical chains of thought to the residual evidence of each crime. Obviously, forensic science was very much in its infancy in this period, but Læstadius neatly assesses and applies increasingly modern methods to his dissemination of the physical evidence he uncovers, based on common sense and lateral thinking. Hence, we see the rudimentary application of the crime scene analysis, we as modern readers are familiar with in its purest form, as Læstadius inches forward with his knowledge and supposition on how to gather clues, analyse them, and catch a killer. From fingerprints to daguerreotypes, from simple pencil shavings to indentations in the landscape, Læstadius draws on his knowledge of psychology, botany, literature and branches of science and pseudo science to close in on the perpetrator. 

I think it serves as a testament to the quality of Niemi’s writing and his erudite turn of phrase, and by turn the sublime translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner, that I revisited several passages throughout my reading of the book. His rendering of this harsh, but beautiful landscape, the sheer drudgery and hardship of these people’s lives, the physicality of his characters, and the more metaphysical musings of Læstadius himself on art, literature and education, held me in their thrall. On the subject of the community he is a part of, I was struck by their deep connection to the land and the way that their lives have this naturalistic interconnectedness, perhaps stronger than faith and education itself. 

You might easily form the impression that the farm-maid or the reindeer herder lacked the disposition for academic study. But even though they didn’t read books, they knew the changes in the movement of the animals at every moment in the year. They knew hundreds of reindeer marks by heart, and manged to find old pasture grounds, berry patches and fishing lakes from the high mountains to the coastline…In many matters, local people had a deeper understanding than all of Uppsala’s professors.” 

As much as Læstadius recognises that these people and particularly their children have the potential for a profession, education and improvement, he never loses sight of this more basic characteristic of his flock that connects them to the soil. Likewise, with his apprentice Jussi, he recognises and respects Jussi’s physical need to wander and be amongst nature, but aims to educate him as fully as possible, and their relationship seems to transcend a simple one of teacher and pupil or even adoptive father and son.

TO COOK A BEAR proved to be an incredibly enjoyable reading experience for me, and as someone who has an innate curiosity of the world and our place within it, I found it tremendously satisfying. Not only did it read as a compelling tale of jealousy and murder, with its nods to early forensic techniques, but it expanded out to envelop a host of larger themes based on religion, morality, art and at its heart an enduring interconnectedness with the landscape and the changing of the seasons. Mikael Niemi has produced a completely fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully written book. Highly recommended.

Jackie Farrant @ Raven Crime Reads

Monday 11 December 2023

Ten Years of the Petrona: WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett

The eighth post on the first ten Petrona Award winners, is a review by current Petrona Judge, Ewa Sherman, of the 2017 Petrona Award winner WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett and published by Orenda Books in 2016.

March 2012. The only way to save Varg Veum from a spiralling descent into self-destruction is another case into which he can sink his sharp investigative teeth. Three years after his fiancée Karin’s death (following the events in WE SHALL INHERIT THE WIND) his personal and professional life is in tatters. Thankfully ‘a fifty-nine-year-old private investigator, of the so-called hard-boiled variety’ gets his chance to rise from despair and depression to help a full of guilt, grieving mother in search for answers as to what happened to her three-year-old daughter Mette who vanished without a trace in September 1977. Maja Misvær approaches Veum as the expiry date for the statute of limitations draws nearer, her husband having moved away with their son soon after the disappearance.

One moment little Mette is playing in a sandpit in a secure garden of five houses, a so-called co-op, an idea of an architect Terje Torbeinsvik who wanted to bring together a small community of parents and children living safely in friendly yet liberal environment: ‘a kind of modern, Nordic variant of the Mediterranean extended family’, or how Veum puts it: ‘semi-hippie colony, semi mafia’. The next – she is gone and lives are shattered. Five happy families are no longer so. Divorces, suspicions, failures, promising futures never realised. But as Veum digs into new snippets of old and new information he slowly realises that something else must have affected the tiny and close-knit group of the tranquil suburb of Nordås.

The original investigation was thorough yet completely fruitless. Every avenue has been considered and explored. It included a short detention of Jesper Janevik, from the island of Askøy and a friend of one of the families, and accused of indecent exposure ages ago. Veum analyses all possible evidence, and embarks on a painful journey of hidden memories and most personal experiences. He barges uninvited into concealed shameful secrets, and most of the time he leaves devastation in his wake. But his experience as a social worker in child services will not allow him to leave any stone unturned until he finds the truth, closure and understanding of actions. As always Varg Veum works on the edges of the policing world, but finds out that a robbery in a jewellers, three months earlier, resulting in a shooting of a passer-by might have some connection to the Mette case.

To say that Gunnar Staalesen is the Master of Nordic Noir is an understatement. He is one of the finest storytellers, his prose elegant and restrained yet raw, powerful and totally heart-wrenching. With the strong authentic sense of location and perfect portrayal of changing times, some elements of this fictional reality never change, for example ‘the bartender with the red braces’ who is both real and symbolic, with a solution to Veum’s feeling that ‘the Sahara had opened a new branch in my mouth’. 

This complex stunning and emotionally charged novel (in Don Bartlett’s perfect translation) ends with a touch of hope and optimism not just for Mette’s mother but also for Varg Veum: ‘The choice was mine. The rest of my life was mine. All I had to do was choose’.

Ewa Sherman Nordic Lighthouse

Thursday 7 December 2023

Ten Years of the Petrona: FATAL ISLES by Maria Adolfsson, translated by by Agnes Broomé

The seventh post on the first ten Petrona Award winners, is a review by current Petrona Judge, Miriam Owen, of the 2022 Petrona Award winner FATAL ISLES by Maria Adolfsson, translated by Agnes Broomé and published by Zaffre in 2021.

“What year was it they came here? Sixty-nine?” 

“Seventy” says Kloes says. “Same year my youngest boy was born. I remember when they arrived in their Peruvian knitted hats, talking a big game about organic agriculture and living off the land and all kinds of nonsense like that. They were going to share everything, they said. 

Are you one of those people who reads the end of the book first? FATAL ISLES will satisfy your weird reading habits if you are. I am not one of those readers. When I read I do not give much thought to solving the crime preferring to wallow in the locations, characters and the decisions they make. FATAL ISLES really allowed me to enjoy these aspects in a very satisfying way. 

FATAL ISLES is set in Doggerland. A group of islands in the North Sea between Denmark and the United Kingdom. Maria Adolfsson paints a vivid picture of a northern island community with traditions, powerful (and poor) families and incomers. The island weather game is strong; harsh winters, ferry travel can be rough, unkept eroded roads. Doggerland is definitely a character in its own right in FATAL ISLES. It all feels so authentic … except it is totally fictional! Completely made up by Adolffson but it came alive on the pages so much you would never guess. There is something about that small island dynamic I enjoy, real or fictional. 

Our main character is DI Karen Eiken Hornby. She is a likeable character who left Doggerland and then returned. She seems to enjoy her job despite having a hard time climbing the ladder. Her colleagues are a mixed bunch and the variety of relationships she has with them keeps things interesting. The main story revolves around the murder of a woman who was the ex-wife of Eiken’s immediate boss. This means, as the lead investigator on this case she needs to question her boss. Always fun. The tension is high! There really is a great cast of interesting characters in FATAL ISLES. Eiken links the murder to a commune that existed on the island in the past. So if that kind of thing appeals to you (as it does to me) then you are in for a treat. She also takes her time to describe the food in FATAL ISLES which is a small but important aspect that I really appreciate in books. I found this to be a solid, really well written police procedural and I really want to go back to Doggerland. 

Miriam Owen @Nordic Noir