The first thing I loved about this book was that stunning cover. I hadn’t fully taken it in when I received the book, but once I’d found my reading glasses I couldn’t stop looking at it. That tiny lit up window, a little orange glow of creativity in the darkness really fired up my imagination. I’d love Orenda to create some book posters to accompany their author’s work. The blurb drew me in with it’s conflict between genre authors and their supposedly high brow literary fiction colleagues. Hannah writes literary fiction and is dismayed at a book festival to see the crowds attending a Q and A with Jørn Jenson, the darling of Scandi Noir, who churns out a formulaic book every year. Yet he’s filling a tent with fans and she’s in a lonely booth waiting for someone to drop by. I loved that she launched a book at his head! In the ensuing row, Jensen goads Hannah into saying she could write a crime novel in a month. Her agent uses the incident as a great marketing strategy and pours fuel on the fire, talking to the press about the wager and even putting Hannah on a plane to Iceland as a writing retreat. There she will live with a lady called Ella and hopefully, within thirty days, complete a commercial success. Yet within days of Hannah’s arrival there’s a real life crime, as Ella’s nephew Thor is found drowned in the waters of the harbour. Can Hannah use the case to write her crime masterpiece? As she starts to ask questions about this small town community will she find inspiration, or will she be in more danger than she ever imagined?
Hannah is an interesting heroine in that she isn’t all that likeable at first. She’s prickly, arrogant and a definite book snob.
“Hannah Krause-Bendix has never received a bad review. Not once has anyone had a negative thing to say in any of the reviews of her four novels. A literary superstar, twice nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter; anyway, she doesn’t believe the mark of good literature is how many awards it’s won. She’s actually refused the numerous other prizes she’s won over the years. No – Hannah sees herself as a forty-five year old living embodiment of integrity and will always maintain that it is beneath her to seek commercial success.”
I was starting to feel sorry for her editor and publisher. Her disgust for the current literary scene is obvious. She hates festivals and signings, prizes, social media and is dismissive of bloggers (how dare she – *swoon*). As she picks up Jensen’s latest book as if it is ‘a pair of homeless man’s lost pants’ she notes that most of the reviews are from obscure bloggers she’s never heard of. She’s no better as she arrives in Iceland, annoyed that her new landlady is late, that her jeep looks and sounds like it’s five miles off it’s new home at the scrap yard, plus she drives with her steamed up glasses so close to the windscreen that Hannah wonders whether she can drive, or even see. Then she makes the terrible faux pas of calling her friend and publisher Bastian to get her a flight back to Copenhagen, assuming Ella can’t understand her. Of course she can. I was cringing about her behaviour. Yet I didn’t dislike her. Despite these failings, plus the alcoholism, infidelity, snooping and complete conviction she’s in the right, there’s something rather freeing about her impulsiveness. We all have those thoughts, those imps of the perverse, that pop into our mind and encourage us to poke that person who’s bending over to reach a low shelf in the supermarket. We don’t do it of course, but Hannah does. In the course of the novel she randomly feels a homeless man’s head, buys the town teenagers alcohol, starts an affair with someone she’s barely met and as we know, tries to hit a man in the head with a book. She seems disconnected from others in the sense that we don’t know her family, she has few obligations and she thinks nothing of asking very personal questions in entirely inappropriate circumstances. I sort of loved that.
There is definitely a blackly comic element to this story and a satirical eye for both the book world and crime fiction in general. There’s a meta element to the story too, as Hannah makes observations and discoveries about crime fiction that then seem to bleed into the actual case. She observes that her investigations are suggesting the case is actually quite simple to solve, Jørn, who has followed her to Iceland, advises that in crime fiction the killer is never the most obvious suspect. Subsequently, her enquiries move from the her current suspect and start to take a darker turn, towards the last people she’s suspected. Jørn tells her:
“ a good crime novel has three crucial components. One: a spectacular and violent opening, preferably a murder. Two: false leads and false suspects. […] Point three is surprises.’
He also rather amusingly points out that the protagonist shouldn’t be likeable, because no one enjoys a likeable protagonist in crime. In fact during a violent clash with her first, rather boringly obvious suspect, she even doubts her own credentials as a protagonist. As she fights for her life, she berates herself for her stupid plan of luring him to a window, because she’s now in front of an open window with a possible murderer.
Of course, he isn’t the murderer after all. In the end the crime is complex and rather like the book of Icelandic sagas that Ella gives her to read. The roots of this murder lie way in the past with the last people Hannah suspected. In fact in the echo of the saga, someone takes something that is highly prized and didn’t belong to them, setting in motion years of secrets, lies and denial. Yes, there’s a lot of the clever stuff going on that us ‘weirdo’ readers like, as one teenager describes Hannah’s fan base, but there’s also a solid thriller as well. It’s a bleak and claustrophobic atmosphere as soon as Hannah reaches the island where she knows no one and feels alien. The remoteness of the town and it’s isolation when the bad weather comes just add to that sense of being completely alone. This is not a place to be injured or to be a victim of crime; there is only one police officer in town, with back up over an hour away on a good day. Jørn may preen and prance around like the archetypal action hero, but he is surprisingly very useful to have around in a sticky situation and despite his woeful writing, is possibly a good friend to have, especially where he’s the only familiar and friendly face. Alongside Hannah I suspected three or four different people and the author kept me guessing, just leaving tiny clues along the way. At first there was a little bit of scepticism -I remember watching Murder She Wrote with my parents when I was younger and my dad wondering why nobody told Jessica Fletcher to ‘bugger off and mind her own business’. However, once the action started to heat up I forgot that Hannah had no business interrogating suspects and just kept reading. She’s no Jessica and this is definitely not cozy crime. It’s dark, disorientating and scary as hell, but you’ll not be able to put it down. This is an incredible debut and I’d love to see where Hannah ends up next. Now back to that cover – I think it would make a lovely tote bag ……
Meet The Author
Jenny Lund Madsen is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed scriptwriters (including the international hits Rita and Follow the Money) and is known as an advocate for better representation for sexual and ethnic minorities in Danish TV and film. She recently made her debut as a playwright with the critically acclaimed Audition (Aarhus Teater) and her debut literary thriller, Thirty Days of Darkness, first in an addictive new series, won the Harald Mogensen Prize for Best Danish Crime Novel of the year and was shortlisted for the coveted Glass Key Award. She lives in Denmark with her young family.