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Scandinavian crime fiction tends to focus on social issues or troubled psychological states – or sometimes both. It's not so common for Nordic mysteries to involve supernatural elements. John Ajvide Lindqvist's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is about vampires and murder, but it's more in the tradition of horror than crime fiction. A few authors have included a hint of the supernatural with a delicate touch, leaving it up to the reader whether to believe in ghosts or find a rational explanation for events. Anne Holt has used this technique from time to time, as has Asa Larsson and Johan Theorin. Now we can add to this distinctive list the first in a trilogy by Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl.
If you are picturing an atmospheric story involving moody Scandinavians who have trouble expressing their emotions set in a scenic northern landscape of woods and water, you'd be right on target. However, you might need to adjust your GPS, since this Norwegian author has set his novel in a part of Minnesota settled first by Ojibway Indians, later by immigrants from Norway, Sweden, and Finland. He's done a brilliant job of it, too, having lived in the area where the book is set, knowing its landmarks, natural landscape, its history and its moods.
At the center of the story is Lance Hansen, a "forest cop" who works in the national forest that takes up much of the rural county in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, a triangular region of woods and lakes between the Canadian border and Lake Superior. His job is to keep the peace in a vast tract of land, issuing violations to those who camp or hunt in the wrong places or seasons, organizing search parties for missing vacationers, and on a rare and exciting day stumbling across a meth lab or an illegal logging operation. His real passion is local history. He has become the county's unofficial archivist, collecting vast amounts of historical documents and family lore. He cares about the past, and the threads of family relationships that connect most residents of the county to immigrants who faced great challenges to establish themselves in the New World. In the present time, he doesn't have much of a family life. His first great love abandoned him for someone else long ago, his marriage to an Ojibway woman ended in a divorce, and he has a son who he sees too infrequently. He also has a younger brother whose life hasn't run smoothly. They aren't close.
Yet when Lance goes to check on an illegally pitched tent and finds a naked man covered in blood, speaking broken phrases in a language Lance recognizes but doesn't speak, and another man bludgeoned to death nearby, he acts on family instincts. He reports the crime to the county sheriff, who quickly contacts the FBI, which has jurisdiction since the murder occurred on federal land. After that, Lance has no role in the investigation other than as a witness – a witness who doesn't share everything he knows. Because when it occurs to him later that his brother has lied about his whereabouts and may actually have been close to the scene of the crime, he keeps that information to himself.
The story switches between Lance's perspective and that of a Norwegian detective brought in to assist the FBI, since both the victim and blood-covered suspect are both Norwegian nationals. It also weaves between the past and the present as Lance becomes curious about a body found on the same site a century ago. He suspects it was the body of a missing Ojibway medicine man, and begins to wonder how his murder might intersect with an old family story about a young immigrant who may or may not have walked across the ice of Lake Superior during a blizzard, a story that has leaked into his own dreams of walking under the ice across the bottom of the vast, frozen lake. And then there is the strange man he keeps glimpsing near the breakwater or beside the highway, a man whose ragged clothes are fit for a tramp - or for a voyageur with only a few homespun garments to his name.
It's not surprising that this novel, the first in a trilogy, was awarded the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel. It is written in an elegantly understated style, beautifully translated by the talented Tiina Nunnally. Though readers who want a pacey yarn and yearn for the restoration of order often offered by books in this genre may be frustrated by the digressive narrative and ambiguous ending, it isn't the kind of unresolved cliff-hanger that puts heroes in a jam just to encourage readers to pick up the next installment. It's a thoughtful and though-provoking pause in a larger story about how we imagine our pasts, how one version conflicts with another, and how the story of the Scandinavian diaspora is told differently by Scandinavian-Americans and the original residents they displaced. The University of Minnesota Press will publish the rest of the Minnesota Trilogy - Only the Dead (2014) and The Raven (2015). These are novels to look forward to.
§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.
Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2013
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