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THE HANGING
by Lotte & Soren Hammer and Ebba Segerberg, trans.
Minotaur Books, June 2013
298 pages
$24.99
ISBN: 0312656645


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

What does it take to make a successful Scandinavian crime novel? An exhausted and depressed detective? A team of police officers in competition with members of the media to uncover the truth? A killer whose motivation tell us something about society and the psychological or social malaise that leads to crime? THE HANGING, the first in a police procedural series from Denmark by a sister and brother team, ticks all the boxes. But because it has more ambition than craft, it doesn't do much more than that.

In the prologue that opens the book, a man who is known as The Climber is erasing the evidence of something, pushing away memories of terrible childhood pain and replacing them with the thrill of vengeance that he and a group are carrying out. He ignites a bonfire as a storm approaches, certain that nothing will put out his fire. The first chapter introduces the crime as a pair of children discover five naked and mutilated men hanging from the ceiling of a school gym. The next chapters introduce the police team: Konrad Simonsen, who is supposed to be on vacation, The Countess, an independently wealthy and talented detective, Arne Pedersen who has a gambling problem, Poul Trousen who is diligent, and Pauline Berg, who is an ingenue. A retired eminence grise provide unconventional but brilliant advice from the sidelines and a churlish medical examiner and a nerdy computer whiz round out the procedural cast. Interspersed with their painstaking efforts to identify the bodies are the thoughts of those in The Climber's shadowy group, who have a common motive. All are suffering from the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse.

As the police uncover who the hanged men are and what they have in common, the public gets whipped up into a furor by the press and by the efforts of the shadowy group, which hopes to make Danish law harder on pedophiles. The odiousness of the murder victims and the suffering of the perpetrators sets up a moral dilemma that has potential.

But the moral ambiguity what is the right thing for the police to do when victims take matters into their own hands and become perpetrators - is muddled by a large cast of characters who don't quite come into focus, storylines that lack tautness, and a narrative style that is colorless despite the luridness of the subject matter. The authors finally resort to the tired cliche of putting a detective's family member in jeopardy to introduce suspense.

Quality in crime fiction is largely determined by the way that good writers honor convention when they enter into a contract with readers: we'll deliver what you are looking for entertainment, excitement, a story in which interesting things happen and justice is served but in a way that will surprise you. We'll take the story in an unexpected direction, or we'll imbue the traditions you love with prose or characters or a setting so accomplished that it will make the familiar fresh. We'll leave you thinking, even as we give you the resolution the genre demands.

THE HANGING tackles a morally complex and controversial subject, one that Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom took on in their 2005 novel THE BEAST, but fails in its execution. The pacing is lumpy, the cast of characters too numerous and underdeveloped, and social issue are rendered in ten-point headline fonts rather than with nuance. Though there is some promise in this novel, it ultimately fails to deliver.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, August 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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