Faber and Faber, 2011 (UK hardback edition)
originally published as Skinndød, 2010
translated by Charlotte Barslund
A new Nordic author has come my way -- Norwegian writer Thomas Enger, who also has a new series to watch out for. Even if I didn't know that there are already more in the works, the end of Burned literally paves the way for a sequel. Hopefully the new entries will be translated and made available to readers as soon as possible, because if this first foray is any indication, the series is going to be a good one.
A young woman is found half buried and stoned to death in a tent with one of her hands cut off. It is not long until the police suspect that the details of her death relate to an "honor killing," a draconian form of punishment under Sharia law, implying a connection to Islam. It just so happens that her boyfriend is a Muslim, and it doesn't help that the a) young woman has left two messages for him about another man meaning nothing, asking for forgiveness and b) he is found trying to destroy his computer when the police come to question him. The boyfriend is quickly arrested. The murder coincides with the return of Henning Juul, an investigative journalist for the online news site, 1-2-3 News, "as easy as 1-2-3!" Juul has been away for two years as a result of a tragedy that left him physically scarred on the outside and emotionally scarred within. He's not too excited about returning to work after what's happened, but his feelings begin to change as he becomes involved in covering the case. Sent to cover the press conference on his first day back, Juul hears what the police have to say, and isn't quite sure they've got it right. After he goes to visit the university where the young girl was a student, he is even more convinced that there's much more to this story than meets the eye. Helped by an informant from the police whose identity he does not know, as they converse only via instant messaging, Juul sets out to discover the truth, and as he does so, he puts his own life in danger.
There are several reasons to like this novel. First, there's Juul himself, who makes his way back into the world of journalism only to find that it's become more dependent on titillation, sensationalism and celebrities rather than on old-fashioned reporting, and that now it's the sex and gossip columnist that is the "paper's most important news desk", and that the number of website hits is what really determines success. It's interesting to watch Juul slowly changing as the thrill of chasing after the truth starts to help him back to his feet emotionally, but he also carries around a lot of baggage. There's his mother, lost in an alcohol and cigarette haze; his estranged sister, who just happens to be a minister of justice, and his ex-wife, who is now involved with one of Juul's colleagues; all of this on top of dealing with past tragedy, or "That Which He Doesn't Think About," which is unfolded as the novel progresses. The plotting is tight and very well paced, and there's a good, solid mystery at the core. But there's something else as well -- although the plot involves elements of Islam, it never devolves into anything stereotypical or demeaning.
On the other side of the fence, I got really tired of the character of Inspector Bjarne Brogeland, a schoolmate of Juul's, and a "Romeo whose ambition was to sleep with as many girls as posssible." He might be a decent cop, but the continuing sleazebaggy, interior monologues about another female officer that run throughout the story got really old after a while. The first of these was just an eyebrow raiser, as in "this guy's such a jerk", but became tedious very quickly. I can only hope that in the next novel the author either develops this bit or shelves it all together. It's pointless, really, adding nothing to the story but contempt for a cop. While a great many of the characters are flawed, as credible characters most often are, Brogeland was just a bit too much to take. And as another issue, I sort of figured out the who before anyone else in the story did -- to me it was a bit obvious.
Overall, Burned is intelligent, believable (down to Juul's obsessions with matches and batteries), and at times humorous, while remaining somewhat understated in tone. These same traits also mirror those of the main character. I like the fact that Henning Juul is not just another detective or another cop, but a journalist, who is much better than the police at putting people at ease while he's getting valuable information out of them. I'd definitely recommend this one to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction.
crime fiction from Norway