Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Death Sentence, by Mikkel Birkegaard

Black Swan, 2011
originally published as Over mit  lig, 2009
translated by Charlotte Barslund
400 pp

In Danish, the title of this novel translates out to "Over My Dead Body," and considering the content of this book, it is quite appropriate.  However, the English title, Death Sentence, is actually kind of a teaser, more of a play on words since the book is about a writer who makes his living writing horrifyingly vivid and  splatterish serial-killer fare.  Personally, I can't stand the stuff, so when I started reading this book I wasn't altogether certain I was going to be able to finish it.   But there's method to all of this madness, as I soon came to discover, and it made for very interesting, albeit disturbing, reading. 

The Danish coast and then the city of Copenhagen serve as settings for this novel. In his cabin near the coast,  crime novelist Frank Føns spends lonely days writing and sharing drinking time with a neighbor.   As the novel opens, Frank's novel In the Red Zone is about to be published, but a call from his friend and  police technical advisor Verner puts a damper on his happiness.  It seems that a woman has been found dead in a nearby marina, and the crime has been committed using his new novel as a blueprint for the deadly deed.  The problem is that the book has not yet been published, so how would anyone know what Frank wrote?  He begins to think about the limited number of advanced reading copies that were made available, and realizes that he can account for all of them except one.  So who did this? And why?  Since the method of killing was nearly identical in every freakish and grotesque detail, Frank realizes that coincidence is out of the question -- and begins to realize that someone out there is using his work as a how-to guide to murder.  But copying the crime committed in  In the Red Zone is just the tip of the iceberg -- soon the bodies begin piling up and Frank discovers that whoever killed the woman in the marina is also borrowing his other work as a killing spree ensues.  Frank decides the only way to put a stop to what he feels he started is to become a detective himself and try to catch the killer -- a solitary and dismal task at best.

Yes, yes, this scenario has been done to death, but thankfully Birkegaard puts a new slant on an old cliché or two throughout the novel.    Frank, who always knew he wanted to be a writer, once had a gorgeous wife and three daughters.  While he's working on a "real" novel, one which he hopes will garner the respect of his family and friends, his mind is busy at work, dreaming up nightmarish and bizarre scenarios inspired by things he obsesses on in his own life. These become his books -- his bread and butter, the novelistic equivalent of wide-screen splatter horror that is in high demand by the reading public.   How Frank goes from family man to drunken loner is a major part of this story, as the author unravels what is in Frank's head that causes him to write the  books he does,  as well as  the effect his writing has on those around him.    Yet, after Frank's tragic family story is revealed and Frank spirals down into personal decline,  the reader gets the sense that Frank is a guy who never really gets it, at least  until it is too late. 

Furthermore, while one of the major questions asked in this book is  whether or not authors need to take some kind of responsibility for the work they produce, it's not just about the authors.  For example, there is a scene in which Frank reluctantly tells his publisher about the death in the marina mimicking a scene in his book In the Red Zone.   The publisher's response was to see if the investigation could be held back from the press so that the release of the story would  coincide with the book launch, since the news would act as publicity and bolster sales.  The reading public is also taken to task.  And finally, there is the question of whether or not it is possible for others to keep an author's personal identity separate from his or her fictional creations.  

While there is a great deal of food for thought presented throughout this novel, and it is a definite page turner, it is also difficult not to read this book as just another work of hack-em, slash-em gratuitous violence.  It's everywhere, and Death Sentence is definitely not for the faint of heart.  The murders are graphically described, and Frank's obsessive thoughts behind his books are also rather unsettling.  And while the book can also easily fall into the crime fiction genre, the ending comes as a huge surprise. I won't divulge anything, but I walked away from this book scratching my head, thinking "what the [bleep]?" after it was all over.  

I'm ambivalent about this book. There were many things I liked about it, including the author's purposeful overuse of cliché to make several interesting points, and I thought he did a really good job with his character Frank.  I found myself turning page after page, and was unable to put the book down.  I also had a great time trying to figure out who had it in for Frank enough to do this to him, and there are many possibilities.   But on the other hand,  I am not a huge fan of graphic, shock-value violence in fiction (and this book is loaded with it), and the ending was rather weird.  I guess that one's enjoyment level is all in how you read it, so this is definitely one about which you must make up your own mind.


  1. I must admit that I have not felt tempted to read any of his books, and after this review I don´t think I shall.

  2. interesting..I've read a couple of other reviews that are more negative than yours, focusing on the violence. I did read his earlier translated novel, The Library of Shadows, which started very well but rapidly degenerated into magic, ancient history conspiracies and very "childish" level. I struggled to finish it because it was so babyish. This new one sounds very different.....

  3. @Maxine: I haven't read Library of Shadows, although I own it, and after reading this one, I don't think I want to. I'm too afraid of what is in it after having read this book. I just have this thing about trying to point out the positives in everything.

    @Dorte: I seriously don't get why anyone gets off on the kind of violence that's in this book, but it obviously sells. But then again, I don't read American crime fiction with a slant on terrorists, either.

  4. Glad you wrote an honest appraisal. Taking it as it was written, I think this book is not my cup of tea, so to speak.

    I do not like gratuitous violence and I don't understand why anyone would like it. And it makes me really wonder about some people who would like to read about this. Why do they like it? (And I don't read about terrorism, wars, espionage, etc., U.S. or otherwise.)

  5. Kathy: I don't get it either, but I figure that those types of books are what sell in the mainstream world, so they help keep bookstores afloat. I'm all for that.

  6. Library of Shadows was not violent or bloody - started out being a good political crime story with racial discrimination theme, but sadly it quickly descended into literal kid's stuff - telepathy, magic, secret ancient conspiracies passed down through the ages, etc. Really daft. It sounds very different from the one you review here.

  7. Well, Maxine, now I KNOW I'm not going to read it! I have way too many other books to get through; a "really daft" book just isn't something I want to read right now!

  8. @Maxine@NancyO, I read Library of Shadows and found it to be a splendid read. But, I like my fantasy and sci-fi books. I wouldn't call that childish. Library of Shadows was a lucid and engrossing read, it is one of my favorites of modern fiction.

  9. MorbidAngel: nothing wrong with Fantasy and Sci-fi at all -- I love it myself, within certain parameters. My issue is with a) time, b) the number of books I want to read and c)I just didn't like the immense focus on violence in this novel. Everyone likes what they likes, and no one is slamming anyone's choices here. I apologize if you think that's what I'm doing in these comments.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it