Book Review: The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting – an engrossing start to a promising historical trilogy

This is another spell-binding read by the author of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, a terrific book which I reviewed last year. I felt the urge to pick up The Bell in the Lake when I saw that the sequel has just been released. I often seem to be one book behind. Anyway, I expected great things here and for the most part I was’t disappointed.

The Bell in the Lake follows three main characters and takes place largely in the remote Norwegian village of Butangen. It’s 1880 and the new pastor, Kai Schweigaard, is struggling to come to terms with the desperate poverty of his flock, the traditions and superstitions that hold them back and a church that is no-longer fit for purpose. In winter it is so cold inside that one Sunday an elderly woman dies, her cheek frozen to the wall next to her pew. The opportunity to sell the old stave church to be rebuilt as a historical curiosity in Dresden, and build a new church in Butangen seems a godsend.

Enter German artist and gifted architecture student, Gerhard Schönauer, who is tasked with making detailed drawings of the stave church and overseeing its demolition and transportation across the ice by sleigh. He’s a little out of his depth and the beguiling nature of the church, 700 years old and built in a higgledy-piggledy manner, makes its construction difficult to grasp. At least his host, the pastor, speaks German.

But then there’s the problem of the church bells. Twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne comes from an old farming family fallen on hard times. But centuries ago, her ancestors included two sisters, conjoined twins, who were noted for their beautiful weaving. When they died, their father gave up all the family silver to be poured into the making of two church bells in their honour. The bells have been known to toll warnings of their own accord. Kai has the problem of being secretly in love with Astrid and aware that the sale of the church includes the bells as part of the deal.

Mytting has crafted another well-researched and beautiful novel which captures a time and place that is instantly enthralling. I had never heard of Norwegian stave churches before and the descriptions here, as well as a lost way of life, create a fascinating background. But it’s the characters that really pull you in, and the drama from the dilemmas each faces, their decisions and their consequences. Though certainly the story isn’t the twisty jigsaw puzzle that made Sixteen Trees such a hypnotic read.

In spite of this being the first in a trilogy, which often means there’s some unfinished business to be developed in the next book, The Bell in the Lake has enough emotional power to make it a very satisfying read and leaves you wanting to know what happens next. I’m giving it a four out of five and very much looking forward to the next book, The Reindeer Hunters.

NB: If you have yet to read The Bell in the Lake, please avoid if you can reading the blurb for the sequel – it contains a fairly jaw-dropping spoiler.

Book Review: The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst – a detailed police procedural with a likeable Norwegian detective

When it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, I’ve often thought if only there were more Wallander novels published by Henning Mankell before his death in 2015. I’ve tried other Scandinavians of course and enjoyed them – Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q series is worth a look. But for a more psychological read with an engaging policeman, Norwegian author, Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting’s novels seem to capture much of that atmosphere I’ve liked so much with Wallander.

Wisting is a Chief Inspector in his fifties at the start of The Hunting Dogs working out of the Criminal Investigation Dept of Larvik Police. This novel has him revisiting the abduction of a teenage girl who was subsequently murdered seventeen years ago. The killer, recently released Rudolf Haglund, has employed a lawyer to prove his case for wrongful imprisonment, alleging that police tampered with the evidence. As senior investigating officer at the time, Wisting is stood down from duties while an inquiry is underway.

Meanwhile, Line, Wisting’s daughter, is aware that the newspaper she works for is about to splash this story all over the front page in the morning. She is appalled – she knows her dad would never tamper with evidence to secure a conviction and rushes off into a wet, miserable night after a better story to bump the Haglund allegations onto page two. She gets caught up in a murder – a man attacked on the street, while his dog stands guard in the rain, a bit like Greyfriar’s Bobby. Great photo material. But when Line tracks down the owner and calls round to the victim’s house, she’s assaulted too.

What can the two murders have in common? Well, in real life probably nothing, but this being crime fiction, you know they’ll intersect sooner or later. Wisting heads off to his cabin in the woods to dig through old paperwork and calls on favours from a retired crime scene investigator. He studies photos of the police team involved unable to imagine who would have fiddled with those cigarette butts.

His relationship with café owner Suzanne is going south – he’s always up at dawn, and she’s always late home, while the police crime investigators are threatening a prison sentence. So Wisting’s up against it. When another teenage girl goes missing, there are echoes of the original Haglund case, and Wisting is desperate to get back in harness to find her. So much pressure, but what can he do?

If Wisting’s hands are tied, Line is all fired up to do some snooping, particularly when she spots the link between her murder victim and Haglund. She calls in her mates, too – a couple from her newspaper and an old boyfriend who turns up out of the blue. We get a brilliant scene where they show the reader how to follow a suspect. Honestly, it was like a scene from Spooks. Yes, it seems, journalists know all the tricks.

The plot steadily builds to a showdown with plenty of danger and edge of seat action. All the while you are aware that time is ticking for the abducted girl. It’s a great read, but what I really like is the detail of the detective work and how authentic it sounds. This is probably because Horst was once himself a policeman in Larvik, so the procedures around evidence storage and forensics are carefully explained and make interesting reading. We’ve also got some well-considered points around police ethics, loyalty and morality adding depth to the story.

There is plenty to like with The Hunting Dogs; the writing is crisp and the translation (thanks, Anne Bruce) is seamless, never clunky. So you can see why Horst is one of my favourites among the Scandinavians. I’m not alone – he’s won a bunch of awards, including The Petrona, a Scandi-crime fiction award for books translated into English. This one earns a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

I’d heard so many good things about Anxious People that it’s been on my Must Read list for a while. And yet a book about an attempted bank heist which turns into a hostage drama isn’t my usual cup of tea. But this is no crazy Bruce Willis and thugs with sub-machine guns story. It’s about ordinary people, strangers who get caught up in an interesting situation and kind of get to know each other.

As the title would suggest, they’ve got problems. The bank robber, following a broken marriage is also suddenly unemployed. No income means no means to pay the rent and that means no home for the kids. The bank won’t lend the robber money either. The story is also about Jack and Jim – the two police officers called to the scene of a hostage situation at an apartment hosting an open home. It’s New Year’s Eve, not an ideal time for an open home, but the door’s open, so that’s where the bank robber escapes to. We learn Jack’s story – how he mightn’t have joined the police, alongside his father, Jim (a bumbling but kindly officer), if he hadn’t witnessed a suicide on a bridge.

The suicide’s story is similar to the bank robber’s. How the banks lost the victim’s savings and assets, which left him with nothing and a family to support. Jack tries to stop him, and fails. The next day visiting the bridge he stops a young girl from jumping too. The girl is later revealed as a character in the story, unbeknownst to Jack, as is the bank manager who couldn’t help the first victim. Jack’s experience as a fifteen year old drives him to want to help people, though these days he mostly just seems to help his father.

Meanwhile the story of how the bank robber escaped and the backstories of the hostages are explored as the book progresses. There is plenty of humour and philosophical meanderings. Thoughts on what makes a happy marriage, a happy life are mulled over by the bank robber and the hostages as they all start getting to know each other. There’s a ton of quotable moments – if you want a snapshot just check out those listed on GoodReads.

“They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.” 

The hostage drama turns into quite a nice little get-together over pizza. Fortunately for all concerned there’s a massive traffic jam on the highway out of Stockholm and the designated police negotiator takes a long time to arrive. So everything’s left to Jack and Jim, and the hostages themselves, to work out a solution.

Anxious People is a quirky, feel-good read with plenty of twists, secrets revealed and interesting connections. The story jumps between character to character, dips back in time and allows the hostages to tell their stories and come up with answers. I haven’t read Backman’s previous books (A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asks Me to Tell You She’s Sorry are two titles that spring to mind), but now I’m keen to read more. This one’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Death of a Nightingale by Lane Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

This novel is the third in the Nina Borg series which began with The Boy in the Suitcase. It’s also the only one I have read. Oh, no, nags the little voice in my head – you should read them all in order! Stilling the little voice, I was soon engrossed in this engaging example of Danish noir.

Nina Borg is a nurse who has worked in some dangerous places in her role with the Red Cross. Now she’s working at a Copenhagen refugee camp, where she feels driven to save those who have fled some horrific situations in their countries of birth. Her tendency to disregard her own personal safety has meant that now she’s cut off from her husband and children and living in a dreary flat. There’s a large digital clock on the wall which triggers thoughts about what her children might be doing at any time in the day.

Nina is one of those characters you want to shout at. She’s always going it alone. ‘Call the police!’ you want to scream. ‘Get some help.’ You can see how her commitment to wanting to help people drives her. But being a maverick sleuth can be lonely. Sometimes she brings home a Swedish doctor colleague for the night, who’s also a bit lonely, but this only makes her seem even more solitary. Already, she’s an interesting main character before we even get to the story.

Flip to Natasha – a runaway from Ukraine, wanted by police at home in connection with the death of her husband, and now in Copenhagen for the death of her fiancé who is a bit of a thug with an eye for her young daughter. It’s not surprising Natasha lashed out. But somehow now he’s dead. Natasha is desperate and being on the run in a Danish winter notches up the tension. Nina is concerned because Natasha’s daughter, Rina, is very sick and isn’t doing well away from her mother. Will Natasha risk everything to see her daughter? The authorities are alert to her possible return, but somebody else is too – somebody who might wish her dead.

There’s a police officer on the case who teams up with Nina when Rina’s safety is compromised. The story also switches back to 1930’s USSR where two young girls live in a village, battling hunger and the difficulty of being a good Soviet citizen. The book captures the period following the great famine when families struggled to feed their children, and hoarding food was an offence that would see you off to the gulags, or worse.

So Death of a Nightingale has plenty of threads in a complex storyline, peopled with a large cast of characters and some interesting twists. How the grim backstory has left its mark on Natasha and her countrymen keeps the reader guessing, and isn’t made clear until the end. But before we get remotely close to that revelation, there’s plenty of action and dicing with death.

I’m glad I picked this one up, even if it is number three in a series of four. The characters are vividly drawn and the story keeps you on your toes. The scenes in Soviet Russia make for sobering reading and remind you how terrible state-led indoctrination can be with repercussions that last a lifetime. I did find the final scenes a little rushed and the complications around the point where the past catches up to the present could have been clearer. Yes, I shall probably check in with Nina Borg again, but I’m not in any hurry. A three-and-a-half out four read from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.