Category Archives: Nordic Crime Fiction

Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish

Review: Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole #2)


CockroachesCockroaches by Jo Nesbø (2014, Vintage): Harry Hole #2

I began reading this series about four years ago starting with book 3, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. I was frustrated at being unable to read the series in order, starting with the first book, but now that I’ve finished the second, I’m beginning to understand the logic behind leaving these until last.

Cockroaches begins some time after Harry Hole solved a serial killer case in Australia and returned to Norway (this takes place in book 1, The Bat). He’s back to his old ways—drinking and brooding—which is exactly what Norwegian authorities are looking for. A diplomat has been murdered in Bangkok, and the situation is delicate; a known drunk should give the Norwegian authorities just the surface-level investigation they need. Clearly they didn’t know much about Harry Hole! As always, his amazing ability to notice inconsistencies and things that aren’t quite right help to solve a complex case.

The book is a good balance between the investigation, the various players (Thai police officers, underworld characters, and the city of Bangkok itself), and Harry. He lacks the hint of optimism that briefly glimmered in The Bat and is developing into the tormented Harry Hole of the later books, but this is an intermediate step on that journey.

The first two books, The Bat and Cockroaches, are set in sun-drenched, exotic locations, while the rest of the series takes place in Norway. In a way, this makes sense: part of the reason I enjoy Nordic crime fiction is its setting, which is so different to where I live, so I’d expect that perhaps Norwegians feel the same way. But as an introduction of a long-running Nordic series to English-language readers, the first two books—both of which take place halfway around the world from Norway—perhaps aren’t the best choice. Nesbø’s writing gets better and better as the series progresses (especially his use of alternating POV and complex interwoven plot lines), so Cockroaches was a step back in that regard, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying it.

I’d recommend the Harry Hole series to anyone who enjoys crime fiction with a strong character development arc. These books are fantastic.

This book was furnished by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler


TheHypnotistThe Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Blue Key, 2012; originally published 2009)

Blurb: Tumba, Sweden. A triple homicide, all of the victims from the same family, captivates Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate the grisly murders—against the wishes of the national police. The killer is at large, and it appears that the elder sister of the family escaped the carnage; it seems only a matter of time until she, too, is murdered. But where can Linna begin? The only surviving witness is an intended victim—the boy whose mother, father, and little sister were killed before his eyes. Whoever committed the crimes intended for this boy to die: he has suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and lapsed into a state of shock. He’s in no condition to be questioned. Desperate for information, Linna sees one mode of recourse: hypnotism. He enlists Dr. Erik Maria Bark to mesmerize the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes. It’s the sort of work that Bark had sworn he would never do again—ethically dubious and psychically scarring. When he breaks his promise and hypnotizes the victim, a long and terrifying chain of events begins to unfurl.

This is a monster of a book, and I mean that in the best way possible. The plot seems simple: the discovery of a man’s body leads police to his home, where his family has also been murdered, but somehow the son, Jack, has survived—barely. Hoping to find the boy’s missing sister—is she a suspect? is she another target?—Detective Inspector Joona Linna calls in Dr. Erik Maria Bark (and yes, there’s a “Boy Named Sue” joke in there) to help get information about the brutal attacks. And that’s where things get interesting. The last time Bark used hypnosis on a patient, the results were tragic and he was disgraced, both personally and professionally. In helping Linna, Bark breaks a promise, and the consequences are horrific and extend well beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

As with many Nordic crime novels, this one has multiple interwoven plot lines, and it’s not clear until the very end exactly how they fit together—or if they’ll fit together. This is a book where the subplots add depth and suspense to the main plot rather than detracting from it. What seems to be a relatively simple crime with a known perpetrator having complex motive turns out to be a series of crimes with equally complex motives, and no clear suspect. It kept me guessing right up until the end. The ending in particular was satisfying; in a book as dark as this one, that delves into the worst parts of the human psyche, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of light at the end.

Although this is the first book in the Joona Linna series, as the title suggests, the central character is Bark, the titular hypnotist. I’m curious to read the next books to see how Linna’s character develops as the series progresses.

As an aside: “Lars Kepler,” actually a husband-and-wife writing team, was another of the new Swedish authors to be hyped as “the next Stieg Larsson.” I am hoping this need to compare everything to the one Swedish author most Americans have ever heard of will stop, and soon; I also enjoyed Larsson’s books, but the more Nordic crime fiction I read, the more tempted I am to go back and lower my ratings of the Larsson books. Just because they were my (and many other readers’) introduction to Nordic crime fiction doesn’t mean they’re the best examples or even that they’re representative of the genre.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Buzz by Anders de la Motte


BuzzBuzz by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014): Game #2

Four months after Henrik Pettersson (HP) got out of the Game, he finds himself bored silly. He’s spent time in Thailand and India, smoking weed, having sex, and lounging around. He meets up with some acquaintances in Dubai, and that’s when things take a strange turn: a fun day out with friends ends in murder, and HP is the prime suspect. He manages to prove his innocence, but his appetite for hedonism is gone, and he returns to Sweden. But now he has a mission: to find out who really killed Anna Argos. Assuming the identity of his good friend, an IT whiz, HP takes a job at ArgosEye—and realizes the Game is even bigger than he’d imagined.

Meanwhile, HP’s sister Rebecca is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and her career following a disastrous assignment in Africa. Bad enough that her team isn’t backing her up, but Becca discovers she’s the target of a vicious online attack aimed at ruining her credibility. Who is this mysterious attacker, and why is he trying to destroy her? And more important, who can she trust to help her find out more?

Buzz has multiple subplots that only slowly come together to tell the whole story. HP’s and Rebecca’s stories are intercut in a way that adds to the tension and the sense of confusion; like Game, the first book in the series, this is a quick-moving story that would be absurd if it weren’t on the fringes of what is possible. The depiction of social networking and professional “trolls” rings true—and if that kind of targeted online action works to sell products and services, who’s to say it couldn’t be used to further a political or military agenda?

HP is still a slacker, still making all manner of bad decisions, but he’s a little older and wiser than he was in Game. If nothing else, he’s realizing that his actions have very real consequences for the people he cares about, and that sense of loyalty endeared him to me. The two siblings seemed to have little, if anything, in common in Game, but Buzz makes clear that Becca is just as much of an adrenaline junkie as HP. She’s got a dependable boyfriend and the option to be a career cop. Instead, she’s a bodyguard for Swedish diplomats who’s sent on assignment to places like Darfur, and she cheats on her boyfriend at just about every opportunity. I found myself wondering what would happen if Becca ever got curious enough to ever play the Game.

The final book in the trilogy is Bubble, and I’m excited to see how it ends.

This ARC was furnished by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Review: The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen


Purity of VengeanceThe Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2013, Adler Adult), Department Q #4

In 1985, Nete Hermansen attends a party with her husband. As they’re leaving, they encounter Curt Wad, a prominent surgeon who supports achieving racial purity through forced abortions and compulsory sterilization of those he deems unfit mothers. And for the second time, Curt Wad’s actions turn Nete’s life upside down, destroying her marriage and her reputation in the community. It takes two years, but Nete plans her revenge against Wad and the others who subjected her and other young women to horrific abuse at a girls’ home on the Danish island of Sprogø in the 1950s.

Twenty-five years in the future, in 2010, Carl Mørck’s assistant hands him a case file: four people went missing within a week of each other in 1987, and none of them were ever found. It’s a statistical anomaly and Department Q, which takes on unsolved cases, is assigned to investigate. Curt Wad, now 88, is the leader of the Purity Party, which for the first time is eligible for the upcoming parliamentary election based on the same ideas of racial purity wrapped in a more modern platform of immigration reform. And somehow, he seems to be tied to these disappearances…

The concept of eugenics arose in the late nineteenth century, and various nations implemented policies based on the notion of limiting the proliferation of “faulty” genes in their populations. The most infamous of these was, of course, Nazi Germany, but coerced sterilization for those deemed socially or mentally inferior continued long after the end of World War II—in places such as the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia—including Denmark. Nete’s story makes for harrowing reading—it’s not necessarily graphic, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the horrors she and other women were subjected to at the hands of Curt Wad and others like him.

The Department Q series continues to improve with this fourth installment. The three threads of the story—Nete’s, Curt Wad’s, and Carl Mørck’s—are skillfully woven together. Mørck’s team has slowly but surely developed into a family, and this allows them both to share more and to hide more from each other. As with the previous books in the series, this one has some flashes of humor, though overall it has a darker, more somber tone that suits the subject matter. While the book does stand alone in terms of the primary plot, certain aspects of Mørck’s relationships with his team and with his family carry over from previous books, but I don’t think it’s enough to cause confusion or detract from the story. If you like dark Nordic crime fiction, I highly recommend the Department Q series.

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Game by Anders de la Motte


GameGame by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

Henrik Pettersson is a slacker. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have friends, he spends most of his time gaming and smoking weed. He lives on unemployment benefits and the occasional petty theft. Then one day, riding the subway, he finds a cell phone. He’s planning to sell it for some cash, but then the intriguing message appears on the screen: “Wanna play a game?” At first he ignores the message, but when it instead says, “Wanna play a game, Henrik Pettersson?” he can’t resist. He presses “yes” and becomes a player in the Game.

The Game involves a series of challenges that are filmed, both by the player (using the cell phone that is the primary means of communication between the player and the Game Master) and by others, and uploaded for fans to see, rate, and comment on. Some of the challenges are simple pranks, but the longer Henrik—or HP, as he calls himself in the Game—plays, the more complex the challenges become. Not to mention risky and illegal. And possibly deadly. When the Game puts the one person HP cares about in danger, that’s when he vows to find out who’s behind it, and he begins his search for the Game Master.

Let me just start by saying the entire premise is unrealistic—a secret game involving participants at all levels of society who all cover for each other?—but as a reader, I didn’t care. I was hooked immediately, and the skillful pacing kept me hooked right up until the end. The two primary characters—Henrik and Rebecca Normén, a young cop with a bright future—are sympathetic and interesting, and their relationship to each other is both complex and believable, and laid the groundwork for their actions throughout the novel. This was a fun, quick, enjoyable read.

Game is the first book in a trilogy; the other books are Buzz and Bubble, both of which I’m eager to read.

This book was furnished by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan


Dinosaur FeatherThe Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Quercus Books, 2013)


Dinosaurs are “sexy,” and the question of what became of them is glamorous.

Where do you draw the line between birds and reptiles in the evolutionary timeline? This is a debate that has gone on for decades. In the world of academia, where competition for funding is fierce and disagreements over how to interpret evidence can take the form of decades-long feuds carried out in academic journals and at conferences, media coverage means more publicity, and that means more money. Anna Bella Nor has essentially built her academic career around such a feud; she’s days away from defending her PhD thesis at the University of Copenhagen when her academic advisor, Lars Helland, is discovered dead in his office—the victim of foul play. While she’s distressed by his murder, her primary concern is to finish her PhD and get on with her life.

When Soren Marhauge is assigned to investigate, he finds himself with no shortage of suspects. There’s the icy-cold single mother Anna Bella, the elusive Dr. Tybjerg, and finally the murdered professor’s academic arch-rival, Clive Freeman. Solving the crime should be relatively straightforward, Soren believes, but that turns out not to be the case. The answers he needs are not in the present, but buried in the past.

While there’s a lot of scientific detail in the book about bird and dinosaur evolution, there’s not so much that it shuts down the plot, and personally I found it fascinating. It’s also integral to the central theme of the story, which is that only by examining the past can you discover the truth in the present, as Soren discovers once he gains Anna Bella’s trust and begins to put the pieces together (with a lot of help from her!).

The characters were interesting and believable. At times I found Anna Bella to be a little bit obnoxious, but in a very real way; as the mother of a very young child, who struggles to balance her career and her role as a mother, daughter, and friend, she rings true. This is a solid novel from a promising author, and I look forward to reading more from her.


This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl


The Land of DreamsThe Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Blurb: The grandson of Norwegian immigrants, Lance Hansen is a U.S. Forest Service officer and has a nearly all-consuming passion for local genealogy and history. But his quiet routines are shattered one morning when he comes upon a Norwegian tourist brutally murdered near a stone cross on the shore of Lake Superior. Another Norwegian man is nearby; covered in blood and staring out across the lake, he can only utter the word kjærlighet. Love.

FBI agent Bob Lecuyer is assigned to the case, as is Norwegian detective Eirik Nyland, who is immediately flown in from Oslo. As the investigation progresses, Lance begins to make shocking discoveries—including one that involves the murder of an Ojibwe man on the very same site more than one hundred years ago. As Lance digs into two murders separated by a century, he finds the clues may in fact lead toward someone much closer to home than he could have imagined.

The Land of Dreams is the opening chapter in a sweeping chronicle from one of Norway’s leading crime writers—a portrait of an extraordinary landscape, an exploration of hidden traumas and paths of silence that trouble history, and a haunting study in guilt and the bonds of blood.


The Land of Dreams is a psychological mystery story, and most of the narrative is the introspection of the main character, Lance Hansen. When he discovers the body of a murdered Norwegian tourist, Hansen begins a process of questioning, not so much about the current murder but about the past, about his family and the other immigrants who settled on the shores of Lake Superior, the stories that have been handed down for generations. The present and the past become intertwined as he discovers that many of the local legends that are accepted as truth by residents and tourists alike might not have happened quite the way he’s been led to believe.

The Lake Superior setting and the region’s history are integral to the story, which has its benefits and its drawbacks. As one of the characters discovers, “neither Lance Hansen nor the story about Baraga’s Cross had any place in Eirik Nyland’s world. They would lose all luster and weight. Both belonged here, in Cook County.” What is true for the character is also true for the reader. Hansen’s introspection is so lengthy and detailed that it comes across more as a history text than a mystery novel; the murder investigation takes place mostly in the background, and Hansen focuses more on his family than he does on the case.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and as such it does not really stand on its own. Someone is arrested and charged with the murder of the tourist, but Hansen is not convinced of that person’s guilt, and it’s unclear where the trilogy will go from here, whether Hansen’s unease will drive his actions in the other books in the series, if he will see Nyland again, or if he will again spend most of his time immersed in the past. The book’s ending left me satisfied enough that I likely won’t continue with the series.


This book was furnished by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Before the Frost by Henning Mankell


BeforeTheFrostBefore the Frost by Henning Mankell (The New Press, 2005)

Blurb: In this latest atmospheric thriller, Kurt Wallander and his daughter Linda join forces to search for a religious fanatic on a murder spree. Just graduated from the police academy, Linda Wallander returns to Skåne to join the police force, and she already shows all the hallmarks of her father–the maverick approach, the flaring temper. Before she even starts work she becomes embroiled in the case of her childhood friend Anna, who has inexplicably disappeared. As the case her father is working on dovetails with her own, something far more dangerous than either could have imagined begins to emerge. They soon find themselves forced to confront a group of extremists bent on punishing the world’s sinners.


Henning Mankell is, for me, a hit-and-miss writer. While I’ve enjoyed the Wallander series (about a detective in Ystad), I haven’t particularly liked his other novels. Mankell tends to focus on the darkest aspects of the human psyche, and without the narrative device of the investigator (Kurt or, in this case, Linda Wallander), I can’t find much positive to hold on to, which is why I avoid the non-Wallander books these days. I would definitely recommend reading the other books in Wallander series before this one, as this appears to be a changing of the guard more than the start of a new series.

This book is told mostly from the perspective of Wallander’s adult daughter Linda, who has just finished her police training and is weeks away from becoming an official member of the police force. But her best friend’s disappearance is followed quickly by the murder of an elderly woman and a series of seemingly unrelated, bizarre events, and she’s soon convinced that the events are all linked—and despite her father’s admonishments, she decides to investigate. Being a rookie, she makes all manner of mistakes, but she’s got the support of her father, who is willing to listen to her conclusions and, once presented with the evidence, starts an official police inquiry.

The portrayal of the relationship between Kurt and Linda is uneven. Having read so much from Kurt’s point of view as he worked through his relationships with his ex-wife and with his own father, I enjoyed having another perspective. But some of Linda’s reflections on her father seemed less the thoughts of a daughter about a parent and more the thoughts of a parent about a misunderstood child, as though Mankell wanted to correct readers’ misperceptions of Kurt Wallander.

My reaction to this book is in some part an emotional response to the bookend device Mankell chose for its structure. The two events referenced are mass murders done for religious reasons: in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978, and on September 11, 2001. Religious fundamentalism is a global issue, but to me it was a bit jarring to have these two events—the victims of both of which were overwhelmingly American—used as the link for a story about a very small cult in Sweden. This is not to say that it was inappropriate; it wasn’t, and it was well done, but for me it just didn’t work.


My rating: 3 stars

Review: Bad Blood by Arne Dahl (Intercrime series)


BadBloodBad Blood by Arne Dahl (Pantheon, 2013)

Bad blood always comes back around.

It’s been a year since the Power Murders, and the A-Unit of the National Criminal Police in Stockholm is trying to justify its existence. There haven’t been any “violent crimes of an international character” lately and so the various group members have been loaned out to other units. None of them necessarily want such crimes to occur in Sweden, but if one did, at least then they’d have something to do.

Enter the Kentucky Killer, an American serial killer who has just murdered a Swedish national before boarding a flight to Stockholm. Thus begins a fast-paced and intriguing investigation. Rather than being a simple matter of identifying an individual and tracking him down, the situation almost immediately proves to be much more complicated: there was a fifteen-year gap in the American murders, and the death of the primary—really, the only—suspect almost ended the career of the American FBI agent assigned to the original case. Why did the killings resume, and why kill a Swedish literary critic? Within days of arriving in Sweden, K commits more murders in his signature style, which is particularly gruesome and which was developed as a method of interrogation during the Vietnam War by the American armed forces.

Dahl doesn’t provide the details of the torture, but instead paints in broad strokes the instruments used and their effects on the body, as well as the investigators’ reactions to seeing the results. This, to me, was far more effective; seasoned detectives breaking down in tears while reviewing the case files had a bigger impact on me than a vivid description of what they were seeing would have. As with the previous book, Dahl infuses the story with humor, which provided a welcome relief from the never-ending Stockholm summer rain and the A-Unit’s frustration with their inability to quickly solve the case.

The A-Unit is made up of an interesting group of characters, who have their flaws and eccentricities but are all excellent investigators. There was only a hint of their personalities in Misterioso, the first book in the series, but they are more developed in this book, both individually and in their relationships with each other, which adds another dimension to the storytelling. So far the series is a compelling mix of well-paced, complex plotting and strong, unique characters. I’m looking forward to the next book!


This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis


InvisibleMurderInvisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (Soho Crime, 2012)


For centuries, the Romani (Gypsy) people have been persecuted. They have been enslaved, forced to assimilate into local cultures, and targeted for genocide in the Holocaust. As recently as 2004, Romani women have been subjected to coercible sterilization. Violence and discrimination against Romani populations still occurs throughout Europe, especially southern and eastern Europe. Many Roma have limited access to education, jobs, or even adequate housing. Needless to say, Roma are very wary and suspicious of gadje, or outsiders.

Tamás is a young Roma boy living in Hungary. His family lives in poverty—they don’t even have indoor plumbing, and his best friend Pitkin’s home has no electricity—and he is trying to make money the only way he knows how: scavenging. One day, while exploring an abandoned Soviet hospital, he and Pitkin make an amazing discovery, and Tamás knows his family’s life will finally change for the better. But first, he has to find a buyer, and so he goes to Budapest, where his brother Sándor is a law student, to use Sándor’s computer. This is the beginning of a long, complex series of events that will lead both brothers to Copenhagen.

Nina Borg is a warmhearted nurse who works with refugees in Copenhagen. The Red Cross Center where she works is overcrowded and underfunded, but Nina is committed to helping the people in her care. Nina’s husband is away for two weeks on an oil rig. He and Nina have a deal: While he’s away, she will have no involvement with the Network, an underground group that assists illegal immigrants. But one day she is called to a makeshift shelter packed with Hungarian Roma, many of them children, many of whom are ill. Nina is unable to turn her back on them, and as a result she’s pulled into a dangerous world of human trafficking and terrorism.

Invisible Murder is a difficult book to review. It’s told from four different perspectives: Sándor, the half-Roma law student who is trying to find his brother; Nina, the nurse who is trying to help sick children; Søren, a Danish policeman who is trying to maintain safety and security in the face of terrorist threats against an upcoming international summit; and Skou-Larsen, who isn’t too sure he’s happy about the mosque under construction across the street from his home. The characters are well-drawn, particularly Sándor, whose life is turned completely upside down by his brother’s actions, and Nina, whose kindhearted efforts to help a Roma child have disastrous consequences for her personal life. Nina is a wonderful, likable character who is always motivated to do what she thinks is right , even if it’s against the rules. Sándor, on the other hand, is a law school student who seems to have little passion about anything. Being half-Roma in Hungary, he has learned never to call attention to himself: don’t protest, don’t complain, and prepared to work twice as hard as everyone else.

The plot is complex, full of twists and turns and revelations, and to say more would give away too much. The story is very well told and expertly paced—the tension begins to build almost immediately, and by the end of the book the suspense is close to unbearable. The plight of the Romani people is integral to the story and is also completely organic to it—it’s something Nina and Sándor experience every day, albeit from opposite perspectives—and handled with sensitivity by the authors.

The translation, done by Tara Chace, is excellent, by which I mean it’s seamless—there’s no indication that this was a translated work. This is especially impressive in the scenes that rely on wordplay, which often don’t translate well but work perfectly here.

This is another series that is on auto-buy for me.


My rating: 4 stars